The first time I noticed the flagrant imposition of an additional fee for a business service was when ordering Broadway tickets on line. It was a six dollar “service fee” per ticket. I paid the fee but was puzzled. I was paying the company for a service which they were in business to provide. Strange. Do architects charge an extra fee for putting their plans on paper?
Since then of course things have gotten much worse for American consumers. Airlines seem to charge for everything except the air you breathe, and probably don’t, in order to avoid a debate on how inferior that air is. Everywhere you turn there are extra fees for services and “things” that were once free. Understandably businesses and industries are trying to maintain their financial positions. Many want to bring back the good times when they were flush. Because of the weak economy, and the higher cost of resources, they must extract more from the customers who keep them in business in the first place. Obviously, much analysis has gone into the “cost” (interpreted to mean loss of customers and bad press) of implementing new fees. It is clear that most businesses are willing to sacrifice a certain percentage of customers who will bolt in anger, if the economics work.
But it appears as if we are entering into a new phase of business/customer relations. Customers are fighting back, asserting essentially that business has to have skin in the game too. In bad times business cannot expect to maintain the same level of profits or to ride on the backs of consumers in order to do so. Case in point: Bank of America’s announcement in September that it was going to impose a $5.00/month fee for debit card use. A debit card fee is a charge for you to access your own money for commercial or other financial transactions. It is the same money you have deposited with a bank and the same money it needs to conduct its lending business.
Some analysis definitely went into the Bank’s decision. New regulations have reduced the payments merchants pay the Bank for processing debit card payments and BofA didn’t want to just absorb the loss of income. Fair to say that many other banks also entertained the idea of customer debit fees. Some have implemented them. But, after witnessing the backlash from BofA customers, many backed off. BofA itself announced at the end of October that it would allow customers to avoid the fee if they maintain a minimum balance, or arrange for direct deposit of paychecks or use BofA issued credit cards. But just a couple of days later, it fully capitulated to the pressure and scraped the plan in its entirety.
Unlike Netflix which lost 800,000 customers after announcing a 60% price increase a couple of months ago, BofA will likely weather the storm without a major loss. Why? First, it announced its new fee well in advance and wasn’t the only bank contemplating debit fees, so it didn’t look like the only bad guy. Secondly, many of its customers are locked in to BofA with automatic bill paying, multiple accounts and complicated relationships. Unraveling a bank relationship can be complicated. Finally, BofA certainly calculated the loss of customers it would have to endure if it implemented the plan and decided it was worth it. Now that it has jettisoned the fee, many fewer people will transfer their banking relationship. But unquestionably, some damage has been done. There is a strong movement currently underway in the country to pursuade the public to withdraw from national banks and transfer business to community and regional banks and local credit unions.
People are no longer rolling over. They are fighting back, and businesses should realize that weathering an economic storm (or a regulatory reversal) is something to which all segments of society are subject. One segment is not entitled to be made whole at the expense of another. Profits made in good times cannot always be sustained – especially if they can only be sustained on the backs of others who are suffering just as much. Businesses and industries should be rewarded for innovation and creativity, for new and better goods and services, not for figuring ways of squeezing the hand that feeds them. The moral of the story is quite simple: a business can create its own crisis by being too greedy. Before making a dramatic decision that could adversely effect one or more of your stakeholders analyze both the short-term and the long-term costs. Many of your investors may also be your customers. Aiming for profit maximization may not necessarilly please everyone, especially if bonus maximization is the underlyiong motivation and result.