It is rare for me to write the words ‘customer service par excellence’ and ‘financial services’ in the same sentence. They are not natural bedfellows.
It is easy to ascertain why. Customer service has become an Achilles heel for many companies in the financial space, be they banks, insurance companies or utility providers.
In ‘industrialising’ the communication process, they have alienated many customers. As a result, calls have not been answered promptly, problems have not been solved satisfactorily and frustration has mounted. Reputations have slipped, sometimes plunged.
Over the years, some of the biggest mailbags I have received at The Mail on Sunday have been as a result of desultory customer service in the financial space.
Eight years ago, I was submerged by a barrage of complaints from former customers of Abbey, Bradford & Bingley and Alliance & Leicester as their bank and savings accounts were transferred to Spanish bank Santander. Accounts could not be accessed online or were frozen altogether.
Customers running accounts on behalf of elderly parents through an enduring or lasting power of attorney could not access funds to pay pressing nursing care fees. Complaints were bounced from one department to another, with customers becoming increasingly annoyed. Pandemonium.
I had readers crying down the phone in frustration at Santander’s shambolic service. To its credit, the bank dealt competently with the complaints I handed it – and paid compensation on top – but it should not have taken the intervention of a national newspaper to put things right.
More recently, in 2014 utility provider Scottish Power went into a similar customer service meltdown, resulting in another sackful of complaints coming my way. Again, calls were not being answered properly, billing errors were prolific and promises to correct mistakes were not fulfilled.
As with Santander, it upped its game as soon as The Mail on Sunday appeared on the scene, sorting out all customer problems we pushed its way. But it should never have allowed customer standards to deteriorate so alarmingly.
Firms grew but failed to invest in customer support
Recently it has been TSB’s turn to implode on the customer service front as a result of a botched-up computer switch. Accounts were frozen, bank payments were not made and branch staff were left in the dark unable to help angry customers. Worryingly, fraudsters exploited the chaos to clean out some customers’ accounts. An utter shambles.
I even came across a TSB customer – a delightful retired beekeeper – who the bank had deemed to be dead. It took a lot of persuading to convince TSB he was still very much alive and that his account should be unfrozen.
All three firms have common traits. Botched computer upgrades. Business models designed very much on generating new sales rather than nurturing existing customers and extending their relationships with them (through the purchase of more products). Businesses that got bigger but failed to invest in adequate customer support.
But there is a raft of other firms where customer service problems are all too common. Moneywise’s Customer Service Awards 2018 provides all the evidence you need. Bottom of the pile? Royal Bank of Scotland, followed by banks Vanquis and Co-operative.
You could argue that the march of the internet and the telephone into financial services, together with greater automation, has impaired customer service standards. But I do not think that argument stacks up. There are a number of companies that have embraced the internet and in the process are able to deliver customer service par excellence. Think bank First Direct. Think building society Nationwide.
At the end of the day, there are financial services firms that put the customer at the heart of their operations – the First Directs and the Nationwides of this world, as well as the likes of building societies Coventry and Cumberland, Metro Bank and countryside insurer NFU Mutual.
In my own personal finance affairs, customer service is a key issue. My bank account with Metro and an Isa with Hargreaves Lansdown are reflective of honing in on customer-focused financial providers. But sometimes I don’t get it right. Three UK, my home internet provider, proved a nightmare to deal with when my data allowance was breached. Promises made by its call centre to sort it out were unfulfilled. It was only when I went into a Three shop (now shut) and pleaded for help that it got sorted.
If you don’t receive good customer service, my message is: vote with your feet and go elsewhere.
JEFF PRESTRIDGE is the personal finance editor of The Mail on Sunday. He won the Contribution to Personal Finance Education category at the Santander Media Awards 2016. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.