It was jolly reassuring to learn from Ana BotÃn, the UK chief executive of Santander, in her interview with the Guardian recently, that her bank has turned the corner in customer service standards and is no longer the worst in Britain: because from where I sat â€“ fuming â€“ as an ordinary customer, you could have fooled me. No wonder the bank not only has a customer complaints department but, as I gradually learned, a separate escalated complaints department. And, if you reach that far and are persistent enough, an executive complaints team.
They certainly need it. As one of them explained: “We’re all terribly busy here.” I think I could hum the bank’s jaunty holding jingle backwards because I heard it so often and if one more customer services person had said cheerily: “No problem”, when I’d just outlined precisely what the problem was, I’d have screamed. Every time I rang, I got a different adviser. Every day they were going to call me back, but somehow they never did: so thank you Sharzia, Mohammad, Graham, Asher, Adam and several others: lots of no problems, no solutions.
My wife and I became customers of the bank by default rather than choice when it took over Abbey National where we had our mortgage, but it wasn’t really until this year that we fell into the toils of its bureaucracy. When I took voluntary redundancy after 22 years at the Guardian in March and received a large, but unfortunately one-off, payment into our current account we asked our branch if we could move it to a interest-bearing deposit account while withdrawing a sum each month for regular standing order payments.
It seemed a simple enough request, as Santander regularly bombards customers with a bewildering array of special offers. So we blithely dropped into our branch to see a misnamed customer service adviser who sucked his young teeth and said ooh no, they didn’t offer anything like that. He had the good grace to look apologetic but added no bank would do such a thing. There was no alternative: the money could either sit in our current account earning the bank interest and us none, or we could set up a savings account and dip into it once a year.
We were somewhat peeved by this and walked out into the rain. Seeking shelter, we decided to try the next bank along the street, just to see whether they might offer us what we wanted. That bank was HSBC â€“ yes, I know about the money laundering now, but we didn’t then. Their adviser said of course they could. They were rather baffled that Santander wouldn’t.
So we took the plunge and decided to move banks. It’s supposed to be straightforward, right? You sign the forms, they’re forwarded to the other bank and the deed is done. Not if the bank is Santander, it’s not. The forms were signed and sent by HSBC on 8 June but it took nine weeks, 62 days, to close the account. The forms were sent to Santander’s closure department not once, not twice, not three times, but four â€“ five if you count the top copy hand-delivered by our HSBC manager to our old branch down the road.
I started by speaking twice to the local branch (“Nothing to do with us. We can’t help you. That’s all done centrallyâ€¦”) then, as days turned to weeks, then months, to a succession of customer complaints people who all clucked and expressed sympathy before saying things like: “moving forwardâ€¦” and telling me that they hadn’t a clue when the bank would get down to dealing with my request. “Could take a week,” one of them mused brightly, a month in.
They took out a formal complaint on my behalf and wrote to me about it, twice â€“ the second time to tell me that they had not quite got to the bottom of the matter but would let me know when they did. “High-quality customer service is of great importance to us and we will do everything we can to resolve your complaint in a timely and satisfactory manner,” wrote the business manager: complaints department, in a duplicated letter. One adviser told me that, if I really wanted to get my money, I could go into the branch, withdraw it all and then take it round to HSBC myself, for which privilege Santander would only charge me Â£25. How long have you been dealing with this, she asked. I totted it up in my head: how long listening to the automatic options, the bland background music, the advisers telling me they hadn’t a clue, the sorreees, the no problems, the we’ll-get-someone-to-get-back-to-yous: three hours? Four?
We actually had three Santander accounts: a current account, to receive my salary and for day-to-day spending, a second account into which we transferred a lump sum each month to pay our standing orders and a new account for my freelance business. HSBC sent all three transfer forms at the same time and one â€“ for the standing orders account â€“ was activated immediately: so the error must have been at Santander’s end. They just didn’t bother to do the rest.
Several weeks in, the manageress of the local branch rang. She gathered I had a complaint and said she wanted to address it herself. “I bet you didn’t expect the branch manager to ring you,” she added chirpily. “It’s all part of our commitment to customer service.” Then she said she don’t know why we were told Santander didn’t offer a deposit account allowing regular withdrawals, because they do. I don’t suppose I can tempt you back? she enquired hopefully.
Seven weeks in and two letters arrived, written 10 and 11 days previously, from a business manager in Bradford and a manager of business banking in Bootle. They said we had to supply identification to close our accounts. If they didn’t get it within 30 days they’d keep our accounts. By then, it had only taken 49 days to let us know this. No one had bothered to mention it before. No one in customer services seemed to have known, nor anyone in our branch. Nor had anyone written from the closures department before to advise us it was necessary. Nor did they require ID in order to terminate the account they had managed to close. If photocopies of our driving licences were all that was needed, you’d have thought that someone might just have mentioned it. It would have saved us all hours of wasted time.
At last, after asking Santander’s press office to respond to my problems with a comment for this article, the bank’s executive complaints department promised the accounts would be closed and the money transferred. Two days later, they called again. My business account was closed and the money transferred. Only one small problem: they’d sent it twice, so could they have their money back please?
Then, brrring, brrring: it’s Jyoti from the executive complaints team again. Could we send a copy of our latest HSBC bank statement please? Why? What is my new account to do with them? Oh well, they will accept yet another copy of the HSBC transfer request as proof the account exists â€“ as if I’d have wasted all this time for a joke.
Half an hour later, another call. “Hello. It’s Jyoti again. Did HSBC offer you an inducement to change accounts?” No, I said, they did not need to. No inducement was ever necessary to get us out of Santander.
In the end, Santander gave me Â£204 for lost interest and Â£200 compensation to cover the aggravation â€“ though I had to ask for it.
Santander says â€¦
“It’s really disappointing to read Mr Bates’s story. When he first inquired in branch, Mr Bates should have been offered a 123 current account which pays cashback on household bills and interest on balances. As Ana BotÃn said in her interview with the Guardian last month, getting customer service right is our top priority and the switching service we offer our customers is a key part of this. Mr Bates’s case highlights that there’s still work to be done and his feedback will be used in further staff training.”