When business systems and processes go wrong, it is de-humanizing: a true story of
how things go wrong, and a challenge to do better.
You know that feeling when you are angry and frustrated at someone, but they have power over you, so you just shut up and act nicely toward them?
Not a good feeling is it?
It feels terrible, it’s not even very healthy for us, but to me, when I feel it, I recognize it as a system gone wrong.
And now that I see it that way, it’s like I can’t “unsee” it - broken, overbuilt, dehumanizing business systems are everywhere. They are like the little garden ants that sometimes creep into the crevices of my nice suburban home. They’re just busy doing their thing, going about running their little ant-brain enabled processes, but they are bugging the heck out me and don’t belong in my house!
Anyways, back to the story - a few weeks ago, I was eagerly anticipating some money that was coming my way from a supplier (a refund was owing to us).
(And, when I say eagerly, what I really mean was that cash flow was tight that month and I was depending on the money).
So, I thought I’d login to my account, just to double check that I’d sent all the right money transfer information (did I mention I really wanted that money?.... )
It won’t log me in: “Incorrect login/password”.
I do it again. I double check. I try 3 or 4 more times to no avail.
I get on the phone with tech support, eventually getting through, and after several back and forths, the woman on the phone comes to the conclusion that my account no longer exists! It has been closed.
“What?” I said. “Closed? I never closed that account” I reply back, now concerned and even more frustrated.
“You’ll have to call your local bank manager and discuss it with them. It was closed at the branch level”
Ok. I get off the phone with her and call the local branch manager. The thing is though, this isn’t actually ‘local’ to me. Our business owns real estate holdings in the US and this is an account we use for that purpose. To open it up, both my husband and I had to take a day off work, drive across the border, show our ids, meet the branch manager, sign a tonne of paperwork.
The account had been open for over a year. Every quarter, a payment came in, and a payment came out. In between, I leave enough money in to cover bank fees, etc.. It’s not a complicated account and that’s all it is used for.
I call the bank manager. And here is where it goes rogue. And when I get that angry yet powerless feeling.
“The account was closed because you had an overdraft for over 2 months”, the bank manager announces.
“An overdraft? How much?” I answered, a bit confused.
“$8” she says.
“$8?” I ask, like I hadn’t heard her properly.
“Yes, an overdraft is an overdraft” she answers, with a tone of both defensiveness and scolding. “We sent you 3 warning letters”
“Well, I’m sorry that happened. I only log into the account once every 3 months or so and I must have misjudged how much money I had to leave in there. Can I just send you the $8 and get the account reopened?” I answered, hoping my annoyance and anger is not creeping into my voice tone.
“No, you can’t just re-open it. I’ll have to ask my manager and get back to” she answers crisply.
(Now I really am annoyed, but still staying professional and calm) “Do you send emails or did you call me? Honestly, I don’t open all the letters from you right away, because I assume they are just statements or promotions. This is important to me.” I answer.
“No. We sent you the letters. We don’t email or call. Like I said, I have to ask my bank manager. I will let you know tomorrow.”
(It’s worth noting that they do email and call. I’d had several emails back and forth with her when we were setting up the account, and we had spoken on the phone on several previous occasions. She knew me, and we had met personally when we opened up the account.)
“What if he says no?” I ask. “What happens then?”
“You’ll have to come back in and open up a brand new account.” she answers.
“Kathy,” I said “If my husband and I both have to take a day off work, drive across the border and spend hours opening up a bank account, it will be with another bank. I’d like to avoid that. I’d like the account to be re-opened, and I’ll send you the $8 immediately, but please let me know as soon as you can.”
Here’s where that angry-yet-powerless feeling came in. I was really annoyed. This was turning out to be a time-consuming mess, and the whole thing felt really unfair and draconian.
But, she had all the power. If she got too defensive or annoyed with me, she could have easily have just said ‘no’, and I’d not only have to wait for the money I wanted/needed (because we would have had no US bank to receive it), I’d have to go through that day-long process of opening up the US bank account again.
So, I’m ‘sucking it up”, being as polite as I can be, begging for her to re-open the account. I felt like a peasant grovelling before the all-powerful overlord.
For an $8 oversight!
The next day, she calls me and they’ve ‘allowed’ me to re-open the account, and will do it as soon as they receive the $8. Since the account is closed, I can’t money transfer anything to it. So, I have to drive down to my local Canadian bank, buy a cashier’s cheque, then drive to the post office and courier it to the US bank (cost to me around $40).
Then, since that is going to take a few days to get there and for the account to reopen, I call my supplier, and tell him to wait a few days, because if he sends the money right now, it will just bounce back to him. (Did I mention my cash flow was tight that month? Let’s just add a few extra days and a little bit more stress to my busy life… )
But forget about me for a minute. Forget about the additional stress and work and frustration I felt.
Because here’s what I can’t unsee….
What the heck is that bank thinking? What sort of bureaucratic BS caused this whole cascade of events in the first place?
Three ‘warning letters”? (no doubt sternly worded LOL). A complete shutdown of the account with no explanation as I tried to log in? A days delay in getting the manager’s approval?
With a simple phone call, text or email to me they would have had their $8 within minutes, with no additional work required on their part. I would have felt good that they were reaching out to me, and even mildly apologetic for not leaving enough money in the account.
Instead, now, I have a negative feeling about that bank. Sure, it’s too much bother to change accounts now, but if they ever reach out to me for new business or to open up something else with them, it’ll be a no.
I wonder too, how much they spend on branding themselves as a customer-centric, friendly place?
How much money does it cost them to acquire new customers? I bet you it’s a lot more than $8 (a quick online search says about $200 for the financial sector just on marketing/advertising, not even including time/money spent on customer service)
I bet you there is someone in that bank’s head office who thinks all the time about how to acquire new customers, who plans out their marketing and who builds out business systems and processes around selling accounts and services, competing with other banks. I bet you there is a lot of thought and effort put into it.
So why were they perfectly willing to get rid of a customer for $8?
Well, I bet you there’s another person in the bank’s head office that is thinking about overdrafts. How to collect on them quicker. How to make sure they don’t happen.
But I wonder if these two characters are actually speaking to each other? If ‘overdraft avoider/enforcer” is talking to ‘acquire more customers” guy or if either of them are talking to the “build our customer-oriented brand” person?
Because, if they were, I think at some point along the lines, they would have realized the sheer illogicality (can I say idiocy? I’m trying to be nice here…) of losing a customer over $8, when they’ve spent at least a few hundred getting her and signing her up. Especially, when her intention was honourable, and they hadn’t even spoken to her first.
Now, annoyed as I was at the time, I don’t hold anything against Kathy. She has a job to do and is following the process.
But that process is rogue. It is poorly thought out and disconnected from the bank’s higher intention. It’s like that little ant showing up in your kitchen. It is doing what it does, but it is not in the right place, not doing you any good, and maybe even spreading germs.
That’s what I can’t unsee. All of us doing our best, following “best practices” business processes and systems that somehow, got so complicated, they stopped serving us. Instead of serving the higher intention, the original dream, they morphed into something dehumanizing and energy sucking.
And I worry the ‘dehumanizing’ is only going to get worse. With almost half of all jobs vulnerable to automation and blockchain threatening (promising?) to do away with the middleman, if these processes aren’t looked at through a compassionate, human lens, is our stressed out and disconnected society just going to get worse?
Am I really just a cog in the machine? Not worth more than $8 to you as a customer?
Wow. It’s time to do better.
Diane Currie Sam has worked for over 25 years across multiple industries to help her clients to initiate massive growth in their businesses, secure millions of dollars in funding and sales contracts, and initiate change through the power of strategic storytelling. She is the founder/CEO of “Be a Better Story” business services, and contributing columnist for Inc. Magazine. She has a Bachelor's of Science degree from the University of BC and a Masters of Arts in psychology from Trinity Western University.
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