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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Let Me Explain

I seem to have an occasional talent that served me well during my years of customer service and training. I don't know if working in that field created the skill, or if the skill created my career in customer service, but what difference does it make? What sometime-skill am I talking about? Explaining things. If it is something that I know or understand, I can often be fairly good at explaining it to others. This can be handy on an everyday basis, but is also a lucky talent to have when working in service and training. Maybe my people-watching and reading have helped develop this ability. Who knows. And no, I don't think of myself as some amazing person who can explain any thing to any person successfully. I've just had good luck with it from time to time.

As a telephone customer service banker, you have to not only know the products and how they work, you also have to be able to clearly explain these things to customers who might not understand all the details of their accounts. After all, they aren't immersed in their banking eight hours a day. I had a very memorable encounter once with a customer who was terribly confused about what was going on with his checking account. You see, he had an overdraft line of credit attached to his checking account. The way it works is fairly straightforward. If the account is going to be overdrawn when items are processed, the line of credit advances in certain preset amounts. In the case of our overdraft protection, this was two hundred dollars, or multiples thereof. So, if the account would have overdrawn by three hundred dollars, an automatic advance of four hundred dollars would be made to the account.

Of course, this money is not a gift because the bank thinks you're a really nice person. It's a loan. And as such, it has to be repaid. Of course there are rules for that, too, again, pretty straightforward. There were two basic options for repayment. The customer could choose to pay all or part of the money back when they had the funds. But if there was anything owing to the credit line on the statement date, an automatic minimum payment would be made from the attached checking account. The amount of the payment was three percent of the amount owed to the bank, or twenty-five dollars, whichever amount was larger. So, on this memorable phone call, I was speaking with a man who just didn't understand how the whole thing worked. I explained it as I had to at least a hundred other callers, but it still didn't compute for him. He was following that it was a line of credit. He knew that his account would have been overdrawn without the money advanced into his account. But as far as making the payment was concerned, he was stumped. He kept saying, "But the bank gave me the money!" 

After trying the standard explanation a couple of times, I knew that there was no way that the usual way of describing things to this caller was never going to work. So I switched things up a bit with him. "Okay," I said, "let's just quit talking about money and numbers entirely. Let's imagine that you are laying some gravel on your driveway." He told me he was with me. "While you're working on the driveway, you realize that you don't have enough gravel to finish the job." Yes, he got it, and was eager for what came next. "So you ask your neighbor, who you know has a bunch of the exact same gravel you're using, if you can get some from him to finish the job." Excitement from the customer, he totally gets it. "But your neighbor tells you that you have to pay back the gravel to him when you can. You can either pay it back all at once, or a certain amount each month until he has all of his gravel back." The customer was thrilled. Suddenly, by converting the dollars to gravel, I had made him understand how his credit line worked. His mystery had been solved, and he knew why the payments had to be made. I had the satisfaction of knowing I had helped him understand what was going on with his account. And my manager, who had been listening in on the call, was thrilled that I had managed to get the information across in a way that he could comprehend. It was fun being the whiz-kid of the day.

A few years later, when I was doing an advanced training class for some experienced bankers, I had a similar challenge with loans. It didn't really make a difference on servicing accounts, but the bankers had to learn the difference between two different types of installment loans. There was a distinction on the account information screen as to whether the account was a direct or an indirect loan. The difference is simple. Direct means that the customer, let's say to buy a car, comes directly to the bank to apply for a loan, therefore the term direct loan. With an indirect loan, the customer goes to the auto dealership to buy the car, and asks the dealership to arrange the financing. Since the dealer deals with the bank on the customer's behalf, their contact is indirect, so it's an indirect loan.

Well, for some reason, there were several people in the class who just couldn't wrap their brains around what I thought was a simple and clear difference between the two names. I tried it a few more times, and just wasn't getting through. And even though they knew it wasn't a big, important detail, the trainees were hung up on wanting to understand the terms fully. So I kinda went street on them. I explained the direct loan as I had before. They were cool with that part. They just didn't get the indirect part, perhaps because in their minds, somebody was dealing directly with the bank. So in true Katrina fashion, I changed it up a bit when explaining indirect loans. I told them that the customer went to the dealership for help with getting a loan, and that the dealership acted as a "loan pimp" to hook them up with financing. What followed was a chorus of comments about getting it now, it all making sense, and why didn't I just say that in the first place. Success. Followed by a threat of death to anyone who described indirect loans to anyone outside my training room as being procured through a loan pimp!

Most of my explanations, whether in training or service or life, have been more along the lines of the gravel drive rather than the loan pimp. But you do what you have to to get the point, and the information, across. And I hope that my inelegant way of explaining something gave you a laugh. Who knows, maybe the next time you are negotiating the price of a new car, you can keep your sense of humor by looking at the salesperson and thinking something like, "Okay, what kind of line are you trying to feed me now, Loan Pimp?"