You Aren’t Listening

Andrew Forsythe

WHEN IT COMES to communication, I’m kind of a fanatic. (My wife would say I should drop the “kind of.”) More specifically, I’m a fan of responsive communication.

Back in my working days, when I practiced criminal law, I made it a point to return phone calls and emails from clients promptly. It was rare that I didn’t do it the same day. If that meant staying late at the office until I caught up, I stayed late.

Whenever I had a client who had had a different lawyer on a previous case, the most frequent complaints were “I couldn’t ever talk to him” or “she wouldn’t return my calls or emails.” I was always sympathetic to these gripes. It really gets my dander up if someone I’m doing business with is nonresponsive.

When it comes to dealing with our finances, responsive communication is essential. How hard is it to communicate with the financial companies you use? And what means of communication do they provide? I’ve noticed a growing trend away from email, and toward telephone and “chat.” I dislike this for several reasons.

First, I like email because you have a written record—the all-important paper trail. I keep every message of any significance, which is probably why my email cache is so huge.

As for “chat,” which every company seems to tout these days, sometimes you can request that a transcript of the chat be emailed to you. If they do (and not all will), that’s good for your records. But based on my experience, I suspect that the chat gig is reserved for the newest hires. I’ve seldom had much luck getting anything but the most basic chores accomplished by “chatting.”

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As for the phone, which companies tend to push, we all know the headaches. There’s a guaranteed initial round of aggravation as you negotiate with a robot. That’s followed by a total crapshoot when you finally manage to get a human on the line. Some phone reps are great, but more are mediocre or worse. And there’s no written record, of course. But the companies, as they are pleased to tell you, are recording the call—so they have a great record. I once heard of a fellow who’d always begin his conversation with the phone rep by announcing that “for security and training purposes” he was recording the call.

When I’m contemplating doing business with a new company, sometimes I’ll first try communicating with the folks there. If they make that unduly burdensome, I’ll look elsewhere.

When I first began investing on my own, I opened accounts at Charles Schwab and Vanguard Group, both of which I still use today. One of the best things about Schwab has been their topnotch customer service and responsiveness. You could actually call them up and very quickly not only get a human on the line, but an intelligent human who made it clear he or she was actually going to help. And the folks almost always did. I think that’s still pretty much the case, although the other day I needed to call them and got hit with the dreaded, “We’re currently experiencing longer-than-normal wait times….” I hope that was just an aberration.

As for Vanguard, there’s a lot I love about the company, but its communication and responsiveness are often mediocre. I always have an assigned rep, but there’s rapid turnover among them. The new ones often don’t even bother introducing themselves. (By contrast, I’ve had the same Schwab rep for years and he’s very responsive.) When I actually need something done—most often because of a website glitch—the typical Vanguard response is that they’ll report it to the technology folks. Then I never hear back, and the problem is often ignored.

When you deal with a company rep, the Holy Grail is someone who asks for a little time to resolve the issue, and then not only resolves it but also later updates you. This doesn’t happen often. But when it does, what I really want to do is nominate them for an Academy Award for customer service. But instead, I usually contact their boss to make sure they get some well-deserved kudos.

Andrew Forsythe retired in 2017 after almost four decades practicing criminal law in Austin, Texas, first as a prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. His wife Rosalinda and he, along with their dogs, live outside Austin, at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. Their four kids are now grown, independent and successful. They’re also blessed with four beautiful grandkids. Andrew loves dogs, and enjoys collecting pocketknives and flashlights. Check out his earlier articles.

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Chris Mezines
Chris Mezines
1 year ago

Langston,…I had the same disappointing experience with Vanguard customer service. Started with them 35 years ago and was extremely happy. Convinced several friends and family to use Vanguard. Customer service was great and the “crew” were knowledgeable about their products and about investments in general. Now it is hit or miss; mostly miss. So, I reluctantly left Vanguard for Fidelity and have no regrets.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
1 year ago

Andrew, great article. This resonates strongly. My wife and I recently transitioned from her employee medical benefits to my former company’s early retiree medical plan. It took 54 days to get it set up correctly. There were 4 different companies involved in providing this service, so it was hard to figure out where the problem was. After many conversations, and many promises, nothing was resolved. I finally contacted a senior HR person at my former company who took on the challenge. She found there were several other retirees in similar situations. It took a few more weeks but it did get resolved. Sometimes you have to keep pushing until you find the one person who can make it happen.

Langston Holland
Langston Holland
1 year ago

Vanguard’s customer support, in my experience, is a waiting game unless you have at least 5 million with them (which I don’t). Years ago as a destitute, poverty stricken, homeless bloke with only a million or so with them, I nevertheless was assigned a personal Vanguard rep. that was very smart and she made things happen. It was wonderful. Now I dread calling them. My other account with Fidelity has service that almost reminds me of the Vanguard of old. I do love the Vanguard index funds come fortune or famine.

Last edited 1 year ago by Langston Holland

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