The “friendlier” bank: real effort or marketing ploy?

Laura Pryor 06/05/13 - 7:14 pm

“Human Banking” is a trend in marketing for financial services.  It is not, as I first surmised, the harvesting and storage of human organs.  I guess I’ve watched a few too many dystopic sci-fi films.

What the term Human Banking refers to is the recent effort by banks to be (or appear) friendlier, more flexible, and more caring than they have in the past.  Extended hours, treats for your dog, reduced fees,  pens without chains—these are just a few of the features now  touted by banks to convince customers that they are nicer than that other bank.

These efforts beg the question: why?  Why do banks suddenly care about appearing friendly?  Bankers have had a less than chummy reputation for decades, since before Mr. Potter put the screws to the citizens of Bedford Falls. Do they suddenly feel guilty for years of icy rigidity? 

In a word, no.  The answer is that, in a struggling economy, competition for customers is tighter than ever.  Low interest rates and stricter regulations on mortgages mean that banks are hard-pressed to differentiate their services from their competitors’.  One bank’s products are pretty much the same as another’s.  The only area for differentiation available: customer service. Hence Human Banking.

TD Bank, a large East Coast concern (headquartered in Canada) with branches in fourteen states, has taken this message to heart.   In their TV spots, they count coins for children, trust you with their pens,   and stay open longer for us working folk.  The slogan:  “It’s time to bank human again.”

Huntington Bank, a Midwestern bank with most of its branches in Ohio and Michigan, has also jumped on the Human Banking bandwagon.  Its radio campaign tells the tale of “Ben the Huntington Banker: the Early Years.”  In each spot, Ben’s parents grouse about their bank’s failings—draconian overdraft policies, fees,  and limited hours—and young Ben vows to someday become a banker and address these issues.  Fast forward 15 years and Ben works at Huntington Bank, instituting policies such as 24-Hour Grace: an extra 24 hours to deposit funds into your account before being charged an overdraft fee. 

While these efforts should be applauded, there seem to be some problems in their implementation.  In a blog post entitled, “Huntington Bank’s 24-hour Disgrace,” Columbus blogger Tom Stone claims that the policy is a scam.  He writes, “They only give you more time if you have an OVERDRAFT. And you only technically have an “OVERDRAFT” if they choose to pay that item rather than RETURN it. When they choose to NOT PAY IT but instead RETURN IT, they do charge you — the full $37.50.”

Similarly, TD Bank’s Facebook page fields quite a few comments such as ““The worst bank ever! A lot of fees and no customer service” and “Get off my fb.  I have no interest in your propaganda . . . And no, I don’t want a free fkn pen.”  (In their defense, there are also some positive comments, such as, “I love this bank.”) 

If you’re handling marketing for a bank or credit union, take the hint: it’s not enough to say you’re a friendly, helpful bank.  You have to follow through.  How’s your bank doing?  Are they living up to their customer service claims . . . or is your bank a bit less than human?

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