The System’s name was HAL

Business Systems: they can be friend or foe, Jekyll and Hyde, the Wicked Witch of the West, or our white knight in shining armor.  The Calvary or a swarm of locust…  Unfortunately for businesses and customer alike all too often these systems become HAL from Stanly Kubrick’s 1968 Oscar winning “2001: A Space Odyssey”.  HAL was the space ship’s computer who could talk and mimic the human brain.  If you’re familiar with the movie then you know that things didn’t work out so well for the five astronauts that HAL, was supposed to support.


A few weeks ago I opened a line of credit with Wells Fargo Bank.  I have several other accounts with WFB.  Deciding to establish a personal line of credit with them was a no brainer: I already do a lot of business with them; my accounts are all linked together for easy online viewing, account transfers, and for the most part the service has been pretty good; the choice was easy.  I met with a banker who was reasonably knowledgeable about the product offerings and details.  She pulled me up in the system and was quickly able to see all my information.  Not surprisingly she had all my personal information at her fingertips.  She even had my oldest son’s new address even though he has not banked with WFB since moving back from the east coast three years ago.  That actually surprised me and I wondered “how is that possible”, but hey, it’s a system.

A few days later I get a call to say the line of credit was approved; great, still easy. I went on line to view my WFB accounts and saw that I was charged an annual fee of $25 for this line of credit.  I was surprised because the banker didn’t mention the fee when she set up the line of credit.  I was also a little miffed that Wells would charge me to do more business with them.  I called the banker and asked her to arrange for the fee to be waived.   She said she would take care of it; so still relatively easy and overall it was still a good customer experience… but heading south.  Three times over the course of the next week I had to call the banker to see why the annual charge had not been reversed.  She finally told me after the third call she thought she could reverse the fee and found out she was wrong.  The annual fee was a non-negotiable charge for this line of credit.  There was nothing she could do.  It was just “how the system worked”.  Her hands were tied; nada, Kaput, you lose… and thanks for playing.  She apologized profusely.  Thankfully there was no charge for that.  I was still however, out twenty five bucks and now even more determined because the dollars turned to principle which is never a good thing for a merchant; at least not when I’m the customer.

I called WFB Customer Service (at the number directed to in my “thank you” form letter from WFB).  I explained my request to Tiffany who was very pleasant.  She looked up my accounts and promptly told me she couldn’t help me.  I needed to speak with a different call center.  Tiffany transferred me and, to her credit, stayed on the line until I was handed off to Diana.  After a quick look at my accounts Diana told me (yep) that she couldn’t help me either; wrong department again.  Diana transferred me to another call center and I spoke with Brittany who confirmed I was the right place.  Great.  Brittany was looking at my info in the system and proceeded to tell me all the reasons the annual fee could not be waived;  the system would not allow it;  there was no way to override the system; it’s just how it is and there was nothing she could do.  Brittany became quite annoyed when I asked to speak with someone who was willing to discuss solutions.  She finally agreed to have a manager speak with me but sternly warned me before she put me on hold, “I’ll get a manager but they are just going to repeat what I already told you”.  Seriously, she said that!   I waited 15 minutes for a manager, Megan, who finally came on the phone and told me that because I had premier customer status there would be no problem in waving this fee.  How easy was that?  NOT!

The root of this issue is very HAL-like.  We rely on our systems to make things easier and often they do; easier for the merchant but not necessarily for the customer.  If not managed correctly these systems, similar to HAL killing astronauts, can kill customer loyalty.  The outcome of the issue was a lost opportunity.  Manager Megan saw my info in “the system” and was quickly able to meet my original request.  Unfortunately the request had turned into a matter of principle so the game was lost three call centers ago.  Tifffany, Diana, and Brttany either didn’t have access to the same info Megan did, had access but didn’t understand it, or had access but were not empowered to act on.

Worse, why didn’t the banker that set up the line of credit have access to this information?  And therein lays the real missed opportunity. Instead of reinforcing my customer loyalty the banker pressed buttons, filled in electronic forms, pushed enter on her keyboard and sent me on my way.  How easy it should have been for the banker to say, “Mr. Morales, there is usually a $25 annual fee associated with our personal lines of credit but because we value you as a customer and appreciate your business we are waiving that fee”.  It should have been easy but apparently the original “banker” only had Tiffany/Diana/Brittany system access and in the end she was denied by the very system intended to help her do a good job.

I’m not a genius (sorry to break the news) but one doesn’t need to recognize a missed opportunity. To use a football analogy, instead of walking into the end zone for an easy go ahead score, Wells Fargo Bank fumbled on one yard line and lost the game due to a game plan that didn’t support the players.  Like the tag-line of this blog says, “more often than not it’s the little things that make a big difference in customer satisfaction and brand loyalty”.  Getting what you expect or ask for is not a substitute for a great service experience.   And systems are not a substitute for great people.

Towards the end of the movie 2001:  A Space Odyssey,  HAL begins taking aggressive steps he thought were necessary to save the mission including killing all but one of the astronauts on board the space ship. In the end, the ship’s commander, Dave, is able to shut down HAL and regain control of the ship and mission.  But things were never really the same. It was either too late or too confusing depending on one’s perspective.  One thing for sure:  it wasn’t easy.


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