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

    Recruitment Genius: Financial Adviser

    £20000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you recently QCA Level 4 qu...

    SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

    £20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

    Guru Careers: Application Support Analyst / 1st Line Support

    £25 - 30k: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Application Support Analyst / 1st L...

    Guru Careers: .NET Developer / Web Developer

    £45K - £55K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a full stack .NET D...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence