Julian Knight: 'Your call is not important to us'

Pity poor customer services – we're all trapped in phone hell

I actually feel sorry for some bank, building society and insurance customer service departments. They are at the bottom of the corporate food chain, usually desperately under-resourced, seen as an expense in organisations focused solely on the bottom line, having to execute policies decided upon elsewhere by soulless bean-counters.

To add to this, they have to stay tethered to a phone all day while being snooped on by supervisors and often shouted at by customers, many of whom could do with a sharp course in manners.

Modern customer services are a dehumanising experience – an exercise in ultimate frustration for all concerned. From the automated hold messages ("Your call is important to us, please continue to wait") to the lack of power held by the person answering the call. Whenever I've lost my rag, I haven't felt a catharsis, just shame. Yet banks, building societies and insurers in their massive, faceless way push us into this misery, often charging us several pence a minute for the privilege.

But these departments are busier than ever, with figures from the Financial Services Authority showing that complaints have been steadily rising over the past couple of years. There are lots of reasons for this – greater awareness of the right to complain, mis-selling of payment protection insurance and the consumer rebellion over unfair bank charges, to name but a few. What we don't know is precisely who are the worst offenders because the FSA only releases sector-wide information. So I don't know, for example, how many complaints NatWest has received, but I do know how many UK banks attract in total (and that's a colossal figure). All in all, this data in its present form is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.

The FSA plans to start releasing data about individual firms next year and it's likely that banks, building societies and insurers will have to make this available on their websites. However, there are lots of ways firms can hide unpleasant information on a site. The FSA needs to go further, and ensure that every firm publishes its data against agreed industry averages on its home page – so customers can see whether the firm is good or bad against its peers. What's more, average amounts of redress need to be shown, so when customers receive compensation offers they can gauge better whether the financial firm is holding back on them.

In an ideal world, greater transparency of complaint handling would lead to firms genuinely competing over customer-service standards. And you never know, life may even become more pleasant for people working in their call-centres.

Forget the phoney war

As Chiara Cavaglieri reports on page 85, HSBC's headline-grabbing 1.99 per cent mortgage offer doesn't herald – as some have hysterically reported – a new price war in home loans. In fact, the thawing of the mortgage market is very gradual and any supposed recovery in the housing market tentative and fragile. HSBC's offer is more phoney war than price war.

But in one area of personal finance there is a glimmer of growing competition and that's current accounts. This week, Santander will offer people switching to an Abbey or Alliance & Leicester current account a £100 incentive. Santander has major ambitions of course – a place in the big-four UK high-street banks no less – and sees grabbing more current account business as crucial to this. This flies in the face of a lot of bank's, and building societies', attitudes to current accounts – namely that they'd like to stop paying interest on credit balances at the very least, and, if they can, make us pay for something which we've had for free for years.

HSBC and First Direct have been in the forefront of this, scrapping credit interest and, in the former's case, pushing so-called packaged current accounts – where you pay a monthly fee in return for add-on services. But Santander's aggressive approach shows that some institutions still value your current-account business. Perhaps the slide to fee-charging current accounts which bankers threatened us with at the height of the anti-bank-charges campaign a couple of years ago isn't such a foregone conclusion.

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