Famous Last Words: Trillion$ Might Have Been Saved
When I saw this lede in Lucy Kellaway's Mar. 28 Fincancial Times column, I blanched:
On the lavatory wall of a colleague's flat in Hong Kong hangs a framed letter. It is written on HSBC notepaper, and dated Jan. 22nd, 1998.
Please note that we have had occasion to return your cheque due to insufficient funds in the above account.
This state of affairs is most unsatisfactory and the practice of issuing cheques without first ensuring that there are sufficient funds to meet them must cease forthwith, otherwise it will be necessary for your account in our books to be closed.
After 50 years of writing letters—for renewals, billing and collections—I couldn't imagine an international bank employee deep in the bureaucracy and low in the pecking order being allowed to scold a customer that way.
With a supercilious attitude, I continued reading Kellaway's column and quickly came to the conclusion that this letter was a masterpiece. Kellaway writes:
For all its stiff wording, it is the best letter to a customer I've ever seen. It sums up everything that used to be good about banking, but which has got hopelessly lost. Indeed, if all bankers still behaved like P Mandal, there would have been no financial crisis.
For him, banking was a solemn matter, where prudence was all- important. In his world, there was none of the dodgy stuff that all banks now routinely engage in: pretending the customer is king while fleecing them if they go into the red, and investing their money in incomprehensible and ruinous financial instruments. Instead, recalcitrant customers were given a thorough telling-off—which made them behave better.
Spot on! P Mandal's letter was (and is) a takeaway that should be hard wired into the DNA of everybody in the financial services business.