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The customer always remembers

Not long ago, I got robbed. A thief managed to penetrate a locked door to steal my wallet. I lost a little bit of money – no big deal. But I lost all of my various cards. Even before I phoned the police, I called my bank, to have my credit cards canceled. No problem said the bank, we’ll send you new cards in a few days. In the meantime, my friendly banker suggested that I present myself at any local branch to make cash withdrawals of any funds I’d need until I could once again EFTPOS and charge to my heart’s content.

As it was late in the afternoon, I immediately set off to the bank. After I withdrew some money, the teller paused for a moment. “Looking at your savings accounts, do you know we can give you a better interest rate?” she said. I told the teller I knew all about their higher interest-bearing accounts but didn’t fancy the withdrawal restrictions, so I’d decided against opening one. “Fair enough,” she replied.

A few days later, I needed some more cash, so I walked into another branch, presented myself at the teller’s booth, and made a withdrawal. Everything went smoothly, until, the transaction was completed, the teller paused for a moment. “We can get you a better rate on your savings account,” she told me. At which point I again explained that I knew all about that offer, but had decided against it. I walked out wondering if my bank’s employees had received some sort of instruction to up-sell me into a different savings account.

Two days later – at the same branch I’d just visited – I went to the inquiries counter, to settle some details involving my brand-new credit card. That sorted, the teller paused for a moment, then – yes, you guessed it – he asked me if I knew that my bank could give me a better rate on my savings.

At this point, I lost my temper. Yes, I said, I knew it perfectly well. I had been told three times in the past week. By people at the bank. By people at this branch. Why I asked, do you keep on asking me the same question every time I pop in?

The teller seemed a bit surprised by my reaction. Well, sir, he replied, not every customer is as well-informed as you are. We just want to help people make the best decisions with their money.

“That’s great,” I responded. “But why don’t you know that you’ve asked me the same question three times this week? Every time you ask, I politely decline. Would you please explicitly add to my account information that no one at the bank is ever allowed to offer me financial advice ever again?” (Which seems a bit rash in retrospect, but I was somewhat annoyed.) After he made the note and apologized a few times, I left the bank angry and disappointed. It was clear that as far as my bank was concerned, I didn’t exist.

Compare that with my local café, where I do most of my writing. When I walk in, they know to start brewing my decaf soy flat white (yes, I’m a rebel), and they also know that once I’ve tossed it back, I’ll be ready for a thrilling peppermint tea. They’ve learned these things about me simply by being there, day after day. People learn from one another, it’s what we do. The more time we spend together, the more we learn from one another. If only it were the same with institutions.

Back when banks were small, the branch manager knew you well enough to anticipate your needs. It was their job to manage all of the human relationships that made the business possible. They would remember if they’d made an offer of a better interest rate. Now that banks have hundreds of branches and tens of thousands of employees, that personal touch has completely disappeared. But only on one side of the equation. The customer still remembers every interaction they have with your business.

What looks like a series of discrete and disconnected incidents to a business, feels like a continuing relationship to the customer. When that relationship falls apart – because the business can’t capture the important elements of that relationship – the customer feels hurt.

I have a friend who works at the executive level in my bank. He apologized profusely when I told him what had happened, informing me the bank had the best customer relationship management (CRM) platform in the industry. Well, I shot back, they’re not using it. CRM restores to big organizations the kind of personal memory they have long since lost. But if employees don’t use these tools – if they don’t understand how important the tool is to the happiness of the customer – every customer interaction will be cold and empty. Many customers will go away disappointed, and that business will suffer. What would it take to bring that kind of memory and thoughtfulness to your own business? It’s a question that is well worth answering.

Mark Pesce is the co-inventor of the VRML and founder of Future St, a Sydney media and technology consultancy. He was formerly one of the judges on ABC’s The New Inventors.

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