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Brilliant basics are essential for good service: a case study of banking failure

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Is the key to banking customer service being “socially useful?”

This was the question posed in 2012 by the newly appointed Chief Executive of one of the UK’s leading – and most complained about – banks, Barclays.

BBC News (4/10/12) reported Mr. Antony Jenkins as saying "I do believe that Barclays has a significant job to rebuild trust - but I'm also confident that we can," Mr. Jenkins is reported as saying "It goes back to what we do: if we serve customers and clients in a way that is socially useful, then we will rebuild that trust."

I have some news for Mr. Jenkins. It’s not a battle with social usefulness that lies at the heart of problems with customer trust. It’s more likely to be a lack of performance in the basic essentials of delivering a competent banking service.

Forget social humble pie as a route to mitigating Barclays culpability in the LIBOR rate fiasco, try repeating “brilliant basics” until the concept has hit home.

A harsh assessment? Let’s use a recent complaint from my own experience to illustrate why "brilliant basics" matter in customer service, and why Barclays are missing the mark on the simple stuff.

A working business process • the basic requirement for customer service

When I formed Price Perrott in the UK in 2007, the company registration agents set up my business bank account for me with Barclays. I received what I can only imagine is a typical service provided to new businesses joining the bank.

I received a cheque book in my company name as part of this package. Well, nearly in my company name – there was a spelling error. I phoned and corrected it. Lo and behold, a few days later, another cheque book arrived.

This one had another different name. Thing is, it still wasn’t actually my company’s trading name. I tried again, only to have the same experience.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Albert Einstein

Perhaps the debit card process would be better? A debit card arrived with a slightly different company name – both from my actual company name and the two names received in the cheque books sent so far.

This was fun. I started doing anagrams of my company name to see just how many combinations Barclays would go through, and what the chance was of next week's arrival in the post being right.

A quick bit of probability theory told me there was around a 1 in 766 sextillion chance of Barclays randomly arranging the letters in my company name into the correct order on a cheque book. Given that the virtual monkeys existing in the cloud who are generating the works of Shakespeare have only got 99.99% there, I decided not to wait and see.

I did, however, go and buy a lottery ticket as that looked like quite a good bet at 1 in 10 billion, compared to the odds of the bank getting my details right on a cheque book.

Funnily enough, I didn’t win on either count. The following week yet another random combination of bank card and cheque book arrived.

Of particular amusement was the leaflet enclosed about the risks of identity theft. “You’ll be lucky,” I thought – any criminal stealing my post hasn’t got a hope of matching the right debit card and pin number to the cheque book they've nicked.

Enough was enough. I called the contact centre to put a stop to the weekly arrival of a differently named cheque book and credit card. A chap apologised profusely and said he’d stop the cheque books immediately.

And the credit cards? “Oh, that’s not our department sir, you’ll need to call someone in cards, but I can give you their number.”

Brilliant basics lesson 1

Services need to meet the customer's basic needs. In the event of a problem, empower agents to solve the problem, not pass it back to the customer.

How did I feel about this standard of service?

I remained with Barclays precisely up until the point they started trying to charge me a monthly fee. I shopped around and moved my business elsewhere. In fact, I did exactly what behavioural research [1] says a dissatisfied customer is likely to do.

Service dissatisfaction is a predictor of customer switching.

Brilliant basics lesson 2

Poor services leads to customer switching. If you don't resolve the issues, customers will engage in "negative word of mouth" and tell people about their experience.

You may think this is the end of the story, my business having safely escaped the clutches of Barclays Bank and being happily serviced by Standard Life. For a few blissful years, I can say this was the case. Relatively decent business savings interest rates, with smooth and efficient online account management I could access anywhere in the world.

But in the same way that the Grim Reaper and the tax man always appear on the horizon with inescapable certainty, there seems to be no escape from Barclays Bank either. They went and bought Standard Life business savings.

I convinced myself that the intervening four years must have resulted in someone realising the random chequebook service wasn’t a core banking requirement.

I even believed their cheery letter about the excellent service I was about to receive. I was going to give them a second chance.

Brilliant basics lesson 3

Unless you make process improvements, no processes will be improved.

My new found optimism in Barclays naturally came to a crashing halt at the first interaction, with a truly spectacular demonstration of how to mishandle a customer’s financial business. Clearly no process improvement had happened in the intervening period!
For reasons of brevity, I shall summarise this latest fiasco in a few short bullets, as I’m sure you’ll have the gist of things by now:

  • My accounts were transferred from Standard Life, not to me, but to a random person of the same surname with whom I have no connection.
  • It appears Barclays had graduated in the last four years from generating random names on a chequebook to a fully fledged “reassigning your account details randomly to people who happen to have the same surname as you” service. Close, but no cigar.
  • A failure to follow a simple and perfectly authorised transfer instruction by the contact centre followed. At least they'd figured out I was me and my funds were mine, but I still couldn’t get at my funds. Given my historic experience as a “valued customer” four years ago, I felt a week was a long time in banking with Barclays. I didn't want to take a chance of what they were going to do next week and I simply didn't trust them with my money any more!
  • To their absolute credit, Barclays complaints department responded (eventually) with an excellent letter addressing each point of my complaint in turn. They even offered a small amount of compensation.
  • This blog should have been about how Barclays did a great job with my complaint and sorting out an unholy mess of their own creation.
Instead, defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory! Having returned my complaint acknowledgement asking for an electronic transfer to my bank account with HSBC instead of a cheque, the reply duly arrived a week later:

“I’m sorry, we’re unable to make a bank transfer to an account outside of Barclays. Please tell us where we can send you a cheque instead.”

Seriously? One of the world's largest banks can't transfer funds to another bank electronically? Funny, you managed to do it last week, so for "unable" I should really read "unwilling."

By now, nothing was a surprise.

Brilliant basics lesson 4

The customer doesn't care about your internal procedures. Working processes need to be followed and broken processes fixed. Refusing to do something the customer has already experienced only a week before makes you look incompetent.

My message to Mr Jenkins, newly appointed as Chief Executive of Barclays was simple. Socially responsible banking is a great idea and every Chief Executive must have a vision.

If the last four years of my personal experiences with Barclays are an illustration of the pace of “improvements”, you need to invest in a few more virtual monkeys and a whole bunch of typewriters.

Focus on doing what the customer needs, when they need it, in the way they need it and you’re onto a winner. 93% of First Direct customers recommend them for a reason, so this proves some banks can get it right.

After six weeks, the promised compensation cheque still hadn't arrived, so I went to their website to raise another complaint.

"We're sorry, our online banking service is unavailable at the moment" was the message I received.

As they say, timing is everything!


  1. Bougie et al, 2003, Angry Customers don't Come Back, They Get Back: The Experience and Behavioral Implications of Anger and Dissatisfaction in Services. Evaluation, 31(4), pp.377–393.


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