Bills are not the worst thing to get in the mail from your credit card company; just ask some of the Central Charge customers who have suffered through the purchase of that Riggs National Bank credit operation by Citicorp of New York:
"Dear Central Charge Cardmember," the first letter began. "As we announced a few weeks ago, the Central Charge card you now carry is being changed to the Choice card from Citicorp."
After explaining that Central Charge cards are no longer valid and all Central Charge bills are to be paid to Citibank, the form letter socked a substantial number of Central Charge customers with some bad news:
"Because of the current conditions of your Central Charge (now Citibank) account, we cannot at this time invite you to apply for a Choice card."
In other words, deadbeat, we don't want you. Not the kind of letter any customer likes to get, not even a customer who doesn't particulary care about having a Choice card. When one Central Charge customer who's been paying her bills on time protested that her account was in order, the Citicorp computer responded with another endearing form letter:
"Dear Central Charge Customer," it started, "We owe you an apology."
Amen! breathed the irate consumer. Until she read the rest of the message:
"A few weeks ago, we sent you a letter announcing that your Central Charge account would automatically change to a Choice account. . . . We also notified you that we could not invite you to apply for a Choice card. Unfortunately we sent you the wrong letter.
"Very simply, your residence is outside the area where Choice does business. That is the reason we cannot offer you the opportunity to become a Choice cardmember . . . not 'because of the current condition of your Central Charge account' as was stated in that letter."
There is some relief in learning you are not considered a deadbeat by the nation's biggest bank. But it's not much consolation to find out that it's nothing personal that Citibank has against you--just the neighborhood you live in. Especially when the neighborhood is Alexandria.
Before this particular customer could even begin to hunt for a more Choice neighborhood to move to, Citibank's computerized letter-writing system struck again:
"Dear Customer," it began. (Never mind that the recipient had been told twice, in no uncertain terms, that she could not be a customer.) "A recent review of your account now indicates that you do indeed qualify for the unique and powerful Choice card from Citicorp. In fact, very shortly, your Choice card will be arriving in the mail . . . "
Only a truly "unique and powerful" bank would have the audacity to twice tell a customer she was unfit to do business with and then send her a credit card she didn't want. Sure enough, before she could say "shove it," the card arrived.
It is not easy for a business to alienate a customer so completely, but Citibank has no monopoly on offending the people it needs most.
Consider the new television advertising campaign by The Washington Times -- those commercials that show readers with a brown paper bag over their heads.
Perhaps even a Monday Morning quarterback ought to refrain from telling the competition what to do, but those ads are too much. Instead of putting a sack over the heads of its readers, The Washington Times ought to offer a blindfold to the advertising executive who thought this one up. And then call the firing squad.
The rationale offered by creators of the campaign at the Smith Burke & Azzam ad agency in Baltimore is that the ads are "built around humor to gain high awareness in a very competitive market."
The agency says it wanted to create ads that people would talk about and it certainly has. Lots of people are talking about them -- they may not be talking about buying the newspaper -- but they are talking about the ads. What others in the ad business are saying is that the Washington Times commercials need a clothes pin over the nose.
Part of the picking may be not only because the Smith Burke & Azzam ads irritate the people who buy The Washington Times but also because it has alienated the people who buy advertising in the paper.
Picking a Baltimore advertising agency to handle its own advertising work is not the smartest move made by the new newspaper, which could use all the help it can get in attracting advertisers. There are half a dozen Washington agencies that could both handle the paper's advertising account and direct a little business its way.
The ad agencies aren't the only badly needed customers that have been singed by The Times. Real estate agents are muttering about the McLean house purchased by the paper for editor James Whelan.
Whelan was shown the house by a representative of Town & Country Real Estate. Whelan apparently loved the place, but didn't buy it. Instead, the house was purchased by the paper's parent company, News World Communication, which dealt directly with the owner. The real estate agent is furious over not earning a commission on the deal after finding the house for Whelan and is making noises about going to court.
The question of whether the agent is legally entitled to a commission, I can't answer. But I know this much: anybody who expects to sell advertising for real estate shouldn't begin by getting in a fight with one of the biggest realty firms in town.
Alienating potential customers may not be the worst mistake a business can make, but every Monday Morning quarterback knows you don't win ball games by fumbling the kickoff.