While opening an account at one of the largest banks a couple of years ago, I texted one of my good friends who is a senior executive there. In the text, I gave him a live play-by-play of what the process was like, including how the appointment I made through the bank’s online scheduler came as a surprise to the staff in the branch that day.

My friend, who was sitting in a conference room several states away, joked that he was having mixed feelings. He texted, “I welcome you as a customer. However, I have a feeling my job just got harder.” He then encouraged me to give him regular feedback since I wouldn’t sugarcoat my experiences.

Over the past two years, I have enjoyed shooting him texts with spontaneous “Hey, just wondering why you all … ” type of comments. I get a kick out of the fact that this bank spends as much or more than any bank in the country on research and customer surveys. Yet, random texts from a guy wearing shorts and a T-shirt are getting senior management attention.

To uncover areas of the bank to improve, executives should appoint their friends to share honest feedback about their experiences. Adobe Stock

I also text when employees are delivering superior service, which happens more frequently than not. Once, I texted him a picture of the person ahead of me in the bank’s drive-through lane: a guy sitting on a riding lawn mower. I didn’t really have a question. I just felt that was a sharable moment.

Aside from amusing myself while waiting in lines, our text communications have given me an opportunity to compare notes on what is happening in branches and what leaders at the top of such a massive operation believe is happening.

Many of the relatively minor head-scratchers I encounter are the types of things that the middle management handle (or hide) before senior folks ever get wind of them. A recent branch visit was illustrative of this phenomenon when I needed to gain access to my safe deposit box — a task that always reminds me there is a bond you develop with any branch you are trusting to hold your most valuable documents.

After telling the young man in the teller window that I needed to get into my box, he had me sign the necessary form and told me someone would help me in a minute. I stepped back into the lobby and waited 20 minutes for help. During that time, I counted five employees on duty and six customers in the lobby and drive-up window. This was not exactly rush hour.

Suffice it to say, I had many questions about the workflow I observed in the branch over that time. I began texting questions to my executive friend at the 15-minute mark — something I am sure that made his day.

By the time the young man came out and sheepishly apologized for my wait, I had more than a few questions for him about their processes. I jokingly asked if I was the only safe deposit box customer that week. He laughed and said, “Oh … no, sir.” He informed me that their safe deposit boxes were fully rented and there had been an almost two-year wait list to get one.

He then explained the wait list had gotten so long that they eliminated it. Now, the branch employees simply rent to the first person asking for a box as soon as one becomes available. Because of this “policy,” people now show up to close their boxes with a friend or family member, so he or she can immediately rent it. Customers are basically bequeathing these prized assets to loved ones.

This wasn’t the only thing I found puzzling. I wondered aloud why the bank’s system for accessing these boxes seemed so labor intensive. Then he explained that an employee had to wait 45 minutes in that room with her back turned to a customer. I visualized an employee literally staring at a wall for 45 minutes because the job required it.

No one in the branch seemed to know why that particular policy is in place. Neither did my senior exec friend. He said it made him very curious when he texted me from several states away. I am confident that he will explore why the branch does something no one in it (nor he) seems quite sure why.

It won’t be the last issue to explore.

Throughout the years, I’ve seen similar puzzling situations at multiple institutions. Front-line staff encounter procedures that are outdated and/or unnecessarily burdensome. Yet most employees don’t want to be seen as a complainer. So they grin and bear it.

Leaders are frequently unaware some of these issues even exist. The people who often become acutely aware of bad or outdated procedures, however, are called “customers.”

Cultivating a few friends or acquaintances far enough removed from your day-to-day business to ask open and honest questions about what they see can benefit bank leaders. The free advice may not be a replacement for “official research,” but it might often be every bit as enlightening.

Dave Martin

Dave Martin

Dave Martin is the founder of the retail bank performance company bankmechanics.

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