Johannesburg – I’m not sure how I compare to most bank clients, but I recall that when I first chose to bank at Nedbank [JSE:NED] my reasons had absolutely nothing to do with the bank’s service quality or whether its bank charges compared favourably to those of its competitors.

Some of you may laugh at this, but I chose Nedbank because years ago, upon entering a branch somewhere in Johannesburg, I felt a sense of emotional harmony with the colours and the general décor inside the bank. I had already been to see other banks and did not feel a similar connection with the dark blue and white; the light blue, orange and white; the red on white; etc.
It’s therefore reasonable to conclude that my decision to start a money relationship with Nedbank was totally irrational.

While I still like the colours – despite recently eyeing the rebranded First National Bank with a sense of possible emotional connectivity, albeit not enough to start a new relationship – my reasons for remaining with Nedbank over the years are more complex.

One of them can be likened to an abused spouse fearing that the next partner might be worse. Besides, too much has already been invested in the relationship. Moving out of the shared house might require more effort than I have the energy to muster. It almost feels like a “better the devil you know” conundrum.

Over the years, especially after I established my own consultancy and opened the necessary small business accounts, I unwittingly slid deeper into my bank’s grip by opening saving accounts for my kids. As small businesses go, there have been times when my income exceeded expenses and the bank seemed to love me unreservedly, offering me all sorts of additional credit that I did not ask for.

There have also been times when the opposite ruled the state of my finances and the bank’s call centres would haunt the living daylights out of me, calling me every other day – as if I’d skip the country – to ask when I’d be making the next payment into my credit card account.

When income has been plenty, the bank called me by my name, adding the title ‘sir’, and when expenses exceeded income nobody seemed to care about my many years of love, frustrated history and loyalty with the bank. The urge to find another partner still comes and goes; one day I might just act on it.

We all have our bank stories, good ones and bad ones. But what is the overall consumer feeling about the so-called big four in South Africa in this era of heightened consumer activism, driven by awareness of their rights as enshrined in the Consumer Protection Act, the National Credit Act, and other related legislation?

Are the banks watching, and do they really listen? Do they do everything in their power to act in our best interest, not only vis-à-vis potential scammers but also vis-à-vis their own insatiable hunger for profit?

Let us look at a couple of recent cases.

The R699 car saga

When the popular package of the R699 vehicle finance scheme unravelled a few months ago, all the banks involved sought to distance themselves from Just Group, a Satinsky Group vehicle finance scheme they had agreed to underwrite. To its credit, WesBank did its homework upstream, smelled the stench long before the others, and refused to associate itself with Satinsky.

Absa terminated its relationship as soon as it caught wind of consumer complaints, and Nedbank’s Motor Finance Corporation (MFC) denied involvement with Satinsky’s dealings with Blue Lakes, the Hong Kong-based trading and promotions agency meant to assist in generating advertising income to help subsidise customers’ monthly car repayments.

In a statement, the bank sought to kick the can as far away as possible from its doorstep, stating that “MFC is not involved with these agreements between the car buyer and the motor dealership, as these are entered into only once the bank finance contract has been signed and accepted by the car buyer and the vehicle value paid out to the dealership”.

Anti-FNB mobile banner

In another case Nico Niemand, a frustrated FNB customer who resorted to expressing his feelings through a mobile banner, had this to say about his alleged treatment by FNB: “In the interest of the public, the FNB slogan sucks… I asked for help… No help given!”

READ: Banner wars: FNB now taken to task

Respected corporate brands do not need to kick the dirty can down the road when trouble comes knocking, hoping that it will land outside someone else’s door and stay there. This is because their assessment of reputational risk extends to cover their entire value chain.

Nedbank’s claim that it is not involved with agreements signed after its decision to underwrite a scheme is a cop-out. Like WesBank, they should have seen it coming or, at best, acknowledged that things could have been managed differently.

Banks, like other big corporations that use call centres to interface with their customers, need to constantly monitor call centre behaviour, as a lot of brand reputation is damaged by unprofessional, uncaring, or ill-trained call centre employees hiding behind the anonymity of their switchboards. Reliance on the seeming belief that trapped customers will never go away is no longer sustainable.

*Written for*