Discredit where it’s overdue

A million years ago, when I was an undergraduate in Bristol, I wandered into the city centre with my first grant cheque burning a hole in my pocket. (This was in days where the government didn’t just pay for your studies, they also contributed to frivolities like food and books, or rather – of course – beer).

How did I pick the financial services establishment where I would deposit my sole earnings for this freshman term and – as it turned out – my income for the next 15 years? Attractive rates? A free rail card (nowadays: a free iPod)? Helpful service? A sound reputation? Environmental Policy? Good phone banking (today: internet banking)?

Nope. I went into the first bank I saw.

Without wanting to sound like a country song, the relationship that started that day ended yesterday after many painful disappointments and let downs; yes, the odd moment of happiness; but mostly old-fashioned thoughtlessness and disrespect. Just how did we drift apart? Surely the good times must count for something? Couldn’t we try and talk things through? I had, after all been banking with this brand for almost half of my life.

The truth is that the service has always been terrible. Dirty, slow branches. Overly complex products, reinvented every fifteen minutes. Constant irrelevant direct marketing. Seeing the customer as nothing more than a prospect for new products. It’s not that they’ve got worse. It’s just that every year the rest of the world moves and the terrible experiences we have with personal banking become less and less tolerable. Once, when phoning from New York to unblock my credit card, the call centre person spent 10 minutes trying to sign me up for a more ‘personal’ banking service.

On Wednesday afternoon, this thinly-veiled contempt was given a very real and very weasely face – in the form of a branch manager. After I was advised that I would need to apply for a provisional driving licence in order to perform a funds transfer, I decided the camel’s back was irretrievably broken. ‘How about I just close my account and try another bank?’ I asked. ‘No sir, you’ll have to arrange a meeting to do that, and you’ll need another form of identification’.

When the only reason your customers don’t leave is that they expect equally bad behaviour from your competitors, or because you make it as difficult as possible, then clearly the writing is on the wall. When a little turd of a man is practically spitting this sentiment at you, you really have to wonder what’s going on. And of course at this point, the light-hearted, overly-jovial, innocent-drinks-style branding in the branch served only to pour petrol on the flames.

This is, after all – as Forrester keeps telling us – the year that experience-based differentiation will drive the banking market. But we’re not exactly talking about generating delight. The standard – missed by my ex-bank – seems to be avoiding out-and-out rudeness. How come Starbucks, who sell overpriced coffee, can greet you with a smile and try – if occasionally in vain – to solve your coffee dilemma, and yet the only time this bank will speak to me is if they are trying to charge me for something or to sell me something?