Friday 18 October 2019

Don't bank on getting a good service

'YOUR bank will do it for you," Shane Ross said. Now, we all know that my colleague Shane isn't exactly a fan of the banks: he castigates them at every opportunity. So if he said that my particular bank would be helpful, well, it was probably the least I could expect of them. Silly me. Silly Shane.

There was a few bob sitting in my bank account, you see, and I suddenly thought that having been allergic to the stock market all my life, I might try tasting it with Bank of Ireland shares which are at one hell of a bargain basement price at present. And if the few bob had been sitting around for ages, as it had, then I probably could afford to wait until the bank resolved its difficulties and started paying dividends again.

I've a few friends involved in that kind of world, but they are of the principled variety, and therefore wouldn't offer advice in the present crisis, so I telephoned Shane, former stockbroker, and definite outsider that he is. "Fine," he said a little dubiously. "If you don't need the money." I laughed hollowly but nonetheless asked him how I went about it? Did I just go into somewhere like Davy Stockbrokers off the street? I think the Senator couldn't quite believe just how ignorant I was; but it was then he told me that my own bank would do it for me. "In fact," he laughed, "they'll probably fall on your neck, given the current situation."

I can remember the 1987 crash, when my late mother took one hell of a beating on the market. It was entirely her own fault, mind you. When my father died in the mid-Eighties, I even had to show her how to write a cheque. But more or less drunk with the heady freedom of being in control of her own financial affairs, she began to play the market, rather than sticking with the gilt-edged stuff she'd inherited. (Mostly bank, now I come to think of it!)

Watching it dawn on her that, as the warning goes, investments can go down as well as up, was a salutary lesson for me as well as for her. And I've kept well away from all such institutions since.

Hence my need of a guiding hand last week.

Well, all buoyed up with Shane's advice, I telephoned my own branch of Bank of Ireland, where I've been a customer for more than 20 years (although I'm frequently asked for identification when I go in, which I find insulting in the extreme. But then, they don't even have the courtesy, in a small branch, to write and tell you when a new manager takes over.)

"I want to buy a few B of I shares," I carolled, giving my name, "and Shane Ross said you'd do it for me." That seemed to stump the woman who answered the phone, but she put me on hold for a while, before coming back and telling me that I'd have to do it through Davy Stockbrokers. She gave me their number. Interestingly enough, she didn't go through the usual palaver of asking for your lineage for five generations which they normally claim is a security measure. Obviously no security was needed if I was going to spend money with them.

I called Davy's, saying I had been given their details by my own branch of Bank of Ireland. I was greeted by what I can only describe as a snarl of "What's your Davy's account number?" "I haven't got one," I said. "You'll have to open one," she snapped impatiently. "Go online." I'd already lost all interest in buying BoI shares, but I went on line out of curiosity. My friends, you need a Master's degree in technology to navigate it all. And you don't really want me to tell you the contents of the letter I shot off to my branch manager: I wasn't a bit nice in what I said. And it isn't the first letter of complaint I've written, either.

Interestingly enough, I'd already had to lose my temper with the bank on the subject of investment. I kept getting cold calls from people who mumbled their names, identified themselves as being from the bank, and left a mobile number for me to return the call "as soon as possible".

When I did, I was told they'd been "reviewing" my account, and they would like to have a meeting with a view to attractive options they could offer me. In other words, they were trying to sell me things. I told them with great firmness I didn't want any more sales calls. They were "service calls", they said in wounded tones. Whatever they were, I said, I wasn't interested. They weren't to call again. Yes, they'd mark that on my file. Oh, yeah? Another temper tantrum was required before that intrusion stopped.

My dissatisfaction with the level of service began seriously some years ago when they lost a cheque for €6,000, which they telephoned in accusing terms to tell me that I hadn't enclosed with the lodgement slip. I'd have to hunt for it, and get back to them, they said. Twenty-four hours later, an assistant manager called, bursting with girlish laughter, to say I "could forget about it". They'd found it, slipped down behind a ledge. Hilarious, what? And obviously not a matter for apology. Certainly, I wasn't offered one. But then, €6,000 is chicken feed to anyone worth the bank's consideration, isn't it?

And then there's my Bank of Ireland hospital cash plan. It's a small insurance policy which pays out small sums for hospitalisation, and I've had it for quite a few years. This time last year, I had day surgery for a dislocated shoulder. (I slipped in the street.) I called Bank of Ireland and asked for a claim form. After five months, and hours on the phone both to them and the hospital, as well as (finally) another snotty letter, they came back and told me that because my hospitalisation had been as the result of an accident, I wasn't covered. Fine, but why did they not inform me of this when I first made the claim, which stated quite clearly that my "procedure" was the result of an accident. Mind you, they caused me so much hassle they won that particular battle: I've had day surgery on two occasions since, not the result of an accident. And they've beaten me: I haven't claimed.

Interestingly enough, several years ago they asked me to take part in a telephone survey on levels of service provided by the bank. There were special arrangements made for a time to call me, because this was serious and select stuff. It took about 25 minutes. And do you know what? The questions were framed so that it was actually impossible to say that I thought their service was lousy, inefficient and downright indifferent. It's one way of getting the result you want.

I've told them by letter in the past (in terms trenchant to the point of downright rudeness) that I would move my custom if I thought it would get me anywhere. But they know, as I know, as we all know, that things might improve at a different branch or even a different bank for a few months, before I slipped back to being one of those troublesome middle-earners who are more trouble than we're worth.

I don't really know what this story proves, if it proves anything at all. But it does show that the malaise in our banks is perhaps even more deep-seated than the financial crisis indicates. It proves that the people who keep them ticking over with their mortgages and car loans, and their monthly drafts paying the gas and ESB bills are considered beneath contempt. And that bodes ill for the future.

P.S. I don't spend my life writing snotty letters of complaint, by the way!

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