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Slaves to the machine

3rd Dec 2004
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Three strikes and you're out, according to a new survey this week on the atrocious customer service offered up by banks. I wish! Unfortunately I fall into the camp of those who swear blind that they're not putting up with it any more, decide to switch banks,, do nothing at all about it until the next time.

It happened to me last week when I was so hacked off by the sullen and obstrucive attitude of the call centre operative that I finally got through to at Barclays that I ended up being put through to the head of customer services to complain. On previous occasions, I've ended up being sent bottles of wine as an apology from the office of the chairman of the bank, but it takes a lot of shouting and complaining to get that far.

And time and again they resort to the same default excuse for their bad customer management: it's all the fault of the computer! Excuse me, you've invested millions and million in customer management technology and now you're slaves to the machine and your customer service is still down the pan? That was money well spent, wasn't it?

It's not just banks of course. I had a threatening letter from Seeboard Energy the other day saying that as I had "chosen to ignore" (sic) their previous letters they would now be taking action. It arrived with the said three other letters previously sent, popped in by a neighbour from upstairs who wondered if they were mine. All four had the wrong first name and wrong surname (Lackland apparently!) as well as the wrong flat number and had been sitting in a pile in his communal hallway which is in a different part of the building.

I phoned Seeboard and pointed out that I had corrected the spelling and the address they were using on previous occasions on the phone, by email and in writing...and still they were sending mail to the wrong address. The girl on the end of the phone paused a second, then with grim inevitability, said: "The address is wrong? Are you sure? That's what's in the computer." Through gritted teeth I finally managed to convince her that I stood a better chance of knowing where I lived than her wretched computer terminal and gave her the correct address.

She changed it. I know that she changed it because another letter appeared two days later. She'd changed it from Flat 1 as I'd asked, but not to Basement Flat as I'd asked, but for some reason to flat 5a - which doesn't even exist. Encouragingly I am no longer Lackland, but am now Loughlin - which is getting closer, but still no cigar! - but my first name remains stubbornly and mysteriously simply L. What L stands for I have yet to discern - perhaps the computer will let me in on the secret some day.

Of course they are all as nothing to the Spanish Inquisition that is the TV Licensing Authority which despite being physically shown my licence on the doorstep on a previous occasion still insists I don't have one because - you guessed it! - the computer says my address is 8a while my licence - and the post office!- says it is Basement Flat, number 8. We'll send officers to question you and you could go to prison, they warn gleefully in their latest missive. Let 'em come, I think, let 'em try and find 8a, that'll keep them amused for an hour or so.

The point of all this of course is that no matter how sophisticated customer management systems become, the fundamental premise that has underpinned every computer ever invented remains true: put junk in, get junk out. If the data in those systems isn't clean and accurate, then the information they provide will be wrong. And since most call centres are paying peanuts and getting monkeys to answer the phone who stick religiously to their belief in the infallibility of the sacred computer, the end result is customer frustration and irritation.

I could change my bank. I could change my electricity supplier. But I probably won't, because it's a hassle to do - and the prime offenders know that, so there's little incentive to improve things. Instead I'll just remain frustrated and annoyed and every so often I'll get a box of wine from the chairman's office. Oh well, at least that'll come in handy at Christmas. I'll probably drink it while looking out the window watching the TV licence inspectors walking round and round the block looking for a non-existent address.

Replies (7)

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By hamiltoncw
06th Dec 2004 16:22

I have never had a problem that couldn't be resolved with a pleasant conversation with their call centre staff.

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By n_leonard
06th Dec 2004 17:52

There is a solution to banks, it is called your member owned Credit Union, by the people, of the people, for the people.

Lower rates, lower fees and better investment rates. Customers are owners so customer satisfaction has a whole new meaning at a Credit Union.

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By malcolmwicks
06th Dec 2004 18:49


Lets start a campaign against bad service.

To be successful it must be focused and coordinated. We therefore need a few ground rules to ensure maximum impact. Here are my suggestions.

1) Only ever write to the chairman of the company concerned.
2) Start every letter/email by saying that you are writing to help them provide a better service.
3) Keep it short. Only state the simple facts and the outcome that you want.
4) Never be rude or complaining
5) Try to praise any good bits about their company that you like.
6) If the chairman does not answer directly and you are not happy with the results from their staff contact the chairman again and tell him in polite terms.
7) When the situation is resolved write and thank the chairman along with any of their key staff that helped resolve the situation.
8) Keep copies of all correspondence and records of times and contact names.

Here comes the good bit. The best and worse responses are then published by Insightexec and distributed to the national press in Press releases.

Now that would put the Customer Management Community on the map.

Kind Regards

Malcolm Wicks

email: [email protected]

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By dbarratt
06th Dec 2004 22:57

Quite a few large Australian institutions are now using offshore Call Centres making this problem even worse.

Phonetic keying, mis-keying into wrong fields etc. abound.

While the technology maybe first-class, state of the art, the single-minded focus on the regard for the individual customer is easily lost.

Perhaps if operatives regarded entry of personal details as 'building their Christmas card list', we may see an improvement. Then again, I have to ask the question, "What are their Managers doing!?"

I truly believe that companies who re-capture the 'corner store' approach to customer service will reap the benefits in retention and referred business in 2005 and beyond. The days of selling at people are over.

Top article Stuart...thanks.

David Barratt
Adelaide, Australia

email: [email protected]

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By ta_jones01
08th Dec 2004 14:52

I thought Malcolm's suggestion was great, with a lovely sting in the tail. I have a similar problem with my address since the post code database doesn't actually recognise it exists, which means that the postman/woman has to work extra hard to get mail to us (but they usually succeed). I tried asking the post office to correct it but they said my local council had to request this...But you're right Stuart, it all takes effort which we find hard to make time for.

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By Jenny Howell
08th Dec 2004 17:01

I used to work for a bank but have to admit that that hasn't enhanced my customer experiences in using their services nor has it made me any more sympathetic!

I'm thinking about resurrecting the idea of 'Customer Experience Anecdotes' on this site as a way for everyone to contribute both good and bad stories. I'd be very interested in hearing from anyone who'd like to contribute a tale of praise or woe (libellous implications considered, no-names mentioned where applicable etc etc) on a one-off basis or on a regular basis.

Free free to get in touch,

Kind regards

Community Manager
Customer Management Community
Email me

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By Stuart Lauchlan
08th Dec 2004 17:29 an interesting idea. I tried that once. But because my home address and my work address are the same, the person I spoke to said I couldn't proceed any further - because I didn't have a work address! She wouldn't be moved on the subject. Perhaps First Direct has improved since then but the girl in the call centre didn't seem ready to deviate from her prompt script on that occasion.

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