Creeping Meatballism at Work: How BofA Dismantled MBNA’s Customer-Centric Culture

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Those of us who fondly remember satirist and radio personality Jean Shepherd tend to think of him at this time of year because he was co-author and narrator of the film “A Christmas Story”. Mr. Shepherd also devised, and wrote about, his concept of ‘creeping meatballism’, which was principally what he observed as the growing level of societal passivity, uniformity, and complacency. We see this with a lot of companies as well.

From my perspective, creeping meatballism of an enterprise is well-represented by Bank of America, and what they have done to MBNA’s customer-centric culture over the past decade. In 2006, Bank of America purchased MBNA, then the second-largest, and highly successful, issuer of credit cards in the United States, for $35 billion. As the assimilation began to take place, there was a significant clash of cultures, including approaches to customers and employees.

At this point, let’s step back a few paces. The financial services industry gets a fairly well-deserved rap for making many insurance, investment, and banking transactions and experiences too complex, time-consuming, and commoditized. For employees, and the processes they apply, the rule here should be, as MBNA used to preach and practice (before being acquired by Bank of America): “Think Of Yourself As A Customer.” Customers will always lean toward, and trust, simplicity because it feels more honest and open. In many respects, BofA represents the opposite of this, for both customers and employees; and that has played out since absorbing MBNA.

Post-acquisition, BofA went in the opposite direction of customer-centricity, and torpedoed the MBNA customer and employee culture in the process. What Bank of America did, for example, was became much more aggressive with debt collection, keeping high service charges (even, a few years ago, notoriously and publicly imposing new ATM fees which they were forced to rescind). Where employees were concerned, Bank of America cut the salaries of many managers, did away with the MBNA employee incentive system (built around cardholder retention and satisfaction), and also eliminated a number of senior positions held by MBNA executives, replacing them with BofA managers who had lower salaries. In addition, Bank of America imposed considerably more bureaucracy into its operations, slowing down decision-making.

Fast-forward a decade and there is little, if anything, which remains of the MBNA culture within Bank of America. Many MBNA staffers left, claiming that management doesn’t care what employees think, and that the company is disorganized, has frequent layoffs (forcing out experienced MBNA employees for less expensive new hires), and maintains a highly stressful environment.

Though the famous MBNA mantra, “Think Of Yourself As A Customer” can be seen on many BofA office walls, these days the words have a fairly hollow ring. By virtually any gauge, BofA is one of the worst-performing banks, for employees and customers. Their ACSI score is 68, while PNC’s is 78, U.S. Bank’s is 76, and TD Bank’s is 75. Their NPS score is -24, while TD Bank’s is +10, PNC’s is +15, and SunTrust’s is +45.

Last year, my colleague Colin Shaw wrote a very insightful blog, “Employee Culture: Why Amazon Is On Top And Bank of America Isn’t”. In the blog, he identified the employee-focused elements coming out of Beyond Philosophy’s annual Global Leader Survey that place Amazon at the summit of this list:

a) excellent customer service,
b) clarity of communication,
c) ease of usage,
d) high quality touch points,
e) public commitment to customer-centricity.

At core, and despite some recent negative press, Amazon has a culture that encourages and rewards employee contribution to customer experience and optimum value. In the blog, Colin offered an excellent example of proactive Amazon employee “intrapreneurship” on behalf of customer value enhancement.

Bank of America, conversely, was singled out in the Global Leader Survey for poor customer service, bad press, poor customer care experiences, and terrible internal and external communication. Having refinanced my home mortgage through BofA, I can personally attest to all of the above. There is a significant disconnect between employees and customers, especially where experiences are concerned. Adding to this, the BofA customer experience processes are inefficient and archaic.

My colleague Zhecho Dobrev, a senior consultant at Beyond Philosophy, had his own issue with BofA. As Colin described in his blog: “Blindsided by a past due notice and notification that his delinquency would be passed along to the credit agencies, he called to complain that the email they sent him was misleading and clearly said he owed $0.00. When he brought this to the attention of BofA employees, he got no response or sympathy, was told that the email picture he referred to was “just a graphic” and that he needed to check the balance himself. As Zhecho later said: “The fact that even after my official complaint and talking to two agents and a manager none of them said, ‘Thank you for pointing this to us. I’ll pass this as a suggestion/idea to the management,’ is a failure of the company’s innovation process, which either doesn’t:

– Provide a clear channel for people to submit ideas
– Provide an incentive for people to do that

Or if Bank of America has these in place then for sure it hasn’t trained its managers and staff on empathy.”

BofA seems to neither know nor care about the current experiences of customers. They are largely insensitive to customer suggestions and/or complaints. Employees appear to have virtually no empowerment or latitude to act on the customer’s behalf. This is precisely the opposite of what I’d experienced as an MBNA cardholder a decade ago.

I’ll wrap up, as Colin did in his blog, by wondering aloud if companies like BofA recognize the importance of emotions and memory for customers and employees, or if they recognize the role of employees as ambassadors. As Colin concluded: “When you do this well, your company makes billions of dollars in additional revenue and sits at the top of the customer experience list. When you don’t, you have to nickel and dime your way to profits with annoying fees and cut important things like employee training to eke out a profit for your stockholders. It’s not hard to imagine which company would be more fun to go to every day” It’s living proof of creeping meatballism at BofA.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Hello Michael,

    What jumps out of me is the disconnect between customer theory and behaviour. Take you as an example. You write about the importance of the customer-centred orientation. You write about customer experience. And in this post you say what you say about BofA: don’t care about customer, not a good employer. Yet, and despite this, you are a customer of BofA.

    So it occurs to that it does not take a genius to figure out why organisations like BofA exist and do well – financially. Ditch the customer-centricity theory, give the customer surveys a wide berth, and you are left with this: most folks, including CX gurus and consultants, continue to do business with the likes of BofA. And in the business world this is the only thing that matters: are enough customers lining the pockets of the Tops.

    I wish you the very best for 2016, may it be the best year (yet) of your living.

    Regards
    maz

  2. Maz –

    Thanks for your good wishes. The same to you.

    Re. my involvement with Bank of America, unfortunately as an at-will contractor, I’m ‘stuck’ with BofA as my bank (they purchased my mortgage from another bank – I think this is about the third or fourth generation of ownership). I’m not familiar with the laws in the U.K., but in the U.S., we can’t move to another mortgage lender without being having a full-time employer. If I were able, I’d have dumped BofA in a New York minute. In addition to getting better service from other banks, I’d have gotten a lower mortgage rate elsewhere than I had to accept from BofA.

    Prior to the financial meltdown of 2007 and 2008, relatively few bank customers migrated to a competitor. So, banks paid very little attention to customer defections. Now it is in excess of 25% per annum (http://www.americanbanker.com/bankthink/how-banks-can-turn-the-tide-of-customer-defection-1071777-1.html), so the more intelligent and proactive and customer-focused institutions, like TD Bank, have become more innovative with regard to customer retention. Unfortunately, Bank of America isn’t among the leaders. In fact, creeping meatballism in their culture has put BofA at the back of the line.

    Best wishes.

    Michael

  3. Maz, perhaps you’re missing the forest for looking at the trees.

    The fact that an individual customer doesn’t leave due to bad customer service doesn’t prove that customer-centric theory is flawed. Nor does one anecdote of customer loyalty after great service prove that customer-centricity is working.

    Step back and look at the big picture with BofA, which is *not* performing well compared to its chief competitors.

    In the past 5 years BofA has seen its ACSI score remain the industry’s worst at 68, vs. industry average 76.
    https://www.theacsi.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=147&catid=&Itemid=212&i=Banks

    During that same period, BofA’s stock price has languished, growing 20% when 3 of its chief competitors (Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, and US Bancorp) grew roughly 60%.
    http://www.nasdaq.com/symbol/bac/competitors

    BoA has been focused on efficiency the past few years, taking steps to discourage customers from using its (expensive) people. But other banks like Wells Fargo have a better balance of efficient service (via ATM, online banking, smart phones) and well-trained people in the branches and on the phones. As a result, Wells Fargo has grown its revenue faster and has been rewarded with higher stock prices.
    http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2015/10/27/bank-of-america-expenses.aspx

    Traditionally it has been hard to switch banks, but as Michael noted that is changing. Increasingly, poor service *will* lead to increased customer defections which over time results in slower revenue growth. And eventually shareholder dissatisfaction will lead to CEO defection, too.

  4. Maz –

    Further to Bob’s point, you need only look at Flavio Martins’ recent blog on Metro Bank, or some of what I’ve written about TD Bank, Umpqua Bank, and Commerce Bank before it, to see what customer-focused processes, within a customer-centric culture, can yield.

    Michael

  5. Anyone who works with banks, especially the large commercial banks, knows that terms like “bank marketing” or “bank customer service” are oxymorons. If there are exceptions, they tend to be small, community banks serving defined geographic markets where employees and customers go to the same church, eat at the same local restaurants, whose kids go to the same schools, and who might very well be neighbors.
    The other exception is when your $6.2 million inheritance kicks in. Boy, they get customer-centric quickly when that happens.
    Maz makes the point that customers are reluctant to switch, which some banks assume is a sign of customer loyalty. In the research I’ve seen, this “loyalty” is partly because of the hassle of moving an account, partly because of systemic restrictions (like Michael points out with his mortgage), and partly because the next bank is likely to be just as bad as the one you’re leaving.
    Banks purposely build in “sticky” mechanisms like automated bill pay to make it that much harder to switch away. Consumers are forced to put up with the common annoyances of petty fees and obsequious tellers who pretend they care because their mandatory customer service training told them they had to make believe they’re interested in the lives of people who just want to make a deposit and get on with their lives. All the customer can really do, if they get the chance, is trash the bank in satisfaction surveys. But they still don’t leave, and It takes a nearly catastrophic event for them to make the huge effort to switch.
    I’m waiting for the time when the Israelis and Palestinians reach an accord and when a bank comes along and convinces me they are sincere in wanting my business and proves it by its actions.

  6. Mark –

    A couple of quick points. First, as noted, since the financial meltdown, bank customers have considerably more inclination to switch if they are unhappy at their current institution. With one-quarter of customers changing banks each year, there is much greater concern about the financial loss associated with voluntary defection – – basic “stickiness” ploys are no longer enough.

    Next, in virtually every business sector more customer-focused enterprises can be found as well as customer-centricity laggards, what we at Beyond Philosophy call naive companies. This is also true for financial institutions. Among major U.S. banks, SunTrust and TD Bank provide better customer experiences. Umpqua and Republic do extremely well among smaller banks. In the U.K., Metro is leading the way with innovative services and sensitivity to customer needs.

    Michael

  7. Exactly, and well said. I remember vividly visits with the old MBNA years ago. Every wall, even in the elevators were postered with the slogan. Literally everywhere. And, it was so much more than a campaign. They lived it, walked it. Breathed it.

    sorry to say, as you astutely point out, no longer so.

  8. Marc –

    Living, walking, and breathing a corporate slogan pretty well defines functioning within a cultural imperative. At MBNA, the culture was clearly customer-centric; and, as with many other customer-focused organizations, MBNA was successful – – which is why BofA wanted to acquire them in the first place. Post-acquisition, as described by both Bob Thompson and myself, and echoed by you, BofA applied creeping meatballism to the MBNA culture and eroded it to the point that it has disappeared.

    Michael

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