Monday, February 12, 2018 

Nota bene: Phone banking

I recently wanted to see what was going on with a check my bank had issued, which looked like it might have been lost in the mail. The first place I looked, naturally, was my phone.

Specifically, I checked my bank’s iPhone app, which showed that the money had left my account, but had no indication of whether it had entered the clearing system. I had no idea whether the check was merely lost in the mail, or whether someone had already intercepted and cashed it.

I happened to be walking past a branch of my bank, so I went in and asking at the front desk whether that check had cleared. The response ended up crystallizing for me one of the weirder customer-service hierarchies that I’ve come across of late.

The woman at the branch didn’t ask me to get in line and talk to a teller, and didn’t ask me to take a seat and wait for some other kind of banker to assist me. Instead, she said that I had to go home and log in to the bank’s website on my desktop computer. She (and everybody else at the branch) had more information on their systems than I did on my phone. But they didn’t have much more. The website, on the other hand, would. (I later worked out that if I used the mobile website rather than the app, that would be better than the app, and better than the branch, but less good than the desktop website.)

In any case, I went home, logged in, and found out what I had suspected: that the check had not yet cleared and was listed as “pending” in the system. That meant I needed to cancel the check, issue a new one, and – ideally – obtain the check number on the cancelled check, so that I could tell the recipient to tear it up if and when it finally arrived.

None of that was possible through the website, but all of it was possible from phone support. Which effectively brought the whole process full circle: my phone was both the most useless and the most useful way for me to get the service I needed from my bank.

The hierarchy seems to be, going from limited-information to full-service:

  • iOS app

  • Branch banking

  • Mobile website

  • Desktop website

  • Phone banking

This is not an intuitive ranking. Branches are expensive things, filled with high-value humans who should be better at solving customers’ issues than a phone bank somewhere. And there’s no good reason why information available on the web (which doesn’t have any kind of two-factor authentication) should not be available in the branch (which can always ask for ID on top of asking for your PIN).

But the fact is that banks in particular love to do things by phone if they possibly can. I recently tried to do a stock trade online, and got as far as an error message saying “nope, something went wrong, call this 800 number” before giving up. And when I got my mortgage, the bank pretty much insisted on communicating everything over the phone, to the point at which it took me weeks just to get them to put the details of my interest rate in writing.

I think that a couple of things are going on here.

First, we generally trust flesh-and-blood human beings more than we do faceless voices at the end of a phone tree and an interminable hold time. But in reality, a decently-trained phone-support person who spends all day dealing with customer-service issues is going to be better at that job than a bank teller who spends most of their day dealing with cash transactions. Banks are complicated organisms, and tellers can’t be expected to understand most of their ins and outs.

Second, the main purpose of a branch should be to do things which require human contact. Most obviously, that’s anything involving cash or signatures, but increasingly it’s also sales: humans are better at pushing credit cards or other banking products than phone-support people are. There’s nothing intrinsic to Things Going Wrong which is best solved at the branch level, not now that branches have been effectively disempowered by head office and are given almost no discretion in terms of what they can do for their customers.

Similarly, websites and apps are optimized for expected things that people want to do on a pretty regular basis. An app makes it easy to check your balance; a website allows you to set up a regular payment to the electricity company. They’re not designed to fix things which are broken, because those use cases are far too granular and gnarly and unpredictable.

Which means, sadly, that phone support is here to stay: We’re all going to continue to sit on hold on telephones for the foreseeable future, even those of us who hate to phone anybody.

I do however have one piece of advice which can get you to spend much less time on hold: If it’s not time-sensitive, try the Twitter backchannel instead. (Most #brands have open DMs for just this purpose.) The Twitter folks can take the time needed to fix stuff, and can often come up with solutions that the phone folks, who have to work in real time, cannot. I wouldn’t use Twitter to try to cancel a check. But for something like unsnarling a bollixed flight reservation, it can be extremely useful.