Century Bank scorecard

By | August 14, 2011

Century Bank LogoMy wife and I recently closed our Citizens Bank checking account and home equity line of credit (HELOC) and opened new ones at Century Bank. We decided to do this after many unsatisfactory interactions with Citizens.

We’ve learned a lot about Century in the short time we’ve been doing business with them. I wanted to post this “scorecard” of our interactions thus far, for the benefit of anyone who might be considering patronizing them or comparing them to other banks in the area.

Executive summary: So far, I like Century and I’m happy with the switch. I have my complaints, but the positives outweigh the negatives in my mind, especially since there are some things I like a lot.

Everyone with whom we’ve dealt at Century has been consistently helpful and responsive. The process of applying for our new HELOC was painless; the bank visit to sign all the HELOC paperwork and open the checking account was also quite painless; there were no application or closing fees; and unlike our old Citizens HELOC, the Century one does not have an annual fee. Advantage: Century

The names of the managers of every Century branch are posted on their web site. Not only that, but so are their email addresses. Not only that, but they actually respond, and promptly, when you send them email (well, at least, the manager of my branch does). Not only that, but the email addresses of the Chairman, President/CEO, and Executive Vice President are also posted on their web siteJust try to get the email address of someone at Citizens with the authority to help you solve a problem! Advantage: Century

Century’s telephone customer service department is open 7am-7pm Monday through Friday and 8am-1pm Saturday. Citizens, on the other hand, has agents available 24×7. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. When you speak to someone at Century, you’re speaking to someone at Century, not some outsourced customer service center full of poorly trained agents with foreign accents so heavy they are often impossible to understand. I definitely prefer good customer service with reasonable hours over bad customer service with 24×7 hours. Advantage: Century

Not only that, but when you send Century a message through their online banking system, you often get an answer back the same day. Again, the person answering you actually works for Century, in Massachusetts. The reply includes the full name of the person who sent it, and the reply notification you get from the online banking system includes his or her email address. Advantage: Century

Century is a much smaller bank than Citizens, so it has far fewer branches and ATMs (Century: 24 branches, 28 ATMs; Citizens: >1,480 branches, >3,800 ATMs). However, Century is a member of the fee-free SUM ATM network of over 5,300 ATMs, unlike Citizens, which used to be in SUM but backed out at the end of 2009. Furthermore, there are Century branches near our home in Allston, Newton and Brookline, and there are two branches within a few minutes’ walk from my office. Also, Century allows several foreign ATM transactions per month at no charge (although the owner of the ATM may charge their own fee). Access to the bank is not going to be a problem. Advantage: tie

When you open a Century checking account, your first box of checks is free, but after that you have to pay for them. All our checks were free from Citizens, since our HELOC balance was large enough to qualify us for “Citizens Gold” status. However, the Citizens annual HELOC fee (see above) cost us more than paying for checks at Century is going to, so… Advantage: Century

UPDATE [August 23, 2011]: Our checks hadn’t arrived as of yesterday, 19 days after we opened our account. I called Century to find out why, and the customer service representative at Century conferenced in the check printer, Deluxe, to check on the order status. Deluxe had no record of anyone having ordered our checks, so the Century rep went ahead and ordered a box while I was on the phone. She was friendly and helpful, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the interaction, for three reasons:

  1. She was mildly apologetic, but frankly, when you open a checking account and the bank fails to order checks as promised, abject apology is called for.
  2. The Deluxe rep asked whether standard shipping was OK, and the Century rep asked me if it was. I said, “No, of course not. I’ve already waited 19 days for my checks because the bank forgot to order them. It should be a rush order and the bank should pay for overnight shipping.” I really shouldn’t have had to be the one to ask for this.
  3. After I said I expected a rush order with overnight shipping, the Century rep told me that she’d email the bank manager and let her know what happened, and the manager would “probably” agree to cover the additional cost, but she couldn’t say for certain. That is totally not OK. Of course the bank needs to cover the cost of fixing their error as quickly as possible; this should not have been up for discussion.

This clearly calls for one point off from Century. UPDATE 2 [August 23, 2011]: The assistant manager at our branch (the manager is on vacation) has confirmed that the bank will cover the cost of the rush order and overnight shipping, and furthermore offered to cover the cost of our next check order as well, to make up for the inconvenience.

After we opened our account at Century, they mailed us a pamphlet encouraging us to use our Century ATM/debit card like a credit card. The pamphlet claimed that it was “safer” and “more secure” to use the card to make purchases without a PIN, a claim that is in my opinion quite bogus. Also, the pamphlet made no effort to explain the risks and disadvantages of a checking account debit card vs. a traditional credit card.

I don’t know whether Citizens also makes the bogus claim that PINless debit card transactions are safer, but they definitely encourage their customers to do PINless transactions. Both Century and Citizens are doing this for the same reason: the bank makes a higher transaction fee when you use your card as a debit card than they do when you use it as an ATM card. I’d like to see Century be more up-front and transparent about the risks that are inherent in debit cards whether a PIN is used or not, but alas they’re not really any worse than Citizens or any other bank nowadays, so… Advantage: tie

(By the way, it is exactly because of those risks that my wife and ordered ATM-only cards, not debit cards, from both Century and Citizens.)

I sent the manager of my Century branch an email message complaining about the pamphlet. She responded a half hour later to let me know that she was passing on my message to the appropriate people. A day and a half later, I received a detailed response from Century’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Sales & Marketing. Although I don’t entirely agree with his response, the fact that a bank Senior Vice President responded to my complaint, by email, a day and a half after I sent it, is simply incredible. Advantage: Century

Century’s online banking application is simply awful. The UI looks like it hasn’t been updated in a decade, or if it has, certainly not by someone who has any current UI design knowledge. The Citizens online banking UI isn’t great either, but it’s unarguably better than Century’s. Advantage: Citizens

Furthermore, Century’s online banking has some significant functional deficiencies. The ones I’ve identified so far are:

  • Passwords are limited to 8 characters (Citizens allows up to 15).
  • Passwords are limited to letters and numbers, no special characters (but the same is true of Citizens).
  • I’ve heard, but of course cannot yet confirm given the age of our account, that account transaction data is only available on the web site for the past six months.
  • The “message center” does not save copies of messages you send to the bank, so once you send a message, you have no record of having done so until/unless the bank responds, which they are pretty reliable about doing, but still. Citizens and the credit-card account management sites I’ve used all save copies of sent messages.
  • Money cannot be withdrawn through online banking from our HELOC into our checking account (Citizens allows instant transfers from a HELOC into a checking account).

Advantage: Citizens

Aside from the 8-character limit on online banking passwords, Century seems pretty serious about online banking security. Two examples:

  1. According to their web site, “After three failed attempts to access an Internet Banking session, the Internet Banking account is locked out for 24 hours and the bank is alerted. This deters any person trying to guess your PIN.”
  2. The morning after I registered my online banking account, I made a bill payment online through my laptop tethered to my iPhone’s personal WiFi hotspot on the bus on the way to work. Within a couple of hours, I’d received both a voicemail message and an email message asking me to call the bank to verify my online banking activity. They told me that the combination of a recently created online banking account, access to the account from a new IP address, and the fact that the IP address was from a mobile device, was sufficiently suspicious that they needed to contact me to make sure it was OK.

UPDATE [August 25, 2011]:

However, I’ve found an unfortunate and disturbing kink in Century’s security armor. If you visit their web site, click on the Contact Us link, click on Opt out of Bounce Protection, and then click on the “OPT OUT” button to get to a web page you can use to opt out of bounce protection, this warning pops up:

As a reminder, you are about to send information over the Internet. It might be possible for others to see what you are sending. If you prefer, you may call us at 866.8.CENTURY to process this request.

And, indeed, if you examine the opt-out page, you will see that it requires you to enter your email address, name, address, telephone numbers, and account number, and that these data are then transmitted over the internet, unencrypted. Um, wow. No, Century Bank security folks, it’s not OK to ask your customers to enter sensitive information into a web form that’s transmitted in clear-text, even if you warn them about it. They don’t understand why it’s a bad idea, so the warning doesn’t do any good. Understanding why it’s a bad idea is your job.

When I first wrote this blog entry, I gave Century a point for the impressive security precautions enumerated above. However, the unencrypted opt-out page offsets that point, so I’ve taken it away.

After my wife and I received our Century ATM cards and PINs in the mail (separately, on different days; good for Century for getting that right!), we wanted to change our PINs from the ones issued by Century. The mailing containing the PIN did not say how to change it. I found this page on Century’s web site which tipped me off that I might be able to change our PINs through the automated telephone banking system, but there were no details about how to do this. It turns out that if you call and navigate into the telephone menu tree pretending that you want to “activate” your ATM card, when you get several levels into the tree you’ll discover that there’s an option hidden alongside “activation” to change your PIN. It really shouldn’t be that hard. Here’s the funny thing, though… I couldn’t find anything on the Citizens web site about changing my PIN, nor could I figure out how to do it through their automated telephone banking system. So as bad as Century is about this, Citizens is apparently worse. Advantage: Century

When we opened our checking account, we would told that any checks we deposited in the first 30 days would be held for 7 days before the funds would be available for us to use. I have three complaints about this:

  • In fact, the hold was 7 business days, i.e., 9 calendar days. It would have have been better if the staff of our branch had told us this rather than incorrectly telling us “7 days.”
  • We just opened a HELOC, so the bank has checked our backgrounds extensively and knows that we have excellent credit ratings going back over 20 years. They’ve just paid off our old Citizens HELOC, whose balance was in six figures. It’s ridiculous that they trust us enough to do that but still feel compelled to put a hold on our deposited checks.
  • Several of the checks we deposited were written against our own Citizens checking account to transfer money from there into our new Century account. Century could have picked up the phone and called Citizens in a matter of minutes to verify the availability of funds to cover those checks. A 9-day wait was hardly necessary or reasonable.
I have no idea whether Citizens would behave similarly in similar circumstances, so I can’t say which bank is better in this regard, but I can say that I was (and continue to be, since as I write this our new account is only 10 days old) disappointed with Century, so one point off from Century.

Our Century checking account doesn’t earn any interest. On the one hand this doesn’t really matter all that much since we weren’t earning more than a few dollars of interest each year on our Citizens account (any extra money we have each month goes straight toward paying down our HELOC balance!). However, why we were earning interest on our Citizens account but not our Century account puts Century at a slight disadvantage.

Citizens combined our HELOC and checking account balances and determined that they were high enough together to make us “Citizens Gold” customers, which allowed us to sign up for an interest-bearing checking account without paying any fees. In contrast, Century does not count HELOC balances when aggregating accounts to determine fee waiver eligibility. Advantage: Citizens

UPDATE [September 20, 2011]: It’s inconceivable that the president and CEO of Citizens Bank would read and comment on a blog posting about his bank, but that’s just what Century Bank President and CEO Barry Sloane did below. Mr. Sloane, thank you very much for visiting my blog. Your visit reinforces my conviction that Century actually cares about its customers, so I’m giving you another point. 🙂

Final score:

Century Bank 6
Citizens Bank 3
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2 thoughts on “Century Bank scorecard

  1. Barry Sloane

    Thank you for your insightful comments. I will research them all and see if we can improve our service delivery. We appreciate your business and observations.

    Barry Sloane
    President
    Century Bank
    [email protected]

    Reply
  2. Nate

    Small banks are definitely the way to go. Our auto loan is through a small credit union and I love that when I call them I get a real person right away. There is no menu to navigate through. My wife’s business account is through Middlesex Savings, and like Century, they answer emails right away from real people. I regret getting our mortgage through a big bank, and if we ever refinance or get a HELOC, it’ll be through a small local bank. Customer Service is way more important than a couple tenths of a percent on the rate.

    Reply

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