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A Brilliant New Concept for Banks — Think About Customers

Way back in mid-December Chris Skinner did a review of retail banking. Here’s an idea he may have overlooked — think about how customers actually use your bank, and for American banks, offer some support for people who work internationally.

My personal example, if you will be so kind as to overlook special pleading…         

As a freelance writer specializing in financial technology, my work, or at least my payments, fall at the small end of the small business spectrum. Even so, my recent experiences with Bank of America suggest international awareness and service is a huge unfilled opportunity.

            A few weeks ago I took a check for approximately £600 to my local Bank of America branch in Paterson, NJ. The teller stared at it, then looked for help. A more experienced teller took over and informed me it would take six to eight weeks for the money to hit my account. Then she began filling out a one-page paper form.

            Now I know Bank of America can do better. In fact, the check I was depositing was payment for a story about the international banking services Bank of America provides to Sun Microsystems.

            Bradley Vollmer, assistant treasurer at Sun, had been effusive in his praise for the bank. After a sigma project,(I guess they still talk Sigma somewhere) Sun treasury realized they needed electronic and central visibility of its cash positions and the ability to move money around electronically. Sun has left most of the details to the bank and is pleased with the results.

            “Bank of America is doing the heavy lifting,” adds Vollmer. “They are really good at it.” As a result, Sun can now see 98 to 99 percent of its cash.

            So why does it take four to six weeks for an English check drawn on Barclays to clear? This hasn’t improved at all over the last 10 years, even while Check 21 provides next-day funds in the US.

            Surely I am not the only Bank of America customer in the U.S. who receives checks from overseas. Is this an opportunity?

            My second view of the bank’s parochial view of the world came after I lost my Bank of America debit card in a Barclays (again) ATM in Moorgate. Around 7:30 p.m. on a Friday evening I had finished a coffee-heavy interview with Intel and was heading to a journalists’ party. In dim light I used an older Wincor Nixdorf ATM at what Barclays dubs “Hole in the Wall.” Clever marketing for an ATM until it takes a card. Then the name seems all too accurate. Not noticing the keys alongside the aged display, I thought I was trying to work a non-existtent touch-screen when the machine took my card and suggested I contact my bank.

            Friday night in London with £10 in my wallet, not a good feeling.

            When I got back to my friend’s flat I checked the Bank of America Web site. No international number. I sent an email to customer service, which said a response would come in 12 hours. My reduced dialing plan didn’t allow 800 numbers, so I made a full-price call.

“Welcome to Bank of America .” Information about my checking account followed by the standard warning about increased call volume and the wait was three minutes.

Then the sales pitches began, starting with online banking. It occurs to me that if it takes you 12 hours to answer an email, promoting online banking during the call hold might not be playing to your strength.

Next was a promotion for deposit ATMs. That was followed by a message urging customers to use their ATM debit cards for travel. Yeah, sure, but carry another card for backup.

Customer service finally arrived to tell me I could have a card sent to my New Jersey address. Not so useful since I wasn’t heading home for another three weeks. Next they said they would need approval from another department to see if they could send a card abroad. It took him a minute or two to find the number for emergency services.

That took a minute and a half to answer, while playing a message about caring for customers. They promised a call back in 15-20 minutes. They never did.

Barclays customer service number from their Web site apologized for the inconvenience and said to call Bank of America, because Barclays routinely destroys captured cards. Visa International referred me back to the issuing bank.

On Saturday morning I checked with my local Barclays in Amersham. If it had been their ATM, said the manager, he could have retrieved the card, but the Moorgate branch was closed Saturdays and he expected the card would be destroyed.

Saturday morning I tried Bank of America’s emergency number again, around 4:30 a.m. in Charlotte, North Carolina. They must have the smart people on the overnight shift because I spoke to a young man who talked to his supervisor. A card was going to my Paterson address, he told me, and checked with his supervisor.  They passed the request to Visa International and within a few minutes I had a polite Indian man on the phone. He arranged for UPS to deliver the card on Monday. Just after 11 a.m Monday my new Visa International card arrived.

Shortly after talking to Visa and arranging for a new card, II received Barclays’ response to my email Friday night. It said I could retrieve my ATM card with two forms of identification.

How many years have banks been promising their channels would present consistent information to customers?

How long should it take to respond to a customer email? By the time I received the answer from Barclays I had already committed to whatever it costs to get overnight delivery of a new card, which did indeed arrive Monday morning. Nice work by Visa International!

The ATM-swallowing problem is not so rare – the Barclays spokeswoman said a Nationwide ATM had recently swallowed her card during a power outage, but she was able to retrieve it from the bank.

My conclusion? Barclays won’t be inconvenienced for the sake of customers. Bank systems’ customer support systems are poorly integrated – two different answers from customer support at Barclays.

Barclays just doesn’t give a damn. How many people from outside London use its ATM machines? How often do the ATMs confiscate cards? Do any regulators bother to track this?

Just how difficult is it to secure cards until the branch re-opens? What’s the big risk, don’t banks still have vaults? How difficult is it to lock up a debit card and release it with proper identification? 

Bank of America’s service was less than stellar, and it clearly isn’t an international bank. (Well, except for the investment bank which has a headquarters at Canary Wharf. But I suspected they would look at me oddly if I appeared to ask for a fresh ATM card.) For me the bank is convenient domestically, because it has ATMs up and down the East Coast. And branches in Florida provided good service during an extended trip there a year ago.

But in the future, I won’t leave home without my American Express card. Take a look at the American Express home page for what an international presence looks like. I certainly don’t want to go back to travelers checks. In the future I will carry either a second ATM card or a PIN for a credit card.

Surely some bank in the US can do better than Bank of America. And can’t Barclays show some modicum of respect for users of its ATMs?


About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, the Finanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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