Sometimes this website/Facebook Group/Instagram page/maybe YouTube channel makes me do things that I don’t really want to do. It makes me go the extra mile. It makes me fight when I’d rather just let something go. These occurrences come around every so often, usually in the form of making a series of phone calls to negotiate vehicle insurance (which is currently on my to-do list) or doing exhaustive research on how best to navigate credit card reward points or, in today’s case, making a trip to my business bank to dispute a $12 service charge.
Today’s saga began a couple of months ago. I received a check (from Vanguard, no less) from a client to pay for wedding services. At first, I was pretty giddy. Not only was I being paid for my work, which is always nice, but it was cool to see a check written to me from someone’s Vanguard account. (I <3 Vanguard.) I deposited the check from my phone and it hit my bank account in a couple of days and that was that. A few days later, I noticed that the check amount had been debited back out of the account. That’s weird. I went back to BB&T to ask about that and they said it was likely a bad check. This had actually never happened before in our business. A few days later, I received a letter in the mail with, what I would call, a check voucher. It was kind of strange. It had a picture of my original deposit of the check and instructions that I could use this statement to re-deposit the funds. This time, I took that statement to the local branch and deposited it there.
We have three checking accounts with BB&T. One for our “main” company and two for our sole proprietorships we have set up. This deposit was for my sole proprietorship (Adam INC) and, thus, was originally deposited into that account. However, when I brought the check voucher statement…thing…in, they said they could only deposit it into our “main” account (Blueberry Creative) since the check was written out to “Blueberry Creative” and not Adam INC. OK, whatever. I’ll deposit it into this account and then transfer it to my INC account. It’s just a little book-keeping adjustment and all will be fine. This will be relevant later in the story.
A couple of days later, I noticed that check had again been debited back out of the main account. At this point (and I suppose I should have done this initially), I called our client and told him what was going on. He realized that his checks from Vanguard had expired and he needed to send me a new check, which he did promptly. I received that check and deposited it into my INC account and that was that.
Fast forward to about a month later and I notice a $12 debit to my INC account with the ambiguous memo: “Service Charges - Prior Period”. I LOATHE random fees, so I went to BB&T and had a meeting with one of their bankers about this. After a little digging around, she determined that the charge was from a returned check and I immediately knew where it came from. Initially, she said there was nothing she could do about the charge (when I asked if it could be refunded). I wasn’t really in a giving up mood, though, and explained the situation to her. She suggested that I charge my client the service fee, which is all well and good on a black-and-white spectrum. Here’s the thing, though: My client experience is super valuable to me. I’ll do whatever I can to make their relationship with our company a smooth one. It’s not worth it to me to sully that relationship over $12, especially when it was a simple mis-understanding. I explained all of this to her, over the course of maybe 45 minutes, and she actually did understand my reasoning. I compared that relationship to the relationship I was having with her bank, a much larger business than mine, and wondered aloud why my relationship with them wasn’t worth the same $12? After all, we’ve been banking with them since we started our company in 2011. We’ve taken out loans with them. We’ve used their credit cards. We’ve used their merchant services. We hold multiple checking accounts with them. We’ve never over-drafted. We’ve never had a returned check. Surely, the same leniency was possible, considering the stature of their business in comparison to ours. It was a compelling argument and she decided to refund the service charge. “Great”, I thought, my bank listened to my problem with understanding and, after some debate, compassion and did the right thing. All’s well that ends well.
Fast forward to another month later and I notice a familiar looking charge, this time in our “main” account. (Recall a few paragraphs earlier when I mentioned that the teller wouldn’t let me deposit the check voucher they mailed to my into my INC account and, instead, made me deposit it into our main account.). So I, begrudgingly, went back to BB&T to rectify the situation. I thought it would be relatively simple, as I had already spoken with them about this transaction and it had been rectified. However, the person I spoke with prior was not in on this day. So I had to explain the whole situation, which is admittedly a bit convoluted, to another banker. She had less compassion and explained to me that they have a one-refund-per-year policy and since I had just used the refund, there was nothing she could do. #TRIGGERED. I asked her when her associate would be back and she told me she would be in on Monday (today). I told her that I would come back and speak with her because she already knew the situation and we had a nice chat about small business and customer service and ethics and such.
So here I am, bright and early this morning. I met with the first banker I spoke with (who issued the refund) and explained to her the situation. To my surprise, she echoed her colleagues words. There was simply nothing she could do. Even though this was regarding the same banking transaction. We again talked about customer relationships and how important they are. Apparently, it didn’t matter. Rules are rules and I had broken them. #TRIGGEREDAGAIN.
I did come to this meeting with some research that I was hopeful I wouldn’t need to share. Over the weekend, I looked up how much revenue is generated by bank fees. You may or may not be surprised to find that “according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) data, banks with over $1 billion in assets collected more than $11.45 billion in overdraft and non-sufficient funds (NSF) in 2017.” (Source: Center for Responsible Lending) 11.45 BILLION DOLLAR$. FOR NOTHING. (To be fair, this was not a NSF case, but it was fee-based.) . The banker agreed that the number was really high, but that “people have to learn a lesson from bad banking behavior”. That’s when I flipped the desk over. I’m kidding. But I wanted to. My favorite line from the article, which is a perfect summation of this whole situation: “Instead of serving families fairly, these banks are driving their customers deeper in a hole and often out of the banking system altogether. Over the last 15 to 20 years, many financial institutions have betrayed the trust of their account holders by replacing what was once an occasional accommodation with an exploitative system of routine high-cost overdraft fees that drive account holders deep into debt.” Yep. Basically.
I politely told her that I understand that there is fine print and that it is my obligation to read all the terms and conditions of my account, but that I also was holding out hope for some compassion for a small business owner who lives and dies within slight margins. Now, $12 or $24 isn’t going to cause my company to go out of business. But if I’m not vigilant when it comes to these sorts of things, it could very well create that result down the line. (We won’t even get into the $75/month we were being charged for the ABILITY (not the transaction fees) to process credit cards through BB&T/Authorize.net.) Given the multi-billion dollar fee industry these banks enjoy, surely there must be a larger margin that they could operate from. Unfortunately, not. The answer is to simply charge these fees back to my customer and, by doing so, risk damaging a fruitful relationship over what they may view as “petty”. No thank you. I’ll swallow that cost because I value my customer relationships and their satisfaction is our number one priority. It’s a shame that our nearly-9-year-relationship with BB&T isn’t worth $12 to them. It would hurt their bottom line.
So now I have to go the extra mile. I have to fire my bank. I have to find a new bank that cares about their customers. We did it with our personal accounts when we left Bank of America for Ally (who have paid us $1,000s in savings account interest since that move as compared to the meager .03% APY provided by BOA, which is higher than BB&T's .01%). It’s going to be a pain in the ass for me, a customer scorned. Then again, that’s the risk they took by taking a hard-line stance on what a customer might view as “petty”.
***A quick plug for BB&T: In all honesty, we've considered moving away from BB&T for a variety of reasons over the last couple of years. Ultimately, we had decided against it because of a personal reason: When we first started our business, we needed a small business loan to buy equipment. By small loan, I mean specifically $7,500. We went from bank to bank with our business plan, projections, the whole nine yards. We heard no after no after no, which was really discouraging. That was until a friend suggested I speak to her banker friend who worked at BB&T. He listened to our pitch, weighed the risks of the loan, and decided to take a chance on us. We bought our equipment, got to work, and paid the loan off in two months. That loan meant a lot to us and it still does. It was the sole reason we have stayed with BB&T through the years. And as this relationship ends I feel some sadness because this is where our business started. That loan got us off the mark and I will be forever grateful for that particular banker's trust in our business and in us.