Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Ken Lewis' Awful Bank: Another Tale from the Frontline at BofA

Last week, I wrote this post about my recent experience with Ken Lewis' BofA. It seems they had a rather significant disclosure of sensitive account information which required them to attempt damage control in their Debit Card division.

I visited my local bank branch for more information, but learned that this form letter from one Gordon Rains, a BofA national-level executive, was news to my branch's manager and platform officers.

Fast forward to today. It's been a week, and I had heard nothing from Ms. Gonzalez, the platform officer who promised to expeditiously contact me with information last Tuesday.

As you can guess, what follows won't be pretty. After all, I'm discussing the retail bank branch customer interface of one of America's largest three banks. A sprawling, gigantic behemoth of a financial utility.

Ms. Gonzalez, upon seeing me stride to her desk, immediately registered a mixture of resignation and displeasure. With good reason.

She provided me with the explanation that my debit card, along with many, many other bank customers' cards, had been compromised by some unspecified problem "in Maine."

According to the bank officer, this 'problem' necessitated BofA replacing many ATMs, and, apparently, although this part was not explained, many debit cards, as well.

When I asked why Ms. Gonzalez had not called or emailed me last week to notify me that she was working on my issue, she simply ignored me. When I asked her why some effort was not made to convert a problem with compromised customer information into an opportunity for the local branches to get ahead of the issue and directly contact their local branch customers to explain the safety-oriented steps being taken by BofA, although those customers' data was not compromised, she gave me some nonsensical, difficult-to-understand doublespeak about it being the province of some national business unit, and each branch couldn't know the full extent of the problem.

At this point, I reminded Ms. Gonzalez of my initial request for a meeting with the branch's manager to learn more about the issue. She, in turn, informed me that she had just given me the explanation. Period.

When I politely expressed dissatisfaction with her slow, uncommunicative response to me for over a week, and that I now would probably walk down the block and re-open an account at the smallest local bank in town, of which I had been a customer in a nearby town years ago, she simply noted that I was free to do so, and that it was fine with her if I chose to do so.

As a last effort at provoking some sort of responsible customer service from Ms. Gonzalez or her branch manager, I promised her that, if I did not hear promptly from the branch manager about this issue, I would call BofA's headquarters in Charlotte, NC, in search of whatever ombudsman's office the firm's CEO, Ken Lewis, might have.

Again, Ms. Gonzalez invited me to take that action if I so chose.
By the way, I don't wish to suggest Ms. Gonzalez is a bad person or bears ill-will toward BofA customers. Judging by her change in demeanor from my first meeting with her last week, I'd say she was 'talked to' by her branch manager. She is mostly likely poorly led, rather than badly behaved on her own.

I did open that account at the other bank. And, by the way, among the benefits instantly accruing to me was free wire transfers. Imagine, in this day and age, free inbound wire transfers!

And, upon returning home and not having heard from the BofA branch manager, I called the bank's main office in Charlotte.

There, I spoke with the most gracious, helpful telephone receptionist in my memory. She asked the reason for my call, explained that Ken Lewis has no such office or assistant, but that she would like to put me on the line with the manager of her own function. This she did, and Amanda, her manager, politely and apologetically took the details of my story, which she promised to move up the bank's management hierarchy.

At least, down in Charlotte, even the frontline troops practice the region's trademark courtesy and sense of concern with regard to customer service. I honestly could not have asked for more accommodating attitudes from the two BofA employees with whom I spoke this afternoon.

Poor Ken Lewis. No wonder his bank is in such trouble. As the nearby Yahoo-sourced price chart of BofA and the S&P500 Index for the past five years illustrates, Lewis has managed to barely keep shareholders in neutral for the period. Meanwhile, simply buying the index would have netted investors about a 50% gain over the same period.
Perhaps Lewis mistakes his fellow Charlotte-based employees' attitudes and service ethics for those of his widespread retail banking empire. Believe me, they vary widely.
The staff at my local Summit, NJ BofA branch couldn't have been much less concerned with my welfare, as their customer, nor much less indifferent to whether I remained a customer or not.
We often hear of the description of America's large financial institutions 'as too big to fail.'
Now, however, I think I've discovered a more appropriate phase which described Ken Lewis' BofA and its ilk:
'too big to work.'

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