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.

Independent Partners; Do you need financial advice on your investments, pension or insurance? Book a free consultation with an independent Financial Adviser at VouchedFor.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

    £20000 per annum + commission: SThree: Sthree have an exciting opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £32,000+

    £18000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

    £50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat