Saturday, September 04, 2010

Banking on the Chairman

A few years ago I was unhappy with Lloyds Bank so I wrote their Chairman, Maarten van den Berg, a letter.

Dear Maarten

Surely it's impossible that there should be a run on Lloyds Bank. After all, with 2002 interim results for the Lloyds TSB Group showing a total income increasing by 4% to £4,911 million and operating expenses falling by 1%, this must be a healthy business, right?

And yet, one has to wonder just how these results are achieved. Sometimes it pays to look at the fine detail: the bank in microcosm; the anecdotal evidence; the holistic approach; the 360 degree input.

For example, a friend who has banked at Lloyds for decades mentioned to me recently how unhelpful her local branch in Wokingham has become. I wondered whether this was just one of those things that happens in big organisations until last week when I wanted to deal with my local branch.

Now, I am sure you are a busy man, but I do need your attention to the fine detail here. Eight years ago when my wife and I came to the UK we opened an account at your Basingstoke in the Basingstoke Mall as we were both working in Basingstoke. Some time later we wanted to put share certificates and Ernie bonds into safe deposit. There weren't any safe deposit facilities apparently in our local branch but we were told that if we walked 200 yards up the road to the Winchester Street branch they could help us and we did and they did.

Matters rested there for some time. Life moved on. My wife's job moved her to Hursley (not far from Southampton) and I now work in Bracknell.

We decided to withdraw the documents and share certificates from safety deposit and sell them to pay down our mortgage. I'd guess that the value of these shares and bonds is £40,000, which for someone in your position is doubtless a trifle but means quite a lot to us. So on Saturday 21st September we drove into Basingstoke and called in to the Winchester Street branch of Lloyds TSB to get our documents out of safe deposit.

We were a little surprised to find that the branch office was closed. Basingstoke is not exactly a booming city, but it is a good-sized town and the streets were packed with shoppers. We decided to walk the 200 yards down the road to the Basingstoke Mall branch and found it open. I noticed a counter labelled "Customer Service" and my dearly-beloved wife (not the grumpy one who has the temperament of a bad-tempered Rottweiler with a hangover) explained the situation.

Now you know what comes next, don't you? You're sitting in your executive leather chair reading this letter and thinking "Oh, dear. This is where they tell me that the person behind the counter gave them the verbal equivalent of the one-fingered salute."

You could not be more wrong.

The gentleman we spoke to was polite, pleasant and helpful. He confirmed our observation that the Winchester Branch was closed on Saturdays. We pointed out to him that as we now work many, many miles from Basingstoke, coming in to collect the documents during the week was not practical. He understood at once; he is clearly bright and helpful and trying to offer good service to customers. He said that if we wrote him a letter at the branch in Winchester Street, where he normally works, he would arrange for the documents to be available the following Saturday in the Basingstoke Mall branch. Coming back the following week was not really convenient and, given we have a mortgage that charges interest on a daily balance, was going to cost us some money but on the other hand I could understand that he could not open the branch especially for us. So we agreed to write a letter, which I did that evening, posting it off first class on Monday 23rd September.

Yesterday, Saturday 28th September, armed with our passports as proof of identity, my wife and I toddled into Basingstoke Mall Branch. The lady behind the counter seemed a little pre-occupied with paperwork and I wondered briefly why she should prefer paperwork to dealing with customers. The answer was not long in coming. Eventually she looked up and asked if she could help us and we explained the situation.

It deeply grieves me to tell you that she was immediately, emphatically and unambiguously unhelpful. She started by crossly telling us that the person we'd spoken to the the previous week was wrong and had no right to tell us that we could collect our safe deposit from the Mall Branch. It was "impossible". I suddenly had a flashback to when I was a small child at school and a bossy headmistress ticked me off for making a mistake. There may be times when making someone crawl with embarrassment and feel an idiot are useful talents to have, but I am not convinced that these ideal qualities in someone who works in customer "service". I also don't see how this correlates with Lloyds TSB's Strategic Aim (as stated in Peter Ellwood's [the MD] briefing to analysts) of "customer value creation, customer trust". However, that presentation was done way back in August and it's a full month later so possibly customer trust is no longer strategic.

But I digress. I will spare you the painful details and leave you with my impressions. In my view this young lady was obnoxious and unhelpful. Some might even say rude. When I explained our difficulty in getting to the Winchester Street Branch during the week her response was not supportive but simply to restate that in no circumstances whatsoever would it be possible to collect our documents from the Basingstoke Mall branch. My dearly beloved wife was at my side, but I did fear that the Rottweiler might appear at any moment, so I sent her off to buy a knife.

In retrospect, that may have been a mistake.

However, all I can say in my defence is that we really do need a new, sharp kitchen knife. Oh, and that these do not appear to be for sale in Basingstoke. While my dearly beloved was away, I tried to reason with this customer service employee. I asked that since she said it was impossible for documents to be made available in the Basingstoke Mall branch and my wife and I work many tens of miles away, what did she suggest as a solution? I tried this question a few times in different forms but each time she just pointed out that it was quite impossible for us to collect the documents from the Basingstoke Mall. She must have thought that I was very dim, since she repeated this, with variations, several times. We would have to, she said, go to the Winchester Street branch during the week to collect the documents. My wife and I are both senior professionals in the IT business and our time is typically charged out at high rates. I asked whether Lloyds would be prepared to recompense us for taking off several hours to make this journey and she said it would be up to the manager.

I then asked to see the manager. She said she would check and then came back a few minutes later to say (with what I thought was satisfaction but cannot swear to it) that the manager was busy and would be for at least an hour, as he had a prior appointment. I asked about the manager's manager (since I needed to be in Reading at about the time the manager would be free) and I was told that he did not work on Saturdays. Nor does the manager's manager's manager. I certainly wouldn't want to face customers who had been given the psychological going over by customer service, if my experience with this lady is anything to go by.

I am sure you will be glad to know that she won. En route to her famous victory, she explained that there was no safe way for Lloyds to transfer these valuable pieces of paper from one branch to another. I wondered how Lloyds managed to transfer other valuable pieces of paper (in the form of £5, £10, £20 and £50 notes) thousands of time every day. Is it not done safely?

I walked out of the branch defeated. It did occur to me to stand in the middle of the branch and explain to the other customers the situation, namely 
  • several years ago I made a valuable deposit at Lloyds and 
  • when I want to withdraw it they find that this is "impossible" 
  • Lloyds own representative has stated that your bank does not have the ability to transfer valuables safely over short distances. 
Then I realised that such suggestions might well cause a dramatic loss of confidence and a run on the bank that might be seen as unreasonable. It seemed to me to be far better to check with you (and who better than you?) that Lloyds is indeed a safe place to bank, that Lloyds will looks after my cash and valuables and - just as important - will return them to me when I need them. I am glad that Lloyds is profitable. I do wonder whether it might be worthwhile spending just a tad more on staff training or recruitment. But most of all, I would like to see two things from you.
  1. A letter of apology 
  2. A workable suggestion on how you will get the papers that I have in safe custody at your branch in Winchester Street returned to me in good time. Time, in this case, really is money. I am sure that you reached your senior position by being competent and so I am sure it is not beyond your competence to get these papers to either myself or my wife by the end of this week. 
As Peter Ellwood [MD] pointed out in his analyst briefing, 2002 was a challenging year because of (among other things) "low consumer confidence in financial markets and services". Here's your chance to start to turn the tide. Good luck!

The letter was posted at the weekend, first class.

Two days later I received a phone call from my Lloyds bank manager. He explained that my letter had been "very effective" and asked when it would be convenient from him to visit us at home and deliver the papers. True to his word, he arrived with them the following evening (and may I say what a pleasant person he was).

Maarten van den Berg is no longer chairman of Lloyds but I have to say how impressed I was with the speed at which Lloyds fixed things up.  Every large organisation gets things wrong from time to time: I wish most other large organisations were as fast in fixing their errors.

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