Visa – We Aren’t Even Where We Promise to Be, Part 1 of 2

This tale of two companies operating in the same networked world fell into my lap when I didn’t want it to do so. To keep it digestible, I will tell it over two posts. Even so, each is long; bear with me, for there are key issues here for today’s companies.

While my wife and I were vacationing in Switzerland and Italy, my daughter (“S”) (17+ years), niece (17+) and nephew (19) were backpacking through Switzerland and Austria. Our paths crossed for only 2 nights, in Wengen. Each teen had a debit card; after searching extensively, we loaded $1,000 of S’s hard earned summer-work money on “The Upside Visa Prepaid Card,” a program “specifically designed for the younger generation and their family (sic)” (www.upside.com/HowDoesItWork.aspx). The website, with its prominent Visa logo, explicitly said, “The card can also be used to withdraw cash at the tens of thousands of ATMs which have the Interlink or Cirrus logos. In a nutshell, it combines the safety of an FDIC-insured bank and the universality of the Visa® network …” The possibility of cash withdrawal is also discussed under FAQ.

In Wengen, S told us that she had not been able to get money at any ATM. We called the customer service number (which promptly charged the account $0.99) and were told that S had the wrong password – even though Visa/Upside had provided it. It took us a couple of days to get a new password, since we did not have with us the information needed for a change. By then, we were in Milan and S was in Innsbruck. She called us; the card was still not working. We paid Visa/Upside $0.99 to talk to an agent named Sami, who told us categorically that the Upside program did not work with ATMs. After a long argument, he personally verified from the website that our complaint was valid. Chastened, he promised to email Visa technical services (relevant fact: everyone involved spoke of “Visa”). In exactly 4 hours, he said, we would hear from a person with more authority than he had about what could be done.

7 or 8 hours later, we called back Visa/Upside ($0.99 again, plus our international calling charges) and after arguing with the agent, got to speak to the call center manager, Taylor. Taylor cried crocodile tears (“Do you think I like hearing about your 17 year old being stranded?”). Yet she continued imply that that we were wrong the Visa/Upside program; it was not designed to work at ATMs. She supposedly could not access Sami’s work files. Visa’s policy only promised customer responses to in 48 hours and so, Sami she said, could keep his own promise of a faster response when he returned for his next shift (in 7 hours). And no, we could not speak to her boss.

Our suggestion of a human-to-human intervention (e.g., authorize a correspondent bank to pay S €250 across a teller counter) just couldn’t be done, “even by Visa’s CEO;” our request for such help simply meant that we did not understand modern financial systems. My wife, who was until a few years ago, a Managing Director of a money center bank, took that one well! I too learnt a new lesson about the powerlessness of a CEO of a global institution; this one had escaped my understanding in all my years of working with top executives. Taylor, however, did authorize a credit for $0.99 to S’s account. Her generosity warmed our hearts.

The baseline performance requirement for any company is Plan and Execute well. Visa/Upside failed to deliver even at this level. It had not given Sami – and what is worse, its call center manager, Taylor – the capabilities to address a genuine problem created by its own inability to execute its website promise (plan). Moreover, 3 weeks after these incidents, Sami’s “4 hours” and Taylor’s “48 hours” have still not elapsed in the time that ordinary mortals experience. And if either did let anyone at Visa/Upside know about the untruth on the website, no one has acted to rectify it.

But in a networked world, the Visa business unit responsible for the Upside program is guilty of an even greater sin: lending its brand to partners who are at best incompetent and at possibly, dishonest. A couple of days ago, I finally noticed the very small print on the website: Upside is offered by a no-name bank under license from Visa. Had we noticed that the first time, we would not have put S’ money in its care, just as we don’t make online purchases at no name websites. A very brief online search effortlessly revealed other instances of failure by other Visa partners offering similar peace-of-mind programs to teens and their parents (“They still haven’t returned my son’s money”).

I wanted to complain to Visa itself, here’s what I found on its website: “If you have a question about your account, please contact the financial institution that issued your Visa card.” In other words, go complain to the people who did you wrong! I am sure that Visa can escape legal liability for the failure of its partners, but I have no doubt that it is compromising its most important asset: its brand name. In The Spider’s Strategy I urged executives to adopt the Hippocratic oath when dealing with consumers in a networked world. In a world in which the logos of blue chip companies can be mortgaged for billions of dollars, some executive officer at Visa should review the processes and decision making culture that is allowing such shoddy business practices to thrive. Individual consumers may not have much power against the huge financial resources of a large company, but they have their own network – the Internet – to tell their tales to the world at large.

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