Sunday, October 16, 2005

Friendly Service Run Amok

Since our local Fleet Bank was taken over by Bank of America several months ago, there have been some changes in the approach to customer service that are totally well-meaning but which frankly bug me.

Whenever I walk into the branch (generally to deposit a check, since I use the ATM outside for withdrawals), one of the desk-bound officers always calls out a cheery "Good morning!" This of course obliges me to respond, and since I am rarely in an equally cheery mood the encounter leaves me feeling vaguely guilty. Why am I so grumpy to the nice lady behind the desk? The fleeting moment of introspection that results strikes me as unnecessary and unwelcome.

Then, if the line for the tellers is more than a couple of people long, the same officer will come over and ask, with a helpful smile, "What are you here for? Can I help?"

I mumble, "Making a deposit."

"Fine!" she chirps. "I can handle that for you!" And she takes my check and deposit slip, writes out a receipt, and whisks me on my way.

Very nice, except it bothers me to have only a hand-written receipt (rather than the computer-printed-and-dated receipt I get from the regular teller). Is it real? Is it official? How do I know the woman who claims to be a bank officer isn't really a scam artist who will keep my signed check for herself? (This has never happened, of course, but the possibility unnerves me.)

Petty quibbles, you may say. But this week they went too far. After I made one of my usual deposits with the teller behind the counter, she handed me my receipt and perkily asked, "Can I delight you with anything else today?"

Can I delight you . . . ?! Please! This is a bank! What on earth could she possibly do to delight me (short of handing me the combination to the big vault and saying, "Help yourself, we'll look the other way")? And does the wording of her statement mean she assumes that depositing my check has already delighted me? If so, I beg to differ. I was probably delighted to get the check in the first place. (As Robert Benchley once remarked, we freelancers need those checks to keep the wolf from getting upstairs into the bedrooms.) But putting the darn thing into my account strikes me as a routine transaction whose successful completion I ought to be able to take for granted.

I'm sure it's tough being Bank of America's vice-president of marketing. For "normal" people like me (i.e. not filthy rich patrons of "private banking" with dedicated account managers, tea served in china cups, etc. etc.) banking services are a standardized commodity that's practically impossible to differentiate. In their desperate efforts to retain customers and attract new ones, banks must feel driven to absurd efforts like these to "personalize" the service they offer. Unfortunately, the desperation is all too apparent.

What's more, I don't really want personal service when I do routine things like deposit money in the bank. The banker is not my friend and I don't want to feel obliged to act as though she is. Some days it takes all the energy I can muster to be nice to my real friends without extending the obligation to people like bank tellers, supermarket clerks, and the guys at the jiffy oil-change shop. If I wanted to be constantly surrounded by friendly people who know my name and my personal affairs, I would move to Mayberry or its 2005 equivalent (wherever that may be).

I guess I sound like a real grouch. And maybe I am. But I don't think I'm the only person who feels this way. Judging by advertising and comments in the media, there seems to be a general assumption that most Americans yearn for a return to "an old-fashioned feeling of community." Hence the attempts by companies like Bank of America to simulate that feeling in their customer service programs. But I think this is one of the many instances in which people tell pollsters what they think they're supposed to feel rather than what they actually feel.

If most people want the intimate feeling of small-town life, why have they moved by the millions to the impersonal cities or the equally impersonal, drive-everywhere, mall-culture suburbs? If they want personal service from a friendly store owner who knows their name, why have they abandoned Main Street to shop instead at Wal-Mart?

Yes, I know that the prices are lower at Wal-Mart, and that makes a big difference for some people. But most middle- and upper-middle-class people could pay a few per cent more at Joe's Housewares if they really yearned for a personal connection along with their vacuum cleaner bags and plastic freezer containers. I think that, like me, what they really want is to get in and out of the store without having to answer questions about how their kids are doing, how they enjoyed their vacation, and whether they'll be at the big game next weekend.

I think most people also prefer not being "friends" with the checkout gal at the supermarket (who rings up all their guilty pleasures, from bags of peanut M&Ms to boxes of frozen White Castle cheeseburgers) or with the guy from the drugstore (who knows whether or not they have hemorrhoids or color their hair or take Viagra).

And I definitely think they prefer not having to pretend to be "delighted" by run-of-the-mill service.

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