Saturday, 11 July 2009

Beware of The Glossy Adverts

I love a good advert and my bank uses the one with a small child saying goodbye to its pet iguana or something as the family has to move - then sees the same pet in the new house in San Francisco or somewhere. Details are hazy but you know the one.

HSBC. Don't get me wrong, 90% of the time they are fine. In fact I run 90% of my business banking on the internet and so I rarely have to speak to anyone and only go to the Bank to get cash. The HSBC Internet Banking service is pretty good - I can set up new suppliers and pay them easily and I can transfer money to my private account for wages and expenses instantly. It isn't as reliable as it should be and there have been several times of late, annoyingly at month end, when the portal has been down. But, again, 90% of the time it's fine and meets my expectations.

As so often is the case, it is when you have to deal with human beings when things start to go wrong. Last month I was on a business trip to Valencia (lovely city by the way) and I had stayed at a Hilton Hotel there. So I checked out and paid my bill with my business card and then met a potential client in the restaurant for lunch. I tried to pay the bill and my business card was refused. The lady thought there may be a fault with the machine and so I counted out the last of my cash and paid. It was a very unimpressive sight for my potential client who has since declined to do business with me although it would be a stretch to say because of that incident but it certainly gave no real confidence that he was dealing with a guy from the UK with sound backing. The hammer blow came as we walked through reception as the cashier told me there was a problem with my bill payment. I bade farewell to my potential client, who by this time probably thought I was a serial crook, and tried to sort things out. It appeared that my bank had tried to take the money on the card twice. They ascertained that the bill looked as it was paid and all was well.

A short while later, I tried to fill up the hire car with fuel and pay with my card. Again it was refused. This time I had to use a private card as I had no cash left. Meanwhile, the hotel had tried to call me again and had left a message on my mobile that they were not sure if the bill was paid correctly and suddenly I was panicking. I was in a foreign country, my business card had failed and I had a very big hotel bill outstanding, no cash and only a private card left which was close to its limit.

That's when the fight started, so they say. I called the HSBC customer support line and was routed to somewhere very foreign and to someone who got completely the wrong end of the stick. They thought this was a private card and could not relate it to my business, firstly. Secondly, they told me that they had put me on security hold as the Hilton Hotel had tried to take the payment twice and so looked fraudulent. We had an esoteric discussion of who Hilton Hotels were and how hotels take a pre-authorisation for the approximate amount beforehand, and whether this constituted fraudulent behaviour. I also pointed out that I had stayed at the exact same hotel some weeks earlier and spent a similar amount of money. I had bought air tickets and car hire in Valencia before. As they wanted me to 'heads up' where I am going on business, I told them if they observed my account they would have noticed that I had travelled to Spain at least 5 times in the last few months, Sweden twice, Italy 3 times, France 5 times, Denmark, and Germany. The pattern of my spending would have indicated that I was likely to be on business again and so the Hilton transaction would have made sense.

But sense and logic does not come into it. The block was finally removed and I asked for a manager to call me so that we could understand each other. No such call came although my 'Personal Banking Relationship Manager' did try to call on my home phone in business hours when I was in Sweden and quite how she was involved, I don't know.

The whole thing seemed to have subsided. Then a week or so before the end of June, I got several notices from online suppliers that my card details were due to expire - fairly important suppliers for my online back up, web hosting, email hosting, business travel booking and anti-virus software, all of which were due to be renewed in the final month of my fiscal year, July. I checked the card and it was due to expire at the end of July so I thought I would check this was ok. I went to my HSBC branch and had a short meeting with a Business Banking executive who called card services and everyone reassured me that my card was good for all July and the new one would be sent at the end of July. I also asked about why a manager had not contacted me and they said it would be looked into. No call has been received since.

Inevitably, the card was refused on 1 July by my online suppliers and I had the nasty situation of online backups stopping, and my web services about to be withdrawn. I called HSBC who said all the suppliers were wrong which I informed them did not actually help resolve the situation. The new card was due at the end of the month and that was that.

Business Cards are vital for cashflow in my small business. I book all my travel through Expedia who also indicated my card was dead, and many of my suppliers are paid that way as they do not give me a credit account - my card becomes that credit line. So to be denied it when I had a business strip to Sweden, South Africa and Germany coming up, was crippling as well as for other suppliers - I could be defaulting on payments which would look very bad on a small business.

So I got angry. I made my first futile gesture - I tried to call a manager. Managers at HSBC, like many firms to be fair, do not take calls. That is what the call centre does. Escalation is via email and managers do not speak to customers. I have no idea whether the HSBC CEO, Paul Thurston, thinks that is good business practice but he ought to try talking to a call centre when he gets involved with a supplier letting his business down. Of course, it is different for small businesses - if I were a sprawling corporation I would have an account manager, golf days and rugby tickets plus a bat phone to someone who gives a damn.
But small businesses are nobodies, just profit machines as we pay for everything we use.

So having been thwarted by the lunacy of invisible, deaf and dumb managers, I had to listen to the pathetic attempts to put things right. The one thing everyone agreed upon was to not issue a new card and cancel the card about to be sent as this would automatically cancel the current card which could still be used in retail outlets. So my only recourse was to wait for the new card and somehow manage my suppliers in my final month of the year.

Then I took a potential new client to lunch last week and my card was refused. I tried to make light of the situation but his comment floored me as he said, 'I am sure times are hard for small businesses.' It was bye, bye to a £50k project as he subsequently went with a larger firm for his services.

I called HSBC to find why they had done the one thing they had said they would NOT do, which was to send out a new card immediately and cancel the current one. They even compounded it all by lying - they said the new card had been sent the week before. Spookily, it never arrived, so what had actually happened was that someone simply cancelled the old card.

Where that leaves me is with a mass of suppliers awaiting their payment, no ability to book travel and run my expenses unless I do it on my private card and have another battle with HMRC as to whether my expenses are for private consumption or business and lose out.

HSBC, still no sign of any manager to speak to, called and even offered a derisory £100 as a 'goodwill' gesture to stop me taking this to the Banking Ombudsman. They warned that the Banking Ombudsman does not recognise the time I have lost in trying to sort this out when I cannot do billable work for clients and so will offer nothing for it.

And there's the rub. Until banks get hurt by their stupidity in the real world, then they will never do anything about it.

HSBC has a lot going for it - it is a good bank for most things. But when it lets customers down, there must be a way to get things done properly, quickly and without all this rubbish about call centres. Managers must get involved and get mobilised, make calls and really own issues and do the things that not only solve the problems but reassure the customers that a) they care and b) they have access, should they need it, to people who can get problems solved.

Banks and so many other companies employ this whole defence mechanism which shields managers from the real issues businesses face and it is because they are more interested in the make -believe profits of the investment world rather than the bread and butter customers who yield the only sustainable profits they make. That's why when they cut jobs after making billions of losses in the investment sector it is always at the customer facing end.

I don't know if I have the time and inclination to either fight HSBC on this or to take it to the Banking Ombudsman but it really galls me that banks have so little focus on customer service.

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