Big national banks usually offer free checking, mobile banking apps and national networks of branches and ATMs. The drawback is that they often pay very little or no interest on accounts. With regulators limiting what banks can charge merchants for processing credit and debit card transactions, these banks have sought new ways to generate revenue. The result, as detailed in a February 2012 article on ConsumerReports.org, is an increase in charges for services that were once free and stricter requirements to avoid fees and get free accounts.
If you travel a lot, the convenience of having access to ATM's and branch banks might be more important than the low yields and new fees. Some people also prefer to talk to a customer service representative in person -- we found many complaints about online banks' phone- and online-only customer service. And if you already have a mortgage or another type of account with one of the traditional banks, you may automatically qualify for freebies.
For the purposes of this report, satisfaction with a bank and its website, objective assessments of the website's functionality and the bank's online banking features are the relevant factors that differentiate the big banks from one another.
Many reviewers and experts say that customer satisfaction with big banks is at an all-time low. Editors at CNNMoney.com note that "customers of the 10 largest retail banks (banks that work with consumers and provide products like savings and checking accounts) are so fed up with rising fees and dismal rates that the institutions stand to lose a combined $185 billion in deposits over the next year."
Despite this, some big banks have higher levels of customer satisfaction than others. Two annual surveys measure customer satisfaction levels with the biggest banks: ComScore's Scorecard and The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).
In the ACSI published in December 2011, Citibank and Wells Fargo tied for first place, followed by JPMorgan Chase and then Bank of America. Citibank's ranking is an improvement from the previous year's survey, while Bank of America's has dropped for the past three years; Wells Fargo's ranking is about the same.
ComScore's report on customer satisfaction with online and mobile banking at the biggest banks goes into more depth by measuring satisfaction with both the bank itself and its website. Graphs show the past three years' satisfaction level for five banks: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup (Citibank), Chase and PNC.
In that survey, PNC has the highest level of customer satisfaction on both fronts, at 79 percent. In terms of overall satisfaction, Wells Fargo and Chase tie for second, Citibank comes in third and Bank of America is last. On customer satisfaction with the website, Citibank ranks second to PNC, Chase ranks last, and Bank of America and Wells Fargo tie for third place.
Keynote Systems Inc. takes its analysis a step farther. Reviewers open accounts at the banks, use their websites and "conduct automated site analysis." Based on this research, Bank of America is ranked first out of 24 banks, overall as well as for the functionality and ease of use of its website. Citibank ranks second overall, Wells Fargo third and Chase fourth.
Citibank scores well in both the ACSI and in ComScore's survey of satisfaction with its website, and it also gets a high rating from Keynote Systems Inc. For this reason, we chose it as our Best Reviewed traditional bank. PNC does well in ComScore's survey but is not measured by the ACSI, and it ranks only eighth in the Keynote Systems objective study. However, its Virtual Wallet account gets high marks from reviewers, and reviewers recommend it if you want a free linked checking, short-term savings and regular savings account.
Bank of America scores higher on objective measures of how efficiently it accommodates customers' needs than it does on customer satisfaction. Keynote Systems' score indicates that if you're more interested in efficiency and ease of use than in higher rates and fewer fees, it may be a good choice. Wells Fargo does fairly well in all three studies but is not top-ranked in any. Depending on the rates being offered and the specifics of account minimums and requirements in your area, it might also be a good choice. It does, like Bank of America, offer free online money management software.