Tracking Failures at Every Touchpoint of a Banking Customer Experience

I am building a giant wall in my backyard. It’s been something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time. I finally I got so sick of seeing the Mess That Is My Yard obscuring The Wall and Patio That Should Be There that I decided to go ahead and hire someone to build it.

It turns out that removing tons of dirt and rock and plants and replacing it with tons of nicer dirt and rock and plants is slightly more expensive than I thought it would be. So I decided to supplement my savings with a home equity line of credit (a “HELOC”) to preserve cash flow.

Before I began to feel my own mortality I used to be a chronic over-researcher. I would spend hours researching the best vegetable peeler, scouring Amazon reviews and comparing prices. Now I don’t even research large purchases with that much effort. I don’t have time to compare a bunch of banks’ products, especially when I know that the interest rate is going to be about the same everywhere and I don’t plan on carrying the debt for very long anyway.

So I did what I thought was a reasonable thing to do, which is to go to the bank that holds our mortgage and apply there. It would be simpler and more streamlined, I reasoned. Plus, we’ve been loyal, reliable customers of theirs for over 20 years. We have no other debt and stellar credit scores. That all had to count for something, right?

Here has been my experience so far:

  1. I called my local branch to inquire about applying for a HELOC. They arranged a time for me and my partner to come in to apply there. Success!
  2. When we arrived we were told that they only take applications over the phone. Read that again. Then go to 3. Failure: process communication.
  3. So we sat with a local representative (whom we’ll call “Dan”) at his desk in an open, public area, speaking every detail of our personal financial lives into his phone, and sharing pieces of information that would make it extremely easy to steal our identities. We should have gone home to do this, but we were there with all of our paperwork already, so we wanted to just get the process rolling. Failures: customer inconvenience; privacy protection.
  4. Dan took our paperwork and said he’d fax it to the loan officer, who would pass it along to the underwriter, later. This made us nervous, leaving everything there, but we were assured it would be kept safe. Failure: privacy protection.
  5. That last sentence is a red herring. Nothing bad happened. But still. He should have faxed it while we were sitting there and then given our paperwork back to us. Failure: proactive service.
  6. The application taker (whom we’ll call “Kathy”) told us roughly what we could qualify for based on our last two years’ of income, but when we told her that this year was going to feature much higher income (Yay, self employment in a decent economy!) she said that was just a preliminary number and that would be taken into account. Two days later, a flood of envelopes from the bank arrived. Literally 12 of them. Some were duplicates. Most were confusing, with what needed to be signed and returned vs. kept for ourselves unclear. The record of our application contained a few minor but glaring errors. Some forms needed to be signed and brought back to the local branch. We only recognized this because the loan officer assigned to us (whom we’ll call “Marcia”) called to tell us this. Failures: deluge of unclear communications; data entry errors.
  7. During that phone call Marcia reiterated that we were prequalified for their initial lowball number. When my partner mentioned Kathy’s acknowledgment that our current year’s income would likely qualify us for more, Marcia seemed to have no idea of this possibility. She kept repeating, “You prequalify for $X based on your last two years’ tax returns.” Failure: conflicting information given.
  8. So we called Kathy back and she said Marcia was incorrect, but not to worry about it because she was “just the loan officer” and it was really the underwriter who would look at everything and that person would know what was going on with the rules. Failure: making us work to clarify their policy or inspire confidence.
  9. The next day we went back to see Dan at the local branch to sign our forms. My partner then said these words to Dan: “I don’t feel that Marcia is listening to me.”
    To which Dan replied: “What makes you think you’re not being listened to?”

And that, to me, is where our bank tipped over into total customer service failure. Everything else up to that point was forgivable. But to refute a customer’s reported experience and then ask them to defend it is just plain wrong. The customer may not always be right, but their experience is always valid.

Here’s what Dan should have said: “I’m sorry that we let you down. We want to make sure that your concerns are addressed and that you’re heard. I’ll call Marcia right now so we can sort this out.”

Instead he mumbled something about calling Marcia later, but we’re pretty sure he didn’t bother.

On the drive home, we tried to pinpoint what was so wrong with Dan’s reply. My partner thought for a moment and then his eyes lit up. “Imagine that you’ve just been mugged and you go to the police and they respond with, ‘What makes you think you just got mugged?’ It’s so invalidating and insulting.”

So now we’re approaching Touchpoint 10 of our customer experience, and we have weeks of future touchpoints to look forward to. We’re already in this process with both feet, and I don’t have confidence that another bank will be any better, so we’re sticking with them.

Before we walked into the local branch, my opinion of our mortgage bank was neutral. At Touchpoint 1 it fell into negative territory. At nearly every touchpoint after that, it’s continued to fall. Touchpoint 9, however, was where the downward velocity accelerated. It was a critical moment for the bank — the moment at which they needed to listen to the fact that we weren’t being listened to. And they blew it.

A process like this — moving a customer through a loan application — is something that our bank (which has been in business since the late 18th century) should have nailed by now. They haven’t. Isn’t that scary?

All banks are awful. Everyone knows that. It’s why you don’t bother changing banks even if they’re criminals.

Why are they all awful? Why is it okay that they are awful? Do they count on our inertia and assumption that their industry peers are no better? Is this a good business strategy? Didn’t we bail them out a few years ago, because they were so awful?

But never mind the banks. Customer service is awful more often than it’s not, in many industries. In fact, I’d wager that the more established a company is, the worse off their customers are.

I’m issuing a challenge to every business: put yourselves through your own processes. Become a customer of your own company and see how you’re treated at every touchpoint. Then, please, fix what ails you.

Originally published at juliethrelkeld.com.

Does your bank suck too? Share your own experiences in a comment or tweet. I’m @juliethrelkeld