Like most of you, I'm a bank customer -- and I expect that like me, most of you are getting sick and tired of all the stories about how banks abuse customers. Recent national stories about bad behavior by people in the banking industry, as well as my own personal experiences, have shown that most banks do not care about their customers. It's just the opposite: Banks seem to be trying to squeeze every dime out of every customer.
Remember the stories several years ago about how banks used to time the posting of checks and withdrawals to charge customers more in service fees? When customers who don't have a lot of money in all their accounts write a check, they sometimes cross the line and experience a service charge.
To make matters worse, many banks actually would process checks in the order that would create the most overdrafts and the most service fees. That cost customers plenty. To make matters even worse, those costs typically were incurred by customers who already were financially strapped.
Now Wells Fargo is in the news with stories about how several thousand of its employees wrongly opened new accounts for customers and transferred money among their accounts. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau just slapped the bank with the largest fine in the bureau's history for those tactics -- US$100 million. Wells Fargo will pay an additional $85 million in fines to other agencies, and it must refund millions of dollars in wrongful fees to the customers affected.
The cost in lost customer trust? No dollar value can be placed on that yet.
SunTrust is another problem. I opened an account with SunTrust several years ago. When I eventually moved the money out, I left $500 in the account to keep it open. A few years later, I got a bill from SunTrust for five dollars. I had no idea what it was for, so went to the branch.
Turns out the bank had been charging my account $15 per month when the balance dropped below $2,000. So, bit by bit, it drained my account of the $500 balance I had left in it. SunTrust did nothing illegal, but I would have much rather used the money for my own family. However, SunTrust took it all, bit by bit. It's a good thing I didn't leave a thousand dollars or more in the account or I would have lost that too.
Sure, I should have kept better track of the account. However, SunTrust should have seen that I was not using it, and it should have asked me if I wanted to keep it open, since it was costing me money. SunTrust may be a good bank, but its silence not only cost me some money, but also breached the customer trust most companies try so hard to create.
Bank after bank keeps screwing its customers -- but it's not just banks that are breaching customer trust. Every industry is full of players trying to separate us from our money. The fitness industry is another example. I was a member of LA Fitness for years and was happy. I even signed up my son.
However, the company upgraded my membership from around $35 per month to around $70 per month without my consent or knowledge. That went on for several years. In fact, when my son stopped going, he told LA Fitness to cancel the membership. He thought it was done. It wasn't. That cost me thousands of dollars, and I didn't know about it.
He hadn't gone for several years -- yet the club never canceled the membership. When I found the charges on my credit card statement, I called to check on it and was told "too bad." Again, I should have been more aware, but LA Fitness could have asked me, since there was no usage for years, if I wanted to continue as a member. It didn't. That was another breach of trust.
What about the restocking fees charged by some online companies for returned items? Do we pay restocking fees to any retailer with a storefront? Of course not. So why do online retailers think it's OK to charge customers this crazy fee? They do this because they haven't been challenged by their customers or investors. Maybe it's time we start challenging bad behavior!
Worse yet, Walmart is trying to build its Walmart.com shopping site. While I think it's a great idea for Walmart purchases, the problem arises when you buy from another company using the Walmart brand as cover. I trusted the Walmart brand, and it let me down. The company didn't take ultimate responsibility, and I got burned. I went to Walmart for help, but I never got a response with a solution. That was another breach of trust, and it hurt the Walmart brand.
In industry after industry, companies are demonstrating that they're not there to take good care of their customers. Rather, they are there to squeeze as much out of us as they can. Is that right? Is that the way to treat customers? Is that the way to build a brand? I don't think so.
There are plenty of great companies. Look for the ones that put customer care first -- the ones that bend over backward to make the customer happy and to protect us. Companies like Amazon, American Express, LL Bean, Target and countless others serve their customers well.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of companies that do not. We just have to identify them and do business with the good ones -- the ones we hope will grow.
Bottom line, we have to monitor every company we do business with and every account we have, looking for signs that companies are screwing us. We can't believe their marketing campaigns. We can't blindly trust.
It's a dangerous world out there, and there are plenty of companies that are not interested in protecting us, despite what their television commercials say. They will just continue to bleed their customers dry, one drop at a time.