‘Dear Steve, We’re Sorry You’re Dead’ (But I’m Not Dead!)

In spite of technology that ought to make it possible to know so much about their customers, some banks and credit unions act like there is no reason they should be expected to know the people they depend on for their business. How much longer can this go on?

This is an article about how customer experience dies.

I’m parting company from a financial institution that I’ve done business with for over 40 years. I doubt they’ll notice. After all, they thought I was dead.

The roots I’m ripping out go deep and I have had a sentimental attachment to the institution that was decidedly one-way, though it didn’t start out that way…

When I was just out of college, I wanted to buy an off-lease car from Avis and applied for my first-ever car loan at my credit union. This was a company credit union at my mother’s workplace that I had belonged to since I was a kid and had a nice chunk of savings there. Up until then I had had been driving old clunkers and was looking forward to something newer to go with my first full-time job.

I was turned down. It may have been because I had avoided credit up to that point and had a thin file.

But a day or two later, a member of the credit union’s volunteer board — it had 1.5 employees — came by my mother’s desk. He told her he was personally going to bring the loan back up to the credit committee because he thought the decision was wrong.

“We’re a credit union, not a bank,” he said. “We’re here to help members get credit when they need it. We help each other.”

That meant a lot to me and sold me on the credit union concept for years.

As you can tell, this was a very small credit union that provided very basic service and did it well. The single full-time staff person knew everybody — this was at a large defense contracting company — and she was the kind of person who would walk to an employee’s department and track them down if they had forgotten to take care of something important. The woman cared.

As with many financial institutions, change happened. The little credit union was acquired by a much larger credit union. At first it was exciting because the big credit union offered many more services than the old one. It had offices instead of a little room at my mother’s company. It had ATMs. And so on…

But over time, little weaknesses began to show. This organization kept adding more technology, but they never seemed to be able to implement it 100%. In fact, as I learned more about banking as a journalist, I began making cracks about “amateur hour.” Stuff just didn’t work as advertised much of the time. Still, as I had more financial needs, the relationship with what I still thought of as my family credit union expanded.

As my mother grew older, I began helping her with her finances and she added me to her accounts at the credit union. When she died, I had a list of accounts that were going to this relative or that to see to, as executor of her estate.

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I was visiting the main office one day and something went tilt. I asked the teller what the problem was.

“Well, it seems that you’re dead,” she said.

Actually, she seemed to think that was funny.

Now, I am sure someone pushed the wrong key when they were advised that my mother had died. Stuff happens. But I did take this kind of personally.

Moment of Painful Truth:

It was then I began to realize that the credit union I had such loyalty to was long gone. These people didn’t really know who I was nor what I had going on at their credit union.

I groused at home about taking my business elsewhere, but inertia is my middle name with finances.

By that point my children had long had accounts of their own at the same institution, and proper use of any basic customer information system, let alone anything with artificial intelligence in it, would have given the credit union some clue that we represented a family of loyal members. Or should have.

Goads to leave kept coming up. For instance, inheriting some IRA money, which required periodic “required minimum distributions,” became an annual headache. The credit union seemed to staff its retirement department with the unfriendliest, most incompetent people on their payroll. They never got the instructions right and simply trying to reach someone took multiple days.

Talking to customer service about other matters would lead to promises to fix this or that, and a day or two later, the promise had not been fulfilled.

Finally, fed up after some years of this, we began to back out of this institution.

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Strangely, I still had an odd feeling about leaving. But I’ll get over it.

Pretty much the last straw came when one of my kids applied for a car loan, as I had so many years before.

She was turned down for no discernible reason — good job, good credit and a long family history with the credit union. Of course, by then the members of the credit union’s staff and board, in spite of a big slug of technology, didn’t apparently know that. For my kid, there was no board member who could see past a file number and get the loan done.

Feeling Like the Invisible Family:

For all of their size and technology, this credit union didn’t seem to know that this woman’s parents could have been co-signers, if necessary, and that the family was still bringing them a good deal of business.

Meanwhile, the car dealer’s finance department found her a great rate from a megabank’s auto finance arm. He had to get on the phone to cite her credit score to do it, but he did it.

You could argue that car dealers have a vested interest in seeing deals get done. True, but I keep hearing from bankers and credit union executives how they struggle to hold customers when fintechs and other players are out there to snap them up.

A friend of mine who is also a banking journalist comments periodically that there is a difference, sometimes huge, between what reporters hear from financial institutions about their wonderful technology and how it plays out at the consumer level.

Why?

Postscript: My wife has been handling my mother-in-law’s estate, and has one little task left, verification that one last check was cashed. She spent about two hours today in call center limbo with my mother-in-law’s bank and gave up for the day with no answer. Maybe it’s something in the water around here. Or maybe the industry really hasn’t heard that wake-up call yet.

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