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Cash Still Rules: 2 Sandy Tales of Customer Service

When it comes to good customer service, sometimes the little things count more than complex technology or innovative tools.

When the financial markets reopened yesterday some firms reportedly were scrambling to raise cash to finance trading positions and loans, after hurricane Sandy closed the markets for two days. All went well, it seems, although some on Wall Street griped they had to pay a little more than usual to get an overnight loan.

Meanwhile, out on Main Street, despite all of the talk of mobile payments, electronic payments and the increased use of credit and debit cards, cash is suddenly back in fashion in the Sandy devastated northeast. With large sections of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut without power, the only way to do business, or buy goods, is to use cash.

[For more coverage of Wall Street's recovery from Sandy, read NYSE Set To Reopen on Wednesday After Historic Battle of Wills.]

The sudden need for cash, however, put many people in a pickle, myself included. I started riding out Sandy with $100 in my wallet. But it quickly evaporated after trips to the gas station, deli, bagel shop and Home Depot (cash only, because there was no connectivity to the payments network).

And with no power throughout most of the state, finding a working ATM to get more cash was quite a challenge. After I drove to three Wells Fargo branches and found that the branches were without power and closed, I decided to try out my bank's customer service (disclosure: I'm a Wells Fargo customer).

To make a long story short, I found the 800 number in my Wells Fargo iPhone app. Apparently, the app recognized me and gave me a number that is just for premier banking customers. After a few prompts that tried to "help" me find an ATM, I opted to speak to a customer service rep. (I know where the ATMs are, I just need to find one that has power). To my surprise, I was instantly connected to a rep. She found the information I was looking for right away and we were off the phone in about 2 minutes. Unfortunately, the nearest working Wells Fargo ATM was about 60 miles away, so she said Wells Fargo would waive any fees charged by other banks.

While my Wells Fargo experience is an example of a good customer service experience, hurricane Sandy is bringing plenty of bad customer service policies to light. In my example, all that Wells Fargo did was provide information (the nearest working ATM). The information was unique, given the power outages and flooding. However, the bank rep wasn't stumped or flustered when I asked her to find a "working" ATM (not just the nearest cash machine).

On the flip side, one of the power companies in North Jersey, Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L), is doing a horrible job with customer service. Granted, the power company's job is a lot harder given the circumstances and the thousands of power outages across the state. However, JCP&L isn't doing what other utilities are doing, such as PSE&G, and what Wells Fargo did so easily: provide valuable information.

JCP&L's homepage has almost no information about power outages or updates on service restoration. To find the information, customers have to dig through a couple of pages, and even that information isn't specific to local towns.

JCP&L's Twitter account posts non-specific outage information and constantly tells its customers how hard its crews are working. I'm sure the crews are working hard and everyone commends them, but that isn't the type of information people are looking for when they only have 5 minutes of charge left on their phones.

Its Facebook page hasn't been updated in 14 hours (as of 10am Thursday morning), and the last post wasn't even an update about power restoration. It was a post about where to find ice. The page's other updates include a photo gallery of storm damage that the JCP&L's workers are coming across. Most customers can simply look out their own windows to view downed power lines.

JCP&L's customers are slamming the company about its customer service and lack of information. The customers might not like to hear that it will take 3-12 days to restore power (as some news agencies are reporting), but any information -- even a long estimate -- is better than complete silence.

So, sometimes great customer service is simple. A little quality information can go a long way. Greg MacSweeney is editorial director of InformationWeek Financial Services, whose brands include Wall Street & Technology, Bank Systems & Technology, Advanced Trading, and Insurance & Technology. View Full Bio

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