Never bank on competent service

Citibank is doing wonderful things with the internet. I recently became a customer when I discovered it was offering incredible online service, notably with its foreign currency accounts. You can keep a pound sterling account and alongside it a euro and a dollar account.

Money can be instantly converted from one currency to another, at very competitive rates, and moved instantly from one account to another – all thanks to a very well-designed website. So, it’s adios, ciao, au revoir and seeya to all those off-line currency rip-off merchants.

Citibank backs up this online slickness with very professional customer service, both in its call centres and branches.

How very disappointing, then, to receive a letter the other day telling me that the bank’s terms and conditions had been changed. The key paragraph was all about Citibank’s growing desire to cross-sell. As a customer I was now automatically agreeing to receive communications via text message, telephone, e-mail, fax and, of course, good old-fashioned snail mail.

But what if I chose not to receive this bounty of marketing messages? Then I must write – as in snail mail only – to the bank’s ‘data protection officer’.

Hmm. Very interesting. Citibank is free to use the full armoury of 21st-century communications, but I must write a letter, pay money for ink, paper, envelope and stamp, and spend my precious time in the process. All this in order to kindly request that Citibank does not do something, rather than for any obvious benefit.

A ludicrous situation, I’m sure you’ll agree. Such behaviour is an unpleasant reminder of 20th-century marketing, where the consumer has plenty of choice – about which way they want to be screwed. Wake up, Citibank!

Meanwhile, my main bank, Lloyds TSB, has also been doing a pretty good job online, which is just as well since its branches are a pitiful sight and the experiences with its call centres painful. Witness the following exchange with a Lloyds call-centre handler the other day:

Me: I’d like to warn my local branch that I’ll be making a bigger deposit than usual. In the past, they have had a tendency to treat me like some kind of major money launderer.

Her: OK, what is the branch address?

Me: Borough High Street, London SE1.

Her: [Long … long … pause]

Me: Hello?

Her: Sorry, I can’t find it on the system.

We then enter some kind of tragi-comic farce, with ‘the system’ unable to recognise one of its own. Finally, I type ‘Lloyds’+ ‘Borough’ into Google and – hey presto – the first result is said bank’s address and telephone number.

Laugh or cry? Or stare into the middle distance, dumbfounded by such unutterable incompetence.

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