Problem Resolution, etc.

Everyone always talks about “problem resolution” & its importance in determining customer satisfaction.

And, yes, it’s absolutely true!

The real worth of Customer Service is how the company reacts when there’s been a problem or an issue that negatively impacts a customer.

Regardless of “whose fault it was”.

You need to react quickly, accurately & constantly communicate through the process.

In certain businesses & situations, it may be best…for ALL parties concerned…to simply “make it right”.

Replace the product on the spot.

Reverse the charge without question or hesitation.

Make the customer whole.

But there are also situations, especially in the murky world of financial services where very few, if any, customers have advanced degrees in the Terms & Conditions (or even have read them).

Same goes true for the fine print, the stuff on the back of the statement, or the “rules” that are rarely obviously spelled out for the customer.

A lot of times, it seems to be trial & error. Learn as you go.

I’ve found that there are 2 approaches that I’ve found to be extraordinarily valuable in helping our customers, and even the employees, on dealing with issues & problems…ones that have already occurred & ones that can potentially happen.

The first wonderful tool that a business can utilize is the issuing of a “provisional/temporary credit” by the initial point of contact upon notification by the customer.

Back in the ‘80s, when I was running Customer Service back in NY, I worked on a task force that designed, created & implemented “Immediate Credit”.

When the customer & situation met certain eligibility criteria, we would “immediately” credit the customer’s account upfront, while still submitting a research request to our Investigations Dept to determine what actually happened.

Initially, the process was handled manually, that is, the Customer Service representative determined if all eligibility criteria (type of transaction, how executed, dollar amount in question, date, age of account, account in satisfactory status, etc.) were met in this situation & then the crediting of the customer’s account would take place within 5-10 minutes by one of the supervisors.

Later, when we started initiating/entering investigation requests directly into the system, the eligibility criteria were built into the business rules of the application itself.

If anything & everyone qualified, then the system would immediately reply (upon the representative hitting the “Enter” button) that the customer’s account had just been credited (funds were instantly available) & that a formal investigation request was also initiated.

Even though the customer was given immediate use to the missing funds (due to a misencoded check, a missing deposit, incorrect amount of a credit/deposit, ATM cash misdispense, etc.), Citi still reserved the right to thoroughly investigate the situation.

If the customer’s claim was indeed determined to be correct, then we notified the customer of our decision & the customer simply kept the credit they were given (even if they already spent it).

If we needed further information, e.g., copy of the cancelled check that was deposited, then we would contact the customer & request the needed information from him.

If we determined that the customer was incorrect in his claim, we would contact him with our findings, then debit (take back) the credit he was given upfront.

The whole process of, basically, “trusting the customer” was ENORMOUSLY SUCCESSFUL.

The customer was made while upfront based on what he told us, before we even had the opportunity to investigate it.

(Note: History had shown us that with the types of transaction types eligible for “Immediate Credit”, the customer was actually correct almost 98% of the time!

It only seemed logical to not keep them waiting (nor inconvenienced any longer) while we performed our behind-the-scenes investigation.

And if the customer was incorrect, we could always take back the credit we had issued at the initial point of contact.

Yes, we did encounter situations where the customer was indeed mistaken (lying?) about his claim & when we went to notify him, we saw that he closed the account & “took off” with our money.

We determined that this was an acceptable business risk, the cost of doing business & was more than offset by the incremental amount of high customer satisfaction that the program, in general, generated!

And, over time, we learned from these “take the money & run” situations where we got burned.

A scheme was perpetrated in NY where people would open new accounts with a few bucks, then (miraculously) would claim that a sizable deposit they made with a teller was suddenly missing, never posted to their account.

They’d call Customer Service & as soon as the account was instantly credited by the system upon entering of the investigation request on-line by the service rep, they would then withdraw the cash (often, literally seconds later)! Naturally, when we formally investigated the situation, they were never at the teller like they claimed & never made any type of the deposit.

They somehow knew the eligibility criteria for the Immediate Credit (we strongly believed it was an “inside job” involving one or more branch staff members) & “tricked the system” by making totally-false claims that, nevertheless, were eligible for Immediate Credit.

(Note: Upon the results of an internal investigation, we were able to trace the various account openings for these accounts that ripped us off to a couple of people that worked in a branch in the Bronx. They were immediately fired & we worked closely with law enforcement to pursue legal charges & restitution.)

We, of course, enhanced the built-in rules that the systems application employed & added a new “account opening date” as yet another eligibility criterion.

This is a program that could & should be incorporated by different financial services companies…assuming it hasn’t already been.

And, just in case, anyone was wondering, the system would not issue an Immediate Credit for any claimed discrepancy more than $5000 (in order to minimize our loss/risk exposure).

But upon request, there were situations (usually involving well-known, valuable business accounts making sizable deposits) were the granting of an Immediate Credit was, indeed, a prudent business decision.

As such, our senior service reps (in the “Sup Gate”, or Escalation Unit, had $10,000 limits on the system, as well as our Managers.

Certain Customer Service Assistant VPs & VPs had $25,000 limits.

(Yes, we trusted our people as well as our customers!)

Only I had a $100,000 limit on the system…

…though those spies that were hiding in the bushes surrounding my home made me somewhat, er, suspicious)!!! 🤪

Another important element is trying to maximize customer satisfaction is “future problem avoidance”.

Problem prevention.

Often times, effective customer education can help make customers “smarter” with regard to how things work. Not everything is clearly & easily understood, though the specifics are certainly buried deep in the account’s Terms & Conditions somewhere.

I’d comfortably guesstimate that 99% of all “bounced checks” (not honored for payment) are NOT the bank’s fault.

Either the customers are utilizing the on-line balances they see at the ATM, hear on the phone with IVR or view on on-line banking or the mobile banking app (and forgetting about checks they’ve written, but haven’t been presented/paid yet, upcoming deductions from their accounts, incoming auto debits from other companies to pay outstanding bills, etc.) when they’re writing out a check & not utilizing the balance in their checkbook register (if anyone still uses them).

Or they’ve recently made a sizable deposit (especially out-of-state checks), thinking they could immediately draw against that amount & not waiting the sufficient time for those deposited checks to “clear” (the anticipated time in takes their bank to get the funds from the bank on which the checks were written).

Unless they’re taught properly, they’ll continue to make the same mistake(s) & incur the same sizable fees for bounced checks!

So, customer education is an important element in helping to prevent future problem incidences.

Then there are the various products & services that your institution may offer to address certain situations.

“Overdraft protection” is probably offered by most banks on Checking accounts.

Citi, for example, has several programs that can help accelerate availability of funds on deposited checks (using the customer’s good banking history as well as eligible balances in other accounts) or prevent bounced checks (using funds in a savings account to “cover” the amount in question).

And I know that many, many other banks have similar programs.

If any of these programs require that the customer “apply” or “register”, then it’s incumbent upon the service reps to inform the customer, most especially, in those situation where such a service or product could’ve helped to avoid a bad situation for the customer.

And while I realize that these services were probably discussed or reviewed at account opening, it could be that some were not expressly offered or maybe, they were developed by the business AFTER the customer had already opened their account.

Studies have shown that most customers do not read their statements (be they paper or on-line) or even bother opening various mailings that look like solicitations.

Don’t assume that your customers spend any time at all mastering how your company operates.

Nor would they get straight As if tested.

It’s up to your service reps to not only serve as interpreters for their customers, but as teachers & advocates as well.

Remember, their true mission is to EXCEED customer’s expectations. That means provide the type of quality service that the customer never expected.

This used to be referred to as “WOWing the customer!”

And just like MBWA/Management By Walking Around, the One Minute Manager & other philosophies/practices from “the past”, they’re still as applicable & relevant today as they ever were!

Take a long look at your own businesses to see what opportunities may exist to improve customer satisfaction to the problem resolution process.

How can you move the “satisfaction phase” to the very front of the its life cycle instead of being the final step in problem resolution?

What can your people do to help educate the customer? Can the material used & information presented be more easily understood?

Should certain products & services be automatically opened or granted to the customer instead of asking for their permission first? (Always check with Legal & Compliance first!)

When I worked on Citi’s Terms & Conditions task force, I always pushed for the use of “simple English” when explaining stuff. The use of real-world examples can often clarify a pretty-complicated situation.

(Does anyone here remember the bathtub analogy of how a call center operates?)

If you look hard enough, and, especially if you’ve encountered a problem yourself (with any company at any time), use your personal experiences to identify some sore points or recognize what wonderful steps
those companies employed to make you feel valued.

To be honest, an experience I had with my American Express Gold Card (they immediately credited my account back when I complained about an-obviously erroneous charge from a restaurant in Boca Raton, FL…when I hadn’t been to Florida in a couple of years) got me thinking about how we could implement something at Citi.

Voila! Our Immediate Credit program began a few years later!

(On a side note, I also experienced a fraudulent charge on my corporate Diners Club charge back in the mid-80s, after we began Immediate Credit for the U.S. Retail Bank.

I wasn’t offered any sort of “immediate credit”, even though I had never been to that establishment.

Oh, BTW, Diners Club was OWNED by Citi!

I was forced to wait for a photo of the charge slip.

When I received it, I immediately called DC back. The charge slip by HANDWRITTEN (no card imprint!)…my name was misspelled (Laroso instead of LoRusso)… and that certainly wasn’t my signature.

I asked for a credit…NO!

“But you can clearly see my handwritten name is misspelled & by looking at my other charges, can easily determine that this signature is fraudulent!”

NO!

I first had to complete the affidavit it & mail it back to DC before they would credit my account.

Trust me, I would’ve cancelled the card right away if it wasn’t already required by Citibank for any corporate-reimbursable expenses.

Surely they would have extended professional courtesies to employees under the same corporate umbrella…NO!

Another side note: Diners Club was never really profitable in the U.S. (as opposed to their international franchises) & never even approached the success of its main competitor in the T&E card (Travel & Entertainment cards…no credit feature with high spending limits), American Express.

Aside from a much-smaller marketing & advertising budget, Diners Club suffered from a severe identity crisis…people believed that it could only be used for the purchase of meals!!!

I don’t know how many times I wrote to Corporate senior management (of Diners as well as Citi) to change the name to the “Citibank Diners Club card”.

“It’s much more than a dining card!”

Or, somehow, get rid of the”Diners” reference already.

No one listened.

Citi eventually sold the Diners Club International to Discover Card, with North American operations going to the Bank of Montreal in 2009.

Perhaps later in this blog thingie, I’ll tell you the story of when this special task force I was on paid a visit to the Diners Club site in Englewood, Colorado, its HQ & main Customer Service center.

Or maybe I’ll tell you now…

We were there to perform a feasibility study…with the eventual (desired?) result being that Citi’s behemoth MasterCard business would simply absorb DC’s operations in its existing infrastructure.

A month earlier, we did a similar feasibility study of Citi’s Student Loans operations building in Rochester, NY. Yes, we determined that Student Loans could, indeed, be operated under the Citi MasterCard operations umbrella…-and several months later, it happened & the Rochester site was closed down.

Apparently, the Chairman of Diners Club (Mr. Greenwalt?) caught wind of what Citi’s intention were & why we were actually there at his Englewood site.

The DC Chairman actually met us in the vestibule of the building & tried to read us the riot act!

“I know exactly why you’re here! You’re not gonna shut us down. I just spoke with Dick McCrossen (head of Citi Cards & the U.S. Retail Bank) last night & he gave me his personal assurance that he isn’t shutting us down!

Perhaps you guys should just return from wherever you came.”

We all put on our faces of total amazement & reassured him that we had no such intention in mind & merely merely requested by Mr. McCrossen to perform a site survey on your business.

I swear I thought he was gonna bring the Diners Club Calvary out to physically force us off the property.

Our task force leader (a very cool dude from Citi Cards’ main operations center in Sioux Falls, SD) calmly said, “You can certainly call Dick now if you’d like, if that’ll make you more comfortable.

But we have a job to do!”

The DC Chairman relented & allowed us in.

Afterwards, we prepared our study & presented same to senior management.

They did just as everyone had expected.

Right is not always might…might is always might.

Some may say, might is always right (as they makes the rules), but don’t forget, everyone has a boss. (And ALWAYS stick my your values & principles. When in doubt, I’m sure your company had a Corporate Ethics Committee with whom you can deal on a very confidential basis. Don’t be bullied!)

I always said that while I was at Citi, I didn’t really answer to my bosses & other members of my business’s & corporate’s senior management team. (And considering my leadership style & how I liked to operate, my bosses would probably admit the same thing about me!)

I was ultimately responsible to the Citigroup stockholders.

OK, we went off on a few tangents, but I hope you found this piece to be valuable (even if it merely confirmed what you already knew or believed).

Thank you yet again for listening to me ramble.

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