In an industry where everyone is selling the same product, competition has to be based on something besides tweaks to said product. In the banking industry, all banks sell the same two things: somewhere to keep your money, that is slightly safer than under your mattress; and loans of money that other people have given them to keep. Each player in this industry offers slightly different takes on their product: some offer an interest rate just a tad less minuscule than everyone else; some offer to give you an extra penny when you exchange your Jamaican dollar for a green back; others give fancy names to accounts, making them seem tailored for a specific purpose when in fact they are just like all other accounts in their electronic ledgers. So when the products are the same, how do banks compete?
"In the banking industry, all banks sell the same two things..."
One way banks compete is by how easily they allow you to give them your money, look at your money, get back your money (or someone else’s if you’re taking a loan), and give your money to someone else. Some of them have machines which are really good at counting, and they trust these machines to put money into your account on their behalf. Other banks allow you to peek into your account using your computer or your mobile phone. Most allow you to take back your money using said counting machines, but only if you give them some of the money first. Finally, the really brave banks allow you to use your computer or mobile phone to give your money to other people. They call these value added features, yet they are quite the opposite as they mostly cost you more of your money.
"They call these value added features, yet they are quite the opposite as they mostly cost you more of your money."
Another way that banks compete is by how nicely they treat you, when you come to do stuff with the money they are keeping for you. Maybe you call on the phone, or send them an email. Or maybe you really like the symmetry of multiple lines of people, all standing around trying to avoid eye contact while waiting in a cavernous room of primly dressed bankers, and so you do your banking in the branch. The general consensus of bankers is that this is where they can really shine. If they smile more readily, speak nicer to you, or count your money just a bit quicker so you don’t have to wait a minute longer than three hours, then maybe, just maybe you will give them more of your money to keep.
I say this is generally the consensus because in practice it is quite different. Some banks have institutionalised customer service, so you can expect basic service levels for things like how long they make you wait before you can use money you’ve asked them to keep, timely responses to your emails, and quick turn around times for the money they lend you in exchange for your first child. Some of them get some things really right, and other things really wrong. One institution that falls prey to this dichotomy is Jamaica National Building Society (JNBS).
"Some of them get some things really right, and other things really wrong. One institution that falls prey to this dichotomy is Jamaica National Building Society (JNBS)."
At this point I should mention that I am lumping a number of financial institutions under the category of banks, but at the end of the day the differences are nuanced and they still really offer the same two products. JNBS technically isn’t a bank, but they will become one in a few days. They paid the government a tidy sum for the privilege of using the shorter term "bank", instead of the mouthful “building society”. So why bring up the new bank on the block? Well, to pick on it of course.
Having given JNBS some money to keep for me during the summer, I was impressed by their machines, fancy customised debit cards, and their very pretty Internet banking system. They seem like they have it together on the “value added” front. This dream of a bank having it together was quickly shattered when I had to interact with the people that work there, after a series of misfortunes.
"Having given JNBS some money to keep for me during the summer, I was impressed by their machines, fancy customised debit cards, and their very pretty Internet banking system."
First, it seems that I didn’t give them enough money to keep, quickly depleting what I had given them. Unknown to me, this resulted in the closure of my account after about three months. I was given no notice that they no longer wished to do business with me, should I get more money to give to them. And this I did! A friend returned some money they had borrowed, leaving it in a dropbox for JNBS to place into my account.
Having peeked into my account using my computer, I saw not only no money, but also no accounts! An email to JNBS revealed that my account was closed. No reason was given at this point, which of course was very unhelpful. I promptly followed up this email with a query as to why the account was closed. This resulted in instructions to march myself into the branch to re-open my closed account. Still no answer as to why it was closed. So to the branch I obediently marched.
"An email to JNBS revealed that my account was closed. No reason was given at this point, which of course was very unhelpful."
The person who spoke to me in the branch revealed to me that my account was closed because there was no money in it. Other banks usually allow your account to go dormant, and close it only after a much longer period just in case you won the lotto or came into an inheritance. JNBS seems a bit more eager to find people with money right now. I enquired what happened to the deposit my friend made and was told that they won’t accept my friend’s money to re-open it. Seems that the money needs to have my fingerprints on the bills.
After agreeing to give them some more money to re-open my account, I was told that my friend had to query the transaction at the branch where they made the deposit. That was a long winded way of saying, “that’s not my problem, I’m not going to help you”. Slightly annoyed with this future banker, I decided to submit my query via email. A machine promptly replied to my email, promising that a human would get back to me within two days. Two weeks later, having received no response, I emailed them again. It appears all the humans are on vacation and the machines are running the show, because I got another promise from a machine that a human will get in touch with me in, you guessed it, two days!
"That was a long winded way of saying, 'that’s not my problem, I’m not going to help you'".
The machines of JNBS have delivered better service than the people, except of course for whichever computer automatically closed my empty account without first emailing me. If this is the level of service that is typical of JNBS, I shudder to think how they will fare when they become JN Bank.