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Is your bank's customer service going down the tubes?

By Justin Boyle

Is your bank's customer service going down the tubes?

We've all heard "the customer is always right." You might go as far as to say that we live in the age of the customer. Customer service is emphasized as a driver of business success in several industries in the U.S., and companies tend to take that to heart. I spent a few years in the customer service trade, myself, helping put a pleasant face and voice on computer support, sandwiches and Cadillacs.

Nearly every worker in a commercial environment, from butchers to bakers to BLT makers, is trained to consider the customer first. With this being the case, why are members of the online community crying out about poor customer service from the best banks? I got a hold of an expert in the field of customer service, as well as a banking executive, to try and sort it out.

Customer service not a priority at big banks?

Shep Hyken is a lecturer and author of The Amazement Revolution, a customer service strategy guide. His opinion is that businesses in the financial services industry may never have focused heavily on customer service as a business strategy. Most financial services providers are likely aware of the value of customer service, Hyken says, but truly customer-focused service plans haven't reached their full industry potential.

Moreover, most big national banks are reorganizing their income streams in the wake of government price controls, and customers are dealing with some new elements:

  • Debit card service fees are being rolled out in certain states
  • Free checking accounts are disappearing from national banking companies and being replaced by accounts that allow only certain customers to avoid service fees
  • Face-to-face banking services at local branches are declining as demand for online and mobile banking rises, meaning there may be less emphasis on training for tellers and bankers.

Hyken supposes that these business model changes might have caused consumer perception of bank customer service to change, even if the service level has remained the same.

The community bank perspective

Robert De Almeida, president of Hamilton Federal Bank in Maryland, indicates that he has heard reports of poor service at national banks firsthand. His community bank has seen recent growth in its customer base, which he chalks up to policy changes and service inconsistencies at national firms.

"We put the customer at the center of every transaction," De Almeida says, "taking the time to understand the customer's goals and always put their needs first."

De Almeida goes on to say that the reported dropoff in customer service at big banks might be attributed to poor communication. In his opinion, national banks could have taken more significant steps to inform their customers of the changes in the national financial climate.

"Debit card fees and an increase to checking account fees are a direct result of recent legislation," he says, referring to the Dodd/Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. "(The national banks) should have done a better job of informing the customer of their loss of income ... and how they can avoid higher fees."

Poor customer service at banks: fact or perception?

According to the opinions of De Almeida and Hyken, much of the outcry over unsatisfactory customer service at national banks might actually be outcry over changes to operating policy. If customers are resistant to a policy change, customer service representatives can find themselves in a somewhat unfavorable position.

I guess this is where "the customer is always right" comes in. The job of customer service is to satisfy customers, but there's scarcely anything a customer service rep can do if a customer takes issue with policy and opens a new savings account elsewhere. I have to say, tellers at the neighborhood branch of my national bank greet me with smiles and give prompt, effective service. Although my experience might not be universal, I can't imagine that it's unique.

How's customer service at your bank lately? Any horror stories?


Justin Boyle is a writer and journalist in Austin, Texas.

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