Marketers devote tremendous effort to finding ways to make some bank customers feel special. Programs are set up to reward these people and attract new customers who could fit into the category.

But all too often the marketers forget the effect on those who do not qualify and thus feel left out.

A good example of this effect was printed on this page on July. 27. The authors of that essay said they had ended a sizable 30-year banking relationship partly because when they applied for advertised "new fees and special programs," they were told they did not qualify.

Avoiding Hurt Feelings

I used to give an outlook talk every year for a customer-sensitive Michigan bank. Reporters were never invited to this annual luncheon.

Why not? The hall could hold only 700 people. If an effort were made to gain publicity from the meeting, the bank reasoned, the thousands of good customers who could not be invited might get mad and ask, "Why wasn't I on the list?"

In other words, deciding who is special takes a special talent.

In some instances, I fear, the decision is made like this:

If you are not a customer, the bank will do everything it can to court you. If you are one, you are taken for granted.

This is a human reaction - but it should be fought at every turn.

Policies That Work

Who should be treated as special? Certain policies make sense.

An "early bird special" dinner fills the restaurant when it would otherwise be empty. Since this increases turnover at the tables and cuts overhead per dinner, it is a valuable idea.

Offering a personal banker for those who maintain large balances is smart. It not only rewards profitable customers but gives others a goal to shoot for and a reason to consolidate accounts in one bank.

A discount on one service can also make sense - for example, one-quarter of a percentage point off a loan fee if the borrower has a large balance or pays interest by automatic deduction from a hard-core savings act" or demand deposit. Such a discount rewards the customer whose other banking business rewards the bank.

But what about other special services?

I often question the wisdom of the "senior citizens specials" that banks, theaters, and others offer.

For the movie theater, such a special is great - if it is available only when the house would otherwise be pretty empty. Like the special at the restaurant, this deal cuts overhead per seated customer.

But why should a bank reduce a service charge just because a customer is older?

If the rationale is that such customers have larger balances, reward all who have larger balances.

What does the bank get from a small, active account that is special just because the person visiting the teller or using the ATM has gray hair? It just makes the younger customers a little angry.

|Blackout Times'

Maybe the bank should promote "blackout times," as airlines do. Special charges could be imposed for peak-hour transactions involving senior-citizen accounts - at lunchtime or at the drive-in on weekends. That would look better to younger customers.

Finally, what about the special that is not special?

The throwaway items advertised in my credit card stuffer are always much more expensive that the same items would be in the stores in town.

The phone calls offering me a special deal because I use a bank's VISA or MasterCard usually leave me feeling that the bank was trying to milk my account.

If this is special, let me be regular.

Making Everybody Special

Maybe the smartest thing is to train bank people to make everyone feel special. And that means other employees, too. Their calls for help or information deserve the same consideration as inquiries from a customer. (Usually, of course, internal calls ultimately serve customers.)

But when some people are chosen for genuinely favored treatment, it is a good idea to explain right in the promotion why the bank finds it worthwhile.

Otherwise, the attempts to make some people feel special can end up hurting the bank more than it helps, as members of the out-group learn what is going on - and wonder were left out.

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