I was enjoying lunch with friends on a pleasant December afternoon, when my phone rang. The caller, an ICICI Bank Card representative, asked if I had paid the bill that had fallen due a few days ago. I apologised and said how sorry I was that I had forgotten to. I assured the young man I would pay it in full the same day. I did. It had so happened that I had also forgotten to pay Citibank card bills for the same period. I paid them too.

The same evening I wrote to ICICI Bank. I reiterated that it had slipped from my mind and requested them to reverse late payment penalty and interest charges they might levy. I cited our long relationship and my impeccable track record of payment (both true). I wrote an identical mail to Citibank, first for waiver of penalty and later for reversal of interest charges (a much larger sum!).

In the next two days I received four phone calls from ICICI Bank repeatedly asking if I had made the payment.

Unconvinced when I said I had, they asked for payment reference. I also received a call in which a recorded voice informed me my card had been blocked. Thank you very much!

Guilty till proven innocent? 
ICICI Bank promptly responded with a refusal to my request for waiver of penalty and interest with this email:

“We value your relationship with ICICI Bank. However, based on the Bank’s policy, we regret to inform you that we are unable to reverse the charges levied on your credit card. We thank you for giving us an opportunity to be of service to you.”

They also sent me a message saying the overdue payment is affecting my credit history with CIBIL and that it may prevent me from getting a loan or credit card from any bank in future. An indirect threat? I wondered why they were giving me so much grief for having delayed payment of just Rs. 6817.04 by only six days?

I wrote to ICICI Bank’s Head of Credit Policy and Processes requesting him to intervene. When I did not receive any reply I wrote to another senior manager with whom I had been acquainted briefly a few years ago. I also sent them reminders. Neither of them acknowledged any of my mails.

Citibank, on the other hand, responded in 24 hours, first reversing penalties for late payment and later interest charges. No fuss.

Spot the difference 
I have speculated why there would be such a stark difference in the behaviour of two banks competing pretty much in the same space for similar segments of customers. Presumably ICICI Bank wants to retain credit worthy customers who spend regularly. That is why I suspect they had given me a credit limit of Rs. 100,000.

It seems reasonable to assume they would wish to avoid undue risk of defaulters. But does one error – honestly confessed – make a customer a credit risk? So much so that they have to call him four times and not so subtly threaten him? Incidentally, ICICI Bank blocked my card without warning when the payment was due. They unblocked it ten days later, when I wrote to them.

Actions of employees are driven by policies. What policies drove, drive ICICI Bank’s actions? Perhaps they believe defaulters must be dealt with an iron hand lest they become delinquent?

A question of assumptions 
Our decisions are quietly shaped by assumptions. Often they remain unarticulated. Unarticulated beliefs stay unchallenged. Surreptitiously they influence policies and guide employee behaviour. Occasionally they border on the mindless, hurt customer goodwill and the firm’s reputation.

Could senior managers strive to make assumptions explicit and question them from time to time? Or, should they let policies rule? They would do well to remember customers do not become advocates when a firm does everything right. They become staunchly loyal when firms surprise them with a kind and generous gesture.

I did eventually get an email from ICICI Bank (seventeen days after my first request) waiving off the late fee and interest charge. Couldn’t the Bank have done it sooner, graciously?