A few weeks ago, I went into a local branch of my bank, One West, to tell them that I had found my ATM card. I had reported it lost the night before to an after hours system. The teller checked the records and said that, unfortunately, the account was closed. They would have to issue a new card.
At that point, it got a little strange, because a manager immediately became involved. She informed me that there was a $10 card replacement fee, which didn’t surprise me. Most banks charged a fee. I had lost a card a few years before, though they hadn’t charged me a fee at that time. Back then, it was still a community bank known as First Federal.
Regardless, I replied, “Ok.”
After I agreed, without any sort of protest, to pay the $10 fee, the manager snapped at me, “Well, you are going to have to look after your card. We can’t keep taking care of you.” Yes, my bank told me that they can’t take care of me. Great customer service slogan there!
In response to this unsolicited lecture, I reminded her that I had agreed to pay the fee and didn’t appreciate the condescension. To which she sneered, “People are always turning in your ATM card…” as if that had happened on a weekly occurrence. I had left my card, in the cash machine in front of the bank, ONE time in my entire four year history as a client. Ironically, only a few days ago, I fished out some other woman’s debit card from that same ATM and turned it in.
To the manager, I repeated that I had agreed to pay the fee and that I’d had enough. At that point, she stopped talking to me, though I continued to make snide remarks under my breath to the teller. Who was this woman to judge me and speak to me in this way? I could see the young teller was terrified of me, even though I had not threatened anyone or even raised my voice. In my opinion, the rather meek girl is way too sweet and sensitive to be in a customer service position, but I digress…
A couple things happened here which would annoy anyone, I think. First of all, I know that it is against bank policy, or any style of business management policy, to inform a customer of a fee, get an immediate agreement to pay that fee, and then continue to berate that customer in front of tellers and other customers waiting in line. When she announced that I had lost my card in the ATM machine, she actually violated my privacy. The loss and recovery of my debit card should be between me and the bank.
Of course, I might as well state now what we all know: If I had a balance of $150,000 instead of $1,500, not only would she never have even considered treating me this way, but I probably wouldn’t have had to pay a fee to have my card replaced.
So, why did I not complain about a manager who handled a situation opposite to how a corporate bank would want her to handle it? Always smile and nod when they agree to let us steal their money, lady!! Come on, everyone knows that!
For a day, I considered pulling my account, but ultimately decided it was too much of a pain in the ass. And, when I was honest with myself, looking back, I had to admit there was a way to interpret the manager’s behavior, that had a lot to do with my prior year’s history at that branch of the bank.
Last summer, I got into a kind of state where I felt the need to take on every little battle that came across my path. Though I think I had some legitimate complaints with my bank, I got a little disproportionately heated in a couple of a situations – the most notable of which involved a change to my account, a few months after One West had completed their takeover of First Federal. First Federal had been declared insolvent by the Fed.
I had this great interest bearing checking account under the old bank. All that was required were three direct debits per month, a direct deposit and a minimum of, I think, 18 transactions with my ATM card. It wasn’t a lot of interest, but a few cents here and there amounted to $5 or $6 a year. Well, of course, that wasn’t going to last. How in the world can anyone successfully run a bank when they give financial benefits to poor people? There may be some truth to that considering First Fed’s fate.
At some point, One West sent out a thick booklet that, in teeny tiny print, laid out all their policy changes. The above account would soon be altered to one that required a minimum monthly balance of $1,000. Failure to keep that minimum balance would result in a $10 fee. Now, I believe a policy change like that should arrive in a one page letter, not buried in mountains and mountains of fine print.
I didn’t notice for a few months, this $10 charge. At first, it wasn’t being applied. From November through March, my account is often fat because tax money is in there. Of course, come mid April, I’m back to normal with an average daily balance often well below that $1,000. Also, I admit, I am not diligent about checking my statements. So, it was in May that I noticed the fee, which was the second time it had been taken out.
I went to the bank and complained to my favorite teller – a much more sturdy gal than the other teller I mentioned. She explained the changes. She said they had been in the booklet, which had been mailed out some months before. I came back with my argument that, though I had received that booklet, it was quite substantial and unfair to apply a change to the terms of my account without insuring that I was aware. The bank does have an electronic mail system within its e-banking site. I access that site all the time. I would’ve seen the message in a timely manner.
She agreed and said she would drop those fees, but my account would have to be changed to Basic Checking. It had no interest, though also no monthly minimum balance. Fine. This was a Saturday morning. I left the bank satisfied.
Late Monday afternoon, I was on the internet at a café and noticed that the fees had not been removed from my account, nor had its status been changed. Not wanting to make a special trip back to my bank, I tossed off a quick note to One West Central Customer Service to find out what was going on. A rep responded that the fees were not being reversed and that, if I didn’t want to see them in the future, I should change the status of my account to Basic Checking.
Here, I let all my anger at institutions out in a fiery response: I felt betrayed and lied to…Burying things in the fine print was unfair policy that made them no better than Bank of America…etc…
Letting them have it, I didn’t think for a second about the nice teller at the actual branch. I only saw this gigantic concrete mountain of a business that was not remotely human. I was not angry at her. I was mad at the bank. Considering what had happened to the country, I was mad at ALL banks!
Sadly, it all went bad and the favorite teller received a reprimanding phone call from Upper Management. Long story short, the fees were reversed, I apologized profusely to her, sang her praises to a manager, and composed a letter to Central Customer Service explaining how she had always treated me well, and it had been a misunderstanding. As a result of this, I am sure the employees at my branch buzzed about the bitch, who got their co-worker in trouble for something stupid.
Other, much smaller, drops in this bucket involve two times that I snapped at the too-sweet teller I mentioned prior. Again, I was annoyed with bank policy – policy that had seemed to have changed since One West had taken over.
So, in regards to the manger’s inappropriate handling of the lost ATM card, if I interpret these circumstances – not as a corporate bitch trying to run off a small account or an insignificant client who challenges unfair bank policy – but a caring supervisor attempting to protect an employee from intimidation by a difficult customer, then I have to see how I was complicit. I had become one of those people. As such, I take responsibility and forfeit my right to complain.
Granted, because of prior instances, the manager anticipated I would protest and was unable to switch gears when I, in fact, accepted the fee, no problem. Again, if we apply cold stone corporate management policy, she screwed up. But, if I apply the instinct for a human to protect another human, that tempers what happened between us.
Having said that, again, we all know that she wouldn’t have risked being “so human” with a client who held a significant account. It must be said: There is a different standard of treatment for the poor as for the rich. But, that doesn’t absolve me from my moral obligations. Just because people happen to work for an institution that infuriates me and even treats me unfairly, doesn’t mean I have the right to take out my frustrations on employees like they are personal whipping toys.
The question becomes, how do we push back against institutions and still honor our humanity? It is so crazy to me that banks take money out of accounts, because a minimum monthly balance cannot be maintained. Poor people need every dime. It’s just like the tax system in this country. We cater to money and real people suffer.
I think if we are going to successfully challenge the banks; however, we have to be on high ethical ground. In lodging complaints, we must be firm, yet courteous. We need to temper our language and tone to match the level of burden that an unfair policy causes. We need to be careful to keep other frustrations from our days and our lives out of the conversation. And, we need to remember that there is always a human on the other end somewhere, not a robot. How many times have you laid into an anonymous customer service agent, when, in all honesty, the situation was not his or her fault?
No doubt, the sub-prime mortgage scandal was horrible, with banks underwriting bad loans because they knew they were insured by the Federal Reserve. It wouldn’t be a loss for them, no matter how it turned out. Pushing off these bad loans on people that they knew did not understand what they were getting into, was disgusting. Then, taking taxpayer money in a bailout and immediately applying policies that make obtaining credit almost impossible? Appalling. I am not excusing the banks or their monumental contribution to the financial crisis.
But are average Americans really innocent? Did a number of people getting into those loans know, deep down, that they were in over their head? Did our happiness get a little too wrapped around stuff and status? Did the American dream get a little too out of hand where, instead of a simple home, hot food on the table and the love of our family, we had to have two cars, a mansion, three flat screen TV’s, surround sound, a summer home on the beach, 500 channels of cable, shoes and clothes and electronic gadgets…
If nothing else good comes out of the economic meltdown, maybe from the cultural pressures to keep up with the Joneses, we will finally be free. In the meantime, we could all probably be a lot kinder to one another.
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