This morning around 10am I received a call from a really nice-sounding guy at the Commonwealth Bank, politely requesting that I transfer some money onto my credit card because I missed my monthly payment. It’s ok – I have the money and will transfer it shortly. But as I was sitting on the train later, I realised that something about the whole transaction made me uncomfortable.
I’ve had an account with this particular bank for about 20 years. I’ve had a credit card with them for at least 10 years. That credit card has been overdrawn once or twice, but in general I’d say that I’m a trustworthy customer.
Switching tracks for a moment, there’s been a big push in bank advertising over the last few years to make them seem more humane, more caring, like a partner in your life who looks after you when times are bad. They donate to bushfire appeals. They engage in a (proportionately tiny) degree of community work. The message is: we should trust them. With our money, with our lives.
Switching tracks again, the Global Financial Crisis has seen banks all over the world imploding due to bad asset risk management. In the quest to maximise profits, they took shortcuts and now governments (so by extension you and I) are bailing them out.
If I went to the bank today and asked for a bailout, I’d be given the polite, customer-service-oriented equivalent of “fuck off”. If I asked the debt collector on the phone to let this month’s minimum payment slide, I’d be told that’s not an option and my personal credit rating would go down.
I’m being asked to trust the bank, and the bank is systematically incapable of trusting me, because despite their fuzzy advertising, the bank is incapable of having a relationship with me. Yes, there is a little leeway for certain people in the bank to look at your history and tweak things, but fundamentally there is no facility for the bank to have an actual relationship with you.
It wasn’t always this way.
There was a time when we had local banks. Then the customers’ demands for convenience and the banks’ demands for efficiency drove rampant centralisation and computerisation. I haven’t spoken to the same teller more than once in about a decade. This is a serious problem.
There is a steep and growing differential of trust between banks and consumers, and what we’re beginning to see now is a correction. However, it’s a correction with no teeth because ultimately we have few alternatives (in Australia) when it comes to banks.
I get the feeling this is about to change.