The Checkout

Thank You for Paying Interest

Credit-card companies usually aren't very good at making their customers feel warm and fuzzy.

Not even knee-slapping commercials starring barbarians and fake Borats can make a person forget incomprehensible terms printed in squint-inducing type, late fees, and the pain of universal default.

But how about a handwritten thank you note?

Jeff Baron, a colleague of mine, and his wife originally signed up for an Advanta small business credit card to take advantage of an introductory offer of 2.99 percent APR on transfer balances.

"The flier for the deal was clear enough, which was one of the attractions, though of course it was accompanied by the usual fine-print brochure," he wrote in an instant message. "And I fully understand that if we are ever so much as late on a payment, Advanta can take our two children as indentured servants for seven years."

But, he says, the handwritten note he received from customer service rep Kara Cullen went a long way in smoothing over any hard feelings in advance.

The card features a soothing image of an orchid plant on the front and Cullen's scrawl on the inside, thanking him for his new business.

"It was a pleasure speaking with you," Kara wrote. "I wish you well with the approval."

Advanta, based in Spring House, Pa., is one of the largest providers of credit cards to small businesses, but it's still a lot smaller than the big guys such as Bank of America and Citibank. It has set itself apart through customer service. (What a novel strategy!)

That includes giving customer service reps stationery. Spokesman David Goodman says that in-house the notes, which have been a company practice for years, are known as "startle cards." Reps send the cards and also sometimes plants and fruit baskets "based on facts gathered during call" such as an upcoming birthday or the passing of a loved one, and, when necessary, as an apology.

The cards get their name from the reaction they inspire in customers. After all, who wouldn't be flabbergasted to get a handwritten communication from a credit-card company that doesn't say something like "we're raising your rate" or "have fun trying to decipher this microscopic legalese."

Have you ever received a "startle card" from any other large, impersonal business? And did it win you over?

Advanta Business Card's thank you note. Take a look at the full card.

By Annys Shin |  January 25, 2007; 7:00 AM ET Customer Service
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I love the concept.

As somebody with terrible handwriting, I find it hard to say this but that card does seem a little "childish" in the "Dear Mr. Jeffrey Brown" and the handwriting - specificially the capital "A"s in her first name and lowercase in her last.

Posted by: Non-debtor | January 25, 2007 7:53 AM

I used to have an Advanta card, until they changed their business practices, and mailed me "credit card checks" that I did not want,and found that I could not cancel - it was part of the mandated "agreement." I canceled the card because it was the only way not to receive the checks. This was a few years ago, and I don't know their current practices. But, cute cards do not replace the need not only to read all the fine print, but each version of new fine print that is mailed to you periodically.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 25, 2007 8:10 AM

"intrest"? And this from someone in finance?! One would think that they'd at least be able to spell their industry terms correctly...

FYI Ms. Callen - i-n-t-e-r-e-s-t

and I agree that her penmanship leaves a LOT to be desired. What is she...10?

Posted by: fizzle-sho-sizzle | January 25, 2007 8:45 AM

I think it's great that the company is reaching out to young children to let them explore their interests in the financial world.

Posted by: Kim | January 25, 2007 8:50 AM

You can't be serious....this is obviously a joke. First of all, noone in their right mind would ever send something written like that to a client (esp. w/ spelling mistakes. And second, what kind of idiot feels better about being suckered by a credit card company because they receive a letter. My credit card company could write me a multi-colored letter in crayon every month and it still wouldn't make me think I'm getting a better deal.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 25, 2007 9:25 AM

Doesn't anybody use typewriters or word processors for correspondence anymore? This 'note' looks like a joke. Can it be taken seriously? When I worked for the Gov't years (and years) ago every piece of correspondence I got from the old CSC (now OPM) was in a handwritten envelope. This is the agency that hires clerk-typists for the Gov't. Just yesterday one of the attorneys I work for now got a letter from the Supreme Court in a handwritten envelope. First impressions are lasting impressions.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | January 25, 2007 9:39 AM

Closest thing I ever got to a "startle card" was back in 1999 when I bought my first car (a Mitsubishi from Tyson's Corner.) About 2 weeks after the purchase, the salesman sent me a tin of cookies, congratulating me on my purchase and hoped that I was enjoying the car. Of course, he also asked that I fill out a customer survery card, which I did. Apparently the salesmen do get bonuses for good customer survey results, so there was a little something in it for him.

Posted by: BF | January 25, 2007 10:03 AM

While the concept is good, that note was SCARY! It looks like it was written by a kid. Granted, my handwriting is sloppy unless I put a LOT of effort into it. I understand this poor girl probably has to write a thousand such notes a day, and her hand aches... but maybe typing on the card, and signing it?
Overall however, I would love the personal attention, and the occasional apology for screwing me over big time. HA!

Posted by: Chris | January 25, 2007 10:15 AM

She probably had perfect calligraphy when she started working at Advanta, but after producing a
thousand hand-written thank you notes a day for a year, her hand is now a cramped and marginally functional arthritic mess.

Posted by: burke | January 25, 2007 10:18 AM

Advanta charges extortionate rates after the introductory period, and cuts credit off without warning. No scrawl changes bad practices.

Posted by: wd | January 25, 2007 10:38 AM

We received written thank-you notes with enclosed cards to use at nice area restaurants when we bought our home four years ago. I thaought it was a very nice gesture from our realtors. Both the selling and buying agents used this practice, so it must be something that many do in our area.

Posted by: Kitty | January 25, 2007 10:39 AM

I've received thank you notes for a few things. I remember getting one from the dealership where I bought my first car, and just this week I got one from the furniture store from which I bought a chair. I guess the fact that I remember it means that they made a favorable impression, but it did not make me any more likely to do business with them again. On the other hand, I once got a form letter from Verizon informing me that they had analyzed my cell phone usage and determined that I could save money by switching to a cheaper plan. They were right-- I switched and saved $20 a month. Now THAT is customer service.

Posted by: Regan | January 25, 2007 11:41 AM

Looks like a phishing scam to me.

It is no way a 'personal note' its a mass mailing at best and fraud more likely.
DO NOT SEND THEM any information to open an

Remember those post-it note attachments from
a mysterious friend a few years ago-same idea.

Is there a prize for the person who can find that "handwritten" font on the web?

Posted by: Wake UP! | January 25, 2007 11:54 AM

I visited one of those MediClinics last fall for allergy medication and I got a "hope you're feeling better" handwritten note a few days later from the PA. Funny thing is, they have yet to charge me or my insurance company for the service.

Posted by: Maryland | January 25, 2007 11:57 AM

We, too, received a hand-written thank you note from our realtor shortly after buying our house, along with a nice little housewarming gift. It certainly was appreciated, though not all together surprising.

What caught me off-guard was returning from a trip to Vegas and receiving a hand-written thank you note from our server at a Saturday night dinner at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse. Very unexpected -- plus, it was a well-written, personal message for our group, which showed that he actually took a few minutes to compose the message (as opposed to just writing from a script).

With service like that, I can't wait for my next trip to that restaurant (of course, it helps that they serve one of the best steaks around).

Posted by: Capitol Hill | January 25, 2007 12:01 PM

I received a thank you card from a dry cleaners I went to for the first time in November. Then they sent me a holiday card, and then they sent me a small calendar in mid-January. That plus the good service and nearness to work (and failure to put staples in my clothes) will definitely have me back there.

Southern Maryland: Doesn't anybody handwrite their correspondence anymore? The handwriting would hve been improved with a typewritten letter, but there's no guarantee that the spelling would have been.

Posted by: Erin | January 25, 2007 12:05 PM

Well, my "startle card" wasn't from a bank or credit card company, but it was thoughtful and touching.

Earlier this month, my cat died suddenly from complications due to a long-term illness. She had been with me for sixteen years. During the previous months, she required many special medications that had to be mixed by an apothecary downtown. The day before she died, I had called in a new prescription. The next day, I called the apothecary to keep them from wasting medication mixing it for my cat. I explained that she had passed away earlier that morning. They expressed their condolences and thanked me for calling.

A few days later, I received a store-bought card in the mail from the apothecary with a lovely handwritten sentiment and signatures of all the pharmacists.

I couldn't believe that someone took the time to pay respects to a pet that, honestly, only meant the world to me. It brought tears to my eyes.

I don't think I'll ever bring my prescriptions anywhere else. Even if it is a 20 minute drive and there is a chain drugstore a few blocks away. They earned a customer for life.

Posted by: RW | January 25, 2007 12:23 PM

According to Miss. Manners, it is not proper etiquette to send a typed thank you card. All personal correspondence is suppposed to be hand written.
I received a "startle card" from 1-800-CONTACTS once because they had boched an order and sent me too many boxes of contacts. It took them FOREVER to refund my money, even after I sent them the extra contacts back. It was just a mess, but everything got straightend out in the end. So they sent me an I'm-sorry-we-caused-you-so-much-pain-and-suffering card along with a coupon. Niiiice.
The other startle card came from the vet after my dog died. The vet sent me a sympathy card, the nice people at the cancer treatment place sent me a card, so did the pharmacist. It was sweet.

Posted by: Melissa | January 25, 2007 12:52 PM

You can't be serious. That note is neither "personal" nor "handwritten". The first tip off is using the man's first and last name after "Dear". The second is the handwriting itself. The third is the misspelling to make it appear human generated. Can you spell g-u-l-l-i-b-l-e?

Posted by: shelly | January 25, 2007 1:24 PM

Shelly: The irregularity of the letters shows it's not a computer font. Just look at the two e's in "Jeffery," how one has a smaller loop than the other. If were not handwritten, those would be identical to each other.

To "Wake Up," this is a thank-you note in response to a loan approval that the customer applied for and that's already happened, so how can it be a phishing scam?

It is lamentably poorly written (both the handwriting and the composition) and misspelled, but I see no signs that it's not genuine.

Posted by: SteveG | January 25, 2007 1:49 PM

Back in the 1970's I lived in the District and belonged to a political club. A candidate in Maryland in the same political party used us as 'volunteers' to address thousands of postcards to his constituents asking for their vote. The post cards were pre-printed with a handwritten message in green ink from the candidate. The volunteers were to address the post cards, IN GREEN INK, to make it look like the candidate had personally written the post cards! Yeah, right, G-u-l-l-i-b-l-e. I don't even recall if that candidate won. That's how unimportant he was.

BTW, I have also gotten a sympathy card from my vet and his staff when I had my elderly ailing cat put to sleep. After all, I had spent hundreds of dollars in medical care on that cat towards the end. I think that's just a routine gesture for most vets. However, a thank you note from a lending institution? I don't think so.

Did any of you get phone calls from Gov. and Mrs. Ehrlich during the campaign last fall? Did you really think you were talking to the Governor?

Posted by: Southern Maryland | January 25, 2007 1:51 PM

"Is there a prize for the person who can find that "handwritten" font on the web?"

"That note is neither "personal" nor "handwritten". "

The note is not created by a computer font. The lines are not even, nor straight. Pick a letter and compare it with the all occurences (say the letter 'P') and you'll see that the same letter is never identical.

For all thos thinking there is some grand scam going on here, keep in mind, that the person is ALREADY a customer.

So yes, Kara has bad handwriting and grammar, but that's it.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 25, 2007 1:56 PM

A great idea, but these can be faked. Remember 5-10 years ago, many bulk mail solicitations started including Post-it "notes" saying things like "Wow, you should check this out! -Mark". They looked hand-written, down to the irregularity of the edges of a straight line, but if you look at one of these note almost edge-on in bright light, you'll notice that this "hand-written" ink is of uniform thickness, even when the borders of the stroke are uneven. They are basically scanning and printing handwriting, so you have to look at the ink.

Annys, did you get a close enough look at the actual note to be sure that this was really hand-written? I'm not saying I don't believe it, I think it's a great idea that's past due, but it is very possible to mass-produce these and make them look hand-written.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | January 25, 2007 2:05 PM

This has got to be a joke! Not only is the spelling atrocious, the grammar is abominable. I wouldn't send a not this sloppy to my best friend to thank her for flowers after breaking my arm (thus an excuse for the poor penmanship), much less to a customer that would expect professionalism from a financial institution. I would be much more impressed with a form letter with proper spelling and grammar than with this childish note!

Posted by: Laura | January 25, 2007 3:43 PM

We have a veterinarian in Southern Maryland that sends out "Congratulations" cards when we get a new pet and condolence cards when we have the misfortune to lose one. They even make a donation in the pets name to major veterinary colleges to help fund research studies.

That is nice, especially after you lose a much-loved member of the family. (Three Notch Veterinary Hospital for anybody in the neighborhood looking for the personal touch).

Posted by: SoMD | January 26, 2007 10:38 AM

To the other So. Md. -- Thanks for the information. I'm across the River in Cawl-vert County. My vet is Dr. Dorsey, a prince of a man, on Solomons Island Road. All the vets in the office except for Dr. Dorsey are female and my two cats (only one left now) couldn't have gotten any better care.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | January 26, 2007 11:22 AM

Maybe their call center is staffed with child labor?

Posted by: tunatofu | January 26, 2007 1:23 PM

I think this is great. I'm sorry but I think as conusmers we are first to point out our credit card companies -- credit card companies don't just increase rates or charge you ridiculous fees over night. I work for one and sometimes the excuses people come up with are outrageous. They miss their payments and then get mad when they lose their special rate. We don't pull out a number from the air and decide that's going to be your APR or your credit limit. You fault, you lose it.

What Advanta does is something I wish my company would do. As consumers, it is difficult to place trust in a credit card company and that's no rocket science. But you have to appreciate the personal attention that Advanta employees give to their customers.

I do think they should have spell-checked, but nonetheless, their thank you notes are commendable.

Posted by: Mona | January 29, 2007 9:11 AM

Looks like a very interesting discussion so far, and I'd like to shed some light on some of the thoughts brought up here. I'm in a particularly good position to do that, because I am currently employed by Advanta. I thought I might provide some insight and background to "startles", and then respond to a few of the other comments that have been posted as well.

Advanta is a small company (relative to the mammoth sized banks that are becoming the norm), that issues business cards to small businesses. I believe coming from such a small start has kept Advanta "grounded" and given the upper management a unique perspective on what small businesses go through. I can tell you with certainty that the environment promoted by Advanta is that of one small business helping another small business. There are many different things that we try to do Advanta to show this to our customers, one of these things are the "startle" cards you see here.

The cards are meant to be a symbol that we aren't so big that we don't have a minute to write you a thank you note for your business. I think Advanta realizes that to some it will seem a little corny, and to some it might even seem unprofessional. But it seems like the majority of customers who receive them appreciate the personal attention and effort.

Not every single customer gets a card either. The cards are an option for the representative who spoke with the customer to send out if they want to specifically thank them. By not mandating that every customer gets a card, the attempt is to keep the cards unique and spontaneous, so that the customer actually feels like it has been personalized to them.

Now, does that mean every single employee follows that to the letter? Apparently not, as we have seen above. I can honestly say that the example presented here is not typical. There are guidelines in place to avoid this type of card from being sent out. The handwriting should be legible, proper spelling and grammar should be used, and the card should be professional in tone. The card is also sent through an audit process before it is mailed, to ensure these guidelines have been followed. Obviously, more than one person missed the boat here, and you won't find anyone at Advanta who would dispute that. It could have been that someone was having a bad day, going too fast, or just being plain lazy. Who knows? The best intentions of Advanta are only as good as the people they hire to do them, and that is no exception with any company. On the whole though, I can tell you my own experience is that "startles" are usually very personal, and that the employees and management do have a strong sense of appreciation for the small business customers that we serve, because we feel like we are a small business ourselves.

Now to address some of the comments that I haven't already talked about:

There were several people who seemed to think the purpose of this card was somehow related to the customer being ripped off, such as:

"... what kind of idiot feels better about being suckered by a credit card company because they receive a letter. ..."

I don't believe the intent of the author was bashing on the idea of the cards, and it seemed as though the person who received the card appreciated it. I think when the person mentioned 'smoothing over hard feelings in advance', that he was referring to the fact that most consumers do not immediately, or ever, trust the credit card companies they do business with. The card helped to ease those feelings right off the bat. Nowhere in the original blog was there anything about Advanta ripping anyone off. Furthermore, I am very familiar with the offer that was mentioned, and there is no reason to think that the customer has anything to fear in the future either.

"Advanta charges extortionate rates after the introductory period, and cuts credit off without warning. No scrawl changes bad practices."

This comment is almost the exact opposite of reality. I don't believe this person has ever had an Advanta card, because I can say for certain that the post-promotion rates are probably *the* best in the industry. There is a reason for this. Advanta wants to provide great service and great standard rates to keep its customers from leaving and playing the balance transfer game like they do with every other credit card. There is very little loyalty in the credit card industry, and Advanta is trying to change that, at the expense of not making a quick buck like many competitors.

Cutting off credit will happen if you are past due on the account, just like every other card. Also, if you classify the default rates as extortionate, then you must use that classification for all credit cards because they are industry average. In the financial industry it is a constant that higher credit risks pay higher interest rates.

"Doesn't anybody use typewriters or word processors for correspondence anymore? This 'note' looks like a joke. Can it be taken seriously?..."

Yes, companies still use word processors, as does Advanta for all of its professional and business related correspondence. The point here is that Advanta doesn't want to do "what everyone is doing", because Advanta is different than "every bank." If we typed a letter on a standard sheet of paper, I'm it would just get thrown away after the customer saw it wasn't a bill.

"Looks like a phishing scam to me.

It is no way a 'personal note' its a mass mailing at best and fraud more likely.
DO NOT SEND THEM any information to open an account. ..."

I think the fact that I am posting here is evidence enough that this isn't a phishing scam, although I think most people already figured that out. Thanks to SteveG who pointed out that we weren't asking for any information, but rather thanking the customer for setting up an account *after they had already done it*.

And finally, as for the whole "computer generated / stamped / handwritten" argument that has been going on, everyone who voted for "handwritten" wins. I can guarantee without a doubt that every single "startle" is 100% handwritten. We don't have the capability (software, etc) to print them, and furthermore, even if we were going for the "authentic" look, I'm sure we would never print one like what you see above.

Hopefully this overly long response has provided a little insight.

Posted by: Advanta Employee | January 29, 2007 9:22 PM

I also work at Advanta and have many friends who work in the Customer Service department. I can completely and honestly agree with the others who stated that these "startle" cards are genuine in their motive to pleasantly surprise the customer, and are also indeed handwritten.

Advanta's founder, Jack Alter, began Advanta as a small business, and that is why Advanta has succeeded so well in the small business market. Advanta's focus has always been and remains to be on assisting small businesses to succeed. One of their current strategies to encourage loyalty from their customers and to show they care is to write a personalized note.

Granted, the above example is quite unprofessional, is sloppy, and is not a literary work of art. But how many other "startle" cards were skillfully written by Advanta reps and received with a smile by customers. Unfortunately, in this fast paced world where making money is everyone's priority, hardly any businesses would take the time out to personally thank their customers, or to send condolences or best wishes.

The plan my company had in mind for the "startles" cards was excellent in theory and to be commended, but the execution of that plan in this card was not up to par. It is true that another look should be taken at the internal auditing process of these cards before they leave the Advanta building, and a message should be sent out to all customer service reps to remind them to take the time to write these out neatly, thoughtfully, and courteously. But overall, this program should be commended for setting Advanta a step above other credit card companies.

How many times have you received unacceptable and poor service at a drive-through window, but would you publicly criticise the whole company and refuse to go there ever again? How many times have you had a grocery store cashier chat with her teenage co-worker friend the whole time she is checking you out and not paying full attention to you? But do you go and post a message online about it and refuse to return to that grocery chain? Just because of one employee?

There are many employees in every company that are a poor reflection on their employer, as in this case, but that does not change the honest motive and intent of Advanta, and Kara, as a whole.

Ask the dozen of Advanta employees who leave and return because Advanta is a great company to work for. I'm sure Kara was having a rough day and still wanted to take the time to say thank you to a customer despite her rough day. Maybe she only had a few minutes to write one out. We don't know the scenario behind it, but the intent was still there.

In closing, I ask you this, how many of you have taken the time to write a handwritten note to your friends or family lately, much less your customers or business associates? I didn't think so. So it remains quite obvious that Advanta should be admired for a step in the right direction towards a friendly and loyal customer--credit card company partnership.

Thank you,
An Advanta Employee

Posted by: LK-Advanta Employee | January 30, 2007 12:07 AM

Wow, two employees. I am impressed that they would care so much to write in defense of their company. You just do not find that kind of loyalty very often, much less in the same place. I wonder if they are not management? LOL. Seriously, I am impressed. If more people cared this much about how they treat other people, the world would be a better place.

Posted by: Chris | January 30, 2007 11:35 AM

I think the note was very nice she took the time to write. I think people missed the point the reciever of the letter was making. I'm sure knowing Advanta Corp. the way I do, Kara was under paid and over worked. Kare sorry people Where so mean with there words.. Great Job Kara

Posted by: Dotty Douglass | January 30, 2007 10:16 PM

I do feel the need to point out the obvious. Did anyone notice that several of the comments tearing Kara apart for her spelling were themselves not perfect in grammar, diction or S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G themselves? I think this is really quite ironic. Unfortunately i doubt that the writers of these rants are intelligent enough to use that kind of tool to make their point, so it is just plain sad. It's sad because they still have a job, while poor Kara will at the very least be punished for trying to do a good thing. Absolutely noone reading this is perfect, but most of us are fortunate enough that our mistakes do not wind up being plastered on cyberspace. In closing, I just want to remind everyone that before you criticize anyone, please remember to look in the miror.

Did my misspelling of M-I-R-R-O-R make this look authentic enough?

Posted by: Satisfied Customer | January 30, 2007 11:46 PM

I just want to state that Jeff Baron and Annys Shin are a perfect example of what we Europeans like to call "stupid Americans". If you don't have anything better to do than write an article about an idiot who can not read his terms and conditions, and about a poor girl that will surely be fired by a ruthless credit card company, then you really need a reality check. Wake up American Idiots!

Posted by: Anonymous | January 31, 2007 9:21 PM

That's right I used a capital "I" in idiots, sue me or better yet post it in your next article while you sip on your bloody Green Tea!!!!!

Posted by: Tony Blair | January 31, 2007 9:29 PM

I just want to state that Jeff Baron and Annys Shin are a perfect example of what we Europeans like to call "stupid Americans". If you don't have anything better to do than write an article about an idiot who can not read his terms and conditions, and about a poor girl that will surely be fired by a ruthless credit card company, then you really need a reality check. Wake up American Idiots!

That's right I used a capital "I" in idiots, sue me or better yet post it in your next article while you sip on your bloody Green Tea!!!!!

Posted by: jake | January 31, 2007 9:36 PM

Kara Cullen this is not right! Sue Jeff Baron and Annys Shin and Advanta Bank corp for libel damages slanderous remarks, and possible wrongful discharge if you lose your job over this! This is absolutely wrong anyway you look at it. You were required to write those letters by your employer who was then responsible for reading the startle cards and approving them for mailing!!!! Not your fault, sue!!!

Posted by: jeff esquire | January 31, 2007 11:09 PM

This totally don't make any sense..Kara did Annys Shin have your permission to use your name? Let me know if you need a lawyer..

Posted by: Anonymous | February 2, 2007 1:10 PM

Posting her name was a terrible idea.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 3, 2007 8:42 PM

The startle card is wonderful idea. I have enjoyed being an Advanta card holder. There customer service is one of the best out there if not the best and not to mention it is nice to call a company knowing that they are based solely in the United States. They always go above and beyond. I do agree that Ms. Callen's card is a bit to desire but the thought was there and should be appreciated....I would have appreciated it but then maybe had a laugh about how it was written. In any case, Advanta is my business card of choice.

Posted by: trueleo | February 8, 2007 1:55 PM

I, too, am an Advanta employee and I just want everyone to know that Advanta provides the best customer service out there. I enjoy working for the company and have done so for the last three years. Advanta believes in HONESTY and INTEGRITY. I write those "startle" cards some of you have bashed and I enjoy writing them to our customers. We do not write a startle card to everyone but to those customers we choose. We are not forced to write these cards like some of you have suspected. Unfortunately, Kara is the blunt of many jokes and her card was poorly written with spelling and grammatical errors but this is not common. I just wanted to voice an opinion of someone who is lower on the totem pole. Advanta is a leader in the industry because of the service we provide and is even a better place to be employed because of the loyalty, commitment, honestly and integrity of each person at Advanta.

Posted by: NA Advanta Employee | February 8, 2007 2:21 PM

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