May 17, 2011

Don't ask me why but after 321 bank projects, covering 29 states, and sizes ranging from de novos to the top four, plus 50 or more seminars where grass roots bank employees showed up to get the skinny on technology, plus bankers responding to 305 blogs to date, I have concluded that Betty is the name of choice in banking. I can't tell if their moms were thinking Betty Grable, Bette Davis, Betty Furness or Betty Boop, but one thing is for sure. It's the Bettys of the banking industry that have kept it afloat.

And no one is inclined to give them any credit. They don't get the multi-million dollar salaries, bonuses, limos, three-martini lunches, or Wall Street Journal interviews. Congress doesn't ask them to testify. Why even Sheila Bair doesn't feel the urge to say something nice about the Bettys of failed banks when she slaps on the padlock and chain nearly every Friday night, 40 times so far this year. Sometimes Betty gets a choice parking space for 30 days, and that's about it for rewards.

So I'm here as their sole advocate to do justice to all the no-fault Bettys who have been doing the day-to-day work diligently, took home modest compensation, and tried to help billions of bank customers according to the rules of decency.

All this while most of the big boys were in salvage mode for the past three years, recovering from the easy money schemes of packaged junk that were too good to be true but provided a nice shot in the arm for next quarter's earnings report. My good fortune as an ordinary bank customer began 15 years ago when I walked in off the street at a large-bank branch and told the receptionist (prior to 2008, that was a person who greeted everyone with a smile and helped them get what they came for) I wanted to open a few accounts. Betty appeared out of nowhere, with the instinct of a trained hound dog, grabbed my shoulder with a hold that only the Hulk could invoke, and took me back to her partitioned work space on the platform. Cutting the small talk to less than a minute, she pulled out a fistful of preprinted forms, cranked up her IBM Selectric typewriter and began the process.

Oh, did I mention it was 1996, when large banks thought platform automation meant a conveyor belt? Did I mention it was a powerful business-thriving branch in Dallas where the billionaires banked? Did I mention the bank was my client, which is what drove me to express my loyalty, while hiding that disclosure from Betty? Did I mention I was dressed in moving-day shabby-chic? Did I mention Betty wore a perfectly business-like dress from either Talbots or Ann Taylor?

Fifteen accounts later, I knew I was in the right place. Betty knew more about me than Fair Isaac, D&B, TransUnion, Equifax and Experian combined. She even wanted to know the name of the contractor my wife hired to shape up the house she bought for us. For years, whenever I called the bank, Betty would say, "Leave it to me, I'll take care of it."

And then one day Betty was gone, and I was on my own even though my checks had a phrase printed on them designed to honor me as if I were special. I would have preferred, "A Betty's Customer." None of the 10 delivery channels I use at the bank work as effectively without Betty.

These days, that very large bank cannot engage in free-form dialogue unless a customer has something plugged into his/her ear. And even though it took four decades for cashless and checkless to become partial realities, it is "peopleless" in banking that I believe will be the last blow to what was once a nice place to conduct business while providing work for lots of Bettys and a few good Bobs.

All this from a guy who earns his living doing bank technology consulting, and a guy who contributes mightily to the "IRS Fund of Government Bailouts for Dumb Banking." I depart from this blog with some advice often expressed as a cliche -- "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." If your bank turns into a mausoleum, driven only by technology, without the Bettys, you'll lose the one distinguishing resource that makes the bank unique. Any bank can buy today's technology, but it takes talent to acquire the right Bettys. In The Graduate the word was "plastics." Today, it's "hybrid." And to perfect the hybrid model, you may want to sprinkle it with one or two Cassandras in the lending department.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR