My friend had been in Hungary and used an automated teller machine card issued by his local bank, CoreStates Bank. For six months of his Fulbright fellowship stay, it worked perfectly in providing him cash. Then for some strange reason it stopped working-despite his large balance at home.
He discovered toll-free "800" numbers don't work from Budapest to New Jersey.
So he called at his own expense. No luck in solving the problem. He called again. No luck. For the rest of his trip, then, he had to use a Merrill Lynch debit card.
But that isn't the issue. An international glitch can happen with any card. (I remember trying to use my ATM card in South Africa only to have the screen say, "Contact your local bank branch"-which happened to be about 12,000 miles away.)
But back to my friend's story. He walked into his CoreStates branch on his return, told about his experience, and said to the platform person, "I think you should pay the $41 I spent on phone calls to you."
She got up, filled out a slip for him to sign, and immediately gave him $41 in cash-asking for no telephone receipts or any other documentation.
What CoreStates showed was empowerment. It is the key to successful banking. Front-line employees in customer service must be empowered to solve the problems that will come up, rather than having to say, "I'll take it up with those with authority and then get back to you."
Another way in which I have been impressed by empowerment is how Citibank handles questions on its credit card bills. The first agent you speak with takes the item off your bill until the matter is investigated and handled. In other words, the customer is innocent until proven wrong. The agent is instructed to act on that assumption.
Despite the obvious value of empowerment, we see many large banks going just the opposite way.
I talked to a top officer in charge of branches statewide for a superregional bank. He had been an enthusiastic officer of his bank for two decades-until now.
"They have changed everything," he told me. "I no longer have any authority to make a loan. All I can do is gather information and send it into headquarters."
He said his job has turned into selling other bank services, such as cash management. And he said he no longer has control of whom he hires or fires.
After years of loyalty and enthusiasm, he has reached a sad conclusion.
"I get my pension vested on Oct. 6, 2003," he said. "I'll be out that day, or at latest the next."
Maybe an even better example of the loss of empowerment is what credit scoring has done to banking.
With a computer program and information from credit bureaus, many banks have eliminated personal judgment in granting consumer loans, approving credit card limits, and even making mortgages and underwriting business loans as high as $250,000.
This saves the cost of evaluation and sometimes even leads to better decision-making. But what does it do to people, to job satisfaction, and to their ability to learn what they will need to know as they move up in the bank?
The bank used to empower the individual; now it empowers the scoring algorithm. No wonder so many borrowers turn to community banks where a real human still has the power to say "yes" or "no."
But empowerment doesn't have to exist exclusively in the community bank.
When Bank of America practically owned California, it was notorious for not being generous in branch managers' salaries. Yet the pride these people showed in their bank was obvious. Such a feeling involves managers' power to make decisions and know they will be backed up by headquarters.
I don't know much about CoreStates, but on the basis of the $41 my friend received, I like what I saw.
But with credit scoring, where are the people to evaluate the loan and look for opportunities to cross-sell? How can the bank train new young officers in lending procedures and standards?
A top officer of an investment firm that has had some personnel problems recently admitted to me:
"Only three of us have been making all the decisions; our culture has become one where our staff and salespeople look to us to approve every action. But brokerage and investment are fields where decisions have to be made every minute, and the skill of our people is the only asset we can depend on."