OPINION

Banks and Travelers: What Sends Customers Packing

Travel always seems to elicit great customer service stories — that is, great storiesfrom my perspective as a person who writes about CRM; not great as in “myexperience while traveling was wonderful, stress-free and restored my faith inhumanity.”

As fodder for columns, they’re great. They’re object lessons in how to sabotagecustomer relationships, because these service failures take what was supposed tobe a relaxing time and make it exactly the opposite. They leave people high and drythousands of miles from home. And they expose the deeply rooted service problemsthat could be solved if businesses bothered to think like customers once in a while.I get to hear many of them. The latest came from a traveler who has asked not to beidentified regarding a trip to the United Kingdom.

From Bad to Worse

This traveler arrived in Londonand withdrew some cash before leaving the airport — at which point, unbeknownstto the traveler, the bank swung into action on her behalf and froze her ATM card.

This was beyond the call of duty for the bank, since the traveler had called thebank before departing to inform it that her card might be used in Europe duringa certain time period. The bank still canceled the card. You’re welcome, gentletraveler!

Luckily, a fellow traveler was able to front the cash for the trip, and credit cards stillworked. On the way home, the traveler called the bank from the airport in Newarkand tried to figure out what had gone wrong.

The bank’s explanation was notparticularly satisfactory, needless to say, although the agent on the phone was veryapologetic. The bank had indeed canceled the card, so the traveler wouldn’t be ableto get any cash until the replacement card arrived. The shipment of the card wouldbe expedited, the agent said — it would be there in two business days.

Four business days later, the card arrived — that was three weeks after the original wasswitched off. When the traveler tried to use it, the ATM at the bank still spit it backand provided no cash — the PINhad changed.

At this point, the traveler was starting to seethe. Checking online revealed noreasont the card wouldn’t work — but it did reveal that the bank had chargedthe traveler US$35 to expedite the new card to replace the old one the bank hadmistakenly switched off — something the traveler had never been told.

Another call found another friendly agent who again was ever so apologetic. He saidthe new PIN was sent separately and should arrive in two business days. By now,the traveler was incensed: A $35 charge had been levied for a card that arrived viaFedEx while its PIN was still meandering through bulk-rate mail channels.Not only was the fee not authorized, it was meaningless — and it was still impossibleto get cash out of the bank.

This sent the traveler over the edge and the agent — who, again, apologized profusely– was subjected to unshirted hell via the telephone. Sadly, there was no way theagent could do anything for the traveler — security policies meant to protect thecustomer prevented it. The agent couldn’t even reverse the $35 fee. The travelersoon had a new bank.

Injuries and Insults

What went wrong here? A couple of obvious things. First was that the bank failedto accommodate the customer’s call providing it with information about theaccount (i.e., that it would likely be used in Europe during certain days). Thatoversight set the whole rest of this comedy of errors into motion.

Next came the switching off of the card without any contact to the customer. Thesedays, most customers can be reached quickly via text or at least email. Insteadof double-checking with the customer, the bank flipped the switch on the card– leaving the traveler both without cash and without a reason for the card notworking.

Next came the failure of the bank to honor its promises. If a customer says they’ll getsomething as important as an ATM card in two business days, it needs to get therein two business days. Further, if the bank makes a mistake, it’s the bank’s job to fixthe problem; the $35 fee is an insulting way of suggesting this is all the customer’sfault.

To assess that charge and then fail to get the card to the customer on time isembarrassing; the fact that the PIN went via regular mail and thus arriveddays after the card is sheer incompetence.But here’s what really went wrong: the bank never empowered its service peopleto take action that could havesolved the problem at any stage in what was likely an extreme and exceptional case.

Empower Your Agents

The first agent should have been able to waive any fees regarding the shipment of anew card. The card was turned off unexpectedly by the bank; the bank should havehandled all aspects of turning the card back on. Apparently, this was not an optionavailable to the agent.

Next, the agent should have been allowed to reverse the fee charged to the customerwhen the bank failed to live up to its side of the agreement. Even if you believe thatthe fee was acceptable, the fact that the customer was never informed about it isremarkably slipshod behavior — and when the card arrived two days after it waspromised, it should have been refunded as a goodwill gesture.

Finally, the PIN debacle is perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of all.Agents certainly can’t assign new PINs over the phone — but they should beable to provide alternatives to customers when exceptional events occur — especiallywhen they are caused by the bank.

If you have a set of security policies in place thatmight lead to someone being cut off from their cash at an inopportune time or for anundue duration, why don’t you have some policies in place to help your customerscope with the results?

Sure, banks have regulations to meet that protect privacy and prevent fraud. Buttheir principal reason to exist is to serve the customer — or, at least, that’s supposedto be the reason they exist. Losing sight of that will doom customer relationships inany business — so look at your policies from a customer perspective and empoweryour agents to do more than offer effusive apologies.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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