Friday 10 December 2010

Be eccentric

I was shown a news cutting from a newspaper in Swaziland recently. It referred to a very boring development in a bank down there but there was a mistake that I thought was very funny. Rather than referring to their “customer-centric” approach to banking it described the bank as being “customer-eccentric”.

Initially I just thought this was funny and laughed at the ineptitude of the sub-editor of the newspaper but (as always happens when newspaper columnists see these things and are keen for an appealing link) I then got thinking. Actually a bank that is customer-eccentric is quite a good thing. That’s because I think customers should have the right to be eccentric, a right to be different, a right to be thoroughly peculiar.

Staff working in banks are usually focussed on the 95% of their activity that comprises perfectly routine, normal, predictable activities like taking our money, moving our money around and charging us for everything they do. It’s perfectly normal for them to charge us for breathing, for walking past the entrance to the branch, for even saying their name out loud. These are all routine things and that’s understandably the focus of their attention.

What they often forget that despite all of this, every customer is, in their own strange way, unique. With the exception of that section of customers who never do anything out of the ordinary, most customers have needs that are specific to them. I suspect that if you look at your own circumstances you’ll find something that makes your life a bit different from your neighbours. It might be a child from a former relationship, a brother or sister that needs particular support or your special need to avoid the International Court in the Hague. We’re all a bit peculiar.

So I don’t think banks should be surprised when we present them with our particular needs and ask them to reflect them in the services they offer us. It’s no different after all to ordering in a restaurant. If you go to a decent restaurant and explain that you don’t eat pork, you’re allergic to nuts or you just don’t want too much cheese on your pizza then you would expect them to be flexible. Of course if you demand that the chicken was slaughtered by a left-handed Zoroastrian priest you might have to live with disappointment. It’s the same with banks. I don’t necessarily want a type of bank account that’s unique to me but I do think that if I’m paying them for a service then I am entitled to expect a little flexibility to match my eccentricity.

Unfortunately not all suppliers have even the slightest flexibility. Just this week we had a complaint from a reader who bought a handbag in a store in Francistown. Two days later the shoulder strap broke, apparently after no ill-treatment or stress. It was when she took it back to the store that she first encountered their inflexibility. “No refunds” they told her. At no point during her purchase had she been told this, there wasn’t a big sign up on the wall explaining that this was the policy. However at least she could get a replacement? No, the store had nothing remotely like the bag she had bought. So, no refund and no replacement and they weren’t willing to repair it. No flexibility at all, no willingness to remedy a problem, no service in any sense of the word.

Our advice to the customer was to go back again and demand a refund because that’s what she’s perfectly entitled to. The store clearly broke their contract with the customer, they failed to meet minimum standards as required by the Consumer Protection Regulations and they failed be even slightly flexible. Clearly no eccentric customer should go to that store. I fact no customer at all should go there.

But, you say, you don’t know what store it is to avoid? Trust me, you will do if they don’t fix this situation within milliseconds of the customer returning again and asking politely for that refund.

Then of course are those companies who themselves are eccentric. I don’t have all the details yet but a reader contacted us having had some dealings with a well-known stock-market-related company. They’re not registered to trade on the Botswana Stock Exchange and instead offer “training” and advice on trading with the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. I’m deeply suspicious about this company, mainly as they don’t actually offer anything you can’t get elsewhere more cheaply. The software they offer is nothing more than a web site, the training seems to offer nothing more than you can learn online for free, the market intelligence they offer is actually sourced from a South African company who offer it more cheaply. So I don’t understand what it is they offer other than the chance to give them your money.

It now seems that even this is eccentric. The reader who contacted us had purchased this company’s services only to be asked not to pay the company but instead to pay the price directly into the personal bank account of one of it’s employees. Eccentric, don’t you think?

I can’t help but ask whether this company is perhaps being a little eccentric with it’s tax obligations. Asking customers to pay personal cheques into personal accounts would be a very good way to avoid the gaze of the tax authorities. I wonder if BURS know about this. They will do by the time you read this.

So let’s be more eccentric with banks, but let’s also be very careful with those companies who demonstrate deeply suspicious eccentricity.

This week’s stars
  • Ronald at the Orange call centre for delivering what our reader said was “the best service I have received all year”.

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