Banks are under significant pressure to modernize payments or lose customers to more nimble digital challengers. But regulatory obligations, which at times hold banks back from being innovative, are also the reason banks become the hero in resolving disputes over charges.
The rules that make banks responsible for fraud and other losses also create a culture of customer service that the new internet-based startups lack, which is especially apparent when handling exceptions.
That's not to say I don't use digital payment apps such as Venmo, Google Wallet, the Starbucks mobile app, Uber and MyCheck on a regular basis. And these services are valuable, saving me when I lost my walletand all the cash and cards insidein Texas last October.
But most of these apps are linked back to my bank account or are tied to my debit card. And after a car renting fiasco in London, I'd like to keep it that way.
During my last weekend in the U.K., a friend and I decided to rent a car and head west to Wales. We got up early Saturday morning and tried to pick up a car without a reservation from Avis at Heathrow Airport. No luck.
We then sat at a coffee shop in the airport and combed through Skyscanner, a search engine for comparing flights, hotels and car rentals. I booked a car from EasiRent through a matchmaker service called CarTrawler with my PNC Bank debit card. That's a lot of parties handling the transaction, which makes knowing who to go to for a refund complicated.
When we entered EasiRent's small room at the back of a hotel, dozens of customers were huffing about the deplorable service, mostly travelers who had been waiting hours for cars they had booked far in advance. And it wasn't just the service that was bad. EasiRent didn't have any cars available.
The customer service representatives were extremely sour and several people were told they could pay for another car and then the money for the original would be refunded at a later date. I was told that I'd have to contact the third party booking service for a refund.
In an effort to cut our losses, after an hour and a half, I told one service rep to give me her name and CarTrawler's number, and I'd take care of the refund later. We scrapped the road trip idea and jumped on a train to Brighton, a boardwalk town on the southern coast of England. All was well, eating fish and chips, listening to street music while sipping on a pint of Jack Daniels and enjoying the ocean breeze.
Jump to the first week of June: I spoke to a customer service rep at CarTrawler who said the necessary apologies and then explained I'd be getting an email as they investigate. Initially I was pretty happy with the quick response, but several days later I was informed that EasiRent had advised CarTrawler that the rental was down as a no show and so they would not be issuing a refund. When I emailed back that that was unacceptable and skirting on fraudulent, I got a pretty generic response about always reviewing the terms and conditions and disputing the "no show" claim with EasiRent directly.
My show of grace ended there, as did my digital nativity. I quickly called my usual PNC Bank branch in New York City stating that I needed to issue a chargeback because of the absence of any service. The branch rep then transferred me to a line where I could ask for a consultant. I wasn't on hold long before a friendly woman got on the line and asked me the appropriate questions, taking notes to firm a case for a chargeback.
While I'm unsure whether this information will be used in the case, I mentioned logging into my PNC mobile app while at EasiRent to check if the transaction had gone through. I assume PNC uses GPS tracking since I usually have to provide further authenticationanswering a secret questionwhen logging in from other locations and devices.
PNC then credited my account the amount of the transaction plus the dollar to pound exchange fee. While the credit is pending as the bank investigates, the money is available for use immediately and I consider the matter resolved to my satisfaction.
But looking back: Why hadn't the third party representative on the phone asked me more about the situation? Why didnt the third party rep that was emailing me, sensing my frustration, call me to get the whole story?
Because they don't have to and they likely don't care to. Most of the consumer-facing companies that spawned from the exponential growth of the internet were founded in the early 2000s. Regulatory bodies are still trying to catch up, especially with the rash of matchmaker services like CarTrawler that wash their hands of responsibility by hiding behind terms and conditions.
Banks on the other hand just can't do that.
They're old institutions. They've spent years dealing with angry customers face-to-face, and another couple decades dealing with irate customers over the phone. Bank representatives are trained to handle these situations, just like all customer service industry jobs. Think back to your first job in the service industry, those day-long training sessions on how to handle an upset customer with steps forged into a mnemonic device. It all seemed like common sense, but this kind of training and service is lacking at many internet companies.
Plus the regulatory burden on banks is well established and becoming increasingly heavy. For instance, banks generally have to reimburse customers for fraudulent purchases and pay for replacement cards when there's a data breach at a retailer. But the banks rarely receive full compensation for their losses in rulings. After the Target data breach, banks were stuck with a $19 million settlement, even though a group of banks that subsequently sued Target said the data breach might eventually cost $18 billion (that's billion with a B).
As a millennial I've grown up suspicious of banks and skeptical that their bureaucratic processes aren't more than a way to exhaust consumers into dropping the fight.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, banks have taken a hit to their reputation. That deflating trust continues as bank scandals are revealed on an almost weekly basis. Consumers are putting increasing trust in non-banks, although they tend to be the big players that are known for their customer service, including Apple and Amazon.
It's become cliché to beat up on the banks. So cliché even that banks and the card networks are morphing the mockery into marketing, and with good results. And the fact of the matter is, when consumers need it mosta last resort for refuting fraudulent transactionsbanks become the ace in the hole that gets it done.
Bailey Reutzel is a reporter for PaymentsSource.