When a company providing financial services emphasizes digital convenience, you’d think that also applies to its customer service. After all, nearly every major bank and credit union pushes online banking, mobile banking, text and email alerts and electronic bill payment.

But there seems to be a digital divide between financial institutions promoting digital and thinking digital — as many of their customers do. At no time was this more apparent than in my interactions with two credit card issuers on the same day, in two potentially difficult situations, all regarding lowly email.

I’ve had a couple of VISA cards with Bank of America for years due to its relationship with Alaska Airlines. Recently, one of my cards was refused when trying to buy postage at USPS.com. A few days later, my online bill paying service notified me that, “Bank of America Credit Card has changed your account number.” Then Quicken stopped updating the account, saying it was no longer valid.

Sinking feeling increasing, I sent a secure customer service message on the Bank of America website asking what was going on — Bank of America has a history of immediately canceling card numbers if a security breach is suspected and has done this to me before. I waited for a response.

And waited. Two mornings later, hearing nothing by secure message, I called. Yes, person-at-the-end-of-the-endless-ad-and-option-tree confirmed, there had a been a mass breach by a merchant processor. Yes, my card had been cancelled and a new account number issued. I would be getting a letter with a new card in several days.

Frank Catalano

So, I innocently asked, since the account information includes my email address, why wasn’t I notified by email? Bank of America can’t send emails to everyone in a mass breach, came the reply.

But wait: the bank can send everyone a physical letter?

My call was escalated to a floor supervisor. That’s when the digital disconnect and discourse devolved to a state even Kafka might appreciate. To paraphrase and condense:

“So what about the email or text fraud alerts I set up?”

“The alerts don’t actually notify you unless actual fraud has already occurred. It won’t notify you if your card is canceled.”

“Why did I have to find out from the Postal Service website, then my online bill payer service and then Quicken that my card is no longer valid — and your customer service never responded to my secure message on your website?”

“I can’t comment on our security procedures.”

“Really? What if I were stranded while traveling with a non-working VISA through no fault of my own and no notice from you?”

“You have to let us know whenever you travel to prevent that. Even in the U.S.”

I was incredulous. “Even in the U.S.? No other card I hold has that kind of a policy.”

“I can’t comment on their security procedures.”

“That’s a bullshit policy.”

“Do not use such vulgarities with me.”

This is when I realized I was arguing with a script, a poorly designed ELIZA program, or a chair. “Bullshit bullshit bullshit,” I intelligently riposted.

“Thank you for calling.” Click.

I had to wonder if his goal secretly had been to see how much he could goad me so he could finally use the word “vulgarities.” Thirty minutes of my life and a small amount of adrenalin, gone forever.

Fast forward to the same afternoon, in what seemed to be an alternate credit card universe.

As I’ve written before, I have a frequently abused email address, often mistakenly used by others with a similar name. I had started getting emails about someone else’s Best Buy-branded credit card, including legal change-in-term notices — stuff the right person really needed to see.

Finding no way to message card-issuer Capital One without knowing how to log into the card holder’s account, I sighed, picked up the phone, and called the number on the contact page.

Within five minutes, a supervisor found the account, deleted my email address and arranged to send notices to the account holder by physical mail. And even thanked me for pointing it out. Capital One knew how to deal with email communications issues! I was almost giddy.

What did these two wildly divergent experiences illustrate? While digital may be touted an imperative for business cost savings and customer service, some companies fail by not realizing digital savvy applies to understanding digital communication, not just digital presentation. Social media, texting and even email counts.

Oh, and that secure Bank of America customer service reply? I finally noticed it sitting in my account inbox on the Bank of America website a month later. Without the promised email notification to let me know it was there.

In it, the customer service rep carefully provided detailed information about the wrong credit card.

Bullshit indeed.

Top image via BigStock.

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  • Mike

    Bank of America really takes the cake. I’ve had very similar issues with my Alaska Airlines Visa, which I recently signed up for. I’ve never had a BofA-issued credit card until now, and if I didn’t fly Alaska so much, I would have immediately canceled my account after my two really negative customer service experiences along these lines. I think the Alaska Airlines social media team is pretty good, though, so if they happen to pick up on this, maybe they can put in a good word for switching to another card issuer. Capital One would be fine with me.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Agreed on the good Alaska Airlines social media team. My poor experience here was strictly with Bank of America. It just happens I have an Alaska Airlines VISA, issued by Bank of America, which made me stick with BofA a lot longer than I otherwise would have.

      I do know the Alaska team is aware of the card service issues with Bank of America and is working to improve them. My preference, though, like yours, would be for Alaska Airlines to find another home for its affinity card if a culture and digital-savviness intervention with BofA customer service fails.

  • Mike_Acker

    we have got to get Congress to nail these goons with a big product liability law. just like an oil pipe. if your computer leaks you pay to clean up the mess

  • http://www.facebook.com/pat.hemp Pat Hemp

    Perhaps a different “B” should have been used….B for Bank Bank Bank or Banks Behaving Badly….

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      It doesn’t surprise me that others have used this alliterative play for other bank behaviors, too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Gray/591942516 John Gray

    Had the near exact experience with Chasse not too long ago. They also integrate electrronic notifications in the web account. Also got initial notiification from a venddor in declined transaction. Chase seemed very proud that they promptly sent out a letter viaa 1st class mail. As for their web site around which one has to dance around 18 security questions to access, they can’t risk sending vital info there to so they entrust USPS. I also work in finance IT. Going to get worse before getting better

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I’d curious about your thoughts on why it will get worse before it gets better. It seems the tools exist to do it right, and doing it right would seem to be to the banks’ benefit, both in terms of cost savings and customer satisfaction (customers who may otherwise switch financial institutions).

      Take health care. Group Health Cooperative in Seattle, for example, deals with personally sensitive and highly confidential information all the time, yet from my experience does a very good job with customer service via site secure email and promptly notifying members when they should check the site for any reason.

      I don’t entirely understand why banks, if they can’t learn best digital customer service practices from each other, won’t consider learning them from other regulated industries that deal with sensitive personal information.

      • KeepingEyesOpen

        Frank – Actually, some banks can (and do) learn good customer service practices. USAA Federal Savings Bank provides excellent customer service, including several methods of contact for problems such as suspicious credit card charges. Credit unions and smaller local banks are also known for good customer service.

        Not even trying to compete on the basis of good customer service, BofA acquires and retains customers, at least in part, based on affinity credit cards. Once the customer is captured through an alumni organization, airline frequent flyer club, brokerage house, fraternal organization, etc., the relationship continues due to inertia. Why provide good customer service when the most customers are clueless, and they’re captive anyway?

  • Forrest Corbett

    I don’t really think it’s a “digital divide” – it’s a customer service divide. Qwest years ago blocked me from calling certain numbers (eg free conference call numbers) without my consent. I asked why and they explained. They said it was an issue between them and the number I was calling. I asked them where in my contract with them did I agree to allow them to block numbers without my consent. They couldn’t do it

    Then they just went on a endless loop of “sorry, we cannot comment on this as it’s the subject of pending litigation.”

    A friend lives in an area with Time Warner cable TV/internet. His service was down or flaky for weeks at a time. He went round and round with customer service. He finally told them “this has been completely horrible customer service.” Their response? “Sir, this is the cable company, we don’t offer ‘customer service.'”

    The real issue is not “promoting digital and thinking digital” – it’s offering customer service vs being a corporate thug.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I’d agree it really is all about customer service, overall. But understanding how digital fits in (even lowly email, as I write) is critical.

  • KeepingEyesOpen

    it amazes me that people continue to accept B of A’s poor service. Because of previous examples of poor service with B of A bank accounts, I long ago vowed to avoid doing business with them again. B of A is hard to avoid, however. I recently applied for a card affiliated with, and with services connected to, a Fidelity brokerage account. When the card arrived I called to toll-free phone number to activate the card. Instead of a quick automated process to activate the card, I was subjected to multiple sales pitches. After three refusals of an expensive “security monitoring” service, a live customer rep came on the line, apparently to continue the up-sell process. At that point I suspected that the card provider might be Bank of America, so I asked the representative. The response was FIA card services, owned by Bank of America. I promptly cancelled the card.

    In this time of identity theft, fraudulent charges and other financial account problems, it is increasingly important to have trust in your financial service providers. You need make sure that your service provider will do the right thing when you have a problem. There are several financially-related companies that I trust to provide good service, but B of A is not one of them.

    Until 2006 MBNA was the world’s largest independent credit card issuer. It specialized in affinity cards and had a good reputation for customer service. In 2006 MBNA was acquired by Bank of America. It appears that the reputation previously enjoyed by MBNA has not continued under its new management.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I’d forgotten about the MBNA acquisition, and also recall its reputation for good customer service. The affinity program BofA has with Alaska Airlines is the only reason I kept one of my two VISA cards with them (the other one moved to Boeing Employees Credit Union, BECU, shortly after the incident I describe). And I’m reserving judgment on whether I’ll maintain that final link when it comes time to pay the annual $75 BofA Alaska Airlines VISA fee.

      • Geekwiresue

        Had no idea MBNA was no longer around. No wonder it’s all a mess. Have you watched the movie Zeitgeist yet? So much is about the banking system. If no change happens we’re doomed as others here have testified.

  • Alexander

    Nearly exactly the same story had happened to me with BofA card about a month ago, and I was traveling abroad.

  • Geekwiresue

    Good article. As a current bofa customer I am still drawn in by the commercial banking benefits offered that I am unable to find elsewhere. Other banks charge for digital viewing of checks cashed, yet I was told by Wells Fargo that practice is a security threat. But then wells happily offers the same service for a $3monthly fee per account.
    Not only did bofa allow a 3rd party to remove thousands of dollars from my personal account without my consent but I have had the same problem with regard to my Alaska Visa card issued by BofA.
    I paid 900.00 for the privilege of borrowing 25000.00 against my card for a 0% 9 month period. Yesterday a chat with bola rep JENNY let me know Ito could have been up to 18 months. She was not helpful at all. I went to print the chat, then the chat window froze and Jenny disconnected me without a follow up phone call to me even though she asked for every piece of vital security information from me before she would chat, including my phone numbers.
    The consistent issue has been that credit card from b of a. After making certain no charges would appear (I paid everything off to zero and waited two months for verification no charges were set automatically) I went ahead and paid the transfer fee to the fat cats who run our lives, because we let them.

  • Geekier sue

    Continued from prev post.
    After making certain no charges would appear (I paid everything off to zero and waited two months for verification no charges were set automatically) I went ahead and paid the transfer fee to the fat cats who run our lives, because we let them.

    A fraudulent charge appeared and was told by the brand not to pay the credit card bill that month until they got the charge off my card. I followed the advice of my banker. Well, it was bad advice. I next received a bill stating I owe the entire amount within the next month. If I didn’t pay then I would be forced at a higher rate of 24% over the life of this loan.
    What followed was predicted in the movie ZEITGEIST.
    I couldn’t live with a high interest loan on over 25,000.00. That would mean paying the interest for years and years with little principal. i was offered an option to cancel my card and repay the loan at a 4% with the promise no other credit card of mine being affected, ie. discover, Amex, other mc and visas I carried as an A+ high 700 fico credit score consumer.
    All lies. My other unrelated to bola credit cards all began lowering my borrowing amount and some raised my interest rate even though for years I had paid everything off in full monthly the way. The way we need to use our cards if at all.

  • Anonymous

    I got this by email recently:
    “Bank of
    America Credit Card has changed your account number. We’ve already
    updated your account number in Online Banking to make sure your payments
    will be credited to the correct account. You don’t need to take any action.

    you have any questions about your account, including the reason why
    your account number changed, contact Bank of America Credit Card

    Thank you for using Online Banking.”

    I guess I’ll be calling them soon.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Be prepared for an answer with great specificity, such as, “It was done to prevent potential fraud.” Still, perhaps they’ve improved in the past year. Perhaps.

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