The Old (Customer Value) Shell Game Is Alive and Well


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As anyone who has ever lost money at a carnival or street game of chance will tell you, the essence of the dealer’s ‘magic’ at manipulating the cards, cups or shells in their favor is misdirection. The same thing, unfortunately, can sometimes be said of service or marketing elements of companies we otherwise trust and respect.

Today, I went to my bank’s local branch to draw out some cash from the ATM. Some of you will be familiar with my bank. It’s a regional player which uses famous spokespeople in its advertising and tells us that it’s the most convenient bank in the U.S., a title and tag line many believe it simply annexed from another bank it acquired a few years ago.

While making my withdrawal, I noticed a small tent sign sitting on top of the ATM. It read: “Effective May 8, 2012. To better serve your cash needs, we will no longer sell U.S. postage stamps at this ATM.” To paraphrase Aretha Franklin, on seeing this, my first thought was “Who’s zoomin’ who?” This is just another customer value shell game.

For several years, many banks have been offering stamps through their ATMs. In return for this service, banks have come under heavy public criticism for the high stamp purchase ‘transaction fees’ they exact, in some cases up to $.09 and $.10 per stamp. On customer comment sites, the terms ‘scam’ and ‘ripoff’ have often been applied to this practice, hardly something to help create a positive image and reputation in an industry already under so much media scrutiny.

As a result of the growing awareness of this practice by the banks, few people now use the stamp purchase service, preferring to follow the last direction on my bank’s ATM tent sign: “Stamps are available for purchase online at or through your local Post Office.” In other words, despite the high profit margins associated with this service, it is no longer financially viable for banks.

As customers, we’re being asked to accept that the removal of the stamp service is, somehow, a good thing for us rather than a good thing for the bank. So, the zoomin’ question: Instead of misdirecting the public from the real reason the bank is canceling the stamp service, why can’t, or won’t, they just be straightforward and cut out the shell game marketing? They could just as easily have said: Effective May 8, 2012, we will no longer sell U.S. postage stamps at this ATM.” Few would have noticed or cared. Who is going to believe their “to better serve your cash needs” positioning?

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.


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