Alaska’s banks strive to provide the best service possible, and have many policies in place to do such

Banking on customer service: Alaska’s banks strive to provide the best service possible, and have many policies in place to do such

Stacey Saunders

Customer service is defined as “a department or function of an organization that responds to inquiries or complaints from customers of that organization,” according to Barron’s Dictionary of Business Terms. Senior management with Alaska banks regards customer service as more than a single department taking complaints or solving problems. Executives for First National Bank Alaska, Wells Fargo, Northrim Bank, Alaska Pacific Bank and Alaska First Bank and Trust describe their customer relations philosophies, ways of providing quality service, challenges, the impact of technology, and how their banks stand out in the way they provide customer service.


Sue Foley, senior vice president, central support division, has been with FNBA since 1974. From the beginning, she has heard Chairman and President Dan Cuddy say “Call the customers by name and try to do it at least three times. Make the customer feel appreciated that he came into my bank.” Because all decision-makers of the bank live in Alaska, FNBA is not bound by a larger corporation’s restrictive philosophy of customer service. Employees–Alaskans–provide outstanding customer service, said Foley. FNBA managers learn which employees perform better in branch positions.

“Some folks can’t please customers–they are nervous face to face. But they can be great on the phone in our call center,” Foley said. She emphasizes meeting individual customer needs, even when staff doesn’t know the answer. “The (response) should not be ‘No’, but ‘I don’t know; I’ll find out.'”

FNBA and other banks must balance customer service efforts with conflicting federal regulations. For example, banking regulations state: “Know your customer.” FNBA verifies customers through agency-issued identification, often bearing photo and signature. In November 2002, Foley learned military IDs will no longer bear Social Security numbers and signatures. Military personnel are calling financial institutions to find out if this new form of identification will be accepted. FNBA has agreed to accept the new military IDs for existing customers and find alternatives for new customers that satisfy bank rules and federal regulations.

Satisfying rural customers’ needs is also a mission.

FNBA partnered with the Treasury Department and United States Postal Service in a pilot project to place upgraded ATMs in St. Marys, Hooper Bay and Togiak. “As we began to work together with the Treasury and the USPS, we shared with them our knowledge of traffic habits in each community.” Foley says the proposed location in each community was the post office, commonly a local gathering place. But FNBA’s existing ATMs were in locations open seven days a week and with longer hours. FNBA placed new ATM systems in locations allowing for greater community access.

In Anchorage, FNBA had envisioned converting its Dimond branch to an automated branch filled with ATMs and only one or two employees. Customers bypassed existing ATMs and chose to wait in line for tellers. “We quickly realized that customers at Dimond preferred face-to-face interaction when dealing with their banking transactions,” said Foley. “At the same time, we had a similar experience at our South Center Branch in Anchorage. It was my first experience in which a decision had been made without the benefit of customer input on what they wanted and needed.” FNBA replaced the ATMs with employees. “At the Northern Lights branch there are customers who come to be with people and drink coffee even if they don’t have bank business.”


In 2000, Wells Fargo acquired National Bank of Alaska and in June 2001 renamed it Wells Fargo Bank Alaska. Elaine Junge, vice president and marketing manager, says the perception of mergers is that outside management teams come to Alaska and dictate how things will be run. Wells Fargo retained NBA’s senior management team, comprised of longtime Alaskans, as well as other employees.

Keeping former NBA management, employees and benefits affords Wells Fargo a competitive advantage. “You have content employees serving customers, which lends itself to good customer relations.”

Richard Strutz, Alaska regional president, has been with the bank more than 30 years. He manages all Alaska branches. Wells Fargo’s corporate business philosophy is “out-localling the national (banks) and out-nationalling the locals.” The key is ensuring that decision making occurs as close to the customer as possible–that decisions affecting Alaska customers occur in Alaska.

Wells Fargo’s heavy investment in technology allows customers to access financial services “anytime/anywhere they want,” says Junge. While Wells Fargo is looking at installing limited Internet terminals, “we’re not forcing customers to use them, they’re not for everyone,” says Junge. She is excited about the bank’s new Web-based ATMs, which were installed last summer, and Chinese–language ATMs, which Wells Fargo will premiere in the near future.

Wells Fargo takes a proactive approach to customer relations, offering free financial check-ups in which a staff member sits with customers one-on-one to discuss their financial situations and explore ways for them to save more money and bank more conveniently. Wells Fargo has access lists so team members know who to contact and standards for timely follow-up to customers.


President and CEO Marc Langland observes, “Today, no one starts a company without purposely making customer service an important factor. Across all industries, people expect good service.” Where relevant, business plans should include a customer-relations concept appropriate to the industry and business activity. “Because we are a bank, we’re in a trust industry,” said Langland. “Customers trust us with their money and want to feel that we take care of their money safely. They also want to be treated properly. How you treat your employees is a reflection of how you want them to treat your customers. Study after study shows that satisfied employees mean satisfied customers.”

Langland finds staffing to be an ongoing customer service concern. “Hiring the right people and then bringing those new employees into your service culture, bringing them along so they support your service goals and standards, is always a challenge. In today’s tight market, it is especially difficult to deal with turnover in customer contact positions. People come in with different levels of knowledge and skill. It’s great when you can attract and keep good people who like to work with customers.

“We made service a focus from day one. It’s tougher to try to turn around an existing company with a poor service history. In that case, you have to retrain employees and change the basic approach of the business. It’s almost impossible to change a bad company image and win back customers.”

Langland enjoys juggling changing regulations, customer expectations and industry technological advances. “Customers want it all. They want the convenient access they get through ATMs, automated phone services and online banking, and personal contact.” He adds, “There will always be a need for human interaction. You can stay home and order everything by phone or computer. But you still want to smell the roses. It’s part of the social aspect of life. I don’t foresee this going away while I’m still in banking.”

In 2001, Northrim introduced its “Proud to Be Alaskan” theme, demonstrating commitment to building strong local economies. “Since this is our home, and our business and money stay here, we are tied more closely to Alaska and to our state’s future,” Langland said. “The key to quality customer service is showing concern and being caring toward your customers, making them feel comfortable and welcome when they do business with you. If you can accomplish that, it’s going to work.”


Alaska Pacific Bank, with 65 full-time employees, is based in Juneau with two branches and operates in four other Southeast Alaska communities (Ketchikan, Sitka, Hoonah and Yakutat). Craig Dahl, president and chief executive officer, has been in banking 30 years, and Lisa Bell, executive vice president/chief operating officer, has been in banking 21 years. Both have been with Alaska Pacific for 10 years.

“As a community bank, our most important difference is our ability to respond to our customers’ needs, especially as they apply to the unique environment of Alaska,” said Dahl. “We’re not bound by rigid policies formulated outside our market area. As a bank, our most important intangible asset over and above our actual products is our customers’ trust and confidence that we will handle their financial business in a safe, sound and confidential manner. Whether they are borrowers or depositors, we are committed to doing a superior job with each transaction.”

Alaska Pacific offers convenient locations, friendly employees and the ability to make local decisions. Advisory boards in Ketchikan and Sitka provide feedback on customer service levels. Dahl says the bank goes out of its way to accommodate customer requests that do not fit within written policy.

Dahl describes his bank’s biggest challenge as bringing banking services to small, remote communities. “We operate in two communities with populations of less than 1,000 people each and that is very hard to manage. We have embraced electronic and Internet banking as an important means to deliver our services throughout our market area, but the fact remains that for the businesses in small communities, a bank is still a necessity.” He does not believe that technology replaces branches. “There is no one preferred way to conduct your banking in this day and age. We view telephone banking, ATMs and Internet banking as another way to access banking services. While some of the electronic services have helped reduce the number of employees, there is no reason to diminish the importance of convenient branch offices.”

Bell feels that Alaska Pacific’s customer service stands out by affording customers access to executive management and the members of the board of directors. Advisory boards allow communities outside Juneau the opportunity to present comments, raise concerns and receive a personal response. She adds, “While courteous, friendly service should be a given, good training on products and services in any industry will provide the employee with the tools to serve customers better, as well as a deeper understanding of what it takes to make a business successful.”


Christine Newsome is vice president/business development and marketing manager for Alaska First Bank and Trust. “When it comes to customer service, I’m from the old school,” she says. “If you want someone to smile at you, smile first. If you want them to be nice to you, be nice first. Customers want to be acknowledged. They want to be honored; they want to be respected.”

She sums up customer service as “basically the golden rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”‘ Management team decisions are based on the bank’s mission to “Do what’s good for the bank’s market, (local) businesses and people of the community.”

Alaska First has an agreement with Bank of America in which Alaska First accepts and sends Alaska Airlines credit card payments. “We are the only bank in Alaska doing this,” she said. During the second week of November 2002, Alaska First took in 280 payments. “This provides a service to the community and enhances the bank’s visibility.”

After 25 years in the banking industry, Newsome has seen both good and bad customer service. One of her pet peeves is making customers wait. “Customer time is valuable. Treat it as such, don’t pass them off or around to someone else.” When conducting business at other banks, she is appalled at teller lines with 35-minute waiting time and 30-minute drive-through lines. At Alaska First she does not operate a cash drawer, but has gotten onto the teller line to assist customers with deposit-only transactions.

Newsome regards ATMs and other forms of electronic technology as ways for banks to meet a goal of providing money to clients when they want it. Technology does not completely replace the need for bankers. “If you work a graveyard shift and you want to check your balances at 3 a.m. to see what’s cleared, you can do it. But if a check has not cleared or a check has cleared and it’s not yours, you’re going to need me,” she said. Every employee has his or her own clientele. Customers commonly request specific tellers with whom they have built a working relationship.

Once, Newsome was in the meat aisle at Carrs and she heard a child scream, “Look mommy, there’s the banker!” She felt honored that a young child recognized her.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning