Or retire in peace. But let me step back. I feel some kind of introduction is in order since I'm a stranger to "Sounding Off," though by no means a "newbie" to the BTN staff. I've never actually written anything for this section primarily because nothing ever really got me worked up enough to step up to the pulpit. But then something happened to change all that.

If there's one thing I've learned from my time on BTN it's that banks are scrambling to make customer service their top priority. As well they should.

Choosing service technology products to use is only part of the problem. The real issue is using these tools properly once they're installed.

Banks' intentions can easily become twisted and misguided to the point where customers--the very ones who keep them in business--are penalized. They're labeled "unprofitable" and customer service software is used as a means of weeding out these undesirable customers who seemingly deplete the bank of its resources.

An undesirable customer? Any deposit customer should be a welcome customer to a bank these days, as the landscape becomes more competitive and non-bank players enter the fray.

In fact, the Bank Administration Institute's latest research on profitability says deposits are banks' main source of profits.

I have second-hand experience with a major bank's weeding-out practices. A few months back, a family member of mine was apparently labeled an undesirable by Citibank.

He had a checking account there for over 50 years before he closed it last year. Quite the loyal customer, no? Usually when a business encounters such customers, an extra bit of care is taken when helping them. And for a while this was so. Because of my relative's senior citizen status and the fact that he'd been banking there for so long, one of the branch managers waived all usage and service fees on his checking account at his behest, realizing his status.

This lasted but a few months and it wasn't long before a new manager reinstated all fees on his account. Nothing he said could possibly convince this new regime to show a bit of customer goodwill. Needless to say he closed his account at Citi and is now with North Fork Bank, with which he is very pleased.

"[Citibank] became very cold and very commercial over the years," he reflects. He noticed this trend begin in the 1970s and gradually worsen. "They didn't even have the courtesy to reply to any of the letters I wrote them [regarding the situation]."

Granted, this all could have stemmed from a problem at the branch level, but those managers surely receive their orders from higher up. (Besides, he sent letters to the highest levels of the institution.) It outrages me to think that they can utterly disregard the petitions of a customer they've had for half a century because they're so worried about their bottom line. And this, after hearing so many times as a reporter for a banking magazine, that customers are so very important.

As to an apparent lack of profitability on my relative's part, he had to pay up to $20 in fees a month between the service charge and usage fee to maintain this checking account. Although it hadn't always been this much, it reached the $20 mark as the years passed. Over the course of one year this adds up, let alone 50 years.

But Citi's loss is North Fork's gain since my relative not only has a checking account with the regional bank, but he also recently opened a high-yield CD.

Banks need to know their customers better and start recognizing their loyalty. Customer service technology can remedy this problem only so far. It's no picnic trying to do all this, especially for larger institutions that have millions of customers. However, it might be time for financial institutions to stop buying more "service" technology and start learning how to use what they have because some banks are starting to lose sight of what true customer service is.

Customers are assets. How can banks not afford to treat patrons fairly? After all, echoing the sentiments of many in the industry, it's easier to retain existing customers than to find new ones.

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