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DISCRETIONARY EFFORT AND THE CASE OF THE MYSTERIOUS MR UNDERHILL

‘The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problem.’

Mahatma Gandhi

Like many people, I opened a bank account when I was a teenager. I still bank with the same business decades later. Relatively few people switch bank accounts. It is called customer inertia. Or status quo bias, if you are a behavioural economist. Apparently, the statistics say that divorce is more likely than changing your bank. Yet on one occasion my dealings with the bank became so difficult over such an apparently small matter, that I very nearly did this most unlikely of things.

I considered myself a good customer, and I was well served with bank accounts. I already had a current, a business and a savings account. Now, with my work regularly taking me abroad, I decided to open a foreign currency bank account as well. As a long-standing customer the initial process was straightforward and I was quickly allocated an account number. However, when my new cheque book arrived at home, I noticed one surprising feature: it had the name Mr Underhill printed on it. Not Mr Woods. I was mystified.

Never mind, I thought. This will not take long to sort out. So I called customer service:

‘Yes it has the correct account number printed on it,’ I responded to the bank representative.

‘And you received it at your home address?’

‘I did.’

‘Well you must have filled in the wrong name when you originally ...

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