19 December 2008

Every Vote Counts

This morning, WNYC radio ran a great segment (reported by Siddhartha Mitter) about some young, first-time voters in New York - students at the Boroigh of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) - and their experience and written recollections of the process.

It's worth a listen if, like me, you believe strongly in the importance of voting. It's also worth a listen if, like me, you believe that finding ways to express clearly one's ideas is critically important - which is what Professor Suzanne Guillette's English class seems to be about.

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17 December 2008

College Philanthropy

Read my open letter to my college classmates, Hampshire Colleges class of 1989, over on the other side.

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14 December 2008

Brand Death

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I can admit this: I love my bank. And so it’s a shame that it’s probably going to die soon, a casualty of both corporate greed and a fundamental failure to understand customer service.

For security reasons, I can’t tell you the bank’s name. I can tell you that it began as a small bank focused on high-quality service—a boutique bank. My bank was so successful with this boutique strategy that it was acquired by a much larger investment company, which saw the opportunity represented by a return to personalized service rather than a perpetual attempt to dominate so-called “retail” banking. Fortunately, it survived the take-over, because the new parent company understood the value of the high-quality mantra.

Unfortunately, the parent company was not as successful in its own right. It fell prey to the lure of poorly rated and over-leveraged investments, the kind that have been the self-created scourge of Wall Street. My bank was just fine; it apparently avoided making many bad loans or sacrificing banking principles for fast transactional cash. But it was now under the umbrella of a dangerously sick company. And that company was itself acquired a couple of months ago, amidst the furious flurry of collapsing card houses, by one of the biggest and most ubiquitous banks in the country.
“Brand equity” is hard to build and easy to destroy. Just look at General Motors, which last week printed a letter apologizing for having disappointed customer. Apparently four decades later isn’t too late to say you’re sorry.

In the banking world, brand equity was once seen as important. It was right up there with “presence,” which seemed to result in an attempt at global domination of the world’s real estate markets by any bank worth its depositors’ salt. “BankLand,” I called, it back in 2006. Commerce Bank, for instance, was “presence” pioneer, promoting the idea of bank hours that were useful for customers, not just banks. Commerce built a tremendously successful brand around this: so successful that it was attractive to bank robbers and, eventually, to Toronto-Dominion Bank, otherwise known as TD Bank. TD took over, did nothing for a little while, and then in a matter of days, rebranded their entire New York and Jew Jersey area branches. Some folks didn’t like it. And I cannot say that I blame them.

It isn’t that TD Bank is bad, or that Commerce Bank was good; I don’t know either of them, except for occasionally using the ATM machine. But I sympathize with the customer who wonders where his bank went. People grow attached to things—and after all, it’s that human attachment that makes branding and marketing work. That’s why press releases announcing such mergers, which describe the research involved in developing a new brand is, to be blunt, a load of crap.

None of this is about, or driven by, customer service—or even the slightest and most basic business school understanding of brand equity ,or value, or whatever jargon you’d like to use. All of these acquisitions and subsequent re-brandings are driven by a desire to create a business that looks appealing enough that some bigger, richer corporation, with its own set of faux-aspirations for its shareholders, will want to buy it. Buy it in a takeover that, at a minimum, rewards the “C-class” executives who will be credited and duly compensated for engineering the merger. Customers be damned; shareholders, too.
Despite the credit crisis we are suffering through, the flood of junk mail from banks continues to flow to my mailbox unabated. The banks must think that one day I’ll wake up and decide I desperately want a credit card that will earn me mileage points on an airline that in a few months may not exist. Talk about optimism! No thanks, folks.

In their corporate ivory towers, they don’t get it—and don’t care. What I’m looking for in a bank is not so hard to achieve: good service rather than national presence; a banker who knows who I am when I call, because their employees take their jobs seriously and stick around long enough to get to know me, and to know me not just as customer service agents but as bankers. I want, in short, a neighborhood bank, even if it’s not literally in my neighborhood.

But most corporate bankers today don’t seem to get it. Customers may not care whether their bank has a parent company, and whether that parent company has other banks with other names. We want what customers have always wanted from the banks: solidity, consistency, and good service. Does the name matter? Not really—except that when it changes all the time it undermines any sense of solidity or consistency, and invariably winds up substituting big-corporate “service” for the trusted employees we know.

So, when my bank was acquired by a new company, “Shit!” was my immediate (and eminently self-interested) response. Eventually, much like the old Shel Silverstein poem, I feared that this new, boa-like swallowing bank will reach the head and it’ll all be over. Jobs will be lost, branches will close, my banker will be gone, my account will be rolled into this new bank’s system … and the odds are that within six months I’ll go looking for another small bank to be my financial helpmate. C’est la vie.

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07 December 2008

Today's post