When we were thinking of buying this rickety old farm, about five years ago, we timidly walked into a bank. It seemed like a crazy idea even to us; what would a loan officer think?
The bank, a small one servicing the local community, didn't have a loan officer. We were instead introduced to one of the bank's vice presidents. He was chewing a caramel. He said: "Which farm? You mean the old Collins place?" He said: "Oh, I used to fish in that pond." He told us about his farm. He gave us sheep and tractor advice. He said: "How much do you need?" And then he gave us some forms to fill out, said check back in a week for payment information, and we walked out of there feeling remarkably . . . normal.
When mortgage rates plunged a few years later, we called him and inquired about refinancing. "How are you folks fixed for hay this winter?" he said, referring to the effects of that year's drought. We assured him we were fine. We asked about the cost of a new title search and a new appraisal, and how many years' income tax returns the refinancing application would require. He said, "Huh?" He said, "Why would I make you do all that?" He knew our farm as well as, or even better than, we did. He mailed us a form, we signed on the dotted line, and 2 percentage points were knocked off our interest rate.
In these ways, I suppose I'm spoiled. Because I know all too well that customer service is not this way in most businesses, at least not since the days when transactions were sealed with handshakes and neighbors swapped chickens for hardware. But I keep coming back to the same question: Why should it be considered spoiled to be treated like a regular old trustworthy human being?
Recently, something changed at our bank.
I was excited to watch interest rates drop to a 40-year low; I was thinking: Cash out to remodel! So I called. But this time, our banker, who always answered his own phone, didn't. Instead I got a recorded voice offering a choice between pressing one or two or three followed by the pound sign. I pressed zero, asked for my banker. A woman said, "Oh, he doesn't work here anymore." I asked where he went, what happened. And she gave one of those evasive answers that pointed clearly to only one place: He must have gotten the ax. His kindness was a threat to the bottom line, perhaps? I'll never know. I asked to speak to someone about refinancing and she said, "Please hold for our next available originator."
Originator? The originator's name was Amber. She told me 5.575 with zero points or 5.25 with one. She said the closing costs would run about 3 percent of the amount of the loan. She said she'd need proof of employment, tax returns, title insurance, property appraisal; she was reading from a list.
"Amber," I said. "Last time we refinanced we didn't need -- "
"This is how it works," she said. "May I schedule you a loan application appointment?"
"Not now," I said. And then I mumbled something about needing time to grieve.
So, maybe I'm spoiled, or maybe there's just no pleasing the person who says all she wants is customer service with a little personal touch. Because here's what happened next. I got a letter from a man who wanted to be my orthodontist. "Deep bite," I had been told by my new dentist. "You want to see what can be done about that?" Apparently, he then put the word out. And so this letter.
Actually, it was from Julie, the orthodontist's "treatment coordinator," who was informing me that "good communication is essential to forming a satisfactory relationship," which in a way I already knew, but in truth didn't know was an orthodontist's . . . territory. Hmm.
Julie went on to thank me, on behalf of the entire orthodontic care team, for giving it the opportunity to pursue its primary goal: creating and maintaining my oral health. Well, wow. But -- really? Was my personal oral health really the primary goal of all these strangers? Why did they care so much about me already?
When I called to schedule a consultation, Julie corrected me. "We refer to it as orientation," she said, and scheduled mine for 10. I opened the door to the waiting room and was greeted by a blue-and-pink sign: "Welcome, Mrs. Jeanne Marie!" Julie was way more happy to see me than my mother usually is, which is saying something. Where was all this love coming from? Julie offered me a soft drink, then inquired about my hobbies, and then recited more thanks for my decision to commit with them to my oral health, which I suddenly wondered if I had. Because the truth is I was coming down with a profound desire to flee. Sure, I value customer service with a personal touch, but this felt more like going on a blind date with a guy who arrives with an engagement ring.
"Deep bite," I said to her. "I'm just here about a deep bite." And in a weird way I found myself missing Amber, who was entirely sincere in the way she didn't give one whit about my life or happiness.
"We strive to make this a personal experience!" Julie said, reaching for my shoulder. "We want you to know we care about you!!"
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.