Patrick Sanders
Patrick Sanders May 30, 2018

How to keep your bank’s customers, even when they get fighting mad

Kiki Schirr’s bad breakup with her parents’ long-time bank didn’t happen all at once. It started with a series of indignities surrounding overdraft charges, a lost job and the challenges of making ends meet when you’re just out of college.

Each sting was more painful than the next, and the memories are still fresh more than half a decade later. “I came to hate my bank very slowly,” says Schirr, who now lives in San Francisco and works in digital marketing. It started, she recalls, this way: “I was in a really bad place financially and I would come in [to the bank] and would be joking around with them about how broke I was. And they would be like, ‘Oh, do you want a credit card?’ Like, that’s the worst response ever.”

On another day, Schirr says she dejectedly went to the bank to cash her final paycheck after a layoff.

“I said, ‘This is my last paycheck,’ just joking in a heartbroken kind of way but there were tears in my eyes,” she recalls. “And they said, ‘Well, if you’re not doing direct deposit any more, then you’re going to be charged $10 a month.’

“I was like, what? That’s like the worst slap in the face I could have gotten right when I was having difficult times.” Schirr’s experiences led her to write a Medium post titled, “Wells Fargo: The five reasons I hate my bank enough to write about it.”

“Our focus is on restoring trust and building a better Wells Fargo,” the bank said in a statement for this article. “With this in mind, we have set a goal of becoming the financial services leader in customer service and advice. What’s most important to us is listening to our customers, understanding their needs, addressing any concerns, and providing them with exceptional service and guidance to help them succeed financially.”

To be fair:  Improving customer service is today a top priority at Wells Fargo, which still struggles to rebound after its 2016 unauthorized account debacle. The bank also recently launched a new branding campaign, in which it says it ended sales goals at branches and is “recommitted” to restoring trust with its customers.

It comes down to this: Banking has a lot to do with impersonal numbers. Those include how many accounts, assets under management, percentage of debt, percentage of bad debt, interest rates and floating rates. But for a bank’s customers, it’s also about financial intimacy and trust. When you’re handing over your hard-earned money for safekeeping and investment, having bank employees judge you based your account size can feel threatening.

“Money is the representation of people’s sweat and hard work,” says Gabe Krajicek, CEO of Kasasa. “When you trust your hard work to someone and you think about how much that means to you, how much you sacrifice to create it and how important it is to you, you’re really getting very vulnerable with the service provider.

Krajicek adds: “When people get stung by a fee that’s inappropriate or cross-sold obnoxious products, all of those things have a sting that’s a lot fiercer than if it were Walmart or Target, or if you had a waitress who wasn’t the nicest at dinner.”

And with a new generation of customers like Schirr coming of age, banks need to consider the consequences of customer mistreatment. Close to half of millennials (42 percent) would be more open to trusting someone other than their current primary financial institution to handle their products and services, according to data from the BAI Banking Outlook Survey.

Hear customers out

Enter the nuanced art of listening: in person, by telephone, in an email or on an online chat.

“It’s something that we train our team on … to empathize with the consumer and to make sure the consumer understands that you understand that they’re upset,” Krajicek says. “One of the biggest reasons why a consumer will go off the handle and lose their temper is that they don’t feel heard.”

So follows perhaps the most important nugget of actionable advice: Prepare for a little anger from the customer and have a strategy to handle it.

“If you’ve got someone yelling, they almost certainly don’t feel heard,” Krajicek says. “The way you make them feel heard is to make sure they know you understand the specific logic and content of why they’re angry, and the emotions they’re feeling and reflect that back at them. Their tendency to want to push harder and harder diminishes pretty significantly and you can get back to having a rational conversation with a much better outcome.”

Empower employees

Once you’ve heard the consumer out, make it right—and right away. A quick solution in order here: Nobody wants to be put on hold or shunted into an office waiting for a manager.

“Employee empowerment means giving the front line or customer service agents a little power to make a decision and take action,” says Chris Smith, national strategy practice lead at Grant Thornton. “That’s sort of anti-historical culture of this industry, to empower, to be able to make quick decisions to save a customer from churning.”

Greg McBride, senior vice present and chief financial analyst at Bankrate, says banks need to “think like a retailer” when trying to prevent an unhappy customer from leaving. “The consumer who is not feeling valued and appreciated needs prompt attention from someone in a position of decision-making authority who can make things right,” he says. “It may sound silly but things like a gift basket or something similar, just as a mea culpa on the bank’s part, can go a long way.”

Leverage data

The financial industry has great numbers and statistics at its disposal, but there’s a disconnect between studying why customers churn—and working to stop the churn before it starts.

“The best prevention of churn is to have things like preventative churn modeling,” Smith says. That might involve, for example, using predictive analytics to enhance products or even find prospects who have a better chance of becoming loyal customers. “Before the customer even knows they might be ready to churn, the bank can actually intervene.”

When to cross over into cross-sell

And when a customer does confront the bank, employees should be able to examine the customer’s history and offer a product-based solution if it makes sense—provided you’re not offering credit cards to people complaining about overdraft charges.

“Our research doesn’t show that consumers mind being sold,” Krajicek says. “But they mind being sold products they don’t need. It feels like spam. … [But] a lot of consumers would be grateful for their bank or credit union to say, ‘Hey, here’s a product we think that you can use to solve some financial problems.’”

Today, Schirr still has a Wells Fargo account but rarely uses it. She keeps a small amount of money there because that’s the account that her parents monitor. “I don’t want them to worry,” she says.

Instead, Schirr mostly uses online banking services such as Simple because she likes the convenience—and has too many bad memories of going into a brick-and-mortar branch to discuss her college-era spending.

 “I would tell [Wells Fargo] that today’s poor, broke college student is going to turn into tomorrow’s rich person,” she says. “And they had better watch out.”


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Based in Maryland, Patrick Sanders is an assistant managing editor for U.S. News & World Report and formerly worked as an editor for The Associated Press and at newspapers in West Virginia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

For more articles like this one, check out our recent podcast: Small business lending that makes a big difference.

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