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The Best Bank Customer Service Story I Ever Heard

The incident happened 18 years ago, and I only heard it for the first time yesterday. What makes that worth mentioning is that the story was from my father.

I was in Florida yesterday for a conference that was 45 minutes from where my parents live, so they drove down and joined me for lunch.

Here’s the lunch conversation:

Mom: So what did you talk about in your speech?
Me: Stuff.
Mom: What kind of stuff?
Me: Bank stuff.
Mom: What kind of bank stuff?
Me: Bank customer loyalty stuff.
Mom: What kind of bank customer loyalty stuff?

Then it hit me. Thirty+ years past my teenage years, and my conversations with my parents haven’t changed one bit. (Where you going? Out. With who? People. What kind of people? Friends. What are you going to do? Stuff. Where are you going to do “stuff”? Out.)

So I told my parents that my presentation was about the stories that loyal customers tell. And my father says “oh, like the story I told you about our bank.” To which I replied, “you’ve never me told me that story.” (Which is incredulous, because my parents have ~10 stories, all of which I have to hear every time I see them. My people know what I’m talking about).

So he told me this story:

“We had been in Florida for no more than two or three months when late on a Friday afternoon I got a call from your uncle telling me that your grandmother had passed away. I started making arrangements to fly up to NY to take care of everything, and realizing that I needed a lot of cash, asked your mother to call the bank to see what time they’d be open until.”

Now, at this point in the story, he has to pass the storytelling baton over to my mother, because God forbid he should mess up even one small iota of the story that involves her:

“So I called the bank and talked to the branch manager and told her what happened, and that your father was on his way down to the bank. She said “oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, but the branch is closing in a few minutes and the vault is already closed, and it can’t be re-opened because it’s on a timer. Can you get in touch with your husband?” I told her I couldn’t and she said “OK, then I’ll wait here for him.”

With my mother’s piece done, the storytelling shifts back to my dad:

“So I got to the bank, and found it was locked, but knocked on the door, hoping someone would still be there. A woman came to the door, unlocked it, let me in, and told me that she spoke to your mother. She said she was sorry about your grandmother and that the vault was locked so she couldn’t get any cash. But she told me to come in, asked me to sit down, and said “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back.” She went back to the front door, went out, and locked me in the bank. There I was, locked inside a bank branch by myself on a late Friday afternoon. A few minutes later she came back to the front door, unlocked it, and came back in. She then gave me four $100 bills and said “I know this isn’t as much as you wanted, but I hope it can tide you over until you can get more.” I asked her where she got the money from, and she said “I went out to the ATM and took it out of my account. You can pay me back when you get back from NY.”

I looked at my dad and said “I can’t believe you’ve never told me that story before! Do you know how much mileage I could have gotten out of that in presentations?!”

To which my mom replied, “We have no idea what exactly you do, dear.”

There’s a p.s. to the story.

I told my dad that I hoped he did something really nice for that woman. He said “Oh yeah. When I paid her back, we gave her a huge bouquet of flowers, and a gift certificate for dinner at a nice restaurant. And I wrote a letter to the bank CEO letting him know what happened.”

After a few seconds, though, he added this: “Which backfired on me.”

I asked him what he meant by “backfired” and he said, “As a result of my letter, she got promoted out of the branch to district manager.”

Now, a good son would’ve let it go at that, but noooo, I just had to ask: “How did you know it was your letter that got her promoted?”

He said, “because she told me that it was my letter that got her promoted.”

And that’s when I realized how truly amazing this woman was. You and I both know that no one gets promoted to district manager just because one customer sends a complimentary letter to the CEO. But this woman wanted my father to think that he was the cause of her promotion. Truly amazing.

Two final thoughts: With the decline in branch traffic, it becomes harder and harder for banks (and credit unions) to be in situations that create the stories that loyal customers tell. Electronic interactions just don’t lend themselves to this kind of emotional level. It isn’t about the branch, it’s about the interpersonal contact. But face-to-face contact seems to hold more potential for emotional connection than phone, video, or chat. Or tweeting.

Lastly, there was another thought I couldn’t help but have. I’m sorry to say this, but while listening to my dad’s story, I wanted to wring the neck of all the bank bashers out there, those who refuse to believe that banks can’t provide this level of customer service. 


UPDATE: There’s actually another part to this story, which I wasn’t going to include here, but I just got the following tweet from Alan Bergstrom (@truebrandguru):

“Point is it happened 18 years ago. If only banks were the same now.”

Good point. Let me tell you the rest of the story:

After he told me the story above, I asked my dad if he was still with the same bank. He said “yep, although, they have gone through some acquisitions. They’re PNC now.”

“Do you get the same level of service now as you did then?” I asked.

“Funny you should ask,” he said. “Do you know who James Rohr is?”

Now here’s the absolute BEST part of the day: I said “CEO of PNC. I’ve met Jim Rohr.”

Which is a technically true statement. I did a presentation ~10 years ago for the PNC executive team, and did, indeed meet Jim Rohr. Not that he’d remember that meeting. But the opportunity to brag to mom and dad (mostly mom) that I’ve met the CEO of their bank put me one rung up the ladder closer to the position held by the “good” son, my “calls-his-mother-regularly,” rich lawyer, brother.

Anyway, my father goes on to say that he just wrote a letter (yes, another letter) to Rohr commending the woman he works with on a regular basis at his branch (who isn’t the branch manager, but a customer rep of some sort).

I asked him what makes her so good, and he said: “Two things. First, her knowledge of financial services and products is excellent. I’ve worked with expensive lawyers that don’t know as much as she does. Second, she always recommends what I need, not what the bank needs. Example: I was going to set up two revocable trusts, one in your mother’s name, and one in mine, but she recommended that I just set up one joint trust and avoid the extra fees.”

So, Alan, while you’re probably right that in many cases, branch service isn’t what it was 18 years ago, in some places, it is.

And to all the banks out there whose service isn’t as good as PNC’s, be thankful that my father doesn’t bank with you. Otherwise, your CEO would be receiving a lot of letters. 

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Ron ShevlinRon Shevlin is Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors. Get a copy of his best-selling book, Smarter Bank: Why Money Management is More Important Than Money Movement. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter at @rshevlin.

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  1. A great story-within-a-story, Ron. It’s yet another lesson to CUs that it’s stories we write in the minds of our members – and not necessarily the products we push – that keep us relevant.

    I also appreciate your call for CUs to stop slinging mud at bankers. I wrote about this a while back ( and have always been grateful for your advice to our industry in this important issue.

  2. That’s a fantastic story and one worth sharing throughout our industry!

    Unfortunately, this story is fantastic because most people don’t expect to get WOW’d by their banker! Just like you mention in the linked post, it’s the element of the unexpected that helps make the impact. Years and years of waiting tables taught me that once you become proficient at your job, you need to look for ways to become unique and extraordinary in the eyes of your customer. If you don’t, you’re only delivering the basics, will eventually get bored, and play down to the level of expectation.

    Great post!

  3. Tim McAlpine says:

    Excellent story Ron. “We have no idea what exactly you do, dear,” is so true with so many people these days, including me!

    And you are right, bankers are real people and real people are inherently good. In fact, I have firsthand experience to back that up. I know two really good people who worked for a Canadian big bank for a combined 55 years before retiring – my parents!

  4. Tim: Thanks for commenting. Just wondering: Did your parents charge you rent on your room, for the meals they provided, for the phone calls you made, and for using their car when you used it? 🙂

  5. Mark: Thanks for commenting. To me, this story isn’t about “wowing” the customer. I can’t imagine that the branch manager was even subconsciously thinking about how to “wow” my dad. I think it was simply a case of a person who cared enough about someone else to do what she thought was the right thing to do. She might have looked up what my parents account balance was, but the fact that my father was looking to take out more than the $400 was clearly indication that he had the $400 to pay her back. I prefer to think that the goal here is: DO THE RIGHT THING. In this woman’s mind, the right thing to do was give my dad $400. What really put it over the top for me, was that she also thought the RIGHT THING to do was tell my father that his letter was the cause for her promotion. That’s pretty damn selfless. I’m pretty damn impressed. Especially since I know I’m not that good.

  6. Tim McAlpine says:

    Did they? They still do! 🙂

  7. I’ve had great experiences with banks and credit unions. It is the people. Once long ago when I was barley making $1200/mo, one of my checks disappeared from the deposit envelope at the bank. I received a letter in the mail from the “evil” Mega Bank that they had to reduce my deposit amount because about $600 of it wasn’t in the envelope. The letter came about 5-days after the deposit. And of course panic set in. I mailed bills the day I made the deposit.

    Checks started bouncing. I first called the toll free# that the “evil” Mega Bank offered. They were of no help. I got a replacement check and went down to the branch. I met with the branch manager. She reversed all of the NSF and bounced fees which at that point was over $100, quite a large chunk of change compared to my income.

    Hire good people and empower them to make things right. In this case, Wells Fargo got it 1/2 right, but I am still with them.

    I’ve also had great experiences with USAA and Travis FCU.

    You don’t have to trash your competitors. Just do something meaningful to stand above them. :O)

  8. You’re right in that the WOW factor isn’t looking for ways to “wow” the customer as I indicated…it’s to generate amazing experiences that beg to be shared with others and that generate a statement of, “wow, I wish my banker/baker/waitress/lawyer did that for me.”

    Again, great post! It makes me wish I had more front-line service contact. 🙂

  9. Paul Amisano says:

    A) my parents are exactly the same as yours

    B) my Intereactions with my parents are exactly the same as yours

    C) based, maybe, but I hear these “types” of stories about banks (yes, mine especially) very often!

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Paul, which is your bank and do you mean who you bank with or own/work at?! We’re asking people for their recommendations for great banks who provide excellent service – if anyone would like to contribute please post here or tweet @CSUKTV using #switchbanks hashtag and we’ll include your nominations in our report! Thanks

  11. Lilach FelnerPrivate says:

    I must say the story made me positively shivered. It was sound like from a fairy tale.So touchy. So inspiring. So exciting. So human. It is more than a customer experience in a bank. It is a lesson for a human experience in a life time and should be told to anyone in this deteriorating planet that is loosing its moral values, its sensitivity,its Heart,its Soul. Its real essence of living. Thank you for making us hope that things in life (even in today’s life) could be different. This world we live in is yearning for stories like this.Your advocate reader,L

  12. Cory Spaulding says:

    Spot on that people are inherintly good (whether they work at a bank or CU) and that what the company must do is empower their employees to show just how good they are. As I was reading your post I was afraid, when you said he wrote a letter, that you were going to say she was reprimanded for giving her own money to a customer. I am sure there are institutions where that is a policy violation. Clearly she felt empowered to do the right thing when she had few options available to her and that is where any institution (bank or CU) can make a true difference.

    Thank you for sharing!

  13. Cory: You’ve uncovered another part of the story I wasn’t revealing. In the letter my father sent, he never mentioned the money. He knew that it could have been a violation of policy.

  14. Cory Spaulding says:

    Your father is a smart man. Too bad we feel we must censor ourselves when offering a compliment about an employee helping us.

  15. Great story. Good wishes for all stuff like these!

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