I have always said it's because people like institutions that know them, correct errors fast, and respond quickly to requests. (A quick "no" is appreciated more than a slow "yes").
But you can also make friends by admitting mistakes in way that reminds the customer that the bank is human - and even has a sense of humor.
What brings this to mind was a statement I received from my new bank, the one that bought my community bank this year.
Under the heading "Interest earned this period" the statement showed $47.62. But the list of transactions for the month said "Interest payment $45.69."
I checked the other accounts my family has with the new Summit Bank and found a similar discrepancy.
In the old days I would have called my personal banker to find out what happened. But she has been replaced by an "800" number - through which, after the appropriate number of button-pushings, I was actually able to talk to a human. I stated my problem and asked her to explain the discrepancy.
"Forty-seven sixty-two is what you would have earned for the month had you kept the funds in a whole year," she advised. "But you only kept them there a month, so we paid you less."
"That doesn't make any sense to me," I said. "Does it make sense to you?"
"No," she replied, "but that is what I was told to tell people who complained."
So much for customer service.
Not letting the topic go (I am a banking professor who should understand things like this), I called Summit Bank's new "regional president," Steve Emr. Within an hour or so of my call, I must admit, he picked up his phone- mail messages and called me back - on his car phone, on the way from a meeting.
I told Steve my problem.
"I'll have to get back to you," he said. "We as employees don't get interest on our accounts, so I can't tell you off the top of my head."
The answer, when Steve did call back next day, was simple: In the transition from bank to bank, we had been paid one day's interest too much the month before. The computer was just getting the money back.
This did make sense. But as Mr. Emr and I agreed, what an opportunity to show the depositors of the new bank that Summit Bank, no matter how large, has a sense of humor and cares about people.
I am hoping to see a statement stuffer come to me and all other affected depositors saying something like: "Our computer developed double vision, and we had to make amends for its sleepiness."
This is a real opportunity for the bank to show its humanity, make friends, and make amends for the runaround that the customer service lady gave all who had called about the discrepancy. (And lots had called, she said.)
Many CEOs miss a real opportunity for building friends by an unwillingness to admit mistakes.
Upbeat reports to shareholders often sport a big photo of the CEO. But bad news tends to be signed "By order of the Board of Directors"; and the CEO remains anonymous.
I find this too in my PhD class. I often invite expert guests, and the afternoon invariably includes my asking: "What is the worst mistake you ever made?"
All too many CEOs reply, in effect, "Mistake? I don't know what the term means."
I do. When I'm going to give a speech and am asked how I want to be introduced, I suggest: "Of all the economists who have been wrong, Nadler is the loudest." That's better than praise; it puts the audience on my side from the start.
Banks have similar opportunities. When your ATM is sluggish at responding to a request, I suggest that instead of its flashing TRANSACTION BEING PROCESSED it report I'M THINKING THIS OVER.
My favorite case of turning inconvenience into an opportunity to build friends was Southwest Airlines' recorded announcement for those waiting on hold for a reservation agent.
"If you have been on hold for more than five minutes, push 8."
I pushed 8. The voice then said:
"This didn't speed your call, but don't you feel better? You can push 8 as often as you like until an operator is free to take your call."
This little gimmick snatched victory from the jaws of a customer-service defeat. In banking you often see the opposite.
Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.