In recent months my feathers have been ruffled more than I care to admit over a few encounters with corporate America. Truth be told, I’m fairly steaming under the collar, thinking thoughts that are surely adding to my karmic debt. If nothing else, it’s put me on notice that I’ve still got a lot of personal work to do before I can declare myself ready to ascend.
Nor am I alone. A surprising number of people, after a bit of story-swapping, encouraged me to write this article. A lot of folks are disturbed by the way profit-driven businesses are drifting out of touch with the customers they claim to serve. Read on and see if any of the following sounds familiar:
Banking. Bank of America (BofA) started way back in 1904 when Amadeo Giannini founded the American Bank of Italy in San Francisco. This institution has grown steadily through merger and acquisition to become (based on deposits) the largest commercial bank in America. They certainly know how to make money, reporting a net income of $5.48 billion for the second quarter of 2006. I’ve been a BofA customer for quite some time. I like their people and I especially like their worldwide access to more than 30,000 no-fee ATM machines. That’s why I’ve kept my several business and personal accounts with them for years.
When I learned in December of 2005 that the Federal Reserve Board gave their final blessing to BofA’s acquisition of MBNA (the world’s largest independent credit card issuer) for a cool $35 billion in cash and stock, I was not a happy camper. I had also been a longtime satisfied customer of MBNA and was a major proponent of ShopSafe, their proprietary security service that took the risk out of online purchasing. It worked like charm and I loved it. To buy something on the Internet, I simply clicked on the ShopSafe icon and a credit card–shaped window popped up, asking for my user name and password. ShopSafe then created a virtual account number, valid for two months with a credit limit equal to the amount I was about to spend. The auto-fill feature entered all of my shipping and credit card address details, saving me time and eliminating the possibility of occasional error. Hackers were completely foiled, vendors could not renew my subscription or reship unwanted product without contacting me first, and I shopped in peace.
Despite BofA’s promise that beginning Monday, October 23, 2006, MBNA cardholders would have the “same great features you have today, plus a new look and exciting new benefits,” ShopSafe was apparently a casualty of super-sizing. It worked perfectly until late December 2006. After that, when I tried to make an online purchase, I was greeted with a message saying: “A ShopSafe upgrade is now available. Please click the Continue button to proceed.” A pop-up window called VBScript informed me that it was, “Unable to register control. Please insure that the user has the correct access rights.”
I spent the next three days on the BofA customer service merry-go-round with a host of polite, apologetic, and bewildered service representatives. My personal banker – an engaging and competent young lady – was on vacation, and I was left to fend for myself. The bank’s Internet technology (IT) people knew of the problem but had no idea what ShopSafe was supposed to do. They suggested that my computer’s security settings were too high for the download, so, under their tutelage, I disabled them (along with my anti-virus program) – to no avail. Eventually I spoke to someone who knew more about the problem and admitted, to his embarrassment, that the transition from MBNA to BofA was a mess. He assured me they were working on it and I should be able to resume using ShopSafe “shortly,” leaving it vague whether he meant a few hours, days, weeks, or geological eras. He knew nothing of the “patch” and could not supply a URL for a direct download.
My personal banker contacted me soon after listening to my distress message on her voice mail and began making internal calls to BofA staff on my behalf. It was cold comfort to hear that she was being met with the same stonewalled resistance. The only solution to limit my exposure to fraud was to get another BofA credit card to use solely for online purchases. That way, if it became compromised, I wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time and money notifying a large number of suppliers of the replacement account numbers.
The card came in due course – not the type either she or I had requested, but one of those pointless wonders that doesn’t offer rewards for usage. I called the activation number provided on the card and eventually worked my way through the electronic tree to a customer service representative, who said she couldn’t assist me but was kind enough to transfer me to someone else.
The transfer was intercepted by a recording: the service center was experiencing an unusually high call volume and I was being placed in a queue for the next available customer service representative. Forty-two minutes later, another polite, apologetic, and bewildered service representative picked up the phone. Curiously, he was quite unaware of how long I had been waiting. He was new on the job, he said, and although he knew nothing about ShopSafe, he had already received quite a few calls from irate former MBNA cardholders concerning the loss of this service.
Despite his lack of experience, he handled all of my questions with skill and had the refreshing ability to tell me when he didn’t know the answer to a question instead of blowing smoke. After he had arranged for a new card, I asked to speak to his supervisor. My brief exchange with his boss proved that BofA had more problems afoot than just the technical challenges that came from absorbing MBNA. First, even he, the supervisor, had no idea how long a given customer is kept on hold (all the while listening to a recording about how much his or her business is appreciated) – he guessed five to fifteen minutes. Second, he had no idea what ShopSafe was. Third, he kept no notes on what customers were calling to complain about. The only time he took active interest was when I identified myself as a columnist and said I intended to write a story on my experiences.
He immediately provided the direct contact number for someone in corporate media relations. From there I was directed to a customer relations executive at one of BofA’s main offices. Remarkably, neither of them knew of the ShopSafe problem or the valuable service this ingenious add-on had provided (not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars in fraud prevention it afforded the bank); although both agreed it was a great idea.
I eventually received a concerned call from the head of Executive Customer Relations, who did all she could to resolve the problem. She organized a conference call with two of higher-echelon IT people (members of the original MBNA staff), who eventually provided a fix. However, the auto-fill feature that added all my address information still isn’t functional.
I’ve been told by various BofA staff that the problem is ongoing, and is a source of frustration for a great many customers. To the bank’s credit, they are doing all humanly possible to resolve the issue.
Such was not the case with my next big business adventure.
Car Rental. Two years ago I rented a car in Mexico through the Internet, choosing one of the second-tier companies that competes more on price than on service. Although the credit card information supplied on the web was secure (I used ShopSafe), the one swiped at the airport counter in Cabo San Lucas was not. Some four months after the rental, my card number was used for a $3,500 car rental charge in England. Although the charge was quickly reversed, the card had to be cancelled and a new account number reissued. It took more than five weeks of letters and phone calls (I refuse to send credit card information in an email) to inform all of the suppliers who had my old card on file.
Lesson learned. For a recent speaking engagement in Cyprus, I instructed my travel agent to book a rental car through a major company. She chose Avis, and at the time I felt secure with her decision. When I filled out the paperwork at the Larnaca airport counter, I declined the costly insurance option, as it duplicated the coverage I had through my credit card company and personal car insurance. I was told that the only way I could rent the car was to either accept the additional local insurance, at US $330.82, or have a “hold” placed on my credit card of five thousand Cyprus pounds – equivalent to US $11,000.
When I asked the clerk how many people had enough available credit to handle that, she replied, “Very few.” Most customers either maxed out several cards to cover the required hold or were forced to buy Avis’s pricey local insurance plan. I also asked how Avis felt about sending their customers off on their holiday with no available credit left on their cards for paying hotel, restaurant, and incidental charges. She could only shrug and say it was company policy.
To add insult to injury, even though I returned the car with a full tank of gas, I was charged a fuel fee equivalent to US $85.50. The gas tank of the rental car, a well-worn Nissan with more than 65,000 kilometers on the odometer, only held 60 liters (less than 16 US gallons), which would have cost Avis US $66.00 (at the local gas station, not at significantly lower wholesale rates) to fill from bone dry. The excess charge, an Avis foreign rental specialist told me later, was a service fee. And when I asked for a final statement, the Avis airport counter refused to provide it.
Shortly after returning to the United States, I called Avis. Their customer service representative was aghast at what had transpired, assured me that Avis did not condone this sort of thing, and said she would have someone look into it immediately. She also promised to forward a final statement and issue a credit for the gas charges as soon as possible. It’s been nearly four months and I have yet to see statement. However, she did call back the next day. Her tone had shifted from apologetic to challenging. It turns out that placing a hold on the renter’s credit card for the entire fair market value of the car is very much Avis’s policy (in Cyprus) if you don’t take out their insurance. She had not seen this buried in the fine print the previous day, and my travel agent should have forewarned me of just how the Avis desk in Larnaca does business.
But how would the agent have known? Curious, I booked a rental at the same Avis location in Cyprus over the Internet myself. At no point was there mention of their eccentric insurance requirement. But I am happy to report that Avis did refund my excess gasoline charges.
Avis’s famous slogan, “We try harder,” now celebrating its forty-third year, takes on an ironic tone in light of the way they allow customers to be treated at some of their franchise locations. Lesson learned: Just because I do business with a large, well-branded company doesn’t mean I don’t have to watch my own back.
Cellular Phones. My two-year contract with Cingular (who two years ago acquired AT&T for $41 billion, making them America’s largest cell phone carrier) recently expired, so I visited one of their local stores to pick up a new phone for my wife and renew my contract. That piece of business was worth well over $1,500 to Cingular, so I wasn’t surprised when I received a follow-up call checking on my purchasing experience.
The follow-up call turns out to be a good idea gone terribly wrong. Some marketing manager in dire need of sensitivity training probably decided to save the company a few bucks by using an electronic autodial scheme instead of real people. One of those irritating voices with a canned pitch thanked me for being a valued (there’s that word again) and loyal customer and requested that I press one to continue in English or two for Spanish. I tried pressing the “0” key to speak to a customer representative, but that disconnected the call.
I now am convinced that Cingular really doesn’t care whether or not they have me as a customer. In truth, they hardly know I exist. I was called by an autodialer that was fed by a computer, programmed by an Internet technician, and authorized by someone who has completely lost touch with what customer service is meant to be.
Becoming number one or two in any industry is quite an accomplishment. Staying there is a function of how well a business keeps existing customers. If BofA, Avis, and Cingular expect to stay on the top of their respective heaps, they might consider adding a consumer ombudsman to their top management. At the least, there should be someone in authority at every company who actually listens to what customers say.
By way of contrast, I recently registered the name of a new web site with GoDaddy.com. Besides being one of the most reasonable ($9.95 per year) web companies, in my book they are one of the best. My transaction for three domain extensions (.com, .net, and .org) came to a measly $29.85, yet they valued my business enough to follow up with a phone call inquiring if they could be of any further service. I didn’t have to press “0” or opt to speak in English; there was a warm, friendly person on the other end of the line who cemented our relationship. They let me know they genuinely cared about having me as a customer.
America’s larger public companies were probably concerned about their customers when they first opened their doors. But attitudes change with the times, and big businesses, driven by the insatiable need for profits, can easily lose touch with the policies that bred their initial success. Despite popular belief, corporations are entities. They absorb energies from the souls who are on their payroll and project the collective image of their directors and senior management. Large public companies are an accurate reflection of what we all can become when we take the illusion too seriously.
It is no different in our interpersonal relationships. When we first meet, we go the extra mile to make the best possible impression. Dinner, flowers, frequent phone calls – whatever it takes to win her hand. Then, with the passage of time, we begin to take it all for granted. Why provide unnecessary incentives to a captive market? Unless we consciously feed the fire that first kindled the relationship, we soon find ourselves in the same quagmire of insensitivity that grips much of the corporate world.
It’s easy to point fingers and blame the corporations for placing profits above people; investor insistence on dividends and stock appreciation is a demanding task master. A respected stock analyst recently predicted the demise of Google – not because of a flaw in their business plan, but because they were wasting too much of their shareholders’ money on employee benefits. Apparently, he would have been very happy with the way Avis and Cingular do business.
Personally, I take the opposing point of view and would be happy to invest in a dozen long-stemmed roses.
Jean-Claude Gerard Koven is a writer and speaker based in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. He was a featured weekly columnist for the UPI (United Press International) Religion and Spirituality Forum and is the author of Going Deeper: How to Make Sense of Your Life When Your Life Makes No Sense, recipient of both the Allbooks Reviews Editor’s Choice Award and the USABookNews.com Award for the Best Metaphysical Book of the Year.
©2004 – 2018. Jean-Claude Gerard Koven / All Rights Reserved.