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Banks need to sell customer service

Many banks attribute their growth to their successful transformation to a sales culture. You may have noticed that banks now have a retailer mentality, in some cases referring to branches as "stores." There is a strong emphasis on sales at all levels of the organization, all the way down to the branch level. Individual employees are held accountable to reach specific targets on a weekly or monthly basis.

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Banks are not unique in this area by any means, nor is this anything new.

But let's look at one potential casualty of the bank-branch sales culture -- the customer experience. I'm not talking about whether the staff is friendly or the tellers at the drive-through give lollipops to my kids. I'm looking at whether or not the branch can handle what should be routine transactions.

More precisely, I am referring to the turn-off of poorly trained, new employees. What's worse is seeing this person struggle and look in vain for help from someone else in the branch. Why no one else to the rescue? It makes me wonder if it's because the incentive is to spend time selling, not lending a hand to a colleague in need. Every man for himself, I suppose.

I recently experienced this firsthand when attempting what should have been a very routine bank branch procedure, the renting of a safe-deposit box. Repeated fumbling, including mistyping several items of personal information on the contract, lots of waiting, a paper jam on apparently the only printer in the branch and finally, more waiting. All this to rent a safe-deposit box. You'd think we were trying to get access to the vault at Fort Knox.

This comedy of errors continued even after leaving the branch. Several days later, we received a phone call from the same customer service rep -- at least I think it was her, because she didn't identify either herself or her institution in her message. Apparently she had neglected a few more details that needed to be ironed out.

I don't intend to pick on one individual, as starting a new job that entails working with the general public is no easy task. But this experience extended beyond this lone customer service representative when we received a notice in the mail on Oct. 15 that the payment for the safe-deposit box would be automatically deducted on Oct. 5. You read that correctly. The notice was received 10 days after the payment had already been deducted. This was not a big deal, but it was just another in what has long been a long line of miscues in my limited interaction with this bank.

This certainly isn't uncommon. After all, just about every trip you make to any establishment, such as the supermarket, a fast food restaurant or a gas station, involves some sort of similar situation. Perhaps you were overcharged for an item that was supposed to be on sale, you got your burger with tomato and without onions instead of the other way around, or the convenience of paying at the pump was nullified when the receipt didn't print and you had to go inside after all.

What makes banking different than our other daily retail interactions is that financial services call for some level of comfort being conveyed to the customer. After all, they're handling our money. If you've ever been nervous when an airline pilot's preflight announcement mentions the wrong destination, you know what I'm talking about.

The point here is that this bank is going to try to sell me everything under the sun in their product lineup. I have braced myself for an onslaught of marketing materials to get a mortgage, car loan, open a CD, meet with their investment representative, you name it. But you know what? Even if I was in the market for any of the above, how much confidence do I have in this institution's ability to get it done quickly, conveniently and painlessly? None. And this is because a routine procedure was mishandled from the get-go.

I know of banks that include a customer service grade in the assessment of each individual branch, and the attainment of all branch sales goals can be negated if customer service levels deteriorate below an acceptable level. Clearly there is some recognition in the industry that the customer experience cannot be lost amid the sales focus. But some still have work to do.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy-- Posted: Oct. 24, 2005
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