Banks have more antagonists than advocates

June 14 2007 by Ellen Roseman

In my column yesterday, I talked about a survey of consumer attitudes toward their banks. Only 25 per cent of clients of the Big Five banks think enough of their service to recommend them to friends and family.

Meanwhile, 36 per cent of the Big Five’s customer base are antagonists. They find fault with almost everything the banks do.

Credit unions and non-traditional providers of financial services (such as ING Direct and President’s Choice Financial) have a higher approval rating. With credit unions, 34 per cent of customers would recommend them to others.

Buisnesses can grow only if they surprise and delight their customers, says IBM Global Business Services (which sponsored the survey). Banks talk about customer satisfaction, and measure it constantly, but they haven’t learned how to create customer advocates. That’s why there’s such a public outcry about bank fees.

Why do you think banks have so few advocates? What can they do better? Here are some comments I’ve received from readers below.

Also, I’d like to hear from customer advocates. What companies impress you so much that you would tell your friends and family about them?


  1. catperson

    Jun 15 2007

    I have an account at a credit union and one with ING. The credit union lets you email them with any questions about your account. ING will only let you telephone them, for “security”. I have trouble speaking, so find this policy very difficult. One time I emailed them enough that they did handle the question by email, but it is a big struggle. Not everyone is able to speak clearly.

  2. FourPillars

    Jun 15 2007

    I’m not really for or against my mortgage bank (TD), but when I talked to the loan officer about a month ago and told her I was getting a mortgage broker and shopping around for a mortgage when it comes due (end of July) she gave me a quote of 5.49% for 5 years. At the same time, ING was offering 5.24% for the same thing. I ended up with 5.19% through the mortgage broker.

    Realistically if they would have offered 5.24%, I probably would have stayed.


  3. Paul

    Jun 16 2007

    I have dealt with CIBC for many years and have never had many problems. Other than an error charge on my credit card, which was fixed with one call, and an overcharge regarding legal fees for setting up a home equity line of of credit, also fixed with one call, they have been pretty good to me. Mortgage options available are good; Visa product, RRSP and overdrafts all meet my needs. No plans on changing banking any time soon.

  4. brad

    Jun 22 2007

    I spent most of my life in the US before moving to Canada five years ago, and I have to say I was shocked at the bank fees here. Not so much because they’re high (they’re not particularly), but because there’s almost no way to avoid them.

    In the US, every bank offers free unlimited chequing and ATM use, and some even offer free online banking. Here in Québec, it is virtually impossible to find a bank that offers no-fee chequing and ATM use. When I first moved here, Banque Nationale was the only one to offer it, and you had to keep at least a $2,000 balance in order to avoid fees. But I had fees anyway due to “overuse” charges. Then they did away with the no-fee plan entirely.

    I do have an account with ING, which I love, but you have to have a regular bank account with another institution to be able to write cheques and use ATMs. At least I earn enough in interest with ING to cover my bank fees for the year, otherwise I’d be better off keeping my money under the mattress.

  5. Daryl Yeo

    Jun 22 2007

    For the record, this is the very first “letter to the editor” I have ever written, but after recently retiring from a 34 year career in the financial services industry and reading your June 13th column in the Star, I feel compelled to come clean on my long festering views on the general negative press and public commentary on our financial institutions.

    I am the first to admit that our banks, like every other business, including newspapers, are not perfect and have plenty of room for improvement. Unfortunately, I see very little positive press in Canada concerning banks, in spite of the fact that compared to many other countries, Canada has one of the best run, safest and respected financial systems in the world. Canadians generally have a broader range and choice of services, numerous competitors and the ability to move their business than is prevalent in many other jurisdictions. This is an industry that is a key part of the foundation of Canada’s economy, providing significant employment, taxes and investment opportunities.

    The essential nature of the industry and statutory protection that exists does justify a level of public scrutiny beyond that of some other industries. Unfortunately, banks just can’t seem to “get it right” in the eyes of the press and politicians, while trying to balance the demands of interest groups and stakeholders – including many of us Canadians who are direct or indirect investors in banks. The investment community continues to expect increasingly greater returns from these institutions to justify the rising share prices in the market – while our political masters, the press and the public view financial institutions as a “public service” that should provide world class services, but at breakeven prices – if not for free.

    Over the years I have become increasingly cynical over the motives of the financial commentators and politicians in their generally negative bias towards this industry. “How can we sell more papers or garner more votes by tackling the big, bad banks” seems to have been the mantra for a good number of years now. Banks are an easy target because they make so much money and don’t defend themselves very well because they are constrained due to privacy laws. And given the 10’s of millions of transactions undertaken daily, one doesn’t have to dig too hard to find when an error is made – and then pounce!

    While I am not overly surprised by the results of IBM’s survey of “1,500” banking consumers (out of in excess of 20 million customers in Canada), given the ongoing negative press and political commentary prevalent over the past 20 to 30 years, I do question IBM’s motives and some of the comments that you have reported. There is little doubt in my mind that IBM’s survey and report are substantially self serving – with no doubt the objective of turning their survey into consulting contracts worth millions of dollars over time. The fact that the results in Canada are very similar to those in the US may give some clue as to the standards that consumers expect to be met.

    I particularly take exception to the comments you have attributed to Mr. Trevisani, pointing to “several high-end retailers – BMW in cars, Ritz Carlton in hotels, Holt Refrew and Harry Rosen in fashion” and their ability to surprise and delight customers. I struggle to see the relevance of the comparison, and in fact find it highly misleading to suggest that we are comparing anything close to “apples to apples” here. I would guess that the majority of Canadians – those who use banking services on a daily basis, have ever set foot or had any dealings with any of the high-end retailers noted. And why might that be? Because the “cost” of doing business with those retailers is out of the reach of most Canadians. Of course, when targeting the top few percent of Canadians who can afford and want the cache of driving a BMW, staying at a Ritz, or wearing a Zegna – the business model changes significantly, and does justify the extra personal care, attention and pampering that those retailers provide.

    To give anyone the impression that “mass market” services can and should be provided on a similar basis, but at costs no greater, or even less than, current ones is, in my mind, misleading to say the least. A true and valid comparison would, in my mind, be with the Private Banking clients of our financial institutions, who do drive BMW’s, shop at Holts and Harry’s and stay at the Ritz – and I would expect the results of such a survey to be much closer. Or let’s compare these results to our telephone service providers, our gasoline service stations, our grocery stores etc. – those services we all use on a daily basis.

    I have also noted with interest IBM’s suggestion to “Start at the top …Make senior executives aware of the customer experience – perhaps by serving on the front lines as tellers – and make them accountable for improving it”. While I don’t toally disagree with the concept – I started my career as a teller, and ended it as an executive – I would question how many of IBM’s consultants, or news commentators or politicians opining on the banking business for that matter, have “served on the front lines as tellers”? Following IBM’s suggestion, how much credibility can there be in the views and advice of commentators who have never been on the other side of the counter?? I have no doubt that you would heartily question the credentials of a bank executive to opine on what the newspaper business is doing wrong and how it should be run. But it certainly seems like we have many “banking experts” in the press, in the legislative halls and the consulting firms.

    While it is easy to find bank errors given the huge volumes of transactions conducted, I find it telling that the Federal Banking Services Ombudsman recently reported that for the past year, only something under 250 case files were opened – a very small number indeed given the millions of bank customers, and the 10’s of millions of transactions that are undertaken, which would imply that on balance, virtually all transactions occur without problems. The fact that Canadian banks and their employees contribute some much to our society in charitable donations, sponsorships and as volunteers to so many agencies serving Canada’s impoverished and unfortunate, never seems to get equal press to that of an error that has occurred. I know that there are many more “good news” stories out there about what bank employees have done to “bend” the rules to help someone out, but just don’t get publicized. As we know, the public is generally quick to complain about the bad events that they encounter, but rarely make a big thing of the times when those serving them have gone the “extra mile”. I guess we’re just quick to complain and reticent to praise – it just doesn’t make for as a good a story!

    Can I suggest that leading financial columnists like yourself could do a much better job of presenting a “balanced” view of the industry – still holding banks accountable to improve further, but also recognizing publicly all the good things that they and their employees do for our society and economy. Maybe, our politicians would even learn a bit more about “balance”, as well.

  6. Canadian Mortgage Trends

    Jun 27 2007

    Mike: Isn’t it funny how fast banks come down from their posted mortgage rates? I often wonder if/when one of the big banks will deviate from the norm and start publishing discounted rates instead of posted rates. It seems there’d be at least some preemptive strategic value to doing so.

    Have a great evening,
    – Melanie

  7. Michael Turvey

    Jul 9 2007

    I’m a pretty strong advocate of the London branch of HSBC. I’ve been with them through their various incarnations for about 30 years. When I went through an economic crisis about 20 years ago, they helped. They wanted to see a documented plan and when I showed them one, they covered everything. There were still some service charges, but it all worked out.

    When my company switched to auto payroll, the company really screwed up. HSBC stepped in at the executive level, ruled that the company payroll was being malicious and, because HSBC felt their service wasn’t strong enough to move this jerk, they dropped all service charges. It was about five years before the problem was fixed and no charges through that period.

    I don’t take cash with me abroad, since they’re internationally established.

    I found out a few years ago that my cousin works for them in the UK and he explained that their philosophy is the same over there.

    I asked them why their service was so much better than anybody else’s. They told me that I could win a lottery tomorrow and they would like me to put my money with them. They figure the best way to guarantee that would be to treat me like I was already that well off. Works for me.

    I had a recent issue with them over mortgage renewal. My friend is a broker and he can get a better rate than I can. On his advice, I went to HSBC and said it was unfair that a long-time customer coming in the front door would not get as good a rate as a broker coming in the back door, who would also get paid for that. They called me back and matched the lowest rate he could get. So that worked out.

    There’s a number of other good stories but ….

    Oh and somewhere along the way, they’ve stopped charging service fees. I don’t know what’s up with that. And they grandfathered me into no Interac fees (because originally they didn’t have a machine in London).

  8. Marilyn Smith

    Sep 2 2007

    I have dealt with Royal Bank in the past and have been treated very badly.

    1) I needed some extra cash and they told me to go to Money Mart.

    2) I took out a loan for $3,000 for a car (which was a lemon, unfortunately). The bank knew I was on disability but would not insure my loan and I could not make the payments, so my credit rating completely sucks. Thanks but no thanks, Royal Bank. Where is the customer service?

    I started using my TD Canada Trust account and , boy, what a difference in service, which is to my liking. TD Canada Trust you are #1 and I promote you all the time for the great customer service.

  9. Marlene S

    Jul 20 2010

    Recently I became aware that my husband has been paying $11.97 each month in bank charges on his account with the Bank of Nova Scotia.

    He is 74 years old, so therefore should not have been paying these charges. When we called the bank to bring this error to their attention, very reluctantly they offered to pay him for 1 month, which was totally unacceptable.

    Then after much discussion with the President’s office, they offered $155 as a “good will gesture”.

    My husband was not well at the time, so to alleviate any further stress, he accepted. The man has been paying these charges for the past 14 years, which adds up to over $2,000!! Is that what they consider a good will gesture? Give me a break!!!

    He’s had an account with the Bank of Nova Scotia for the past 60 years! You would think they would have more consideration for a valued customer of that longevity.

    We wrote a letter to the Bank’s ombudsman, who was of no help whatsoever. What is he there for?

    To say the least, we were totally insulted by their offer and extremely disappointed that they would treat a customer of that length of time with so little compassion.

    They owe us over $2,000. If we owed the bank that amoung of money, you can be sure it would be a whole different ball game!