Excellence: Sometimes but not Always

The Beginning: Tuesday, April 3, 6:45 am: I walked to my local Wells Fargo branch and deposited my pay check. Got a receipt, but the ATM ate my card for breakfast. Called Customer Service and was told there was no way I could get my card back; there was nothing I could do and nothing they would do. I explained that on two occasions with other banks I was able to go into the branch and get my card back. I was assured that was absolutely impossible at Wells Fargo. We will send you a new card. Don’t call us for at least ten days.

On Saturday I went into my local branch and was told that if I had called them they could have retrieved my card. It would have been inconvenient but I would have done it gladly instead of going without. There was very little they could do at that point but they did what they could.The branch service was excellent.

Would it have been too much to expect for the person on the phone Tuesday morning to have suggested I call the branch later in the day? Of course it would; they were absolutely certain there was no way. Or, for the branch to find my card in the machine and call me? [Update: The branch said they would call me but they have to do it within 24 hours-that old bugaboo policy. Technology marches on and now they only have to open the ATMs about once a week. Suggested next step #1: Have Customer Service call the branch after they open and ask them to get your card out of the ATM. #2: A red light in the branch when the machine eats somebody’s card.]

The branch did offer me a temporary ATM card which is good at ATMs and a few merchants. If there is no Visa logo on your card, most retailers will not accept it. I had to go to a branch and then to my cell phone store to keep my cell phone active and had to take a couple of late fees from companies that do not have a local office because Customer Service gave me bad advice.

My branch also assured me that my replacement card would have the same numbers as my card so I would not have to contact various services where I have standing orders to accept my card. Great relief!

Called Customer Service after my visit to the branch, despite the fact that I was told not to call for ten days, and was once again assured that the branch could not have gotten the card from the ATM for me. Despite the fact that the branch had told me they could, the agent was adamant that they could not. Our policy is if the ATM eats your card, we have to destroy it and you have to wait for a new one. She listened to my story and assured me that someone who could do something about the problem would call me.

My branch manager got the short straw and called me. There is nothing he can do to get Customer Service to give customers the correct information. All he could do was apologize and that had been done by everyone at the branch last Saturday. A waste of his time and mine.

I got my card eight days after the ATM’s breakfast and then the real fun began. The accompanying letter said I could activate the card by just calling the folks at Customer Service. Just call, no warning that it would not be that easy. I called. May we have the card number and then the last four of your social security number and the amount of a recent deposit? May we also have the exact amount of a recent purchase? I haven’t made any recent purchases because the ATM ate my card and I do not bother to remember the exact dollar amount of purchases made more than a week ago. It quickly became clear that I was not going to get my card activated. Back to the bank.

Put in my card and pin, got $20 out and put it back in. Worked fine and I got my card back. Then I noticed that my card had a different number.

When I got home, I checked the cover letter again. “If your card has been lost or stolen we have given you a new number.” My card was not lost and I don’t believe that it would be considered stolen when it was eaten by the issuing bank’s ATM. There was no risk that it had fallen into the hands of a bad guy. If the money in the ATM was safe, my card was equally safe.

Called Customer Service. Gave the recorded voice my card number and was told that I could not proceed until the card was activated. It had now been half an hour since the ATM did that for me. If I use my card to make a payment by phone, the payment is noted on my computer before I finish the call; merchant-to-bank is faster than department-to-department within the bank. After repeated efforts to get a human I finally got through. Pleasant voice but one more time adamant that I could not have gotten my card back at the branch and the ATM ate my card so they had to give me a new number. No exceptions. He agreed that is was not lost or stolen; didn’t matter. The ATM eats your card and it is your fault, not theirs. You have to wait ten days and get a new number.

There is one more piece to the story. Back to the letter that came with the card. “Your daily cash withdrawal limit is $310.” ATMs only give out $20 bills. That means I can get $300 or, if authorized, I could get $320, but I am not authorized to get that much. There is no way to get $310 out of a machine that only has twenty dollar bills. There are lots of possible reasons why I was assigned a $310 limit—all of them bad.

[Update: The extra $10 is a benefit. If I have to use my card at a non-Wells ATM the extra $10 allows me to get a full $300 with enough left over to pay the other ATM’s charges. Bit of advice to the marketers: Good idea! But … you know there had to be a but … it isn’t a benefit if your customers don’t know about it. Don’t expect us to be generous in our speculation about your motives when you do something strange. Sarcasm deleted.]

* * *

Over the last several years Wells has had a program of Excellent Service in its branches. Everyone in the branch goes out of their way to check on the how well they have met the standard of excellence. Unfortunately this is a veneer that is only one level deep. This is the second encounter I have had with Customer Service. The last time I gave up trying to get through and posted my experience on the Internet. This time the veneer of indifference screened Customer Service and Card Service and I am back on the Internet.

I mentioned the difficulty I was having to my branch manager during his call and he assured me that there is a “Contact Us” link on the Web site. There is and there is a smaller link for email. To used it I needed to select an account or “other” and then select a reason. The drop down list offers 13 categories of questions I can ask and presumably get an answer. It does not offer any opportunity to complement good service or suggest opportunities for improvement. I chose a question at random and started to write an email and then got a phone call from a friend. When we finished our conversation the system had logged me off. If I want to send an email, I have to make that top priority. Pay attention to us; we are more important than your friends.

My evidence that excellence is a thin veneer? Any executive who is serious about excellence will open a number of paths to learn about what is working and what isn’t. Those paths will lead throughout the organization looking for excellence everywhere, not just at the point in the organization where customers are met face-to-face. Who’s doing a great job? Who needs help? What does excellence mean to our customers in today’s market?

It is extremely arrogant for a company to assume it knows how its customers define excellence today. Right now, for me, excellence would have been reasonable efforts to recover my card, use of the same number and a daily limit that makes sense. Excellence would also be getting essentially the same information from the branch, Customer Service and Card Services. At a minimum it would mean that each of them would work with me to resolve what appear to be differences in policy. And, it would certainly mean allowing me to compose an email at my convenience without the indignity of being logged off if I value a call from a friend more than offering suggestions about how to improve your service.

This is the age of the Internet. The efforts to get BofA to cancel a charge for the use of an ATM card took wings on the Internet. Things that would have been overlooked in the past now get widespread attention on the Internet. Executives who “don’t get it” are at risk of not having it much longer.

Get in partnership with your customers. Not just in the branch but everywhere you interact with your customers. Let us tell you what we want and then see if you can give it to us. Don’t just let managers make up stuff that has little or no relevance to what your customers want and make you look stupid like a $310 daily limit without letting us know it’s a beneft. When a branch opens an ATM and finds a card, have them call the customer. Show us you care and we can trust you to at least try to meet our day-to-day needs. We’ll appreciate it and we won’t go around complaining about your terrible service to everyone who will listen and getting so frustrated that we wind up posting our complaints on the Internet.

The Ending: back on the Internet.

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