How Hurricane Sandy changed my banking relationship

November 5, 2012

The quality of a relationship is often determined not by how one behaves in the best of times but rather by what happens during the worst of times. The anticipation and aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has clarified all kinds of relationships: personal, professional and commercial.

As one of the many who was affected by the storm (but also, one of the lucky ones who lost only my creature comforts and nothing more) I was fascinated by the differences in the communications of various companies. In particular, I was struck by the stark contrast between the three large banks at which I hold accounts. What each of them said — and how, when and how often they said it — affected my feelings towards the bank and its brand. I don’t think often about my banks in good times, but how they talked to me in the bad times will have a lasting affect on how I relate to them and view them as a brand.

Chase Bank: Chase first emailed me the evening of Sunday October 28th, in anticipation of the storm. The subject line was “To our valued Chase customers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut” and the body explained that they would be proactively waiving a variety of fees until Wednesday. The tone was conversational and empathetic (“We hope you, your families and your customers are safe. Natural disasters are very stressful and we want to help where we can”). They followed it up with an email on Tuesday night that also had a very human touch. The subject line was “We're here to help you after Hurricane Sandy” and in it, they provided sympathy for those affected, offered a clear explanation of their own damage, set expectations for their recovery efforts and extended the fee waiver time period. Another check-in email arrived with similar tone and content on Thursday afternoon. All in all, I was left with a feeling that Chase thought of me as a person and cared about me as a person.

Citibank: The first email I received from Citibank arrived early Monday morning with the functional subject line “Service Communication Regarding Hurricane Sandy.” They attempted to personalize the greeting but used both my first and last name, which defeated the goal of me feeling like more than just an entry in their database. And although their first sentence wished me well, they quickly noted they would “like to make [me] aware of services that are always available…” The rest of the email was a prompt for me to reach out to their customer service representatives with no fewer than 15 different phone numbers to use, depending on product I might be concerned about. On Tuesday night, they emailed with an “Updated Communication Following Hurricane Sandy” where they clearly were attempting to be more human. The first line, in bold blue, states “We’re here to help” and they announced a waiver of fees. Although they got off to a rocky, impersonal start, they tried to make up for it. But my taste had already been somewhat soured. It was going to take a lot more effort to win my affections back.

Bank of America: I have to caveat this by saying that I only have a credit card with them, so perhaps their banking customers received different communications. But I didn’t hear from Bank of America until Wednesday morning with the subject line “Hurricane Sandy Relief.” The email explained I could extend my credit with them — which struck me as rather opportunistic, although they, too, offered to waive fees in the coming days. But even that seemed mercenary to me: what about any fees I might incur in the future from my newly extended line of credit?

How banks view their customers and the relationships they attempt to build reflects on what they value as a company. Banks build their brands by how they do business (such as products and branch operations) and by what they say about their business. When hard times hit, customers are sensitive. Communication matters even more and companies need to pay attention beyond the practical point they are trying to make. Tone, timing, context, frequency, and messaging channel all indirectly influence how brands are perceived.

If companies haven’t established and stated internally what kind of relationship they want to build with clients, it directly affects their ability to deliver on-brand in both action and communication. Ultimately, I’m always going to prefer to put my money (literally) behind the companies that have thought through how they want me to feel about them and consistently deliver on making those promises a reality.

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