A case for national financial healing

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We always make reference to national healing in a political context because of the incidences of political violence that have visited the country over the years.

I suppose that’s because physical violence leaves visible marks in the form of scars, broken limbs and sometimes death, but didn’t the aftermath of the banking crisis of 2003/2004 and the dollarisation of the economy in February 2009 similarly leave many financially traumatised and scarred, some for life?

What did sleeping in queues, going to the bank almost every day, losing entire life savings and watching pensions disappear into a hyperinflationary black hole do to the collective psyche of the banking public?

Just because wounds are invisible, does it mean that they do not exist? For some, the mere mention of “bank” or “ZWD” still elicits a neurotic response.

The public’s response to the issue of the Interfin ATM which recently issued Zimbabwe dollars is a case in point.

On a related issue, a follower of this column recently responded to an interview we featured, saying FSS easily let the interviewee off the hook by not asking him why we should trust his bank now after its failure during the banking crisis.

He also noted that the interviewee did not attempt to take advantage of the opportunity offered by FSS to apologise to those who lost money during those dark days.

Such comments show the kind of simmering resentment that can lurk under the veneer of normality created by papering over the cracks.

Apart from the individual efforts of banks to woo deposits back into the formal financial system, which are driven largely by self-interest. what is being done at a national level to heal festering financial wounds?

I am in no way suggesting the commissioning of some kind of “Financial Organ for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration”; I am only calling for an acknowledgement that some things went wrong along the line.

The first step in dealing with a problem is to acknowledge that you have a problem. It cannot be taken for granted that everyone has moved on and all is well.

A culture of impunity in banking and finance is just as harmful as a culture of impunity in politics. For instance, if banks think that they can just dispatch armies of “community bankers” to sign up new accounts without dealing with, or at least recognising, key underlying issues they must think again because what they will enlist are mere account holders and not customers, statistics instead of partners.

So, what could be done by the various stakeholders to begin the healing process that is necessary for the development of the financial sector?

In putting forward the following thoughts, I do not speak for any special interest group; I speak for myself as an aggrieved consumer of financial services and as someone who was on the receiving end of financial sector trials and tribulations for almost 10 years, someone who participated in the guerrilla warfare that local banking had become.

The gloves are off and my main concern is not about the toes I may step on in the process. I must however hasten to add that I do not intend to attack anyone’s person but just to tackle issues of critical concern to me.

As the first step towards rebuilding consumer confidence, the government must prioritise the compensation of the banking public for ZWD balances that were lost in 2009 when the economy was dollarised.

Admittedly, the government has, through the Ministry of Finance, dealt with the issue in the past but that effort has yielded nothing so far.

Recently, after some prodding by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Budget and Finance, the Minister of Finance referred the matter, but a proactive approach would go a long way in assuring the banking public that the issue is being taken seriously.

Additionally, efforts to expand the role of the Deposit Protection Board in order to ensure a safer banking environment must be hastened.

Secondly, banks must stop treating customers like trash. Recently, I had occasion to visit and transact at two institutions that I do not bank with.

The experience was traumatic, to say the very least. At the first one, a reputable building society, I arrived to make a deposit into a third party’s account and expected to be ushered into a queue for depositors only but alas, the guard manning the entrance asked me to go outside and wait patiently for my turn, just like everyone else.

I was expected to roast in the sun in a queue in which there must have been less than 10 depositors out of about 100 people wanting to make withdrawals.

If I hadn’t insisted on seeing the manager and querying why there wasn’t a separate queue for depositors, I would definitely not have been served that day.

Why does the first person I have to deal with upon entering the banking hall have to be a security guard with neither an appreciation of financial matters nor customer service ethics, and whose sole intent appears to be to stop me from entering the very banking hall in which transactions are meant to take place?

At the second institution, a well-known commercial bank, I wanted to open one of those cash card accounts being aggressively hawked by banks these days.

Despite making a prior telephone call to enquire about eligibility and the requirements since I wanted to open the account for a minor child, the lady who served me first told me that the account could not be opened for a minor and when I told her that I had spoken to a named person who confirmed the account could be opened and gave me the relevant requirements, she made a telephone call and told me that my contact was not available so no one could assist me.

She obviously expected me to walk away but I was having none of that.

Fortunately, the manager who attended to me had the good sense to accept my application documents and sorting out internal issues, paving the way for the account to be opened.

In both cases the impression that the bank felt as if it was doing me a favour by accepting my money for safekeeping was overwhelming.

Isn’t it amazing how certain employees only begin to run around when a frustrated customer asks to see the managing director or the responsible manager? Where is the sense of personal responsibility for good service?

I often hear that the Zimbabwean economy is overbanked. If indeed that is the case, why do we, on a monthly basis, still see queues that spill out of the banking hall and go right round the block?

Don’t those people have a choice? Surely they must have a choice in an overbanked economy?

Do the banks at which we see these queues care for their clients, if they leave them to dry like biltong in the open, at the mercy of the sun like that?

I am aware that the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) recently “attacked” the financial services sector for poor service delivery as part of commemorations for World Consumer Rights Day on the 15th of March 2011, under the theme Consumers for Fair Financial Services.

Some questions for the CCZ: Why must you wait for a commemoration that happens once a year in order deal with such an important issue which has significant implications on the financial health of a whole nation?

Do the professional “queuers”, the new inhabitants of “Quwait” (queue and wait) who ply their trade at many banking halls across the country know of existence of the CCZ?

When they are not holding symposiums, what does the CCZ do about educating consumers of financial services about their rights?

For their part, customers must stop tolerating poor service and the abuse they suffer at the hands of front office staff in banks.

The pedestals of complacency often erected and encountered in banking halls can only be dismantled when customers demand to be served with dignity and decency, as human beings, not as mere statistics.

Someone recently told a friend of mine of how she went to the bank to withdraw $80 but because the bank didn’t have change, she was asked to leave her identity document with the teller and go out to look for the change herself!

As part of the pursuit of a culture of service excellence and in order to take charge of their own financial healing customers have three choices:

To become “soldiers” and fight for better service; to continue to enduring poor, patronising service or to drop out of the banking system altogether and join the ranks of the unbanked. I wonder which option banks prefer their customers to choose.

Omen N Muza is a banker and managing director of TFC Capital (Zimbabwe) (Pvt) Ltd. He writes in his personal capacity. Feedback: omen.muza@gmail.com