Several customers are venting their ire over what they call as 'unethical' banking by HDFC Bank, India's largest private sector lender by assets. Karthik Srinivasan, an old customer of the Bank highlighted the issue in his blog post, which has gone viral on the social media. Karthik and other HDFC Bank customers are opposing the invite only program that they claim, "unethically assumes that you are already in and are willing to pay for it". Unless a customer reads the entire mail and opts out from this offer, she would be charged Rs100 per quarter for availing the Virtual Relationship Manager (VRM) feature.
UPDATED on 10 Feb 2017 to add response from HDFC Bank to Karthik (in the end)
Here is what Karthik wrote in his blog post (http://beastoftraal.com/2017/02/01/hdfc-banks-invite-only-program-that-unethically-assumes-you-are-already-in-and-are-willing-to-pay-for-it/)...
My first salary was credited to a HDFC bank account. In New Delhi. I have since had HDFC accounts—salary, personal, home loan, car loan, you name it—for over 2 decades.
Now, I’m not adding these details to sentimentalize this post. (Oh well, that first salary part is a bit maudlin, I accept!). The point is, there’s way too much banking between me and HDFC that I can’t wash them off if the need arises and move to another bank, without a lot of wasted time and effort.
Let me explain what the problem is, first.
I received a mail from HDFC Bank on January 30th. The subject said, “Dear Karthik Srinivasan, Welcome to HDFC Bank Preferred Banking Programme!”
I get at least 2-3 emails from HDFC every week. All of them ensure that they call me a ‘preferred’ banking customer. This has been going on for over 2-3 years, if I recall right. Now, I have no idea what this ‘preferred’ banking entails. I’m totally open to the possibility that I was shown a laundry list of fine print when this account was opened and I may have signed it too.
Anyway, I opened the mail curiously, to know why I’m being welcomed into something that I’m adequately a part of. This was the entirety of that mail.
Crux: an invite-only virtual relationship manager has been assigned to me.
My first thought: Oh great! The once-every-2-years that I actually call someone from HDFC bank can be slightly more easier now!
Then, I notice this.
Let me deconstruct that.
I was enrolled into this ‘program’ in January 2016. After a year of being in the program that I did not ask to be enrolled into and have no recollection of being in (I did check my emails from 2015, in December, and 206, in January and February, as also emails from HDFC when I had opened this account), I will, from now on, be charged Rs.100 per quarter to be in this program.
And, service tax extra.
What cheesed me off is not the nominal amount. It was,
This is an opt-out program.
So, I clicked on the link and performed the 2 actions needed to unenroll myself out of this invite-only program that presumes I’m already in.
In simple terms it means, HDFC depends on a customer’s action to not charge him/her. The usual, sane and honest method is, ‘HDFC depends on a customer’s action to charge him/her’. It means HDFC seeks consent to charge a customer. What they are doing is seeking consent to not charge a customer.
In other words, HDFC depends on the customer to,
1. open the mail,
2. read through the contents,
3. notice a way to opt-out,
4. click the opt-out link,
5. choose ‘No’ as confirmation and
6. submit the form
… to not charge him/her.
If the customer doesn’t perform even one of the above 6 tasks, he/she will be charged.
To make it even more explicit, HDFC presented me with the following:
“I, Karthik Srinivasan, agree to pay Rs.100 (plus service tax) per quarter towards the Virtual Relationship Management Programme. Unless I click on the button below to indicate my preference not to be part of this program, I’d be charged for this service.”
This is clearly unethical and devious.
It particularly hits home for me because I was in Flipkart, handling their corporate communications when they faced a similar issue. Back in 2012, when Flipkart launched the ‘save credit card’ feature (where customers have an option of saving their credit card details for easy payment in the future) after getting a PCI-DSS certification, they rolled out the feature where the check-box for saving the card is checked, by default. This is a classic opt-out tactic that is known to increase sign-ups/uptake of whatever program you are running.
It means, customers, who are previously unaware that Flipkart had a ‘save-card’ feature now need to take note of this feature and uncheck that box to opt out of this feature. In other words, Flipkart had pre-decided that customers want to be a part of it. And unless a customer explicitly asks not be part of it (by unchecking the box), they will continue to be part of this.
After this service was launched, there was a lot of hue and cry about Flipkart’s unethical practice in rolling out this feature. What was truly admirable, back then, was the fact that Flipkart not only acknowledged this error in judgement and set right the process (to opt-in; that is, give customers an unchecked box and let them exercise the option to be a part of this program, or not), but they also blogged about both the error and the reason why they changed it. Here is the blog, from 2012.
HDFC is treading a far more dangerous ground. Flipkart did not charge money from people who forgot to opt out. They merely saved some data without explicit consent. HDFC, in this case, is going to take money from people who may have either ignored the mail, or forgotten to see the message about opting out in the mail. I’m fairly sure there are RBI guidelines that determine that any charge levied on the customer should be done after seeking explicit permission to do so. That is, after explaining to the customer that they are going to be charged for specific services. And not merely inform a customer that they’d be charged from now on for a service and only if they choose not to be part of it, will they be left alone without a charge.
The irony is that this HDFC mail starts by calling it an ‘invite-only’ service. The crucial point is that my option to decline the invite hinges on my opening and reading this email fully, and taking appropriate action.
I emailed HDFC Bank asking them why this is an opt-out and not an opt-in. I tweeted to them too. I got the following response after 2 days.
They have merely reiterated the status quo to me – that this is what it is, but hey, we did give you an option to get out of this scheme and about being charged. Tough luck if you didn’t read the mail.
You could ask me a question based on ‘caveat emptor’ (buyer beware), which says, ‘that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made’. The argument could be, I, as a customer, should be vigilant and alert enough to go through all communication from my bank and take note of the charges proposed to be levied on me and communicate my intent to agree or disagree appropriately. This is a fair argument, but let me present how it may look like, in the real world.
You enter your favorite, and usual cloth store. You try out 3-4 clothes and decide that you don’t like the fit and decide to try another store. As you walk out, the sales guy calls you back and says that you need to buy them. You ask him why. He says that the price tags in each of the clothing pieces you tried have a fine print that if you try them, you’d need to buy them too. That your trial amounts to a legal contract between the seller and buyer. This is opt-out. If it was opt-in, before you enter the trial room, a store person would have told you the rules and sought your consent.
If you have got this email, or recall being in something called ‘Virtual Relationship Management Programme’, please do check your email and take action based on your interest and intent.
So, considering all this, and the effort it’d take for me to close *all* my HDFC accounts and move to another bank, I’m not going that route. Instead, I’m going to try another route, to try and make HDFC take responsibility for this lapse in ethics and apologize, not just to me, but in public, to all their customers.
I’m going to share this blog every single day for the rest of the year – one day in the morning and the next, in the evening (and so on) on Twitter. And once every week on Facebook and LinkedIn for the rest of the year. I’ll tag relevant people to each tweet/post as necessary to ensure that it is read and understood by as many people as possible.
I’m very curious to see if my bank has an ethical stand on this issue at all.
UPDATE: The response sent by HDFC Bank to Karthik...
Dear Mr. Srinivasan,
Thanks for giving us the opportunity to clarify and apologies for the delay in responding.
With regard to your query, we'd like to humbly submit that the bank has been fair and transparent in the following:
a) giving the customer the opportunity to test the service for free for a year before levying any charges.
b) providing an opt-out facility for those who do not wish to avail of these services, which is in compliance with all regulatory requirements.
c) communicating the charges to customers at regular intervals, in the welcome letter and subsequently in their monthly statements.
You will also appreciate that the benefits of the programme far outweigh the nominal fee of Rs100 per quarter, which is in line with similar premium programmes available in the market. Here are some of the key benefits listed below:
1) A lifetime waiver on locker rentals
2) Preferential pricing for forex, loans and deposits
3) Waiver of non-maintenance charge of average monthly balance (AMB)
4) A dedicated Personal Banker (PB) / Relationship Manager (RM)
5) Unlimited usage of ATMs, both own and other bank
6) Free subscription to in-house e-magazine AAG, a specialised advisory on investments and stock reports
7) VRM- A platform to enhance customer experience and engagement through a 24*7 access to a Virtual Relationship Manager (VRM).
Trust, we have been able to clarify our stand adequately. Needless to say, the bank remains committed to the highest standards of ethics and business conduct.