By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD
It was an emotional moment for me. After proudly carrying and using a Shell gasoline credit card for more than 20 years, I had just canceled it and was in the process of cutting it up. Not that I was angry or upset with Shell, but it no longer made sense to carry their card. You see, Shell, in conjunction with Chase Manhattan, had launched the Shell Master Card. If I used it for my Shell gasoline purchases, I would receive five percent off my fuel expenditures on my next statement. For all non-gas purchases, I would earn a one percent rebate on future gasoline. Therefore, I could use the card for more than just gas and get discounts, too. In comparison, my old trusty Shell gas card was an absolute antique. The only practical thing to do was to cancel it.
How did this long-term relationship with Shell start? It was 1978. I was attending electronics school and found myself changing jobs often and moving just about as frequently. During one such transition of both employment and abode, I found myself on the other side of town, far away from the gas stations whose credit card I carried. However, there was a Shell station around the corner from my ramshackle apartment, one down the street from the TV station where I worked, and another next door to the school I was attending. Add to this a gas shortage, skyrocketing prices, and Shell’s tendency to not only have gas, but to be one of the less expensive options. This led to an easy decision to get a Shell credit card. It all began due to practicality, convenience, and frugality.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I finished school, got a “real” job, and moved again. To my delight, there were Shell gas stations both near the office and close to my new home. Soon thereafter, I married and it was a simple matter to order a second card for my wife. In the years that followed, through job changes and relocations, there always seemed to be a Shell gas station nearby. A habit was formed. By then, even at times when Shell didn’t have the lowest prices, little thought was given to going somewhere else. (This is a lesson for anyone selling a commodity product or service: availability, convenience, and consistency produce long-term customers.)
Fast-forward to a couple of years ago when the Shell Master Card was introduced. At first, I viewed their offer with skepticism, but there didn’t seem to be a downside. I could continue my Shell gasoline habit, reduce my overall gas costs, and have a more versatile card. We applied for the card and begin using it immediately. Even so, I anxiously awaited the first statement, worried about a hidden snag or unanticipated caveat. None appeared, just my rebate to be applied to next month’s gas charges. Still the cynic, I cautiously anticipated my second statement. Was there some fine print to let them wiggle away from the result I expected? No. The rebate occurred exactly as indicated and for the amount promised.
Even so, my old Shell card remained in my wallet – just in case. Finally, after a year of non-use, I realized the time had come to throw aside any emotional connection to my long-term companion. It was time to cancel the card. I glanced one last time at the words I had grown to delight in – “customer since 1978” – and cut the card into pieces.
Soon the Shell Master Card was used for all our household purchases and the ensuing rebates grew. Things went well for quite some time. Then a surprise came on our statement, a $29 late fee. My wife, Candy, called Chase Manhattan to inquire. Since our payment history was stellar and Candy can be most persuasive, it was a trivial matter to get the charge removed. We were admonished to mail the payment earlier in order to avoid future late fees.
The next month, Candy mailed our payment five days before the due date. Again, another $29 late fee appeared. This time she called to complain. “We don’t care when you mailed your payment nor do we consider the postmark,” came the arrogant reply. “We only look at the date we post your payment.” Apparently, this was a change in their policy. Plus it seemed a bit despotic, especially considering that our payment was applied eight days after it was mailed. “But we have no control over when you process our check,” Candy countered. The agent’s response was quick and terse, “We always post payments on the day they are received.” No amount of pleading or cajoling could get the late fee removed a second time. The complaint was escalated and soon the only remaining recourse was to submit our concern in writing.
Our letter of complaint was submitted as instructed and a series of automated written responses from Chase Manhattan followed. The last one promised the company would “notify (us) of our findings as soon as they become available.” That was nine months ago. There have been no further communications from them about this matter.
Since the late fees were exceeding our rebates, we stopped using the Shell Master Card and begin buying our gasoline using an existing Visa card. This afforded us a new level of flexibility since there was no longer any need to continue our routine of looking for a Shell sign. We could also shop for the lowest-priced gas. (When we used the Shell Master Card, the rebate would more than offset any higher price we paid for their gas.) It soon got to the point that we were seldom going to Shell.
Over the past 24 years, I estimate that we have spent about $20,000 on Shell gas. Assuming that our future gas consumption will remain constant and projecting that prices will increase, we could likely spend another $30,000 on gasoline in our lifetimes. In line with this projection, a $50,000 lifetime customer and $30,000 in future business was lost due to a $29 late fee and the policies supporting it.
What are the conclusions we can draw from this experience?
The first is to be careful in pursuing strategic alliances. Yes, this is a business trend and, when properly done, it is a great way to retain clients and obtain new ones. I am sure that Shell saw these benefits, which is why they formed a relationship with Chase. The failure in their strategy is that they relinquished interaction with their patrons to Chase. Chase did not view me as a $20,000 customer or foresee a $50,000 lifetime value; they likely saw me only as an unprofitable credit card holder (since we always pay the entire balance each month and, until the end of our relationship, continually paid on time). Hence, when forming any kind of marketing, cross-promotion, or reciprocal business relationship, make sure you retain control over your clients; don’t leave such a critical element to someone else.
The second lesson is about policies. Certainly Chase’s policy to track late fees and interest charges by the date posted is practical and easy to follow (as well as being self-serving), but is it fair? Care must always be given to ensure that policies and procedures balance the needs of the company with the best interests of the client.
Lastly, consider your staff. The agents Candy talked to did not have the latitude to credit a late fee more than one time. Apparently, their supervisors didn’t either, nor did the managers. Yes, there is a place for rules and policies, but to make them absolute and intractable, unfairly handicaps agents and can ruin client relationships. The last words that a frustrated client or caller wants to hear are, “It’s our policy,” or “I can’t do that.”
Because of these problems, caused by a partner company, Shell, through no direct fault of its own, has lost me as an exclusive customer and has encouraged me to spend money with its competitors.
[Postscript: We since received a notice from Chase stating in part, “Shell will no longer be participating with Chase in a credit card program.” Do you think that perhaps Shell has realized what I’ve just pointed out?]