One unusual trait of American business and banking is that we often reward disloyalty.

Look at the offers made to attract customers. Discounts are advertised on everything from newspaper delivery to credit cards, with the restriction: "new customers only."

Meanwhile, the customers already getting services or credit cards are told to pay full rates so the vendor can, in effect, subsidize new, lower- paying customers.

Many of us have changed long-distance carriers, even though satisfied with the ones we had, because the offer for new customers is so good.

And frequently we leave in order to come back to our original provider, because that makes us new customers once again, entitled to the special rates.

Think of the waste in cost and effort that the provider brings upon itself.

Consumers should also think twice about accepting the first price for a product, like a car; the person who waits for bargains gets a better deal. No one renews a magazine subscription before the final offer, which is usually lower than the first renewal offer. Think of how much the magazine could save in promotion cost if people knew that the first offer was really the best one.

In banking, rewards for disloyalty are rampant.

Take the teaser rates offered to new credit card customers. The idea is to get carholders to switch from some other bank. But do such customers stay when the bargain period is over, or do they just jump to another bank's deal?

(Constant switching, by they way, has had a profound effect on bankruptcies. At one time, people in financial trouble would begin to lag on payments, and the bank would recognize this as a sign to intensify collection efforts. Now, however, debtors switch from teaser account to teaser account, paying off one card in full with the proceeds of the next, until they exhaust their ability to obtain new cards. Then they go under, without warning.)

Rewarding disloyalty goes further than setting prices and terms. Many vendors and service representatives concentrate on the newly acquired customer, ignoring the loyal ones who have been paying the freight all along.

What can banks do to stop rewarding disloyalty?

One step is to penalize marketing people when an account is closed, just as they are rewarded when one is opened. This forces representatives to be as interested in serving present customers as in finding and pleasing new ones.

In addition, any special terms offered to new customers should also be offered to existing customers.

For that matter, why not reward loyalty instead of disloyalty? Why not offer the best rates and terms only to those who have been paying their bills and earning revenue for the bank through the years? This would certainly save money, since there would be no new costs of investigating that customer's credit.

The bottom line is that long-time customers should not be taken for granted-and that banks must foster this attitude.

Think about what it feels like to see special attention and rates reserved exclusively for new customers. Wouldn't you wonder what might happen if you needed some special service? Might you not conclude that rewards for loyalty would be more certain at some other bank?

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