A tale of two financial institutions with no concern for customer needs and one with a heart.

Is Customer Service an oxymoron in Malaysia? Or just in Malaysian banks? I’ve encountered apathy and arrogance in many industries in recent years, but the worst service I’ve received is from a couple of banks I’ve been dealing with – one foreign and one local. They’ve had me fuming, caused me a couple of sleepless nights and left me with a bad taste in my mouth due to their blithe disregard for the word “service”.

When I set up my company eight years ago, our reliable company secretary facilitated the opening of a bank account with a (then) top-notch foreign bank. Everything was hunky dory in our interaction with the bank until a year ago, when I received a call from a “relationship officer” – a misnomer if there ever was one. She asked for my email address and told me she would be sending me an email with a request for information in line with the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).

For those blithely unaware of this intrusive Act, it is a United States federal law enacted to detect the foreign financial accounts of “US persons”, the term used to include US citizens, permanent residents, companies incorporated in the US and associations with a substantial number of members who are US citizens. It requires all financial institutions outside the US to search their records and report the assets and identities of such persons to the US Department of Treasury.

I honestly can’t remember if I received an email asking for my financial information from my bank and my relationship officer never followed up. Anyway, not falling into the category of “US persons”, I would not have responded anyway.

Let’s fast-forward my tale to May 2016, when I received a letter from the bank requesting an inordinately large amount of information, including my company accounts from the time we started business, as well as the personal tax statements of the directors. I got in touch my relationship officer and asked her what it was all about. She said I had to comply as part of the bank’s requirements and that she had sent me the request a year ago. I said, “I don’t think I received it…. I’m not sure if I did and missed it in the midst of the barrage of emails I got.”  She then chided me for not calling her when I failed to receive her email.

Hang on a minute…. If someone calls me for my email address and sends me something, isn’t the onus on them to follow up with a phone call to see if I’ve received it? That was when I go annoyed and told her to please remember that I am the customer here and it’s not my place to call up when I fail to receive communiques that she wants to send me. Anyway, having decided that I wasn’t going to divulge my personal tax information to the bank as it was technically none of their, or the US’ business, I told her I would be closing my account, which was based on another town. I hadn’t been satisfied with their attitude for a while anyway. She didn’t miss a beat, didn’t try to persuade me otherwise.

My company secretary told me that I had made a good decision in closing the account. Apparently, this foreign bank had been plaguing its customers with all sorts of requests for documentation and had even arbitrarily closed the underperforming accounts of some its customers, returning them a cheque for the remainder of their bank balance. It was like a financial slap in the face, so to speak, a case of “You’re not bringing in enough money for us to bother with you, so just go and here’s your cheque.”

Now, I’m not sure if this in contravention of Bank Negara Malaysia’s regulations, but it should be. I hope there’s a law that prevents a bank from just closing someone’s account and returning his money. Where would we all be in an economic downturn, I wonder, if earnings are slow and banks think we’re not worth their time?

Anyway, I didn’t think this (former) bank of mine was in any position to be on the financial high horse, if there is such a thing, because a year ago they were engulfed in scandal when leaked details showed how one of their foreign units helped wealthy customers dodge taxes by concealing assets and handing out bundles of cash to avoid the authorities.

So here I was, sans a company account, and in need of a new one. I decided to apply at a bank near my home, whose name is the antonym for ‘private’, and happily armed with the necessary documents, walked in, thinking that they would welcome me with open arms. The girl at the counter was busy having a personal conversation, so I stood by patiently, the first signs of unease stirring in my bosom. Being one who continuously stresses on the importance of customer service, I was appalled that a bank of such stature had put an unprofessional, unkempt-looking executive at the front desk. Warning bells sounded in my head.

She took my documents, processed my thumbprint and that of my business partner and then told us to come back in two weeks. Two weeks! Is that how long it takes to open a corporate bank account in Malaysia? I negotiated with her and told her I really needed the account as I could not collect payment, nor make it, without a bank account and we compromised on one week, after consultation with the officer in charge. I happily went home with the assurance that I would be able to do business again in a week.

One week passed, with no word from the bank. When I called, I was told that their bank rules stipulated that they would have to do an inspection of my business premises before they could open an account, just in case I was some fly-by-night operator. I reminded the officer that we were well past the one week deadline and he responded with excuses that he had lots of inspections to do and I would have to wait in line. This requirement of an inspection of business premises was not conveyed to me when I applied, by the way.

He then told me he would do it within the next couple of days. I waited with bated breath for an SMS or email informing me of my bank account, but nothing came. This was Day 9. I spent a stressful weekend exacerbated with anger at the lack of professionalism of the bank officer. Two weeks later, deciding that enough was enough, and that I didn’t want an account in this bank after all, I withdrew my application and went to another bank where I have my personal accounts. I asked them how long it would take to open a bank account. “We can do it by tomorrow, madam. One day to do a background search on your company and one day to process your documents. By the end of tomorrow, you’ll have your account.”

I almost fell off my chair. “What, no need to inspect my premises? No need to sit on my documents and make me sweat it out for the fun of it? You can really perform this magical feat?” I asked in wonder. The officer, who had been apprised of my banking woes thus far, grinned and said, “We know how to take care of our customers, madam. We value them.” And that, dear reader, is the story of how I came to have a new corporate bank account with RHB Bank Berhad, the bank with a heart.

Here’s a thought, all you bankers out there. Research has shown that among all businesses, banks have the highest correlation between customer experience and the likelihood of switching businesses. In the long run, it’s great customer service that will assure you of loyalty and sustainable business, not your grand traditions or your heritage.

Sheila Singam is the founder of The Human Equation, a company dedicated to bringing the best out of people through training, coaching and facilitation. She believes strongly that great customer relationship management is the means to sustainable business.


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