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How Yet another Wrong Charge Turned Me into a Hidden Bank Defector

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Almost a year ago, I defected from the bank I had relied on for 30 years—but the bank seems not to have noticed yet. On one level, that’s understandable, as I’m still technically a customer. To retain access to my historic spending and bill-paying records, I left some money in the account (just enough to avoid any minimum balance fees and cover any legacy transactions).

It wouldn’t take a detective to spot the signals and realize I have a new primary bank, though. The number of transactions through the old account has plummeted, my salary is no longer deposited there, and I no longer use that institution’s ATMs. Yet I haven’t heard a peep from its staff. The bank currently has a big ad campaign stressing its dedication to earning loyalty and trust. Too bad this message hasn’t filtered down to affect the priorities of product managers and branch employees. 

My stealthy withdrawal from a three-decade relationship is by no means uncommon, as Bain & Company’s latest customer loyalty in retail banking report shows. The research found that these hidden defections are rampant at retail banks around the world. Customers are applying for new products from banking upstarts such as Monzo in the UK or financial services specialists such as Rocket Mortgage in the US. But at the same time, they’re keeping their old account on life support, maybe for the practical reason that motivated me, or maybe just out of inertia.

In examining the causes of these broken banking relationships, the report found that the biggest annoyance by far for US checking-and-savings customers was having to dispute a fee. That was certainly what sparked my defection. The bank tried to sneak a charge past me. When I rang to protest, the friendly customer service agent agreed to waive it. But the same cycle of error, complaint, refund had happened several times over the years, and I was fed up of always having to be on my guard.

I switched to First Republic Bank, which has an outstanding customer Net Promoter Score®, as I had learned soon before switching. Life has been so much better ever since. The person I deal with at the branch actually watches out for my best interests. When an automatic salary deposit failed, she emailed to warn me that I would be charged a fee for insufficient funds—and then helped to arrange a wire transfer from my brokerage that came through within 24 hours, sparing me that expense. 

Imagine: a bank looking out for you so you can avoid fees. That’s so much better than demanding the money and then relenting if a customer calls to complain. Many customers don’t bother phoning (too much hassle). They still resent the fee, though. Their resentment builds and builds, then an ATM doesn’t work, or something else happens that at last ruptures the relationship. They leave. Eventually the bank notices. 

Banks have been piling on the annoyances over the years, leaving many customers ready to bolt. My advice is that they should talk to the customers who award them low ratings in Net Promoter System® surveys. There’s a strong chance they’ll find that irritating fees are eating away at customer loyalty, even as they feed quarterly earnings. That’s no way to build the valuable, long-term relationship I once had with my old bank—and now hope to build with First Republic. 

I can’t believe that I waited so long to switch. Now, I kick myself for being lazy. Customers deserve bankers who really care about putting customer interests first: the sort who will warn you when a fee is about to be incurred. When you call the service center to get a problem resolved, only to be forced to listen to sales promotions while you wait, it’s time to wake up and find a better home for your money. One reason customers get such bad service today is that they’re too tolerant of it.

Net Promoter®, Net Promoter System®, Net Promoter Score® and NPS® are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems, Inc.

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