The chief executive officer of a regional brokerage firm once told me the nasty customer response he encountered when his firm imposed a $5 charge for cashing in every bond coupon.

A man came in with 100 coupons, some of them well out of date, and screamed when he was told this would cost him $500.

"I'm a customer here. You can't do that to me!"

Checking its records, the firm saw that in the past year gross commissions on his trades were $300. After the broker's 40% share of commissions, this made him a solid loser for the firm. Yet he couldn't understand why it invited him simply to take his coupons elsewhere or, if he was really mad, just close the account.

An elderly customer even went into this CEO's office to complain about the same policy.

"This is what it costs us," the CEO told her.

"But don't you have an obligation to serve the senior citizens?" she replied.

It is obvious she was not sympathetic to the mini-lecture she received on the fact that financial institutions are not part of the government and are set up to make a profit.

But as the CEO told me these stories, I was thinking maybe some bankers also need to be lectured that their organizations are not quasi- governmental, either. All too often they act as if serving the public- without regard to what it costs the bank-is their prime motive.

How often is pricing based on tradition rather than common sense? Examples abound, and I'm sure you could find some in your bank.

My favorite is the safe-deposit vault. It holds a customer's most valued possessions and is protected by the bank 24 hours a day, usually on the most expensive real estate around.

The same customer might have a golf-club locker where he keeps his shoes, socks, and other readily replaceable items. I bet he pays more for the locker than for his space in the bank vault.

Now let me preface the rest of this column by expressing my relief that the community banking pages are not high on the list of reading by members of the American Association of Retired Persons, because I am often perplexed by senior citizen pricing.

We see special rates for seniors everywhere-hotels, airplanes, bank accounts, theaters. Why?

In many instances they have been established out of compassion. Many seniors are on fixed incomes-pensions and Social Security benefits-and don't have the financial opportunities that younger people have.

But this is not as serious a problem as it used to be. With less inflation, wage stability, downsizing, and a Social Security structure that generously adjusts for cost-of-living increases, more and more you find older people are better off than the younger ones.

Let's be hard-hearted for a minute, remembering that a bank is a business enterprise. If the senior citizen fee schedule leads to a loss, shouldn't we rethink it?

Most banks-and other businesses giving senior citizens preference- justify the practice on the basis that here is a big market to be tapped. The older people have saved, have money to spend, and they can use facilities at times when others can't because they don't adhere to school and work schedules.

But in tapping this senior market that can travel and go to the theater and restaurants when others can't, banks are not on equal footing with many other issuers of special senior rates. The others actually use these rates to fill in slack times.

The early bird special is great for a restaurant. It fills the tables when they would be empty. Similarly, a movie discount that is not available Saturday evening when the seats would be filled anyway with full-fare customers makes sense.

But how do banks take advantage of their senior citizen rates to shift activity to times when facilities are idle?

Can a bank tell a senior citizen that he is not welcome in the lobby on Friday at noon or that he must use the ATM to get cash instead of using a teller?

Maybe if the discount is enough, he will do this. And if he won't and the account does not generate a profit, perhaps the bank should adopt the attitude of the brokerage firm that did not try to please the man with 100 coupons to cash?

Do we offer special rates or below-cost charges because they are good for us or because we fear breaking tradition and the bad publicity this could cause?

In my talks to bankers, the time I always get applause is when I tell of the customer who says, "Give me what I want at my price or I'll move my account."

To which the bank's answer should be:

"Here's the address of some other banks."

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