Although I am sure they don't know it, I have long had a love-hate relationship with American Express.

The financial services company has been an incredible innovator and marketer, but its customer relations offer lessons to community banks - and a key reason why they will survive in the '90s.

I admired American Express tremendously when it developed the charge card as an alter ego to travelers checks.

People give Amex money to buy and hold travelers checks. Amex lends the same money back through the charge card - taking a commission on the former and a discount on the payments on the latter. That's marketing!

American Express also built lifetime friends among young travelers - the people who would be the high-end earners later - by offering American Express offices around the world as a place to send mail to wandering Americans.

And I was particularly impressed when I was scheduled to make a talk for their management which they rescheduled - making it impossible for me to get to Marco Island on time from a previous engagement the same day at Hilton Head Island.

"No problem," I was told. "We will just divert Mr. Gerstener's plane a few minutes on its way from New York and pick you up."

Even more impressive was the security man guarding the assembled brass at the poolside reception at Marco Island who didn't stop me as I joined the party.

I went up to him and asked "Why didn't you check to see if I belonged in the group?"

"I saw your pictures before I left New York," he replied.

But when it came to the American Express Card as a personal vehicle, I was not happy.

Why should I pay $50 or more a year to get a plastic weapon that I could get free from a bank?

I resisted. And I was made mad on occasion when an anxious headwaiter would refuse both my Visa and my MasterCard, oozing "American Express only."

I checked on this and found that, while some headwaiters and restaurant owners said that this gave them a better class of customers, others admitted that forcing nonholders of the Amex card to pay cash was a decided benefit to the small-business owner in a country with a diligent Internal Revenue Service.

But then came the Optima Card.

Here was my solution. I could get a free card that I could carry for those times when the waiter tried to embarrass me, and the only cost was that I had to use it three times a year to avoid a fee.

The American Express Card and I had become friends.

But that didn't last long.

Shortly after receiving my Optima Card, I got notice that Hilton Hotels now offer an Optima Card with the same features plus points for free hotel stays - like frequent-flier miles.

Naturally, I requested the switch to the Hilton Optima, only to be told by American Express that I was not eligible, as I already had the basic card.

Now to me, that is the greatest of marketing boo-boos.

In effect, you are telling your old customers "our special treatment is only for new people - not you. You are already a captive and we don't have to treat you nicely."

What does that also tell the new prospects if they find out? It says that once they are on board, they, too, will be taken for granted as the company looks for even newer fish to fry.

But in my case, it was even worse. To show why I was turned down for a Hilton Optima card, I was told in the next sentence:

"While evaluating your application we contacted the credit reporting agency listed below, and their report adversely affected our decision."

Wow!

I owe nothing to anybody. I am the type who will cancel a vacation to get home and pay my Visa bill on time.

What adverse information could they possibly have?

I contacted TRW, as Amex's statement of my rights said I could, and the nine-page report showed no outstanding to anyone for well over a decade.

Calling American Express, I complained and was told, "O.K. If you say you have no debts, we will give you the new card to replace the old one, even though this is against our policy of switching before you have had the old one for a year."

Now, I am lucky. I didn't need the credit, so only my pride was hurt. But many would have been devasted, and all just to cover a policy of not replacing plain-vanilla cards with better ones - or maybe just because no one bothered to check the facts.

This is financial service in the 1990s. And it is another reason why the community bank that knows you is not dead or dying.

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