Customer Service in the Digital Age: The Eternal Lament

I wrote a couple weeks ago that lots of big financial services companies are alienating their customers because their interactions with them are so lousy. Their customer-facing business processes don’t seem to take into account that we now live in a global and digitally-connected world, and that we’ve got ‘always on, always on you’ technologies.

My recent experience with credit-card giant Capital One showed me, unfortunately, just how accurate that post was.

I was in India last week speaking at the EmTech conference and meeting with some of the country’s largest technology companies. I had one large-ish charge refused by Capital One while I was there, and then started getting notices this week from Netflix, TiVo, and others that they were no longer able to charge my Capital One card. Faced with all this evidence that my primary personal card no longer worked, I called them up.

The first step of the call, of course, was to enter my card number and last four digits of my SSN using my phone’s keypad. The second step, of course, was to repeat them aloud to the person who came on the line. I’m so used to this lack of integration and implied low-level contempt for my time that I hardly even notice it any more.

I listened while Capital One’s customer service rep, who was clearly doing a lot of reading from a script (and sounded no more happy to be on the call than I was) reiterated all the charges that I knew had been refused. I told her that they were all OK, then asked her if I could somehow tell Capital One that I travel a lot internationally so that this kind of thing wouldn’t happen any more. Since I’ve had that card for a while and already used it around the world, I’m not sure why I even needed to tell the company this.

She told me that there was no general setting I could affect, but that I could call the company up before each trip abroad to let them know. I then asked her how I was supposed to know whether Capital One refused a single charge, or took the most drastic step of deactivating my card. And here things got truly surreal. “We sent you a letter,” she said.

To make sure I was hearing right I asked her if the company really sent a physical letter to my home address in the US alerting me that it had deactivated my card in response to an attempted charge in India. She said that was, in fact, what had happened.

I still didn’t quite believe it, so I went to the big pile of mail that had accumulated during the trip and found a couple envelopes from Capital One. The first one I opened informed me that my application to auto-pay my bills (an application that was also received and submitted via snail mail) had been refused because I hadn’t included a voided check. The second one was, in fact, the notice of deactivation.

It stated that “We have been unable to reach you to verify that these charges are legitimate.” Probably because they didn’t try. I checked my phone calls, email inbox, and message center at, and found nothing.

My card works again now, for the time being, but I’m not sure the relationship with Capital One is worth saving. The combination of dysfunction, inaccuracy, and gross inefficiency evident in their recent dealings with me are a lot to overlook. I don’t think the company actively dislikes me or wants to waste my time; I just think their customer-facing processes are so poorly designed that it appears that way.

I wondered a while back why customer service at giant financial services companies is generally so bad, and I’m still puzzled. Instead of emailing me or sending a text when a suspicious international charge took place, they mailed a letter? They expected to get away with saying that were unable to reach me, when they didn’t try? How is this still happening in 2011?

I realize that large credit card companies are complicated enterprises, and that they have to do a lot of things. But isn’t interacting smoothly with the people who hold their cards one of their most important tasks? Don’t they go out of business relatively quickly if we all stop using their cards?

I really am fascinated and puzzled by the amazingly bad design and execution of customer-facing processes among financial services firms. I wonder when, if ever, it’s going to catch up to them and start hurting their business. As I wrote before, this will probably happen only when competitors appear who take process design and execution seriously, and digitize them to the maximum extent possible.

Do you know of any such companies in the financial services industry? Are there any who are interacting beautifully, or at least non-contemptuously, with their customers? Leave a comment, please, and let us know. I’m looking to make some changes…