"Did you see that First National Bank of Chicago is charging customers $3 to talk to a teller?" said Jay Leno. "The good news is that for only $3.95 you can talk dirty to her."
The reaction to First Chicago's new line of checking accounts was something to behold. Mr. Leno joked about it. Representatives Maxine Waters and Joseph Kennedy held a press conference to rail against it.
The host of a Washington talk show mindlessly labeled the plan "the outrage of the week." It must have been a particularly slow week for outrages.
First Chicago interviewed customers to determine what checking account features they wanted. It found that the most important feature of its existing accounts, for more than 40% of its customers, was the minimum balance requirement.
If customers did not maintain the prescribed minimum balance, they were assessed a service charge. The service charge was a flat amount that did not reflect the level of usage of the account.
So First Chicago set about designing a new set of accounts. It came up with four different checking accounts, each intended to meet the needs and desires of a segment of its customers.
Under the new plan, all First Chicago customers, no matter which accounts they choose, will receive free unlimited check writing, a free ATM card, and free unlimited use of First Chicago's ATMs and automated-response telephone service.
The most basic of the bank's four new accounts is styled "Self-Service Checking." It requires a zero minimum balance. After eight free uses, self- service customers will pay $1.50 per transaction at non-First Chicago ATMs.
The feature that caused all the hoopla is that self-service customers will be charged $3 per teller transaction if an automated system could have provided the service for free.
Jay Leno and company notwithstanding, First Chicago's introduction of the self-service account is clearly a pro-consumer move. Prior to the introduction of this account, customers of the bank who were unable to maintain a minimum balance could not have banked for free at First Chicago.
Now they can, if they are willing to serve themselves rather than asking bank personnel to carry out transactions for them that could have been done by machines.
The critics have said the self-service account discriminates against low-income groups by charging them for the use of teller services. This assertion is simply not true.
Customers of First Chicago who use the bank's "Preferred Checking" account, with its minimum balance requirement, pay an implicit fee in terms of the economic value of their balances even if the usage on their account is nil. Self-service customers have the ability to avoid all charges.
Even if the self-service account were not as attractive as it is, the reaction of the media, the politicians, and consumer activists would be difficult to understand. What makes them believe that banks are not subject to the same economic laws as other businesses?
Telephone companies charge more for long distance calls if they are placed through an operator rather than dialed directly. They also charge if you use directory assistance rather than looking up the number in the book. Gasoline stations charge more if they pump your gas rather than if you pump it yourself.
Time will tell whether the First Chicago account package will ultimately be successful.
What works for First Chicago will not necessarily work for other banks. Due to decades of anti-consumer branch banking restrictions in Illinois, First Chicago does not have the investment in branch offices that many banks in other states have, so its retail strategy may need to be different. Moreover, other banks may have customers with different demographics and desires.
In developing its new package of accounts, First Chicago behaved responsibly in an attempt to give its customers what it understood they wanted. If it hasn't gotten it right, the customers will switch their accounts to one of the scores of other financial institutions eager to accept their business.
Mr. Isaac, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is chairman and CEO of the Secura Group, a financial institutions consulting firm in Washington.