Dear HDFC Bank… you win.

The thread ends today, after 173 days of imploring HDFC Bank, every single day on Twitter to… just do the right thing.

And what’s the wrong thing they are doing? A quick and dirty recap.

1. HDFC Bank has 4 premier banking products – Imperia, Preferred, Classic and Prime. Of these, the first 3 carry a ‘nominal’ (HDFC’s term) programme management fee of Rs.100 (+ taxes) per quarter. HDFC displays a host of benefits for these premier products – they all look tantalizingly good, no doubt.

There are certain entry criteria for these products – based on average monthly or quarterly balance. But, entry into the 3 programs is ‘at the sole discretion of the bank’. Meaning, the bank can enroll you into one without you asking to be enrolled. The bank invites you into one, assuming you are interested in it already.

2. Customers are sent a welcome email when they are enrolled into one of these 3 programmes, even when they don’t seek to be in the program. That is, customers are auto-enrolled into these ‘paid’ programs.

3. That welcome email has an opt-out link at the end. This was earlier adequately and appropriately (in favor of the bank) tucked away into the email. But after a lot of noise (by yours truly, and media outlets), the email subject started containing the word ‘opt-out’, mercifully.

4. Here’s the specific point I was fighting for – an opt-out (also called ‘negative option marketing’) is fundamentally devious and unethical. Ex-RBI Governor Dr. Y V Reddy says so, here.

An opt-out, hidden in an email, sent by an organization that also sends 7+ emails every week – doubly disingenuous and doubly unethical.

In the words of the bank’s corporate communications head, “bank ‘presumes’ that the customer would like to be part of the programme, unless they opt out of it”.

5. In essence, the bank does not have any confirmation from a customer to be part of a paid program that he/she has been auto-enrolled into by the bank, without consent, and based only on the bank’s own discretion.

No written or electronic confirmation from the customer exists for us to be in Imperia, Preferred or Classic, except for the email we were sent and the opt-out link we did not click.

So, HDFC Bank uses our silence as our consent.

Now, pause for a bit and read an analogy.

You are driving on the road. You see a vehicle opposite you, driving on the wrong side of the road, putting everyone on the road in danger. What would you do?

99.98% of Indians would make way for the rear-orifice and move on.

0.01% of Indians will shout at the rear-orifice. The response from that rear-orifice wouldn’t surprise you – he would shout back at you and call you ‘mad’.

0.01% of Indians will chase that rear-orifice to teach him a lesson.

My going after HDFC Bank for 173 days was akin to that.

But, while chasing, I wrote to the Banking Ombudsman, thrice. All 3 were disposed on the grounds that I did not lose money (I clicked opt-out, remember!). The Banking Ombudsman is not worried about many, many people complaining (I showcased 90+ people on my daily tweets series) about HDFC’s lack of ethics in rolling out this program. It is not bothered about Banking Codes and Standards Board of India rules that state that any paid program the bank enrolls customers into should have explicit written or electronic confirmation from customers.

I wrote to Indian Government consumer helpline. They threw it away.

I also filed 2 RTIs. 2 of them were disposed of.

The 3rd one, I’m waiting for a response in a month.

In a sane, decent world, these supporting documents and points may seem enough for the other party to stop doing the wrong thing. But this is HDFC Bank and we’re not in a sane and decent world. So, the bank continues.

Given that Banking Ombudsman and RTI haven’t yielded any results, let me stop. The next logical step would be to seek a lawyer and try the Indian equivalent of a class action lawsuit if there is one. That would need more time, effort and money, all of which are at abundance in HDFC, compared to what I can muster.

So, let me stop playing Munnabhai and allow Dr.Asthana and Lucky Singh to win.

A minor point I’d like to end this interesting experience with – you can ask me if I was ‘trolling’ the bank all these days, since ‘trolling’ is the buzzword now.

Here’s my perspective on that.

I realize that everyday-tweeting can be perceived as trolling. But then, if media houses can keep issues and stories live by talking about it every day/every week, only the platform has changed here.

Couple of other points that may prove that this is not trolling. One, people started tagging individuals associated with HDFC (like someone tagged Aditya Puri’s – HDFC MD – daughter Amrita Puri), in the hope that it may spur the bank to respond. I dissuaded that tagging and apologized to Amrita on Twitter. She is nowhere connected to this issue and does not deserve being tagged to this. Plus, the bank’s act is not a direct result of the MD’s decision either. So, I avoided tagging any single individual for the daily tweets, and avoided any kind of profanity – every single tweet is meant as a pleading or a polite query, at best.

The point is, the corporate handle of a brand is not an individual person that can feel the psychological impact of trolling. It is an organizational responsibility towards its customers (much like a phone-based customer care center), and a collective of people/a team mandated to do a job. So, I have consciously avoided tagging or talking to any individual in the public domain and continue to refer only to the corporate handle in my tweets and encourage others to do the same too.

Technically, the brand has responded with what they think is appropriate. And as a communications professional, I fully empathize with the brand here that they cannot decide on something like apologizing to customers (what I am demanding) all that easily. It will involve legal opinion (who would have asked the bank to shut up and continue to ignore me) and internal realignment (imagine the state of the person or team who decided that opt-out is actually a good idea to unleash on millions of customers, in a clear and blatant disregard for RBI guidelines). But, above all that, there is something called the right thing.

For a bank that has been awarded so much for everything from profitability, corporate ethics and corporate governance etc. it is a joke that they can so blatantly disregard RBI guidelines and leave so many customers to complain about it online and still do nothing.

Related read: HDFC Bank’s invite-only program that unethically assumes you are already in and are willing to pay for it.

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  • Le Balladeer

    What I find criminally stupid is that these morons refuse to even acknowledge that by spamming me they are doing two thgins:

    1. Adding to my stress or discomfort
    2. And you are never ever getting that business from me that you are spamming me for. In fact you might lose the existing business you have with me.
    3. And maybe wasting your money

    Or maybe they figured that it generats maximum business with minimum effort. Because unlike brands like Citi and Amex or like Kotak they don’t even have a good image that they would want to keep intact.