My experience as a bank customer began early. I was the treasurer of our household at age nine, and the custodian of five Christmas Club accounts. That was my grand total understanding of banking. Every week I went to the bank like clock-work. My first encounter with pretty girls occurred at the teller line, and my first disappointment in that awkward adventure presented itself when Mr. Tyler would flag me down to his station. He had accumulated a week's worth of advice that had to be delivered to a kid whose father had just died. I never saw more than Mr. Tyler's head and shoulders. The great wall of banking stood between us. Even after I came home from the Air Force, and made the rounds in the neighborhood, I thought Mr. Tyler would come out and shake my hand. He never did. But there was a bright side. The girls seemed even prettier than before, and I had achieved the power to choose, so I chose the line that appealed to me. About two dozen banks later, "appealing to me" has been the reason I have chosen my banks.Many years later I encountered another banking wall at the international money exchange department of a major bank. Our annual trip to Europe then required foreign currency, and I went to my bank for the best rate. As I waited at the wall, I noticed an inscription that was a lot more common in bus station men's rooms than in bank offices. Carved into the walnut on the customer side of the counter was "F___ Y___." As many times as I had returned to that place, I looked for the art work, and indeed, it was still there. My reaction was, there seems to be a great divide between bankers and customers. And rubbing out the epithet was not the job of the cleaning people who just passed a dust cloth over the spot. To me, that was the perfect metaphor of banking - Bankers don't see the customers' view of the relationship, and regulators don't give a damn unless a bank bellies-up.
It appears now that both bankers and regulators are waking up to a new landscape of understanding that goes beyond the meaningless transaction wrap-up phrase of "Have a nice day." A WSJ article last Friday presented one example of how Bank of America plans to re-engage with its customers. And the article attributes this new awareness to the bank's wish to prepare its branch and call-center employees for the expected new era of regulatory restrictions. But we're back to slogans, folks. In this case an acronym called GUEST which the suits believe really means something. I'm too embarrassed to tell you what each letter stands for. The chance that 55 million customers and 284k employees will buy into this idea is like hoping to win the lottery - without buying a ticket. It's like Citigroup's brainstorm to change the name of the bank from Citibank to Citi. I wonder how much the ad agency got for that costly conversion. Surely, the sign companies loved it. Did customers get anything out of it?
In my opinion, it's the suits that need the makeover now, not the front-line employees. That's why in 2008, three out of the four top bank CEOs were dumped, and no one dared write it was so they could spend more time with their families. Congress has given regulators the expanded power to regulate. Bankers now have a road map, GPS and even an 800 number to call if they get lost. But do banks have the people who can manage their business and serve their customers successfully? Some do, and they don't need slogans, nicknames, logos or jingles to deliver substance to valued customers. "Know the Customer" should mean a lot more than tracking funds to detect money laundering.