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Banks and the mirage of technology

May 05, 2005

Over the past three months I have spoken to (in order of appearance): Puja, Kiran, Sheetal, Partha, Paran, Sonali and Arti.

All of them have charmingly promised -- and signally failed -- to persuade American Express to start sending my credit card statements to my new office address.

At least two of these amiable call centre staffers have also assured me that the problems of linking my two cards on the Web site would be solved within 48 hours.

Alas! Despite the extortionate rates that we pay Amex for late payments (never mind whose fault), none of these men and women has been able to leverage the superior technology for which no doubt Amex pays a fortune to solve my simple problems.

Their spurious sympathy at my predicament is now beginning to grate.

At my new office I have had to open an account with another large foreign bank whose ads bristle with promises of high-tech banking.

Never mind the two months it's taken to get my account opened, there seems to be no salvation for the seriously tech-unsavvy like me.

Is there a helpline? The slick literature I received extolling the virtues of the banks' IT-enabled services doesn't specify anything. So, a week after I received the documents, cheque-books, et al for my company account -- from no less than four different couriers -- I am struggling to make sense of the cards and pin codes.

What is worse, my new colleagues assure me that an actual, physical visit to a branch of this bank to access their many services will result in penalising costs. Better to do everything by ATM, they advised.

As a result of my many virtual banking traumas, I almost revel in the unsophisticated and earthy ambience of public sector Syndicate Bank branch at ITO (in Delhi).

Service may be slow and a little fumbling, but at least it is friendly. And best of all, I can actually collar a human being if my problems aren't solved.

Syndicate Bank has recently been computerising their operations, so banking there is much more convenient than before, but it has blended the human and tech factors well.

My plans to close this account have, as a result, been shelved, despite the distance I have to travel to access it.

To allay suspicions that this is a swadeshi versus videshi argument, let me redress the balance by adding that, two years ago, it took five virtual attempts and one physical visit to a branch before ICICI Bank was able to register a change of address.

Imagine my surprise when Lalitha Gupte, Joint Managing Director of ICICI, spoke emphatically about ICICI Bank leveraging technology to offer quality service just months after this episode.

A friend from ICICI suggested I write to K V Kamath (Managing Director and CEO, ICICI Bank) to complain, assuring me that he was extremely responsive.

If this is true, it is certainly commendable on Mr Kamath's part, but I could not see why I should write to the chief executive of one of India's largest private sector banking organisations simply to register a change of address.

And when India's largest bank, the State Bank of India, started computerising a branch in Dehra Dun, the staff found it impossible to credit outstation cheques to local accounts -- for weeks. No, they couldn't explain what the problem was.

All in all, as a customer, I remain unconvinced of India Inc's obsession with substituting people with IT. IT-enabled services may have helped corporations save millions of rupees and, well used, it is certainly an efficiency-enhancing tool.

But it is worth wondering just how far this trend has helped them make substantial improvements in service quality. As I see it, the relative inefficiency of a face-to-face contact has largely been replaced the wholly frustrating ineptitude of a disembodied voice on a telephone.

In short, corporations have stood to benefit from IT-enabled services far more than the customer, a direct contradiction of a basic management precept.

Part of the problem perhaps is that corporations, especially those in the service sector, need to recognise that IT as a service enabler has its limitations.

It only allows for a limited set of responses and cannot entirely replace human interface. For instance, I am certain Puja, Kiran and Co are doing the jobs they are trained to do and conscientiously following laid-down procedures.

They have, undoubtedly, registered my complaint and perhaps even passed it on to the departments concerned. Can they be held accountable if nothing happens after that? Is there any algorithm in the system -- or a person -- that can register the fact that I have made six complaints for the same problem?

Since we are still in the early stages of IT-enabled customer services in India, little of this impacts companies yet. But Indian consumers are increasingly becoming more discerning.

Over the next decade, as IT becomes a common factor, they will learn to differentiate between good and indifferent service. Only corporations that understand this early will be the winners.

The views expressed here are personal.

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Number of User Comments: 15

Sub: Banks and the mirage of service

Thank U kanika for the exposure. But rest assured that you are not alone in your distress. Thousands of others are in your company! These ...

Posted by subbaraman

Sub: Nightmares at banks in Dehardun

The situation concerning banks whether private or public sector, situated anywhere in the country, cane be put as -unqualified lack of service. Some months ago ...

Posted by Ajeeth Parapullil

Sub: technology

Whats the use of having technology if a customer cant get any information. I have a problem with a leading private bank in India on ...

Posted by karthik

Sub: Banks and the mriage of tech nology

Kanika Datta has done a signal service by pointing out the state of affairs of the much hyped banks IT efficacy. A few general issues ...

Posted by s subramanyan

Sub: A note

Hi, I just read your note on BANKS and the NIRAGE of tech. ut must say you should give a try to UTI BANK. I ...

Posted by Satyadeep Kumar


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