Bank of America Retreats, Tail Fully Tucked

Bank of America made it official today by shelving plans to charge a $5 debit card fee to their customers (which I am, gladly, not one of).

Their statement is a great example of how business “jargon” replacing honest and authentic speech only serves to alienate customers who have developed a sophisticated internal bullshit meter. Here’s what BofA said:

“In response to customer feedback and the changing competitive marketplace, Bank of America no longer intends to implement a debit usage fee.

“We have listened to our customers very closely over the last few weeks and recognize their concern with our proposed debit usage fee,” said David Darnell, co-chief operating officer. “Our customers’ voices are most important to us. As a result, we are not currently charging the fee and will not be moving forward with any additional plans to do so.””

Let’s break it down and rewrite the statement in a more honest voice.

They Said: “In response to customer feedback”

What They Mean: “In response to our increasingly angry customers”

They Said: “and the changing competitive marketplace,”

What They Mean: “We were isolated when other banks didn’t announce the same fee structure, and worse, started competing with us on the basis of not having a debit card fee.”

They Said: “Bank of America no longer intends to implement a debit usage fee.”

What They Mean: “It was a dumb idea, in retrospect.”

They Said: “We have listened to our customers very closely over the last few weeks and recognize their concern with our proposed debit usage fee,”

What They Mean: “Our customers were very angry and it was only getting worse.”

They Said: “Our customers’ voices are most important to us.”

What They Mean: “When we can’t get the rest of the industry to pile on and risk our competitive position, we have to react.”

They Said: “As a result, we are not currently charging the fee and will not be moving forward with any additional plans to do so.”

What They Mean: “It was a dumb idea and someone should be fired for getting us into this mess but we’re not going to hold our executive accountable for the debacle”

Here’s the problem with BofA’s handling of this mess, an adult in the room should have stepped in when CEO Moynihan firmly planted his foot in his mouth about the “right to make a profit”. First of all, he doesn’t have a right to make a profit, he has to earn that by serving his customers and achieving a competitive position on that basis rather than being too big to fail. I’m always amazed when really smart executives says things that only make them sound like complete idiots.

The banking industry likes to think their customers are stupid, that we don’t realize they make money off the transaction fees that merchants pay when we use a credit or debit card. Acknowledging that you think your customers are stupid is never a good strategy and the debit card fee plan ranks right up there with New Coke and Qwikster in the pantheon of dumb business ideas.

Here’s how they should have written the statement they put out today, which would not only make them sound more authentic but also would be more honest.

Our customers have overwhelmingly let us know how angry they are at us for our proposed debit card fee, and our competitors have responded not by adopting a similar fee structure making us uncompetitive as a result.

We have listened and recognize that this plan was not putting our customers first so we’re going to abandon the idea before we make the bigger mistake of actually implementing it. We apologize to our customers for our statements in recent weeks and hope that we can earn goodwill back by focusing on providing competitive services that are fairly priced in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

The PR Agency of Satan

UPDATE: I picked up the title for this post while looking at a Twitter search result, not realizing that it was the title of Jacob Morgan’s post on the same subject… so in the interest of credit where credit is due I point you to his post on this subject.

This morning I opened up my email and there was a message to a list called “DigitalBrand” from a PR agency pitching a book. It was bulk email to a list of people, I have no idea how many but as the events unfolded in the morning I recognized many of the people on the list, mostly journalists, authors, public speakers, and other influential bloggers (note that I am in none of the above categories… so I was kind of honored to be included!). The list name was in the CC, meaning anyone who replied to the email ended up respamming the entire list, by the end of the day over 50 messages were traded, not a lot considering but I think that by late morning they had shut down the list server to control the traffic.

Lesson #1: Don’t use lists but if you must then think ahead and put the list in the bcc field. PR pitches should be personal in this day and age, spamming a list isn’t going to make you any friends.

Throughout the morning people, also on the list, were replying back questioning how they got on the list, demanding to be taken off, and sundry other harshly worded messages. I have no idea how I ended up on this mailing list, but a quick search revealed I had nothing from them previously (I only delete outright spam from my inbox, which explains why I have 50k messages in my gmail account.

Lesson #2: Don’t pitch or promote a service or product to an email list consisting of people who didn’t ask to be on the list. Pissing off the people you are trying to court is not smart.

Despite many pleas from people to take them off the list, demanding to know why they were on it, and expressing dismay that it was happening in the first place, no one from the offending agency stepped in to offer an explanation of what happened, why, and what they were doing to fix it. Later came torrent of emails from the list server with unsubscribe help ticket confirmations, it felt a virtual black hole sucking in everyone on the original list.

Lesson #3: Being engaged may seem so 2008 but it still matters. If you are pitching something about social media, make a blatant mistake, and then don’t step up to explain yourself, you have not only pissed off a lot of people but you throw away any sympathy and “don’t worry about it” sentiment that certainly exists. We have all made mistakes with email, and will certainly make mistakes in the future…

The final observation is that because their is no latency in communication today, individual acts like sending an mail to a list and setting off a cascading series of unfortunate events, can happen with blinding speed and far greater amplitude than anyone expects. By the afternoon the twitterverse was picking up on this incident and blog posts were appearing, none of it complimentary and certainly not beneficial to this firm’s clients.

People who communicate for a living and to groups not connected to their firm need to be very careful about these small acts that can quickly spiral out of control. I deliberately didn’t include the name of the firm, although no doubt you will quickly figure it out if you follow the links, because I don’t think they deserve to be burned in effigy… it was a mistake and I’m sure more than a few people had a very bad day today. Having said that, I can’t help but notice that this event underscores the idea that people who are used to being pitched for a living don’t want to be pitched like they used to. In this unfortunate incident are some real lessons to be learned about how PR firms deal with the people they want to court support from.