“The Real Reason the Poor Go Without Bank Accounts”: relationships

A public policy professor worked four months at a check cashing business and found check cashing services offer several features that banks do not:

At commercial banks, the account itself often maintains the relationship between the customer and the institution. I might not be satisfied with my bank, but it’s an enormous inconvenience to switch everything over to a new one, and there is no guarantee any other bank will be more efficient or better…
The glue at RiteCheck is the customer/teller relationship. I interviewed 50 RiteCheck customers after my stint as a teller and, when I asked them why they brought their business to RiteCheck instead of the major well-known bank three blocks away, they often told me stories about the things the RiteCheck tellers did for them. Nina, who has lived most of her life in Mott Haven, told us that her mother had been very ill and that the RiteCheck staff had called to ask about her. “So we can be family,” Nina said. “We know all of them.”

Being a regular at the check casher also brings more tangible benefits. Marta, another regular, came to my window one afternoon with a government issued disability check to cash. When I input the number from her RiteCheck keytag into my computer, the screen indicated she owed RiteCheck $20 from every check she cashed. I didn’t know what to do, so I turned to Cristina for advice. I learned that Marta had cashed a bad check awhile back, and that RiteCheck had worked out an arrangement in which she could pay RiteCheck back in installments…

Many factors—cost, transparency, convenience—go into the choice consumers make between a bank and a check casher.  Atmosphere and the attitudes of the staff are only one component, but this piece of the puzzle may be more important than we thought. Like the famous TV song goes, “You want to go where everyone knows your name.” If policy efforts to move the unbanked to banks are to be successful in the long run, banks need to remember they are a service industry involved in one of society’s most important and basic relationships.

It sounds like the check cashers serve as a kind of community institution that customers can count on for social support as well as ongoing relationships. It isn’t just about the ability to access money; it also includes the flexibility to have give and take, whether that means helping someone get by when money is tight or celebrating big moments (like births) together. Many large corporations don’t offer this kind of personalization, even as they might offer cheaper prices or certain goods. And what incentive do banks have to lend money with people with lower incomes? That is not where the big money is to be made.

At the same time, it would be interesting to see an attempt to quantify just how much this customer service is worth. Does this apply to other industries as well? For example, there has been a lot of talk recently about the surge of dollar stores who offer goods cheaper than Walmart. Why might relationships matter more with financial institutions than dollar stores or fast food restaurants?

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