RBC St James after the closure of the branch. Text and photos by Mark Lyndersay.
It’s always hard to point to exactly when it happened.
That moment when you realise that everything you presumed in your relationship simply wasn’t true. When everything you were promised turned out to be just talk.
When it became clear that you were doing all the giving and the other was comfortable just taking and apologising for things that never became a reality.
Thirty-eight years is a long time to be together and near the end you can’t help but feel a little silly.
Were you too hopeful?
Did you misunderstand what you were told?
Were all the professions of caring, of how much you were treasured writ large all around you really just lies?
Breaking up might be hard to do, but coming to the realisation that it’s time to leave is a slow process of shattered expectations, bitter disappointments and the slowly crumbling vision of a halcyon future.
It’s like stripping a yard-long strip of plaster off your inner thigh. One agonising inch at a time.
So how did it get to here, this place of disappointment and barely controlled acrimony and sharply lowered expectations?
When did it become clear that my bank just wasn’t that into me?
Perhaps we need to go back a bit to find a young man, an oversized boy really, who was just out of school and trying to figure out how to do this adulting thing.
Let’s look in on him as he comes to a boil with a bank teller at the National Commercial Bank as she explains unpostable items to him. That, and how he had come to pile up a debt of $10,000 on his first checking account.
“But how did it get to be so much? Why didn’t you stop accepting checks earlier?”
“Sir,” the young lady responded, “we expect customers to manage their accounts.”
“If I could do that,” I remember shouting angrily, “I wouldn’t need a bank!”
That’s the sort of thing you’re likely to say when you really don’t understand the world.
It’s also the sort of thing a smart bank would bend to their advantage.
NCB didn’t, and I was ready for a change.
I was just beginning a commercial photography career, a branching out of skills I’d learned while working as a teenage journalist.
I’d been photographing the theatre for many years and decided to have an exhibition of my work at the short-lived Icons Art Gallery in Woodbrook in a space that’s currently home to one of next year’s Harts bands.
Arriving late to the opening was Sandra Bernard, then the Public Relations Manager of Royal Bank.
She liked the work on show, enough to ask me to mount it at three of the bank’s locations in Trinidad.
So I proceeded to oversee the hauling of the massive wooden display boards provided by the bank to their largest branches to mount the exhibit.
It cured me forever of the fever of exhibitions and gave me an opportunity to work for the bank as a photographer for many years.
It seemed sensible to take those earnings to the bank’s branch near me, and there something quite remarkable happened.
I met an account manager who, I discovered years later, had been raised by a photographer, one who’d had a difficult time in business.
Remembering what that was like, she took me under her wing, guiding my understanding of what banks liked to see in a customer profile and what sent up red flags.
In a few years, I was offered a credit card, and her guidance continued.
My head was hard, but she was patient and I would see less of her as time went by. When I finally met her strolling out of the bank in casual wear one morning, I was surprised to hear that she had retired.
To my own surprise, it wasn’t a big deal. I’m ashamed to remember that I never thanked her for doing her job with concern and compassion. She made me successful in business, but more than that, she made me a loyal customer of the branch and the wider bank.
Over the decades, I embraced more of the bank’s new features. I slowly disappeared from the premises, appearing once or twice a year to do the few remaining things that needed me to be present in its main hall.
I was an early user of the cleverly named tellerphone system.
I signed up for the frustratingly spartan online banking service.
Things weren’t going well, but they weren’t going so badly that any of my own red flags were going up.
Until September 2017. That was when the jhandis started to get planted for the funeral of our relationship.
That’s when I realised I’d never get senior citizens’ treatment at RBC.
Once I turned 55, RBC gutted the perks for Plan 55, though I could still stand in the special line for older customers if I didn’t mind looking like a fool, depriving the truly elderly of a small comfort.
Then, the bank got rid of that line entirely.
These were minor irritants, but then my annuity matured.
The bank notified me too late to have it extended, then refused to sell me another plan. I was too old, they said.
I asked the young teller to call his supervisor, because I wanted someone in authority to tell me that they didn’t want my money.
I needed to hear that from a senior person at the bank. To my face.
The money didn’t appear for five more weeks. I called the bank’s trust company and in response to my increasingly terse questioning, the young man finally admitted that the funds had been “misallocated.”
I eventually got the money and pointedly ignored the bank’s rote recommendations for investment.
RBC and their preferred institutions will never see a penny of that money. While it isn’t a sum that’s going to cause even a moment of concern for a multi-billion dollar enterprise, I still feel a smug satisfaction in having taken my petty dosh elsewhere.
But even then, I was still moving along with nearly four decades of habit and inertia behind me.
Leaving a bank is easy, as it turns out. Building a new reputation with another institution, or even another branch is something else.
Banks in Trinidad and Tobago don’t share much information with each other, which slows down interbank transactions and buries a customer’s earned reputation and perceived value at a single institution.
The information they do share can take weeks, if not months to prepare.
And it’s not just banks. It’s also between branches, and it’s not just RBC.
Then the branch I’d been using for all this time, the RBC St James branch, was summarily closed. An ATM service was promised, but as with so many of the bank’s promises, it was kind of kept.
Within a few weeks, the capacity to deposit anything to the otherwise abandoned bank’s ATM was revoked.
Making a deposit is now the only reason I absolutely must go to a bank anymore.
So for bankers to sit at their polished wooden tables and decide that regularly collecting deposit envelopes from an ATM at a branch that was once heavily patronised is too much trouble, takes a special kind of cluelessness and insensitivity.
It’s a special feature that RBC seems to have put a priority on encouraging in its executive planning.
Here’s another example of high-level banker cluelessness.
Everyone going to the ATM in St James is now withdrawing money. In the face of that fact, a result of their own engineering, RBC has not taken the elementary step of repairing the long broken card lock on the door, so any of the homeless persons who now live outside the empty building can walk in when a customer’s back is turned.
A bank, as it turns out, is not really an institution. It is, from the perspective of a customer, first of all a branch office, and then, most significantly, a group of people in a building.
Some of those people are really pleasant and helpful, keen to do their very best to provide a service to the bank’s clients. Some are just evil people who eat cockroach sandwiches for breakfast.
I’ve skipped my place in line to be able to avoid those creatures when my turn comes deal with a teller. Between them is a vast landscape of character that lives somewhere between those two extremes.
At a good branch, you feel welcomed and considered.
At a bad one, you feel like a burden and annoyance.
This doesn’t only happen at RBC. I’ve had an extended relationship as a cosignatory to my late mother’s checking account since I was a young man and her bank was known as Barclay’s.
I’ve refreshed that relationship over the last two years, but that didn’t help when I tried to open an account at Republic’s Long Circular branch, where I was treated as not just a stranger, but a deeply suspicious one too. I clearly wasn’t wanted there. I was happy to return the sentiment.
Despite RBC’s insistence that the only change is the geography of my banking, the disruption runs deeper.
Electronically, the idea of a home branch is supposed to be obsolete. I’m supposed to be the same customer no matter where I interface with the bank.
Checks aren’t supposed to take longer to clear when I don’t deposit them at an ATM that isn’t at my home branch, but they do, by days.
Electronic bill payments clear my account immediately, but linger for weeks before appearing as payments to utilities.
The problem is so widespread that bmobile has an email account set up just for customers to send screenshots from mobile phones that prove payments were made.
When there’s a system to manage a failing system, something is fundamentally wrong with the banking sector; something these well-paid executives appear to be in no hurry to fix.
Dominic Stoddard is the Central Bank’s official Ombudsman for the sector, but he operates with admirable silence.
The Bankers Association is focused on bankers and their profits, not on customer experience.
A gathering of bankers assembled for the improvement of the sector might have pressed for greater collaboration and information sharing between banks, but one that’s created to increase profits through greater consolidation of approach would look an awful lot like the one we have now.
Of the twelve committees created by the association, not one addresses customer experience or concerns directly.
I understand that these changes are both necessary and inevitable. I was right there with RBC from the tellerphone days. I’m not afraid of technology, but the scale of the bungling of this reorientation of the RBC’s business profile has left me cold to my core.
The St James branch of Scotiabank is also going to be merged with its Maraval counterpart, the last major bank to abandon St James proper.
The changes to banking over the next decade will run deep and will cause no shortage of problems and tumult for customers comfortable with the way things were done.
It doesn’t help when the architecture of that change is kept obscure, basic customer-facing facts can’t be communicated clearly and the bank’s own staff deal with an angry public with a mix of frustration and a frisson of fear.
So for now, I’ll remain with RBC, partly because it isn’t clear to me that anyone else is demonstrably more customer focused.
So we’ll stay together for a bit longer for the sake of the children, my reputation and history with the bank, until it suits me to leave behind a relationship in which I am clearly no longer welcome.
Updated November 14, 2018
Last week, RBC began work on its St James branch to address some of the issues raised in this post. Perhaps it was because someone at the bank read it, perhaps it was because it was obvious that having a growing settlement of homeless persons living on the edge of their property didn’t wasn’t the best look for a leading financial institution.
That decision was expressed as a choice to erect a fence on the periphery of its property, an unfortunate design decision that taken the facade of the building to a new level of unsightliness. It’s hard to see how that decision might mesh with any plans to rent or sell the space, but my field isn’t property management, so I’m probably missing something important in that choice.
What’s clear is that the company still has absolutely no interest in addressing the safety of its customers, since the card lock on the door, broken for more than a decade, remains useless as a way of limiting access to a space dedicated to personal financial transactions.
Mark Lyndersay is a photographer and writer living and working in Trinidad and Tobago.