Customer Service – you are doing it right!

Wow, another chance to write a non-ranty blog post! I love it!

With Miss 7 at home on school holidays, I’ve been running some errands with her in tow. Today I had two great examples of customer service from the most unlikely of places – the Family Assistance Office and Westpac bank!

1 – Insider tips from the Family Assistance Office

After submitting a Medicare refund claim in person, I popped across the room to talk to someone about a Family Assistance claim I’d submitted a month ago. The actual submit process was great – it was all done online and,  as I’m already a client, they’ve got all of my details on file already. No need to visit a service centre. But while I was in the neighbourhood, I just thought I’d check up on it. Robyn at Strathpine confirmed that it was in the system waiting for someone at their end to action it, and I didn’t need to do anything else. She said if I hadn’t heard within 2 weeks, to phone them. And then she leaned forward and gave me an inside tip “Phone the call centre & leave your mobile number for a callback, don’t sit on hold in the queue. Don’t let your phone leave your side for the next 24-48hrs. When you see a Blocked number calling, answer it. Our number is always blocked & we don’t call back a second time if you miss us. That will save you having to come back in here on the school holidays with your daughter.”

Oh my gosh. I’ve been let in on the secrets of the Family Assistance Office because, wait for it .. it will make my life easier. Are you sure this is a government department? Can someone please promote Robyn, quick?!

2 – Let me help you

Needing a copy of a missing credit card statement that was no longer appearing on internet banking, I phoned Westpac who directed me to the form on their website I’d need to fill out and drop into a branch. Good service right there that met my expectations and enabled me to prefill the thing instead of doing it once I was at the branch. Dropped the form into anyone in a Westpac uniform, not at my home branch, which happened to be Scott at Strathpine. Scott actually said that if I had a minute, he’d check his system to see if he could pull up the statement. No such luck, but bonus points for trying and he assured me he’d get the form faxed to Cards right away.

Now you know what normally happens here, right? You wait three weeks and nothing happens until you phone the branch & they find an envelope that’s been waiting there for you for two weeks that no-one called you about. Ah, not this time. The very next day, Scott phoned me to say that Cards had faxed back my statement directly to the branch, and since he had my email address on the form, was it ok for him to scan and email it to me. Was it ok? Too bloody right it was! He actually put two and two together and thought ‘I can save my customer the inconvenience of having to come back into the branch’. Scott is now my favourite person in the entire banking industry and I’m transferring my massive wealth to be under his management (just as soon as I’ve amassed said massive wealth).

So listen up Telstra, Vodafone and every airline ever. Just because you are a big brand with a shocking reputation doesn’t mean you can’t have fantastic employees who actually act like the customer is worth taking care of. Us customers might actually enjoy that, stay with your brand & recommend you to others! Imagine that!



Customer service according to your bank

I’ve had two reasons on two seperate days to actually step foot inside a bank branch. This is most unusual, being an electronic payment kind of girl. The customer service I received has been rattling around in my brain as a blog post and refuses to let me get any sleep until I unleash it. I don’t think it’s going to sway your opinion about banks in general, but from a customer service point of view it is kind of interesting to put it under a microscope and analyse it.

Branch 1: The cheque and the change of PIN number

One of our dearest clients is a elderly couple with a passion for videography, who called us in the very early days of our business. Apart from staff members of our business clients, this is the only residential customer we’ve decided to keep. But as is there way, they pay by cheque, hence the reason for the first visit to Branch 1. Fortunately I also remembered that I had a new PIN number floating around in my handbag (just the little shiny window bit cut out) that matched a replacement card the bank had sent me. Don’t get me started on why my previous PIN number hadn’t been transferred to my new card, but anyway.

After filling out the paperwork for an express deposit of said cheque, I found I had to line up for a teller anyway to do the PIN change .. which meant they came out of the teller’s area and over to the reception counter. Now, this post will be peppered with some inside knowlege, having once lived the life of a bank teller and IT staffer. The ‘excuse’ for this inefficiency is that magnetic stripe writers, the ones that can encode a new PIN number, are expensive. One per branch will do. Now, either some banks are getting a better deal than others, or some banks see more mag stripe writers as an investment in good customer service, because some banks do have this at ALL teller stations (or even in their ATMS, but we’ll get to that next). Here endeth lesson number one.

I happened to mention to the teller that another bank has mag stripe writers in the ATMs, so you can change your number there, which is a good idea. Convenience rocks, people, especially with branches having such short hours and always having a queue a mile long. “Ooh, we wouldn’t want to do that, that’s a big security risk. Anyone could steal your mail, get your new card and PIN then and change it.” was the reply.

Now, I was in one of those ‘smile and nod moves and just get out of the branch as fast as I could because I have other things to do with my day’ so I smiled and nodded and left.  But I just couldn’t let it go. Apart from some glaring big holes in her argument .. she told me I was wrong!  But I’m the customer!!

I know it’s the teller’s job to pitch that their bank is the best and everybody else sucks. But that one small comment was like a pin prick bursting my balloon. When a customer tells you something is a good idea, especially when they mention your competitor is doing it, sure it’s natural to get defensive. I’m telling you though, an approach like “that’s an interesting idea” or ” do you think that’s beneficial to you?” would have left the smile on my face, even though I know the chances of this conversation turning into a bank-wide initiative are pretty much nil. And this is lesson two .. don’t tell the customer you are wrong and lesson three … look for opportunities to improve your business all the time.

So let me point out two of the big glaring holes:

1. The bank posts out my new card. The bank posts out my new PIN number. If someone steals my mail (both envelopes) then they have my new card and it’s PIN number. Regardless of where they are allowed to change it. They don’t need to change it to use it an access my funds. And how did they get this (apart from the obvious lack of security on my mail box (which by the way is a key locked Post Office Box))? Because the bank posted them. Ergo, the reason this thief now has access to my funds is because of how the bank manages this card issuing process, by postal mail. Lesson four … look along the chain of your process for any part which may contribute to the problem, not just the end result.  

2. During our conversation, the bank teller allowed me to change my PIN number but did not ask me to provide any identification. In fact, the process didn’t even ask me to enter the original PIN. This second part is due to the fact that the PIN could have been innocently forgotten. Perhaps if I’d confessed I’d forgotten it, she would have asked me for ID? I did see the irony that this exchange didn’t help her argument. Here I was, in a branch to change my PIN number and I could have been anybody. Like a mail thief. Lesson five .. if security is your thing (like a bank), make sure your processes reflect that (like using ID checks).

The last lesson from this visit came as I walked out the door, when another customer collared the teller before she’d had a chance to escape back behind the secure locked area. He wanted to roll over a term deposit, and she had to explain that she couldn’t do that for him and the person he needed to see was busy. As a teller, once you step out of your safely locked zone, you are just another staff member to the waiting public. Standing at a reception desk telling someone you can’t help them is also poor form and doesn’t really give the best impression.  Which is why tellers should have mag stripe writers.  

After that enlightening visit, I turned the ignition in my car & realised I hadn’t made a cash withdrawal. I got out and walked around to the side of the building to use the ATM, which was out of action. It was 09:40am, the branch had been open since 09:30 and I’m guessing the staff had been onboard since 08:30 at the latest. Plenty of time for them to sort out the ATM, unless it ran out of cash within the last 10 minutes. I gave up on this one, giving them the benefit of the doubt that it was a computer glitch or ATM hardware failure, not just a simple ‘run out of cash’.

Branch 2: The ATM, teller boxes and staffing levels

And so I thought that was the end of my adventures in branchland for months to come .. until the next day I tried to make that cash withdrawal I’d forgotten about. This time, I had my 2.5yr old. Right, quick in and out of the car at the ATM on my way past (if any in and out of the car with a toddler is quick). Only this ATM wasn’t working either, at a different branch. Into the branch we venture, to the delight of my daughter who heads straight for the pile of toys. This is actually a good move by the bank, as it’s in plain view when you’re waiting in line or being served by a teller and happy children make for happy caregivers.

It’s 10:35AM. There are 5 or 6 teller boxes and only ONE teller serving. Their ATM is down and there are 4 people in front of me. Did I mention I had my toddler with me?  And the one customer currently being attended to does not know the different between a direct debit and a recurring payment, which is being exlained to her, for the third time. Right now I’m wondering how much eye rolling and sighing and watch looking will be required to get some more staff out here, or if I have to find the branch manager myself. Hello, it’s morning tea time, your ATM is down and you have one staff member serving?

But soon – a miracle! A lady I could only assume was the head teller (sitting in the back of the teller’s area doing more important stuff than serving customers), notices our growing discontent, disappears and reappears with another teller, who opens. Happy days!

When my turn comes, I casually mention .. did you know your ATM is down? “Yes, it’s just being filled up with cash now.”  Lightbulb moment. So bear with my now why this revelation made it all crystal clear and took the steam out for me. Unfortunately it’s all to do with insider knowledge.

Like most other companies, banks have to justify the existance of staff members and don’t always get the amount of people they actually need during peak times. If you think of the ebb and flow of customers through a bank, most of the time 6 tellers would be overkill.  The reality is that most branches don’t have the budget to fill the number of teller boxes they actually have. This actuallly gives them room to bring on more casuals and temps over periods like Christmas, but doesn’t help the public the rest of the year. But hey, this is generally the case in any retail store.

The next issue is wrapped around what tellers actually do. It seems that more and more functions are being handled by this team, especially when you walk into a branch that has nobody at the reception des any more. This means that customers are staying longer at a teller box, when we used to move them over to a ‘retail banker’ to clear the way for actual deposit & withdrawal transactions. Oh and that head teller – yeah, you would not believe the volume of work she actually has to manage on a daily basis before even adding any issues or stuffups by other people that she needs to sort out. She’s needed as the boss and she can’t do that if she’s on the frontline serving customers.

So, here’s how the situation actually read: I’m guessing the branch actually had 3 or 4 tellers, plus the head teller. One (or two) filling the ATM. One serving. One at a tea break. And perhaps one off locating paperwork or getting foreign currency or performing some other task. And I’m wondering if Teller 2 was in fact yanked off her tea break to come and help, bless her.

Now I realise that none of the above excuses helped my wait time or my mood initially. But here’s the thing. While the banks announce mega-profits and don’t cut interest rates with the RBA, there are tireless, dedicated workers in branches doing the best job with what they have to work with. I’ve been one of them and so had my mother, my mother-in-law and many family friends. Just remember that those workers are not the ones pocketing $24 billion a quarter. Should the banks invest more in better customer service? Hell yes. And no, that does not mean staff training videos and roadshows, it means resources and more staff. But that costs money. And if we spend money we don’t have as much profit and our shareholders aren’t happy. 

The glaringly obvious hole in that last argument though is “but right now your customers aren’t happy.”  It’s a pity that the shareholders take priorty, isn’t it?

Dear Mr Bank Manager (aka the ballad of the self-employed)

On most days I love being self-employed.  I like the control I have over how my business operates.  Whilst we’re still only a ‘micro business’ (read: no other ‘team members’ but us), it could be classed by some as a job.  However, I get to set my own salary, my own hours, my own work location, what products & services I offer, how I market & advertise and which customers I will (or won’t) deal with.

Running your own business also gives you an invaluable set of skills that you just don’t get when you are an employee, and a whole new ’empathy’.  Share stories of having cashflow battles, nightmare customers or stellar employees with another business owner and you’ll get that look of “I understand, I’ve been through that too”.  It’s the best of times and the worst of times and you are only accountable to yourself.

But recently I had to deal with the wonderful world of banks and their mortgage approval process.  Credit to my mortgage broker who buffered as much of the stress and string-pulling as they could.  However, I have a banking background and know that the self-employed & lending approval is like water and oil.  For starters, if you go the ‘low doc’ option (where you sign a piece of paper that promises that your income is enough), you also have to provide a 20% deposit.  I know that the days of 110% mortgages are long gone with the global financial crisis, but finding a 20% chunk of cash in a hurry (e.g. when your renting circumstances change) is no easy feat for anyone, especially if it comes with strong caveats about proving a 6 month genuine savings history.

Self-employed people are seen as a much higher risk to lend to than a salaried employee.  As I turn on the TV each day to hear of consistently rising unemployment figures and job layoffs, I think it’s time to challenge that belief.

So, Dear Mr Bank Manager, here’s my case:

As a business owner, I understand risk.  I understand that there are good times and bad times, and just because I’ve had a stunning profit this month it doesn’t mean that next month will be the same – though I will do everything in my powers to try and achieve the same stunning result.  Because of this, I know that the ‘annual salary’ on my payslip is not a sure thing.  Fact is, it’s not a sure thing when you are an employee either, especially in the current economic climate.  Therefore, I understand that committing to borrowing money from you and being able to pay it back is a risky move.  And as that money relates to the roof over my head and indeed my family’s, I’m not about to put us in a riskier position than I am comfortable with.  Note: I’m not asking for enough funds to build a mansion.  I believe that many of the mortgagee sales that have contributed to the real estate crash in the USA are from genuine people in salaried employment, who have suddenly lost the security of their paycheck.  Why? Because the business owner terminated his employees to protect his business.

I own the business.  I know it intimately – in fact I wake up at night thinking about it.  I know on a daily basis whether things are going well or not and I’m able to adjust my actions accordingly.  I’m navigating and steering this ship, I’m not just along for the ride.  Ask a salaried employee how well the company is going and how confident they are of keeping their job and their pay check.  They’ll hope everything is fine.  Who do you think has a greater certainty about the stability and continuance of their income?  If things aren’t going well, I’ll be making adjustments immediately, to get the results I need.  As an employee, you’ll do what you can within your sphere of influence, but you aren’t able to make the kinds of decisions and actions that I can to change the outcome.

As the business owner, I have my own best interests at heart.  I know that sounds harsh, and I do truly lose sleep over how to keep my business performing to pay the salaries of my employees.  But in the cold, hard light of day, my primary responsibility is to my own family.  If things really aren’t going well, my second-to-last course of action will be to lay off my employees, in order to preserve my own income.  My last course of action will be to close up shop.  This means that my employees are at a greater risk of losing their jobs than I am.  And there’s little they can do about it (other than contribute as much as possible to ensuring that my business is profitable – but at the end of the day, I am the decision maker).  In all of the lay-off announcements, who has been losing their jobs?  The workers, not the business owners, not the CEOs or Company Presidents … unless the whole business has completely gone under, and I think that’s usually a result of management not acting soon enough.

And, heaven forbid, should my business wither away to an unprofitable, unviable mess, I think I have a greater chance of survival.  My business management skills and the lesson I have just learnt will make for a much stronger second attempt at running a business.  If I do decide to look for another job working for someone else, I think that my skills and experience would outshine that of another potential ’employee-only’ candidate.  Not to mention the fact that my business currently services over 100 happy customers, many of whom would employ me in a heartbeat.  That’s 100 potential enployment opportunities that an employee may not have.

OK, end of rant, I’ve now stated my case.  I doubt that this will change the thinking or lending criteria of the banking world, but it’s made me feel better justifying my little place in the world economy.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.