When Costco began transitioning from American Express to Visa as its exclusive credit card partner in June, delays and confusion had
customers threatening to cancel their memberships
Now, two months later, some Costco members say that major problems remain — and that Citi, the card issuer, and Costco aren’t doing enough to fix them.
In addition to making Visa the only credit card customers can use at Costco, the transition meant that the 11 million of Costco’s 81 million members worldwide with Costco co-branded credit cards had to switch from TrueEarnings American Express Costco cards to the Costco Anywhere Visa.
Initial issues ranged from customers not receiving their new cards to difficulty getting a customer service representative on the phone to general confusion.
Roughly 50 Costco cardholders reached out to Business Insider with stories of their experiences regarding the transition. While a handful wrote to describe positive experiences, most were horror stories.
Citi CEO Michael Corbat responded to the complaints in July saying that concerns were “something we can fix in the short order.”
But Costco members are saying the fix never came. Instead, many say they have spent hours on the phone waiting to talk to customer service representatives over last two months.
“I am no longer a Costco member. The Credit Card Fiasco is the reason,” Blaine Holbrook said in an email to Business Insider. Holbrook said he called Citi and Costco four times in an effort to get Citi to send his wife a functioning cobranded credit card, but that never happened. Finally, Holbrook canceled his Costco membership, as well as all his Citi credit cards.
Citi, which has taken the primarily role in managing the transition as the credit card issuer, maintains that the switch has been a success, with nearly 900,000 new application for credit cards. The angry customers, according to Citi, represent just a small minority.
The most common complaints from Costco members involved getting ahold of the new credit card. Many said Citi mailed them unauthorised cards, credit cards with incorrect member numbers, or simply nothing at all.
Neikya Morris told Business Insider she made five calls to Citi over the period of two months in an attempt to get a Visa-Costco card. Morris says both she and her husband were deployed to Afghanistan before the issue was resolved.
“I was leaving for Afghanistan the next day and decided that I had had enough of the foolishness and incompetency of this entire process,” she said in an email. “We are loyal customers of Costco, so we continue to hold the membership, but we will rethink this we when return home from our deployments.”
Problems with automatic payments were another issue Costco members reported to Business Insider. In a number of cases, automatic payment set-ups failed, something some customers didn’t discover until Citi charged interest on unpaid balances or canceled users’ credit cards.
Ernest Garcia, from Amelia Island, Florida, said he was speaking with Citi on the phone two to three times a week for the last three to four weeks, trying to figure out an issue with automatic payments. The problem came to a head last weekend when his wife’s card was canceled, despite the company’s promise that that wouldn’t happen.
“She was visiting family in Georgia and took them for lunch; lord and behold, she got the biggest embarrassment anyone could have in front of all these people. She was told by the waiter that Citi/Visa had cancelled her card,” Garcia wrote in an email. “I have been a customer since they were known as Price Club in the 1990s and now Costco and I was getting ready to dump them… I’m retired and life is [too] short to be going through this.”
Other problems include confusion regarding Citi’s website, unexpected pending charges, and roadblocks for international travellers. Certain payments made around the time of the transition seem to have not transferred from American Express to Citi, and other members expressed confusion about the card’s APR rate.
No matter what cardholders’ initial problems were, long wait times to speak with customer service representatives presented a common source of frustration. Some customers eventually hung up before receiving responses.
— David McGehee (@davemcgehee) August 23, 2016
Several Costco members reported frustrating back-and-forths with Citi via phone calls, text messages, emails, and mail, lasting anywhere from several days to more than a month. More than one Costco member said the confusion was still ongoing and that they would have to wait to receive their next credit card bill to see if Costco had solved the issues.
Costco and Citi’s successes
From Citi’s perspective, however, the transition has been a success — and the company has data to prove it.
Citi told Business Insider that it has received almost 900,000 new applications for the Visa credit card since June 20.
The bank had anticipated some problems, due to the magnitude fo the switch.
“With a conversion of this magnitude — one of the single largest portfolio conversions in history (11 million cards) — and a brand as beloved as Costco, call volumes were unprecedented,” Citi spokesperson Jennifer Bombardier told Business Insider. “With a portfolio of this size and eight months of pent up demand during which time we couldn’t address questions on the new product or existing accounts as the portfolio was with a different issuer, the call volume was groundbreaking as of June 20th.”
After a few days of long wait times, however, Bombardier says that Citi worked to address the problem.
“We have apologised for that inconvenience and while we had staffed up to prepare for the conversion, we swiftly took additional actions to better meet the demand for the new cards,” she said in an email. “Since then — average call wait times have lessened significantly. For example, this weekend, average call wait times were in the seconds.”
While the average may have been just a few seconds, Costco members told Business Insider they waited for more than half an hour to speak to representatives last week, after Citi erroneously sent emails to Costco members saying their credit card accounts had been closed. (Citi said that the incident only impacted a small percentage of customers.)
Costco has increased membership staffing in stores, with up to 20 or more employees at each location to help customers sign up for cards and answer questions, Bombardier says. Citi similarly increased staffing at call centres. It also updated its FAQs with information about the switch, and will not apply late fees for payments on Costco accounts on or before the end of July.
A report from Lightspeed Financial Services Group, released in late July, reveals that just 5% of customers reported that their experience with Costco surrounding the new card launch was negative. One month after the new cards were issued, 80% of customers had used the new card, an experience that 90% considered to be a positive one.
YouGov’s Brand Index data similarly indicates that customer perception of the retailer has been unchanged by the transition.
“We looked at Costco and Visa — and there is absolutely nothing in the data that suggests anything like the ‘disaster’ this is being portrayed to be,” YouGov spokesperson Drew Kerr told Business Insider. “It’s not even statistically significant enough to even merit a significant blip. The data is very accurate at this point, having accumulated it daily.”
In the first three-and-a-half-weeks after the transition, $5.7 billion in purchases were made on Citi Costco cards. Taking on the Costco credit cards meant that Citi’s North American “credit cards” segment grew 13% in the second quarter.
Costco did not respond to Business Insider’s request to comment for this article.
The solution — if Costco needs one
In the age of social media where stories travel quickly online, tales of bad customer service can carry a lot of weight. Lightspeed began its report noting that media coverage of Costco’s credit card transition was primarily negative — even if most members didn’t see it that way.
Costco is a retailer that relies heavily on customer loyalty. In February, Morgan Stanley cited the loyalty of the retailer’s consumers as a reason why Costco is “Amazon-proof.” And that loyalty is paying off now. Many Costco members critical of the credit card debacle told Business Insider they would continue to shop there.
“It was poorly transitioned but I think that big companies always allow for fallout and I am sure would offer something to draw the shoppers back in,” Carol Whitaker, a Costco member who encountered issues receiving a Visa credit card, told Business Insider. “It might be a nice gesture if Costco offered something to all their customers as a sign of goodwill that they appreciate their shoppers. Maybe someone should give that CEO a nudge on how to treat his loyal shoppers. Even if it was a free apple pie it would go a long way.”
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