How Commerce Bank lost its niche… and its heart

There’s a lot of talk in the world of coaching about “finding your niche.” A niche is what lets a coach, or any business, set itself apart from the pack. Find your niche, and do it better than anyone else, and you’ll have more business than you know what to do with.

In banking, there was one bank that created a niche truly unique from all its competitors. They created a model based on creating not just good customer service, but the best. They found out what the customers not only wanted, but dreamed of. The result was a bank open seven days a week that offered such amenities as free coin counting, free checking, and no surprise fees. Walking through the door, you’d be greeted personally, and often offered a free piece of candy. Blue “Commerce” pens were plentiful and soon gained wide circulation among the cognoscenti of the 9-5 set in Manhattan. When you opened an account, even for a nominal amount consisting of just the change you brought in for counting, you’d get a personal, handwritten card from the person who opened your account. With these sort of practices, for a number of years, Commerce Bank was a shining example of what happens when a commercial entity has a strong mission and purpose and combines it with leadership in the art of customer service.

Somewhere in the last year or so, this once-great bank lost its bearing. Without warning, the bank instituted draconian “monthly cycle fees” that rivaled that of their biggest and worst competitors for fee gouging. Closing an account became a process of trickery and deception that would not allow a customer to leave without incurring months of miscellaneous fees that were never on the statement. Stories of branches “losing paperwork” that would then cause even more fees became common knowledge. The same type of petty, nickel-and-dime thinking that plagues much of the banking and credit card industry replaced the powerful vision of customer care that made this bank one of the fastest growing in the country. Perhaps it is the concerns of a steep recession, but clearly, this bank has lots its mission and purpose.

My mother had a great expression for this. “You’re being penny-wise and pound foolish.” (The “pound” gives away the origins of this expression as an old British one.) It means you’re more focused on the small picture, not the larger one. It’s like hiring an accountant for $150 to examine your $75 cell phone bill.

Let’s look at this from a coaching perspective. If you were coaching the CEO of Commerce Bank, where would you start? My first questions might be, “Has the vision and mission of the bank changed in the past five years? Are the benefits attained from these fee strategies worth the cost to the bank in customer loyalty, goodwill, and future business?

I invite your coaching questions or provide your own approach.

April 4, 2008