Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Revised Definition of Insanity

Many years ago, I was told that the definition of "insanity" was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. For many years, that seemed to make good enough sense, and I could see plenty of real world situations where that definition applied.

In today's world, as our infrastructures break down, I think it is time to redefine what "insanity" is. Now, "insanity" is trying to reconcile a seemingly simple problem using the rational, clear and definited channels made available to you, and expecting to actually reach a resolution.

Here's just one example. My parents are in their 80's. My father is dying of colon cancer and my mother is taking care of him. Many decades ago, my father purchased bearer bonds from the US Government, which have coupons that can be redeemed twice a year, paying interest on the bonds. The interest from the bonds has helped pay for my parents' living expenses since my father retired from his job. And my mother would go into Boston to a bank that could redeem the coupons.

Today, bearer bonds are no longer issued. And many people have never heard of them. However, this is only backstory.

On Saturday, I received a notice from the local bank my parents use with a "bounced check" from the Boston bank who redeem the bond coupons for my mother. I was surprised to see a "bounced check" since I would expect there to be funds in a big bank's account to pay a small coupon redemption fee. The reason for the bounce listed was "refer to maker." I had no clue what this meant.

I had to wait until Monday to call my parent's local bank to inquire what this meant and what to do to get my parents their money. The local bank had no clue what "refer to maker" meant and said I had to call the Boston bank to find out.

I called the Boston bank, and they told me they could not help me, because the check was issued by their corporate office in Minnesota. I called the corporate office in Minnesota, and got a very nice man named Greg, who truly wanted to help reconcile the problem. He did research on why the check might have bounced and could not come up with a reason. There was money in their account. There had been no stop payment issued on the check. He said I needed to speak with the local bank again, and that they could call him to discuss the problem.

I called the local bank again, and spent 45 minutes on successive holds, as the issue was escalated up the customer service center supervisory chain. No one there had the authority to speak with Greg at the other bank. I was told I had to walk into a local office of the local bank and someone there could call Greg and solve the problem.

I went into the local branch of the local bank and met with the branch manager to solve the problem. I spent 40 minutes with her as she escalated the issue through her support chain, and was told they could not figure out the problem and no one had the authority to call Greg. She told me I had to physically bring in the facsimile of the returned check to the originator and get it reissued. I explained it came from Minnesota, and I was NOT going to hand carry the facsimile to Minnesota.

She said I could not redeposit the facsimile because the processing people had made a technical error on the original check and had double printed a set of numbers, so the facsimile would be rejected. I asked her to remove the $10 service fee issued to my parents' account, since they should not have to pay for an error that had nothing to do with them or even the Minnesota bank. I was told this was not possible. There was no procedure to do this.

I pushed back and said this was not fair. Why should 80 somethings have to pay a fee for something that had nothing to do with their actions. She said she would file a claim to try to get the fee removed, but the process was cumbersome and unlikely to bring a positive outcome.

Now, having invested 3 hours of my day trying to solve the problem, in addition to working with clients and checking in with Alex, my son, after school, I called the Boston office of the check issuing bank and told them the dilemma. They reaffirmed they could not do anything and I needed to talk to Greg in Minnesota again.

I reached Greg, and he said this was insane. He said the banking industry is totally dysfunctional, because people are not in jobs long enough to know what is going on or how to solve problems. They receive no training, and get frustrated and turn over, and leave customers in the lurch with serious issues that are not able to be reconciled.

I asked Greg how long he had been in his job, and he said 10 years. He said that was unusual. He said his bank required people who were going to handle customer calls like mine to have 6 weeks of traning before they answered one customer phone call.

Greg instructed me that I could mail in the bounce slip and the facsimile check, but that I had to write a letter and get my mother's signature and state the the local bank had a processing error and we needed to get the check reissued. There were certain conditions that would require a notary to sign and seal her signature and mine. But we were able to define a set of circumstances that would allow me to just bring the letter to my mother and have her sign it and have me send off the paperwork and hope for the best.

Now, 4 1/2 hours of my day into trying to solve this problem on behalf of my parents, I still don't have it solved. And I cannot imagine my 82 year old mother who is trying to care for my 84 year old father who is in the last stages of dying from colon cancer having to go through what I went through today to reconcile a seemingly simple problem.

In fact, I can't imagine my mother even understanding my attempt to explain what happened, what it means and what we need to do to solve the problem. Should an 80 something be subject to this kind of wild goose chase when tending to a dying spouse? Should ANYONE be subject to this kind of wild goose chase?

And how many people would have the tenacity and wherewithall to keep pushing for resolution when one pathway leads to another dead end and it all comes back in a circle to where you started?

How many stories are there like this of people trying to reconcile issues that impact their daily survival--be it with banks, insurance companies, hospitals and other social institutions? And how did we get here?

Somehow, we need to gather together from the bottom up and rebuild models of commerce so that transactions are more grounded, and the complexities of overcompartmentalization and reliance on technology to the point that humans are unable to solve seemingly simple problems can be eliminated.

On the upside, it is much harder to do the same thing over and over again, at all, never mind expect different results. Following a pathway is likely to lead to a random, chaotic or circular trajectory that could probably not be repeated, because different characters will pick up the phone or e-mail as jobs turn over or are handled by multiple people, all sharing the same function.

I will see this through til my parents get their check reissued and successfully deposited into their checking account. But how many more times will this kind of craziness or worse knock at the door?

Perhaps another definition of insanity is "the resulting condition of trying to solve a human scale problem in a chaotic, dysfunctional world."

©2010 Linda Marks

1 comment:

  1. While I got a good chuckle and a share of righteous indignation out of Linda's story of the untrackable check, this stuff goes back at least to the 1970's, when Joseph Heller gave us the now-cliche term 'snafu' for this kind of mess. If people have forgotten, it stands for "situation normal: all fouled up."
    I hope you (Linda) were motivated by curiosity or by the search for a good blog story, since the 4+ hours you spent on this plus long-distance calls cannot possibly be worth the $10 you might recover. I consider these kinds of fees to be like a tax that private companies we interact with get to impose. They count on that it won't be worth our while to argue them, and they're right. Thinking of them as similar to paying taxes helps me to defuse my reactivity to them.
    Since the bank bailout (and actually before it) there has been a quiet movement away from the mega-banks and back to local banks that invest in the local community. I'm not sure what insanity is, but "sanity" would be to work mainly with a local bank that's interested in long-term relationships with its employees, its depositors, and its borrowers. I don't think your story would happen at Wainwright Bank or a similar small bank. Time to put your money where your heart is!