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Wachovia exec steps into customers' shoes

To find the person charged with keeping its customers happy, Wachovia Corp. went to the Four Seasons.

Michael Sherck, who became the Charlotte company's “customer experience executive” for the retail bank last fall, spent the first 22 years of his career in the hotel industry, where job assignments took him to Singapore, Indonesia and the Maldives. He took his current job – the first to hold the position -- after a couple of years in a similar position for the bank's central region.

Like new chief executive Bob Steel, Sherck came to Wachovia with no experience in retail banking. But he says the switch has been less than dramatic: Good service is a universal language, no matter the country or the industry. Sherck, who studied hotel administration at the University of Massachusetts, is the brains behind a new bank program to call 1 million customers over the next four months – “just to say thanks,” he says.

Wachovia, while struggling this year with financial and regulatory miscues, has continually touted the strength of its retail bank and its longstanding reputation for good customer service. That includes a seven-year streak as No. 1 among big banks in the University of Michigan's highly regarded American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Sherck, who turns 48 on Saturday, talked this week to the Observer. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

In your own words, what is your job?

My job is to stand in the shoes of the customer, to make sure that every employee at the line level is doing the right thing for the customer. How do we do that? We take great care of the employees – that's the first step.

How?

One, providing them the tools, the training - making sure they have everything they need to be successful. And two, providing them the leadership so that they want to be successful. We do about 2,000 customer surveys a night with Gallup, and we recently launched a new incentive program that focuses on making sure employees stay consistent with their service. If they maintain great scores, they get a higher payment than if they just had one month at great and the next month wasn't as good.

What's another new thing that you're doing?

It sounds like a simple idea, but we've started a program to call over a million customers in the next four months, just to thank them for their business. About 55 percent of the customers say, ‘Wow, that's great, thank you very much.' The other 45 percent have a variety of responses. Probably the next biggest (response) is ‘Wow, I appreciate your call, and I had something I want to discuss with you.' They may be wondering, ‘Did that check clear?' So it's a nice coincidence that we happened to call.

As the investment bank has taken some big hits, you guys keep talking about the strength of the retail bank. Do you attribute that strength to customer service?

It is certainly foundational. I believe we'd be far less successful without the great service that we have.

Can you speak about why consumer complaints with the OCC (the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which is Wachovia's main regulator) are increasing? (The Observer reported this month that OCC complaints against Wachovia were up 129 percent in the first half of this year. Complaints for all big banks were up 40 percent.)

As you noted, they're on the rise for virtually everybody. I think the economy is driving a lot of the activity we see - folks have $100 (charges) at the gas station and other effects of the real estate market.

So people are more likely to complain in a bad economy?

I think they feel a little bit out of control with their finances, because there are things impacting them that they can't control.

Tell me about why you made the switch from hotels to banking.

I was really happy at Four Seasons, but then Wachovia began a westward expansion into Texas and asked if I'd be interested in joining the bank. I couldn't balance a checkbook, so I said no thanks. They called back and said, ‘We're not necessarily interested in finding a banker for this position, we want somebody who's great at service.' I was still a little skeptical, but as I met more and more people at the bank, I was extremely impressed by their talent and their dedication to service. Probably what sealed the deal was I found out that they weren't bringing me in to fix something that was broken.

Can you compare the culture of the two industries?

In the hotel industry, there is an expectation that you are constantly on call. (I got calls) at 2 o'clock in the morning letting me know that a guest was really upset that their toilet was backed up and there's a flood in their bathroom and they want the general manager. And of course, not working on Christmas is a nice bonus. Christmas would often be a busy day, especially in our restaurants. If I expected my staff to be there, I needed to be there as the leader.

You spent five years working at hotels in Asia. Can you compare service expectations in Asia and the U.S.?

In most of the locations I was in, international tourism was foundational to their existence, and the staff was just extremely warm and service-oriented. (But) training and expertise was at the other end of the spectrum. I had an employee who wrecked a golf cart in the Maldives, and I was so shocked that he could possibly make such a silly mistake, until I found out that he had never driven anything other than a bicycle. His island didn't have cars, so the idea of his jumping in a golf cart to deliver somebody's room service, he didn't know how to.

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