Swamped by call centre complaints

Readers have inundated The Independent Save & Spend office with complaints about service at call centres run by HBOS, the Halifax and Bank of Scotland group. This is particularly embarrassing for HBOS, which wants to use centres to dent the market domination of the Big Four banks.

David Flynn, of Reading, says: "I telephoned the HBOS call centre for my 87-year-old widowed mother, whose misfortune it was to have savings in a Liquid Gold account paying 0.10 per cent interest. I wanted to know why the bank had not advised her of an alternative to the Liquid Gold account and what those could be so she should get a better rate of return.

"The call-centre individual was dismissive and said nobody from HBOS had forced my mother to invest with them. With alternative accounts, he said we must visit the local branch to discuss this with them. I said that was not convenient because my mother was staying with me 200 miles away. To my amazement, he said they were a paperless bank and could not send literature out, and enquiries of this nature could be dealt with only at branch-level in person. When I suggested this was twaddle and no way to treat a long- standing customer he accused me of being abusive and put the phone down on me. My mother has withdrawn her funds from HBOS and found a better home for them."

After being contacted by The Independent, a spokes-man for the Halifax wrote to Mr Flynn. "I share your concern about the attitude of my colleague at our call centre, and I am sorry for the impression created. Clearly, we should have handled your enquiry in a more professional manner. I have asked the manager of the area concerned to review customer service, as we have lessons to learn here."

Sadly for Halifax, this is not an isolated complaint. Vee Teasdale, of Lancaster, thought had a mortgage advance of £25,000 approved but was unable to access it, as she had arranged, through a call centre. "The branch staff couldn't have been more helpful and were as frustrated by the situation as I was," she says. "Halifax call centres are inefficient."

And Annabelle Marshall says she was annoyed because Halifax's call centres are not customer-friendly, cutting people off if they accidentally input wrong information. In her case, the call centre had failed to put right a problem of Halifax's own making when it unintentionally prevented Mr and Mrs Marshall accessing their account.

Tim Brice, who works in Kuala Lumpur, is also irritated. "I have become so frustrated with the performance of the [Halifax] bank, and particularly its call centres, that I am closing all of my accounts with them," he wrote. "I have had times when I have been unable to get through to the call centres (continuously engaged or out-of-service tones). When I do get through there are long sequences of button-pushing required which often end in having to return to the beginning or hanging up and trying again. When I have managed to get through to a human I have been told, 'The system is down' and that they cannot help me."

After we forwarded a batch of readers' complaints, Shane O'Riordan, Halifax's general manager, said the number of criticisms had to be seen in the context of an annual throughput of more than 80 million calls a year. "Most of those calls are handled in a very efficient and professional manner," he says.

"We don't always get everything right. We do make mistakes. When we do, our objective is to correct those and solve the problem for our customers as soon as possible. In the cases The Independent has referred to us, we got things wrong and have been slow to put them right. Our customers deserved better and we are sorry for any inconvenience we may have caused them.

"We try to learn from our mistakes. We listen very carefully as well to what our customers have to say about our service. That feedback means we often make changes to our service or invest more money to get things right."

Halifax assures us its centres are being improved as a result of our readers' comments. The moral of this is, if you are still unhappy, keep complaining.

INFORMATION

* Banking Liaison Group 0845 65 85 100 www.bankexperts.co.uk

* British Bankers' Association www.bba.org.uk

* Consumers' Association www.switchwithwhich.co.uk

* National Association of Bank + Insurance Customers www.lemonaid.net

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