B of A Debit Fee Was 'Transparent,' Poorly Planned: Exec

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LAS VEGAS — A senior Bank of America Corp. executive defended the bank's failed attempt to charge customers for using their debit cards on Thursday, saying that the planned fees were meant to be transparent.

"When we rolled out the announcement for debit at the end of September, it was a very intentional effort around transparency," B of A executive Laurie Readhead said at an industry conference on Thursday.

The plan backfired, badly. Readhead spoke two days after waves of public criticism forced her bank to withdraw its plans to charge customers $5 per month to use their debit cards.

She said on Thursday that Bank of America ultimately caved to peer pressure, after other top banks also cancelled efforts to test or charge similar debit fees. But she also acknowledged a lack of initial planning.

"We wanted to be clear with our customers that we were looking at rolling out a debit card fee. We did not know yet how we were going to do it, but we wanted to go ahead and put it out there," she said during a presentation at the ATM Debit & Prepaid Forum. The annual industry conference is sponsored by American Banker publisher SourceMedia Inc.

"There were clearly other institutions that were marketing or in tests or had made a decision to roll out a debit card fee, so we went ahead and made our intentions known," Readhead said. "As we saw the response from not only our customers but from mass consumers, we did take a step back and saw the market start to shift and we also shifted as well."

B of A was trying to be "open to customer feedback when we eliminated the debit fee, which is part of our commitment to being completely clear and responsive," Readhead said in a brief interview after her presentation.

She would not elaborate on the bank's thinking about debit card fees.

Readhead recently gained more responsibility in Bank of America's latest consumer-bank management reshuffle. Her current title is head of something called "consumer market and distribution optimization."

She said during her presentation that B of A has "a lot to learn when changing pricing" of products. But the bank plans to continue emphasizing simplicity, clarity and transparency as it reshapes its banking products and national branch network to balance profitability with customer needs, Readhead told attendees.

The Charlotte, N.C., bank since January has been testing different bank service package options in Arizona, Georgia and Massachusetts. It plans to roll these out nationally next year after gathering feedback through focus groups and other channels to refine the prices and features, Redhead said.

The new pricing strategy is closely tied to B of A's efforts to close and consolidate services at its 5,000 branches and outlets as it strives to find the right combination of self-service and customer contact in various regions and demographic categories.

The pilot test being conducted in those three states offers a flat-fee option with checking and branch-based services and statements; a no-fee option offering electronic banking services only; an "enhanced" option with no fee plus rewards for those who expand their relationship to include credit cards, mortgages and investment services; and a "premium" option for those with larger combined balances that includes priority in receiving customer service and other rewards, Readhead said.

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