About a month and a 306,000-signature petition
later, Bank of America is opting not to charge its planned $5 monthly fee for customers who use debit cards.
“We have listened to our customers very closely over the last few weeks and recognize their concern with our proposed debit usage fee," David Darnell, the bank’s co-chief operating officer, said in the company’s Tuesday statement
. “Our customers' voices are most important to us. As a result, we are not currently charging the fee and will not be moving forward with any additional plans to do so.”
Though other banks had plans for similar fees—and have also largely scrapped them
—Bank of America seemed to suffer the brunt of the public outcry, as the Change.org petition makes clear.
“Bank of America likely misjudged both the consumer reaction and the delay of the others in implementing the fee,” says Gerald Baron, principal at Agincourt Strategies. “I suspect they thought the same thing would happen as when airlines implemented the baggage fees, where the first one took some heat, then the rest followed and the heat died down.”
In Bank of America’s case, it didn’t die down, in large part because of the political environment. As Baron puts it, the bank lit a match “in an enclosed room with lots of gas fumes.”
Now that the company has walked back its highly publicized fee plan, has it also put out the flames?
The value of listening
Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management said he’d give Bank of America’s statement regarding the fees a B+, because it indicates the decision was based on listening to customers. It’s considerably better than Chase’s publicly stated reasoning—which Bernstein gives a D. News articles stated that sources cited “market research” was the reason for Chase’s dropping the fee.
Other banks also said their customers’ voices were the reasons they dropped their fee proposals. “As we adjust to changes in our business, we will continue to stay attuned to what our customers want,” Ed Kadletz, Wells Fargo’s head of debit and prepaid cards, said in a statement
Baron says he’s not sure he buys Bank of America’s line that it is a company that listens carefully to customers, though.
“The reality is far more complex than that,” he says. “For example, I suspect the fear of further political involvement and legislative action was even more of a motivator for the reversal decision, but they can't go into all of that. Seems to me it would have been better to say, ‘Business conditions and a variety of factors have led us to reverse our decision about adding debit card fees.’”
Tripp Frohlichstein of MediaMasters Training says Bank of America should have been listening—through research—before announcing it was implementing the fee. “Had they done research, they might have prevented a lot of negative publicity and loss of at least some customers,” he says.
Frohlichstein strongly suggests that companies talk to customers and shareholders before making a big decision such as the fee implementation.
“If your goal is to make both your customers and shareholders happy—and remember your employees, as well—then you are less likely to run into PR problems which can cost a loss of customers and loss of revenue.”
Timing and action
By taking more than a month to turn around on the fee, Bank of America has made it tough to undo the damage, says Frohlichstein. “They allowed an almost constant stream of bad publicity to beat down their brand,” he says, likening the situation to Netflix’s recent, protracted troubles announcing a price increase
Though he gave Bank of America’s statement above-average marks, Bernstein says Bank of America still has a lot of work to do to win back customers’ trust.
“Statements alone are insufficient,” he says. “They have to be matched with actions which demonstrate that both organizations do, in fact, put the needs of their customers first.”
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.