By Terril Yue Jones
BEIJING (Reuters) - Tang Jianhui is a patient bank customer, though he won't stick it out if he has to wait more than an hour, as he sometimes does.
"That's the limit," the 30-something restaurant manager says, describing a normal queue of half an hour to 45 minutes at his local branch.
Ranita Rao, a Chinese office worker in Beijing, has had it even worse. She has waited almost two hours to make a withdrawal at her local bank because the amount she wanted to withdraw was more than ATMs would allow.
"They give you a number and you just have to wait," says Rao, 28, who once had to take time off from work to make a mortgage payment that her bank unexpectedly changed . "I always take my iPod."
Tang and Rao are hardly alone in spending too much of their lives in bank lines. China's lenders have long been notorious for lengthy waits, byzantine paperwork, and sullen service.
To the joy of Chinese citizens, the days of poor customer relations at mainland banks may be ending, albeit slowly.
Due to continued financial tightening that China has used to fight persistent inflation, banks are hungrily looking to attract new depositors and customers - and that means improving the way they're treated when entering a branch.
China's banking market is vast, with about 202,000 branches across the nation of 1.34 billion people, and holding some $6 trillion in assets. Yet the country's banking landscape has long been dominated by a few banks that, on the whole, paid little attention to customer service.
THE LONG WAIT
China's Big Four lenders - Industrial and Commercial Bank of China <1398.HK> <601398.SS>, China Construction Bank <0939.HK> <601939.SS>, Agricultural Bank of China <1288.HK> <601288.SS> and Bank of China <3988.HK> <601988.SS> - have long had such a dominant position of guaranteed business that for decades they had little need to cater to customers' satisfaction.
And that means they could afford to make people line up. "In China, the more successful you are, the longer you make people wait," says Emmanuel Daniel, founder of The Asian Banker, a financial consultancy.
Since the beginning of the year the People's Bank of China has raised interest rates three times, and increased required reserves for banks six times, hoping to lock up cash that banks would otherwise lend.
Such moves are squeezing banks' ability to extend loans, with some realizing that one way to address that is by bringing in more depositors by improving the banking experience.
"Chinese banks can't compete on price," says analyst Mike Werner of Sanford Bernstein, since interest rates are capped by the government - 3.5 percent on benchmark one-year deposits. "So banks are much more willing to put investments into making their place a more attractive place for depositors."
These days banks are sprucing up their lobbies, offering more wealth management, credit card and investment banking services, and building out their mobile and Internet banking capabilities.
Many are adopting VIP services such as separate receptions with coffee and tea - and short waits in plush chairs.
China Minsheng Bank is even offering private jets and specialized medical services, though the initiative is aimed at what it calls its "super-high-end customers."
ICBC has invested billions of yuan on renovating and upgrading facilities, and setting up 224 wealth management centers and 4,339 VIP banking locations. Like many Chinese banks recently, ICBC is emphasizing electronic banking - the Internet banking users of ICBC alone, at 70 million people, would be equivalent to the 19th-largest country on the planet.
"We are continuing to establish and improve our customer service, especially our front-line staff and education through case studies, remote instruction, third-party training" and other resources, the bank said in a written response to queries on customer service.
Tianjin-based Bohai Bank, a five-year old institution, targets two customer bases: young people and small- and medium-size enterprise owners.
"What do they want? What experience do they need?" asked Brenda Wong, Bohai's deputy chief executive. "We have very few branches, so we focused on developing our Internet and mobile phone banking. Seventy to 80 percent of our customers can do self-service banking this way."
BLACK FRIDAYS...AND MONDAYS
But for the masses, at times little seems to have changed.
On a Friday visit to the Bank of China's bustling branch at Xidan, a busy shopping district in Beijing, customers received numbered tickets showing how many people were in line ahead of them.
One ticket said 21 people. As customers shuffled through sheets and sheets of paperwork, the numbers changed only every four or five minutes, indicating a wait of at least an hour and 20 minutes. Asked if the wait was always this long, a bank attendant said, "Yes, on 'Black Fridays' as we call them," because of the crush of customers. "And on 'Black Mondays'."
A woman visiting from Chibi city in Hubei province who had been waiting for 30 minutes said that when she first arrived, half the tellers were at lunch. She noted that this branch was better than others.
"We're used to waiting," she said. "You can't do anything about it."
Chinese banks give only one debit/ATM card per account. One Bank of China customer, who had lost her debit card, was told to pay 15 yuan and wait two weeks for her replacement card - during which time she would not have access to her money.
Bank of China declined several requests to respond to questions about its customer service. But one mid-level manager at the bank acknowledged that customer satisfaction has not been much on the radar until recently.
"Ten years ago, there were hardly any banks in Beijing besides the big state-owned banks like us so we didn't need to think much about customer service. People had to come to us ," the Bank of China manager said, who did not want to be named. "Now, you're seeing provincial lenders like Anhui Bank, and municipal banks like Bank of Dalian coming to Beijing, far from their home markets."
One institution that has bucked the trend is China Merchant's Bank <3968.HK> <600036.SS>, a much smaller group than the state-run behemoths, with a market capitalization of $41.5 billion compared with ICBC's $227 billion. China Merchants has 800-plus branches, while ICBC has more than 16,000.
China Merchants consistently tops bank customer satisfaction rankings , coming in
No.1 among Chinese banks in 2009, 2010 and 2011, according to surveys by J.D. Power. The Big Four banks didn't
even figure in the top 10 in any of those years.
China Merchants, established in 1987 as the country's first private bank, says it put emphasis into customer service starting in the 1990s because it could not count on government support in hard times, as did state-owned lenders.
"So we have to depend on customer service to attract clients and market share," says Qin Jizhang, director of China Merchants' Service Management Center.
For the Beijing operation of ICBC, the world's largest bank by market capitalization, the bank has won a number of contracts for certain domestic services. Among the examples: salaries for employees of many state-owned enterprises are direct-deposited through ICBC , and traffic fines are routed through the bank.
Government payments to retirees in Beijing are also made through ICBC.
"So around the 15th of any month, you see crowds of older people lining up from early morning to get their pension payouts," says Tang, the restaurant manager who won't wait an hour. "There are just lots of people. They can't help it."
China's Big Four banks hold more than half of the country's personal bank deposits, a fact that plays a major role on the issue of chronic crowding.
"You tend to be more comfortable giving your money to a state-owned bank which has the implicit backing of the government," says Sanford's Werner. "But let's be honest: they're state-owned entities. They're not going to be the ones driving customer service innovation."
(Reporting by Terril Yue Jones; Editing by Muralikumar Anatharaman and Michael Flaherty)