The Stone Age to Wells Fargo Online Banking, We Want Our Technology Back

June 05, 2011

Every month I pay my mortgage to CitiMortgage via Wells Fargo's online banking. Last month it was lost and now I am in customer "service" hell.

Apparently WF sends mortgage checks by mail to CitiMortgage despite both being among the world's largest banks, both of whom have been doing electronic transmission of money for decades. Usually it works. But what happens when the payment is lost, or sent to the wrong place, or some other problem?

Once Citi started complaining about the missing payment I check online at Well's bill pay application and it indicated the payment had been sent. So I filled out the inquiry form. After a few days someone tried to call my cell phone (while the battery was down) and left a message saying they had Citi on a conference call and to call them back, along with a reference to the inquiry (a number). He also stated that Citi would not tell WF anything since they weren't the mortgage holder unless I got on the line.

Once I saw the message I called the phone number which was just the main number at WF, requiring a long trip down the menu system to get the right place.

Now the fun started. I gave the service person the reference number, and after several minutes of silence he finally admitted he couldn't find it despite running two queries. It took several minutes as the place he worked had hundreds of people sharing a single network connection and generally everything took minutes to execute. Apparently the reference number was no longer active, as normally if they don't get you on the phone after one try they kill the inquiry. So he had to search some archive system which took another 10-15 minutes before he came back and found the inquiry, but none of the details were attached (apparently they aren't archived).

He made a new inquiry and put a note in it saying "please try to call more than once" and told me "that's how we usually write it up". Maybe they will call on Monday or sometime this week.

So other than a good way to piss me off, what can we learn from this?

Unlike most customers I have worked for financial service companies (with a bank), analyzed service organizations and developed and architected applications for these industry areas. I understand how the sausage is made.

Customer service and similar organizations in big companies are always considered an expense, and developing productive technology for their employees not directly earning revenue is considered a waste of time and money. Often the leadership of the company is completely disconnected from the actual employees stuck in these organizations and are unaware (or simply don't care) how poor their service appears from the real customers.

When I went to fix the refund process at (long ago bought by someone since) around 2000 the process of getting a refund took an average of six months during which no one had any idea of the status should a customer call in. The company did not care about the refund department whatsoever, assuming the pissed customers could be easily replaced by new ones. When this became apparent it was costing real money, they wanted something new.

What I found was 4 ladies who worked long hours on a Rube Goldberg type system they had put together from whatever they could find in which not only did it take months to grant or deny a refund, but in such a way that people either got money they didn't deserve or people got nothing when they should have been refunded. Plus the system was so slow that the credit card companies would often support a claim because they never heard back from the overworked quartet.

When I left with a mostly complete project the average time took a week and status was available via a web page to anyone in the company. The 4 ladies couldn't believe how easy their job had become.

While doing work for SABRE (the reservations company) around the same time I was asked to profile the Air Pricing group, about 250 people who processed the ticket prices and rules from the many airlines that used SABRE. My analysis should each worked needed to understand 17 different systems in order to do their job, which generally took 6 months to become productive at. The company provided no actual tools to help in the work, relying on outside systems, several manually built access databases, an Excel spreadsheet (one copy used for syncing the work!) and a lot of manual text editing of raw data. It was horrible. It also followed an internal profile which came to the same conclusion, that the company needed to invest in providing a streamlined data system collect all the data (most of which was available via files) and provide a single system for everyone to use.

The management didn't like the first profile or mine and afterwords requested another internal one; I guess they were waiting on someone to say everything was fine.

Well Fargo, like most banks, has mainframes with software likely written in the 70's and 80's at their core. Providing a web interface is very difficult to do on systems not intended to be web interactive. From looking at their online banking system you can see how absolutely crappy it is on many levels. It looks like something from the mid-90s. Each section of the online banking appears to be a separate application (witness the single signon mess when you switch to Bill Pay for example). User interface design seems to be different in different places, as if there are multiple groups responsible, and who probably refuse to work together. The inquiries, for example, vanish once you have created one; there is no way to track them yourself. Of course I found out even the CS people can't track them either. Likely there is no simple way to exact the information from wherever they are stored so there can be no way to provide them to a customer.

If you read the VP/CTO's resume they trumpet the awards the online banking has won. Like paying for awards is difficult (there is prominent best buy award from a magazine that works this way, which we found out about when we did their website in the early 2000's).

Providing poor tools to customer service people along with insufficient bandwidth is a clear sign customer service is not important. Building a website that is ugly, inconsistent, and slow is par for the course for most large financial institutions. Having to send paper checks between banks is another sign of a lack of interest in the customer (why is a utility payment might be sent electronically right away but my mortgage is not). But then again I've been on the inside and it's not surprising at all.

Sure I would like to get away from Wells Fargo, but at the moment I am somewhat stuck there.

It's odd that customer service winds up becoming customer disservice. I do wish all companies with customer service departments required their executives spend a week a year working in one.

It's not hard to make happy customers, even when things go wrong. It's not hard to make happy customer service employees either. When you think pissed off customers don't matter, that there is always another sucker coming along, you run the risk of eventually running out of them.

Then it's too late.