card, strictly for paying restaurant bills. American Express issued their first credit card in 1958 and Bank of America followed with the BankAmericard (now Visa). The global economic crisis has changed the business plan and put an end to the days of handing out cards indiscriminately, hoping that the cardholders who pay up will offset the losses from those who default. Today, credit card companies are becoming much more interested in understanding their customers’ lives and psyches because, the theory goes, knowing what makes cardholders tick will help firms determine who is a good bet and who should be shown the door as quickly as possible.
Data-driven psychologists are now in high demand, and the industry is using them not only to screen out risky debtors, but also to determine which cardholders need a phone call to persuade them to mail in a check. Most major credit card companies have set up systems to comb through cardholders’ data for signs that someone is going to stop making payments. Are cardholders suddenly logging in at 1 in the morning? It might signal sleeplessness due to anxiety. Are they using their cards for groceries? It might mean they are trying to conserve cash. Have they started using their cards for therapy sessions? Do they call the card company in the middle of the day when they should be at work? If someone pays for a big-screen television with their card, are they rich? Or does it signal that they don’t have the sense to avoid products they can’t afford? If they check their balance three times a day, are they worried or uptight? So next time you get a call from your credit card provider, usually a woman, politely reminding you that your payment is due, remember she’s also listening to the tone of your voice, which tells her whether you are under strain or not.
The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express