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Credit card customers have stories to tell. Are you listening?

My mother used to say that a person’s financial situation is like a bathrobe—you shouldn’t “wear” it outside of the house. Sorry Mom, but no one is following that advice.  Just this past week, Oprah and Suze Orman encouraged audience members to announce the amount of their credit card debt to millions of  viewers.

The truth is, this desire to talk about debt is nothing new…

In 2001, I held one-on-one interviews with 25 men and women who were in default on their credit cards. This research was initiated by a major credit card company who aimed to uncover how they could better message to consumers who were no longer paying on large credit card debt.

I was initially concerned that these consumers would be hesitant to address their debt and would feel resentful for having their financial lives exposed. In contrast, these men and women were relieved—even energetic—to discuss their situations. Several of whom burst into tears, hugged me, and thanked me for giving them a chance to explain. They had been hoping someone would ask.

For the most part, their stories fell into two camps: (1) those who were already living paycheck-to-paycheck and then ran into hard(er) times (e.g., the death of a spouse and a child), or; (2) individuals who missed one or two payments and found they suddenly couldn’t make the minimum payments due to fees and the increased interest rate. Despite the differences in how they got into credit card trouble, all the respondents had two things in common: an unshakable guilt and a deep desire to connect with their credit card issuer.

This month Congress passed the credit card reform  bill  and much has been written about how it might affect consumers, those who pay their bills and those who don’t. Some find it paternalistic, others worry it will negatively impact individuals who have always paid on time. Ultimately, consumers will have a very different relationship with their credit cards, which makes it the perfect time for banks to begin listening to how their customers plan to use and pay for credit. Despite the radical changes, one thing remains the same— credit card customers have stories to tell and they’re waiting for someone to ask.

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