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At Ally Bank, "Customer Service" Means Making Things Worse

Brian Cantor

For leading organizations, the customer service interaction is a mulligan. It is an opportunity to improve customer sentiment after a poor experience.

For Ally Bank, however, it is apparently an opportunity to pour salt into the wounds.

Driven to the online banking giant after years of enduring convoluted policies and frustrating customer service at one of the major commercial banks, I this Friday learned that Ally is not only an even worse offender but unapologetically so.

Resolution, arguably the truest benchmark of a successful service interaction, is apparently not part of Ally’s corporate culture.

As I prepared to leave my office for the Easter holiday on Friday, I checked to confirm my paycheck had been deposited into my new Ally Bank checking account. Unfortunately—though unsurprisingly, given my apparent magnetism for poor customer experiences—the balance still read $0.00.

Not wanting to return home without clarity on my money, I contacted Ally’s customer service line about the situation. The first rep, though very sweet, was clearly in a giggly, "holiday" mood on Good Friday and thus unable to assist. She transferred me to Casey (Kasey? Kacey?), who from the get-go displayed all the traits of a nightmarish customer service agent.

With a harsh vocal tone that reeked of indifference and frustration, her demeanor immediately signaled that my call was not important to her. The second I realized that I was apparently bothering her was the second I realized the improbability that she would resolve my issue. Still, I hated rushing to judgment and afforded her the opportunity to prove me wrong.

As we talked through the issue, she neither demonstrated empathy nor willingness to find a solution. I, as far as she was concerned, was in the wrong, and it was therefore not her job to resolve the situation. You know, because apparently working hard to do right by the customer is unwelcome in the call center.

After looking through my account, she determined that the account had been closed a day or two prior due to the lack of a deposit within thirty days of opening. As such, the bank—without notice or consideration of the circumstance—rejected the deposit.

That is right – a checking account with no required minimum balance was closed because no money was yet inserted into the account.

While this baffling, illogical concept is apparently built into the account terms, and I take responsibility for not knowing about it (it should, however, be noted that I submitted the paperwork to my employer the day after I opened the account; it is not my fault that the payroll department took two payment cycles to convert me to direct deposit), that alone does not excuse Ally’s poor service. As the deadline approached, Ally did not once send a phone or email notification—even an automated one—to warn of the impending closing.

And once Ally did close the account (without any grace period), it again did so without any notification. In fact, I was still able to login to my user profile, which effectively removed any chance of my knowing the account was closed. How, then, could I be expected to inform my employer about the situation?

That lack of transparency and notification continued throughout the process. I was not personally informed that Ally refused the incoming deposit; I only learned of the situation through my own effort and due diligence.

And here comes the kicker: in a follow-up on the matter Monday—three days after I was paid by my employer—I learned that confirmation of Ally’s rejection has neither reached the payroll processer nor my employer. So as of right now, there is no evidence that Ally refused the payment and thus no way for my employer to cut a new check.

After more than 30 minutes of conversation with an Ally representative Monday, the bank was still unable to provide a resolution. When I asked them to provide formal confirmation of the returned deposit to my employer, the agent’s "supervisor" determined he could accelerate the situation with notification in 1-2 business days! How is that helpful? How can a bank possibly let its (new) customer go one minute—let alone more than three days—without access to his paycheck?

Even if one disagreed with my initial outrage, he would be hard-pressed to justify Ally’s lack of resolution throughout the process. Clinging to policies without any regard for the customer’s actual situation is a clear signal of poor customer service. That the bank will not put forth any effort into rectifying this situation—especially since the situation now lies entirely with them—is one of the most egregious violations of customer-centricity I have ever witnessed.

Equally was the off-putting attitude exhibited by Casey and the follow-up agent who contacted me Friday evening. Throughout the calls, both demonstrated a smug rejection of my concerns, audibly sighing at my arguments, debating my understanding of certain issues and vehemently insisting that I was at fault.

At one point, Casey even violated a customer service cardinal sin by telling me that I seemed angry.

To all call center representatives, here is a tip: if you are bickering with the customer the way you would a boyfriend or girlfriend who showed up late to an anniversary dinner, you are doing customer service wrong.

Beyond their rude demeanor was their blindness to the fact that the required solution might require them to look beyond the almighty "policy." Customer service interactions should be about determining what can be done, and policies can serve as blueprints for how agents can help customers. They should not be used to excuse inaction.

But someone clearly forgot to give Ally’s representatives the memo, because they were confidently trumpeting the policy as an airtight argument for why no resolution was possible.

While I cannot excuse agents for their demeanor, lack of empathy or unwillingness to seek a creative solution, I can sympathize with their situation. Insofar as they are instructed to religiously follow the policy, it is hard to totally fault them for doing so when on a call with a disgruntled customer.

But, in a way, that almost makes the Ally Bank experience worse.

Bad agents are inevitable; even the most famously customer-centric organizations face the risk of an agent taking out his bad day on customers. But bad processes are not, and a truly-customer-centric organization develops policies that make things better, not worse, for the customer. And when faced with situations for which enforcement of the policy is inappropriate, those organizations empower agents to do what needs to be done to keep the customer satisfied.

Even if I were to look past the rude, dismissive service from agents like Casey (and I absolutely should not have to) there is no light at the tunnel. From all indications, the Ally Bank mechanism was designed to dismiss, rather than resolve, my situation. It was designed to belittle my concerns and deflect away all blame and sense of accountability.

And if that is the mindset…if the mindset is to show no compassion and even less resolve, Ally Bank does not deserve my business.

In analyzing my Ally Bank experience, here are some reminders:

He’s the Customer, You’re the Server – Particularly frustrating about my Ally Bank experience was the insistence that because I was at least partially to blame for my situation, finding a resolution should be on me. Wrong. Regardless of blame, in most situations, it is the business—not the customer—who possesses the power to achieve resolution, and with that power comes the responsibility to do so. A customer is not going to cease doing business with himself, but he will stop doing business with an unaccountable brand.

Demeanor Matters – While my issues with Ally Bank go beyond individual agent conduct, my initial interaction with Casey signaled so much about how the organization approaches customers. If the conversational tone of your agents casts any doubt on the notion that the customer’s concern is a pivotal business concern at that point-in-time, it is destroying the customer experience before the interaction even gets going.

Policies are to Help, Not to Excuse – For some reason, poorly-run businesses got it in their head that "policies" are lists of things brands cannot do for customers. Their real—and most valuable—use is in arming agents with a blueprint for actually assisting customers. If the policy does not provide a means of doing so—and in fact harms the customer—it should not be employed in the interaction.

Listen to Your Customers – Through all the insults, hostile comments, hold times, switches to supervisors and inactivity, Ally’s agents never once seemed interested in determining how they could make the situation right for me. I was just a random person with a direct deposit issue; I was not Brian Cantor, who needed X to happen by Y. While I get that businesses have restrictions on how they can aid customers, my needs should not have been so notably brushed aside. My suggestion that the bank, which has millions in capital, front the money it rejected and then follow-up with the payroll processer to reclaim the deposit was the one that made the most sense given the parties involved, yet no agent even gave it the time of day in the discussion.

When a customer outright tells you what he wants, how dare you ignore it!