Friday, September 5, 2008

Rishton ki jama punji..... Banks and their Social Capital

It happened around afternoon the other day, when some one sent me a panic stricken mail lamenting that his bank had crashed and that his life’s savings had all gone up in smoke and that he was penniless. He further howled in his mail that since he did his business banking from that very same bank and as that account too was disabled, he was done for. He painted a very colorful picture of him begging on the streets as his family starved at him as he signed off.

It was HDFC Bank that they referring to and as I use the same bank, I tried to log into the bank’s net banking site and was greeted by a site maintenance message. This was not unusual either and the bank typically puts this notice up in advance. But when I reported this back to my friend, he reported that the site maintenance had been going on for a while and every now and then, the bank would change the time of the maintenance to be over.

By evening, the HDFC bank site was still down and the bank gave up extending the time for “maintenance” and instead posting a new message reporting a technical snag and that they were working hard to resolve it at the earliest. A couple of news sites had started covering the news and reported that the snag had been noticed at about 8 am and that the bank’s retail operations were crippled as customers could neither access their ATMs or their bank site and were basically handicapped. Apparently a few could withdraw some limited cash from non HDFC Bank ATMs but many couldn’t. After patting my pocket, I check that I had enough cash to hold out at least a day, I went back to my work.

The incident helped put into perspective a whole range of expectations that have arisen in the last decade or less that has considerably raised the bar in customer satisfaction levels. Consider this: in an earlier birth, the bank would have been open for just four hours – typically from 10 AM to 2PM and the banking could only be done only at the branch where you had an account. The accounts would have been maintained manually and we would be huddling together (not queuing together!) with her hands stretched out claw like towards the cage like structure that was the teller’s chamber from where cash would be dispensed. That claw like fingers would be clutching at a clunky yellow metal piece with a number – the all important “token”.

Banking disruptions were much more common then than now, but some how people tolerated them, lived with them and learnt how to cope with them. The bank staff too I n their cantankerous way helped out and cooperated, especially after if a string of holidays and bank strikes led to unusual crowds once the bank opened. Along the way, the banks also managed to build up rishton ki jamaa punji as the Bank of India advertisement campaign talks about.

HDFC Bank of course is a professionally managed bank and the website, net banking and every thing else was accessible as always in less than a day. But this bank, like most of the modern banks which are focused on the net or phone banking or ATMs has not been able to build that web of relationships perhaps that would generate it some social dividend. In that little over half a day that I had mails criss crossing about the HDFC Bank being inaccessible and the “inconvenience is regretted” type notice that they had put out on their web site.

A few were heard saying that when the bank itself would not accept even a day’s default on payments of loans, credit card dues and so on, why should the customers allow it to get away with a simple one or two line apology ? True enough at one level but the fact that the banks of today do not offer the personalized experience of past days and even those rare visits to the bank are a much depersonalized experience in spite of the plush lounges and fancy d├ęcor adds to the angst of customers. Ultimately, the new banks will need to fix this bug in some way – they have a lot of jamaa punji but they do not have rishton ki jama punji.

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