How often have you been cold called by some semi-articulate person on behalf of a bank? Would you like a new credit card? Could they help you buy a car? What about a home loan? And so on.
I guess the cold calling is proof of capitalism in action—evidence that competition has given us a greater choice. In the bad old days of the last century, your choices were restricted to the inefficient nationalized banks and the odd foreign operation such as Grindlays.
Like many people of my background, I opted for Grindlays largely because it felt like an Indian bank. A nice Bengali lady handled my account at Bombay’s Breach Candy branch. Other Bengalis took over when I shifted to a Kolkata branch. And when, eventually, I ended up at New Delhi’s South Extension branch, an efficient woman became my personal banker.
Then, Grindlays died and was reborn as some global giant. The personalized service disappeared but I imagined that multinational efficiency would more than compensate. Alas, I’m not sure it has.
Here are two recent incidents concerning the banks’ credit card division. The first concerns my partner, who needed old credit card statements for an income-tax hearing. She called the credit card helpline, which assured her that the statements would be couriered in the next couple of days. When they did not arrive for several days, she began phoning the helpline incessantly.
Banking on you: The people who handle our money are not keen on having a relationship with individuals any more.
Every day, a new person would offer a new explanation. The statements had been mailed. They would arrive the next day. Not to worry, they were on their way, etc, etc.
Four days before her hearing, with no statement in sight, she called again in panic. You’ll get them tomorrow, ma’am, a woman assured her.
But of course, they didn’t arrive. So, she called again the following day. A new man answered. He checked his computer and informed her that the courier had returned the package a week ago saying that there was nobody at the address. Hadn’t she got an SMS alert to this effect?
No, she hadn’t. Besides, there was always somebody at home to receive a courier package. And anyway, why had they kept telling her that the statements were on their way if they had already been returned? The man had no idea. He would courier them again, he said.
Inevitably, they did not reach on time. The day before the hearing, she called in a state of agitation. Could they fax them? “No, ma’am,” a new woman said. “Piyush has locked them in his desk and he hasn’t come in.” Finally, hours before the hearing, the desk was unlocked and the statements faxed, but of course, the fax was too faint to be of any use.
She missed the hearing and had to ask for a continuance.
Or take my own case. Over a year ago, the bank called to say that as I had used my credit card in Bangkok, they were cancelling it and issuing a new one. “They tend to steal your data and make bogus cards,” I was told.
An impressive sense of security, right?
Well, actually, no. Two months ago, the bank called to ask if I had spent over three lakhs in Thailand on such and such date. I told them I was not in Thailand on those days. Did I have my cards on me? I did and read out the numbers. Ah, said the man, somebody had used the card we cancelled.
But surely, that was the point of the new card! What kind of bank authorizes high value transactions within a few hours on a card that no longer exists? The man saw my point. Nevertheless, I would have to fill up a form and Xerox every page of my passport to prove I was not in Bangkok.
And that should have been that. Except that when I got my statement at the end of the month, I discovered that the bank had withdrawn Rs3.2 lakh from my account through my standing order. I called again. How could I be held responsible for what was clearly the bank’s fault?
Now, their attitude changed. Only after their investigation was complete (about three months) would they consider refunding my money. After two weeks of negotiations, I went ballistic. It worked. They agreed to put the money back in my account. Of course, given the high rates of interest they charge you when you miss a payment, I should have asked for interest on my Rs3.2 lakh, but by then I was just relieved to have my money returned.
It is not my intention to claim that Standard Chartered, the successors to Grindlays, are any worse than other banks of their type. Perhaps a nationalized bank would have been worse. And who knows, other multinationals may be as good or bad.
My point is more general. In the old days, before faceless kids in call centres took over, most of us had relationships with the people who handled our money. These days, the banks don’t really bother with us little people because they are too busy chasing corporate customers. I have more money in my Standard Chartered account than I ever had in my Grindlays days. But nobody from my branch ever bothers to call. Because I use my credit card when I am abroad, the debits are substantial. But as my experience demonstrates, I don’t feel they are looking after my money. Rather, they seem to be stealing it.
One of the traditional dangers with big business is that it can ignore the small guy. All over the world, organizations in the service sector try and find ways of personalizing their service to avoid customer alienation. But in India, nobody seems to bother. Some accountant has worked out that it is cheaper to sack the people who actually had relationships with customers and to replace them with kids in a Gurgaon call centre. As long as profits are up, the banks don't really give a damn.
And we pay the price.
(Do you have a banking story you want to share? Write to Vir at email@example.com)
(Read his previous columns on www.livemint.com/vir-sanghvi)