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Serving Customers a Dose of Deception

Eric J. Plosky

I returned last week from a trip to London. Thanks to certain spending efficiencies (lots of fish and chips), I had a bit of sterling left over, and so I made a trip to the Kendall Square BankBoston in order to negotiate an exchange to dollars. While waiting in line, I noticed that only two of the bank's five teller windows were staffed. "Hey. Wait a second!" I then said to myself, and it is likely that my brow creased in thought. "Have I ever seen more than two active windows?"

I think not. In fact, I would wager that BankBoston's Kendall Square branch has never actually had all five of its teller windows in simultaneous operation. The bank may not even employ five tellers on the same shift! If anyone can submit photographic evidence to the contrary, I'm sure my editors here at The Tech will be happy to immortalize your achievement in print. Really, what is the point of having five windows if you never plan to use five windows? I had plenty of time to ponder this question while still waiting in line (since, of course, the line was being served by only two tellers). Eventually, I decided that BankBoston was deliberately being devious, toying with its customers' minds. By displaying five teller windows, the bank says, "We're big, and therefore busy and important, so you should be pleased and proud to bank with us. We have five tellers here for you, so even if the line is very long, your wait is guaranteed to be very short."

It's all an illusion. Only later does the unsuspecting customer realize that he has been duped; that although there are five windows, there are only two tellers. Still, even then, most are still rooting for the bank to bring out some extra tellers from the bullpen. You can see some customers craning their necks to look toward the teller-bullpen door; others will mutter while in line, "When are they going to bring out another teller?"

Logic suggests that the bank would do just that, especially when the line snakes around and beyond the brass crowd-controlling rails. But since the bank never sends in relief tellers, no matter the length of the line, it must not have any. It is impossible to imagine, even at BankBoston, that a bunch of tellers would sit drinking coffee in the back while a mob of angry customers crowds the lobby. The only remaining question, therefore, is "How could BankBoston be so insidious as to employ only two tellers while implying, with its five windows, that it has hordes of tellers in reserve?"

Business, of course, is the answer. The cost of constructing three extra, permanently empty windows must be more than offset by the extra business those three empty windows attract. Besides, most customers seem to accept the situation for what it is, or at least never realize that their minds are being played with. And BankBoston is by no means the only organization guilty of such customer-psychology tactics.

Many businesses present themselves as large and capable, when in fact their customers are forced to deal with all sorts of bottlenecks. Tech-support telephone numbers illustrate this nicely computer and software companies imply that help is available at the touch of a button, when in fact customers sometimes have to wait on the phone for hours. This is actually worse than the bank example, since over the phone there's no way to even guess at the company's relief-employee strength.

Supermarkets can have more than a dozen cash registers, but has anyone you know ever seen all of a supermarket's check-out aisles in simultaneous operation? Same question applies to airline ticket desks, department and retail store counters almost anywhere there's more than one service point, it is rare indeed to see them all operating at the same time.

I say "rare" because there are exceptions oddly enough, often in connection with companies not known for their efficiency. For instance, I am told that the shadowy second token booth at the Harvard T station was once staffed. I have also seen the Coop's army of cashiers deployed, frighteningly, all at once. And, of all companies, Aramark has been known to man all of the registers at Lobdell and Walker. Is it that the MBTA, the Coop, and Aramark are more honest with their customers than banks and retail stores, or is it that they're not clever enough to dabble in customer psychology?

Recent legislation has attacked another customer-psychology tactic sale pricing. Until now, stores had wide latitude in marking "sale" and "discount" pricing, and a particular item's regular, full price could often not be determined. A television with a "list price" of $350 could be "on sale" almost permanently for $300, leading customers to think they were getting a bargain. Consumer-advocate groups rightly complained about such underhanded psychological tactics, and they are now a thing of the past.

Perhaps consumer-advocate groups should now investigate the perceived-customer-capacity to actual customer-capacity discrepancy. I would be quite interested to see a survey determining what percentage of the country's cash registers and teller windows are staffed, and for what amount of time. And I have to admit, I would chuckle if advocates spearheaded new legislation that ultimately required BankBoston to permanently board up three of the Kendall branch's teller windows.