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Did You Know They Can Do This?

June 5, 2017

For some time, I’ve had a creeping feeling of powerlessness in the face of corporate bureaucracy.  Ever since Mitt Romney gave us that business about corporations are people too, it seems like they have more rights than me.

Things like phone companies not letting you carry over unused minutes come to mind.  You paid for it, but you didn’t use it.  Bye bye.

But phone companies are positively charitable compared to banks.

Banks seem to have this attitude that any cost they incur is supposed to be covered by customers.  Or, if the loss is big enough, the tax payers.

This was brought home to me recently when I received a $60 check from a Fortune 500 company.  Which I duly deposited in the bank.

A few days later I got an advice in the mail saying that the check had been returned to the company due to insufficient funds and that for trying to deposit a bad check I was being penalized $12.00.  The fee was 20% of the check amount.

My first thought was WTF, the economy must really be bad if blue chip companies are bouncing checks.

My second thought was WTF is the bank charging me for?  How was I supposed to know?  What did I do wrong?

I have to admit that the thought of trying to sort out the problem was terrifying.  But I girded my loins and called the 24 x 7 customer service line.

After pressing “1” for English and a few other numbers for other things, I navigated through the tense moments of trying to remember if my secret question was my first pet’s name or my favorite teacher’s name.  Duly verified, I then had the pleasure of telling a computer what my problem was.  You know that faux-friendly and encouraging voice that says, “Please tell me in a few words how I can be of help” and never understands what you are saying?

Because the conversation may have been being taped for training purposes, I didn’t say what came to my mind, but rather said, “Returned check fee.”

“You want to open a checking account?”

I’ll spare you the entire dialogue but after a few iterations, I wasn’t able to control myself and said “I want to talk to someone other than a ***** machine.”

“You want to know the location of the nearest ATM machine?”

At that point I was pretty sure that their strategy was for me to say “it’s only twelve bucks, forget about it.”  But this was getting personal.  I finally got “Press pound to speak to a customer service representative.”  Which is what I’d been trying to do for the past ten minutes.

I wonder if the people answering the phones at the bank call center know that the people they are talking to have just been subjected to an exercise in frustration guaranteed to put them in a state of mind that is not conducive to rational discussion.

But, again remembering that the call may be getting recorded for training purposes, I maintained a pleasant demeanor when a person came on the line and asked how he could help.  I was polite and friendly, asking about his day, the weather where he was and all that.

Then I got to the point.  I was reasonable, suggesting perhaps that a mistake had been made.

All to no avail.  I got a polite but stern lecture that as result of presenting the check to the bank, I had initiated a series of Herculean efforts on their part to process the check and they had incurred costs, only to find that I was wasting their time.  So not only did I not get the money I’d deposited, but twelve bucks was being taken out of my account to compensate the bank for me having inconvenienced them so thoughtlessly.  The semi-scripted lecture the guy gave me actually had me thinking I’d done something wrong.

I reasonably inquired as to whether the bank had in fact expended twelve dollars worth of effort during the process.  After all, McDonalds seems to go to a lot more effort to give me a burger and they don’t charge that kind of money.  Could he send me the details of the charge?


At some point you feel as if you’re talking to the computer again and you don’t care if the call is being recorded for training purposes.  I asked the guy if he thought the charge was fair or reasonable.  I told him I didn’t think it was totally legal because there was no way I could avoid the fee.

He agreed that I couldn’t have known that a check from a Fortune 500 company would bounce, but I could have avoided the fee if I hadn’t presented the bad check.  Further, he advised me helpfully that if I maintained a balance over $200,000, all fees would always be magically waived.  That wasn’t very helpful!

We were at an impasse but I wasn’t going to give up. And we continued to talk.  Things escalated.  Over twelve lousy bucks!  I’ll spare you the details, but I played the let me talk to your manager card and voila, they finally reversed the fee.  It was the hardest twelve bucks I’d ever earned.

And of course, the conversation ended on an upbeat note “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

What scares me most about the whole thing is the way it unfolded.  First I interacted with a machine and communicated by pressing buttons.  Then I interacted with a machine which tried to guess what I was saying.  Then I had a lengthy interaction with a disempowered human and finally got someone able to resolve the situation.

When you consider that human jobs are being replaced by computers and robots, I bet you some cost accountant at the bank is looking at the customer interface process and putting their finger on a blip in the cost curve that shows that human interaction is the most expensive part of the process.

Can you imagine negotiating with a perfectly logical robot?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rene permalink
    June 5, 2017 8:03 pm

    Thanks for the story. Yes I know they can do this because they treat us as slaves instead of clients. We should all cut up our bank cards and pay everything cash again. As soon as we start doing that, the whole ‘system’ of these worldwide corporates start collapsing.
    Banks are part of what I used to call the Big 5: banks, pharmaceuticals, telecoms, food and oil giants. They rule the world. They have now the big 6 because the group I call ‘AIR’ (i.e. Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc) have grown even bigger than the other five. And the worst of all is that this group is now on top of the world whereas they ‘produce’ nothing more than air. But still, we all use them as slaves as if they are important for our survival.

  2. June 6, 2017 4:07 am

    Sounds like you did your lolly when talking to that machine!

  3. June 6, 2017 5:03 am

    I have an eternal animus toward those robot voices that ask you to interact with them on the absurd premise that some sort of intelligence is responding, when what you are actually doing is guessing frantically what words are pre-programmed into the thing. I always bypass them as quickly as possible, though usually not before shouting obscenities at them.

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