The Mystery of “S. Larson”

Who’s signing your customer correspondence? S. Larson has something to say about it.

For those of you who have ever owned Citibank credit cards, “S. Larson” is probably familiar to you.  It’s the name that appears at the bottom of most all of Citibank’s customer correspondence (along with a digitized signature that looks like it was penned by a fifth grader).  As a Citibank card owner myself, I was always intrigued by S. Larson.  Year after year, there S. Larson was, signing every letter that Citibank sent to me, whether it was about an increase in my credit line or a disputed charge.  Who was this individual?  Was S. Larson my personalized service representative?  And why on Earth was S. Larson doing the exact same job decade after decade?


Then, last month, I saw that I was not alone in my fascination with S. Larson.  The Wall Street Journal ran a front page article on the subject:  Mystery Writer:  Does Citibank’s S. Larson Really Exist?


The article is very amusing, and while it does not solve the mystery of S. Larson, it does offer an important lesson about how to craft customer correspondence.


Over all those years of being a Citibank credit card customer, I did grow suspicious of S. Larson and wondered if s/he really existed.  But Citibank was at least one (small) step ahead of other firms — its letters were signed by a person, albeit an imaginary one.


So many companies that claim to humanize customer interactions – treating people as something more than an account number – demonstrate exactly the opposite by routinely issuing unsigned correspondence.


Instead of being authored by a human, these letters spit out under the auspices of meaningless, bureaucratic organizational labels:  Accounting Department, Technical Claims Unit, Dispute Settlements Group, Customer Service, etc.


When I work with companies that employ this approach, their defense is always the same:  “We don’t want the customer to have our employee’s name, because then they’ll call that person directly with any questions.”


Oh, dear, that would certainly signal the apocalypse, wouldn’t it?  A customer being able to contact a live person who’s actually knowledgeable about their situation?  No, no – we can’t have that.


When companies turn communications into anonymous missives, the only thing they succeed in doing is sending a series of negative messages to their customers:  We’re inaccessible.  We hide behind letters.  We don’t want to talk to you.


When you put an individual’s name at the bottom of a letter, it sends a strong signal of ownership and accountability for the message.  And even if the contact number included isn’t a direct extension, but a general 800 number, customers will still come away with a far better impression from the communication.


So don’t fall into the trap of hiding behind letters.  If you’ve got something to communicate in writing, take ownership for it by putting your name on the paper.  I’m sure even S. Larson would agree with that…  if s/he even exists.

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