The Power Of The Customer

I fired my bank. A few days ago I closed my account with Whidbey Island Bank. I started that account in 2005, very soon after moving to Whidbey Island. They were a bit surprised, and inquisitive, but weren’t about to change anything with the way they did things, so I exercised the power that customers have. I am no longer doing business with them. 

Closing my account is far from being a major impact on their operations. I was probably more of a nuisance and maybe even an expense because my balances got so low. They didn’t realize that was because I’d been shifting funds for months to other finance institutions as each has offered advantages that were tangible. I’ll give the bank teller credit (an interesting term to use with a bank) for asking the right question. “Why are you closing the account?” Well, let me tell you.

Getting an account with Whidbey Island Bank was a no-brainer. I moved off the mainland to get away from mega-corporations, the anonymity of the city (or even the burbs), and to simplify my life. Move to Whidbey. Bank with Whidbey. Made sense to me.

Don’t expect any great drama. It’s a bank. It shouldn’t be dramatic. 

For the first couple of years it worked well enough. Predictable. One nice thing about banking in a small town is people. They weren’t tellers. They were people. I didn’t feel like a customer. I felt like a neighbor dropping by for them to help with a chore. While that may seem natural to some and fictional to others, it is possible for people to treat people as if they are people. And they did.

The first smudge on our relationship was the flip flop of buying a house with a mortgage from them. Yay, and thanks. I’m doing business on the island which hopefully helps the island’s economy. Shop local! Which within a few months they sold off to a national brand. Sigh. OK. That’s just business. 

Banking life got back to boring, and actually somewhat engaging. One time I walked in, I was the only customer and there were three people behind the counter. One of them was a very good dancer. There was a good waltz on the radio. She came around from behind the counter. One of the others turned up the music. The other video-ed the two of us waltzing around the lobby. Sweet and fun. (The video exists, but it’s trapped behind Facebook privacy walls.)

Another time I made the simple mistake of leaving my card in the ATM. Three times in about two months. They retrieved it each time, one time suspecting I didn’t notice, once at the very close of business, and they never complained. We even made jokes about it.

Nice. 

And then came the change. They were bought out. Instead of a local bank based locally, it would now be a regional bank. At least it wasn’t national or international. They’d keep the name Whidbey, but the changes began to filter in: stationery, web sites, promotions, policies, etc. To me the feel went from a bank in the neighborhood to a remote business that just happened to be a bank. Maybe I never learned the tricks, but it seemed to be harder to call my branch without being routed through some call center. The web site Help desk seemed more focused on software than finances, as if turning it on and off again works as well for mis-directed checks as it does with a computer. To get through to my account I had to keep clicking on the box telling them to turn off their reminders, basically their popup ads. 

These were things to note, and even mention; but they are also so much the norm that I accepted them as the downsides of the modern world. I mentioned them, but I accepted them.

Let’s skip ahead a few years to when they decided to close the branch closest to my house, the one with my safety deposit box. Rather than move the contents, I emptied the box. I just had that feeling that, if they were leaving my community behind, I wasn’t required to move with them. 

Then I began realizing that the people in the bank were changing. The ones I knew were showing up at other banks, like the one I used for my business account. I dropped in on a new bank to help a friend and saw a few of them there, too. Recently I went into my bank to handle something for my account and I realized I didn’t recognize anyone there. Maybe they were there, but I know the dancer was gone, and so was the rest of the crew. 

Who was I doing business with?

Then the big panic came. My truck broke down as my business was struggling during the pandemic. (A Jeep Dancing And Credit) When I asked for help I’ll guess they tried, but when I visited one of the competitors, one that had many of the employees from the old bank, the feeling was back to friendly. Regardless of who had the better terms, when I’m dealing with anxiety-producing financial issues I want to deal with someone who is aware of the personal aspect of personal finance. I now have an account and a home loan with Savi Bank.

It would seem like closing an account would only take a few moments. Maybe it did to the folks at Whidbey Island Bank. They were courteous, efficient, and quick. Quite professional. 

To me, it took six months. Clearing transactions, making sure everything reconciled, etc. The longest delays came from turning off automatic payments and redirecting automatic deposits. When income and expenses were handled by check and deposit slips the switch could be quick. Automated systems designed to reduce a customer’s efforts can require far greater efforts when it comes time to de-automate systems twined with systems.

As I wrote above, as I closed my account the teller asked me why. I paused. In my head I listed the short version of the story I’ve told here. I also remember telling them about the things I liked and didn’t like – not as I was closing the account, but along the way. All of the things I’ve mentioned here were things I’ve mentioned throughout the years. Telling the teller that wouldn’t make any difference for either of us or the bank. I said something like, it was to consolidate my accounts and because they’d closed my branch. The response was, well, no one is down there anymore anyway. I’m down there. I live in that zip code. I bought a house with a mortgage arranged by the branch. True, the other bank there closed, but Wells Fargo has had its own issues. To them, driving the extra distance wasn’t an issue. The branch is right beside other banks, so I’d have to drive to them, too. (There’s on option in a different direction, but traffic is bit busy there and parking is asking for a fender bender.) I agreed. If I’m going to drive that far and there are that many options, then pick the option that works best for me. 

And I did.

It can be hard to switch accounts, or quit using one business to use another. Sometimes monopolies make it almost impossible to switch. But if I’ve told a business about things I’d like as a customer, and the business removes much of what makes them different, then why wouldn’t I do something different? 

In a truly free market the ultimate power a customer has is to work with whichever business provides the best goods or services. Unless I exercise it, that power is only academic. I made it real. I fired my bank.

Now about their rates for credit cards and safety deposit boxes…

About Tom Trimbath

real estate broker / consultant / entrepreneur / writer / photographer / speaker / aerospace engineer / semi-semi-retired More info at: https://trimbathcreative.net/about/ and at my amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B0035XVXAA
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