Don't Confuse Courtesy For Competency

I grew up in New York. I’m used to walking into a New York-style deli, sitting down, and within 7 seconds, being approached by a waitress who rudely wants to know if I’ve made up my mind yet, and if I haven’t, being told — snarkily — that she’ll come back later, because she doesn’t have all day to wait for me to make up my little mind.

And while you might find this hard to believe, I actually prefer that to waiting for 10 minutes for that oh-so-friendly Southern waitress to get around to paying my table a visit. And getting my order wrong half the time.

You might prefer the latter to the former, and be willing to tolerate the extra wait, and possibility of getting the wrong order, in order to get friendly, courteous service.

To each his own.

At this point, you’re likely thinking: What the hell are you talking about, Ron?

I’m talking about confusing courtesy and competency.

My friend Jim Marous recently blogged about BankSimple and said:

“Today, BankSimple set themselves apart from any of my current or previous banks. They sent me a personalized, seemingly non-promotional email from a Customer Relations Representative named Rachel acknowledging my request for an invitation to try their bank and asking for my ‘story’. Rachel asked for my “loves, hates, quibbles, desires, hopes and dreams” regarding my financial life. Rachel went on to say that the bank was committed to building the best service a bank can offer and wanted to know “what’s up?”

I don’t disagree for a New York second that this is not the type of email today’s banks send out. Definitely a differentiated approach on the part of BankSimple.

But it’s not — I repeat, not — necessarily a “better” approach.

According to BankSimple’s site, Rachel has been “handling social media outreach, online fundraising, and website maintenance for MADRE, a nonprofit organization in New York City.” I don’t mean Rachel any disrespect — really I don’t.  But how does this experience qualify her to help me realize my “hopes and  dreams” regarding my financial life? In fact, exactly how is BankSimple going to do that regardless of who they hire as a customer service rep?

In addition, let me share a lesson I learned from the CEO of a firm I used to work for. This is one of the best pieces of sales advice I’ve ever heard: Don’t ever call up a customer and ask “how’s it going?” That’s what the CEO called a”dumb touch”. Customers, he said, don’t want their time wasted with dumb touches (and he’s not even from New York!). If you’re going to call a customer, figure out, in advance, how you will add value. That’s what he called a “smart touch.”

Putting a smiling, friendly face on top of a poor product, service, or process is often referred to as “putting lipstick on a pig.”

You gotta give the folks at BankSimple credit for creating so much positive buzz about the firm. But the proof is in the pudding, and to date, I can’t say I really see anything more than a promise that the lipstick will make the pig look better.


6 thoughts on “Don't Confuse Courtesy For Competency

  1. I don’t know if I am proud or scared that my experience with BankSimple prompted you to write two blog posts in one day, but you ask great questions and the jury is still out around many of the answers.

    There is no doubt that it is easier to ask what I want before there is a product to offer or to leverage the potential of social media to engage potential customers, but it still made me sit up and take notice since I never get asked these questions from my current banks. In fact, if you want to put it in terms of a sales approach, few banks ever follow up on leads (the BankSimple invite) in the attempt to keep the lead ‘warm’. In fact, I forgot about my reply to their invite and this made them top of mind again.

    This may be only lipstick on a pig, but it also raised the bar on my expectations going forward. While it may not have been their intent, the perception of a personal touch, quick responsiveness and the willingness to listen to my needs now either can springboard them to actually delivering on such an expectation or set them up for a worse failure.

    As a previous banker, I am a bit skeptical. As a potential customer, I am intrigued.

    Time will tell.

  2. Ron –

    IF one has to choose between competence and courtesy, almost all the time I choose competence, but its also almost always a false choice. Why not be nice while you’re being relevant, able and adding value (wouldst that I met that standard more often…)?

    Your comment about the CEO’s view reminded me of something 47.3% off subject. Younger consultants will write presentations and reports with all the background and supporting data and analysis up front with the conclusions and recommendations at the back. And, if its a ppt, they’ll put the conclusion on the bottom of the page and commentary of what the analysis is on the top.

    A CEO wants to know the conclusions on page 1 and see that the backup is behind it. Further, a CEO wants the conclusion on the top of a page with the backup below if he/she wishes to dive in.

    To a CEO the standard consultant’s approach wastes time, hides and confuses issues, and is “rude” in the sense that its not competent… Oops, in a certain way maybe they ARE the same thing!

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  4. Agreed, different doesn’t equal better. I will say that in this case, in this industry, being different creates hope and interest, and in the absence of a product, is the only touch they have. I also got the BankSimple email, but noticed the “sorry we haven’t been able to open your account” part of the message far more. The outreach is good. But there should always be a call to action, right?

  5. You are spot on with the “dumb touches”. If BankSimple is really that naive with that approach they have thrown themselves back to the days where sales people believed in the relationship sale. Is the effective approach actually being personable when reaching out to customers AND having something of substance to talk to them about?? Southern hospitality is great but getting your order right within that laid back context is perfection to me.

  6. This is a great example of a corporation trying to build a relationship with a customer where simple service will do. (See my post, “Relationship? Relationship?! Sorry, Corporations, Consumers Just Aren’t That Into You )

    A few months ago I signed up for a corporate rewards card at Staples — I might as well earn points for my stationery addiction. A Staples rep then called me on two successive Fridays “to see how you’re doing and if you need anything.” I was tempted to say, “Yes, I need Virgin America as a client and a bottle of genuine Havana Club rum — can you deliver both by five?” Instead, I just asked her to lose my phone number.

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