If any Malaysian students of marketing are looking for a good case study on how to degrade a good brand, they need look no further than the outcome of the 'Strategic Alliance' between Malayan Banking Bhd (Maybank) and American Express Inc (Amex).

I've had an Amex charge card since 1980, and they've always been the most efficient credit card company that I have ever dealt with . . . until about three or four years ago that is. Back in 2003, Amex was a stand alone charge card in Malaysia, like it was in Australia where I had my first Amex card. But then on 3 December 2003, Amex and Maybank announced a 'Strategic Alliance' that would purportedly offer “the combined strength, convenience and rewards of two leading institutions”.

The 'Strategic Alliance' would involve Maybank taking over “all operations . . . including billing and accounting, customer service, credit management and charge authorizations, as well as marketing”.

I didn't notice much change for about three years (knowing now how inefficient Maybank is, I guess that it took them that long to start doing any damage), but then one day towards the end of 2007 I got a call from Maybank asking why my Amex account had not been paid. I told them that it was on auto-debit from my RHB bank account – and always had been since I transferred my Amex account to Malaysia in 1998 – so the problem must have been at their end.

Over the next few weeks I kept getting the same call from different customer service agents, and I kept telling them to check the auto-debit, until one day one of the agents said “Oh we don't accept auto-debit from RHB accounts any more – you will have to open a Maybank account”.

Well, then the fun and games started. Just trying to open an account with Maybank was like trying to get a visa for an Israeli to visit Iran, and over the next three years I started to gain some insights into why Malaysians complain so much about Maybank. I had always found Malaysian banks fairly efficient – I had banked mainly with RHB but also did a fair bit of business through CIMB – but OMG it is hard to describe the bureaucracy and inefficiency that I have experienced as a Maybank customer since early 2008 when I had to open a Maybank account.

But that's not the reason for this blog post. I could write a book on some of the crazy things that I have had to endure on visits to Maybank branches. The purpose of this blog post is to comment on Maybank's latest fiasco with the American Express website in Malaysia.

About a month ago I went to log onto the Amex website to check the exchange rate on some hotel charges I had put on the card in Jakarta, so that I could complete my expenses claim at the office. To my surprise I discovered a notice on the website that said:

“Due to a systems upgrade on 5 April 2010, all Online Services users will be unable to view their transaction history. New Online Services registrations have also been temporarily disabled. We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience and expect the upgraded service to be available in May 2010. Should you require any assistance, please feel free to contact American Express at 1800-88-9559.

I think it was about 18 April that I logged on, so that meant the website had been down for about two weeks by then. I had seen banks do upgrades to their websites many times and take it offline overnight – but never for two weeks.

So I rang the 1800 number and asked how I could check my account. The customer service agent said that I would have to wait until 1 May when the website would be back up, but in the meantime they could link my Amex account to my Maybank account, so I could access it through the Maybank online banking system.

He told me that it would take two days to do that, so I waited for a couple of days, checked my Maybank account – and there was no Amex account showing there. I called back and a different customer service agent couldn't tell me what had gone wrong, but said she would link the accounts straight away – but it would still take two days before I could access it. Another two days went by, no sign of the account, so another call to the 1800 number and same apology and same promise to link the accounts.

It is now more than a month since I first called, and the accounts still aren't linked.

In the meantime I called and asked how else I can access my charges. The customer service agent suggested that she could send me a fax of my statement – but again that would take two days. So I asked her to do that, but no fax came after two days. Another call, another apology, another promise, and still no fax to this day.

Up until the end of April the customer service agents were promising that the site would be back up by 1 May. When that date came and went, they promised it would be back up by the middle of May. It is now 20th May and the website is still not back online. I have no idea what the latest promise is because every time I try to call them now, nobody answers the phone. I just get a continuous recording saying "Sorry, all our executives are busy" (I guess they are busy fielding complaints).

In a few days time I expect the dead-tree copy of my Amex statement to arrive by snail mail, so I will eventually be able to see what I have spent a month ago and do my expenses claim. But it has probably cost me more time on the phone to Maybank in the past month than my claim was worth.

In the past four years my opinion of American Express, on a scale of one to ten, has gone from about a nine to zero. My opinion of Maybank was never much better than about a one, and that's gone to zero too.

It puzzles me as to how a global brand like American Express can let a local bank, whose customer service if bordering on incompetency, take over management of their brand and drive it into the gutter.

So what’s the take on this for students of marketing? Simply that if a multi-national company franchises its brand (which is effectively what Amex did with Maybank through its ‘strategic alliance’), there should be some mechanism by which the brand owner can monitor and if necessary supervise day-to-day operations to ensure that the reputation of the brand is not damaged through sub-standard customer service.

In 2002 BusinessWeek magazine rated American Express No 15 in their Top 100 Global Brands listing. In 2009 American Express had slipped to No 22 in the same listing. I wonder how much Maybank contributed to that?

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