Financial services, without the...er...
What do you get when you excise the 'services' bit from the term 'financial services'? You get what Barclays has achieved with the old Woolwich brand.
Let me explain: this is what happens when a financial services organisation evolves and develops legacy offerings without very much thought for the poor old 'consumer', in FCA parlance. And, in this instance, it is possible to speak with a reasonable degree of authority and accuracy: this was my own offset mortgage we're talking about, so I'm not breaching any client confidentiality rules!
After many years of faithful repayments, I at last found myself in the position of being able to pay off the old Woolwich Offset Mortgage. Having learned from past experience that the customers helpline is an expensive way of having increasingly tetchy conversations with myself, I somewhat naively marched into my local Barclays branch, where I had managed over-the-counter transactions in the past (in relation to the mortgage). The bank staff were pleasant but unhelpful: "Oh no", they said, "You'll have to ring the helpline to sort that out". Oh well, I tried.
So I rang the helpline. After the mandatory thirty-minute wait, I did on this occasion have the benefit of being able to speak to someone, instead of being randomly disconnected, as has happened in the past. And they were helpful too. I was given a redemption figure, which I understood. And I was given a variety of other information, none of which meant very much at all. And, in the process, I discovered a somewhat surprising fact: the credit balances sitting in the offset account were not something that the mortgage team could deal with. I'd have to go back to the branch to handle that one.
You can see the way this one is shaping up. We have a single product, an offset mortgage. The mortgage staff can't deal with the offset balances, and the bank staff can't deal with the mortgage debt. You almost could not make it up. Indeed, the apparent lack of any kind of connected logic underpinning all of this left me wondering if I had inadvertently plunged down a rabbit hole. This is the kind of arrangement dreamed up by someone with a pathological grudge against humanity, for whom the mere articulation of the desire to pay off the mortgage is the Unforgivable Sin.
Nevertheless, at least I was able to sort out the outstanding liability, but now it was back to the branch. It was a very busy day. The queue was out the door, and the place held the dismal atmosphere of Passport Control at Stansted Airport. I was asked to wait, and I am not ashamed to say that I did have the opportunity for a nice nap in the corner. Finally, I got to see a very pleasant but clearly overwhelmed lady, inside an airless cubicle that someone had seen fit to hermetically seal. There was a kind of 'whoosh' of inrushing air as the previous customer staggered out into the fresh air of freedom. I guess I must have been there with her for nearly an hour. I got the distinct impression that everything connected with my request for my own money (in the offset account) was a complete revelation. The intricate number of actions on the computer were painfully slow, partly because it appeared to be running on Windows 98, and partly because (apparently) nobody had ever done this before. I sat spellbound before those articulately waggling eyebrows: if that woman ever leaves Barclays employ, there's a promising career for her on X-Factor or something.
I have no idea if she was successful. I still don't have my money, but I'm grateful that her computer did not crash in some kind of terminal way (!) due to the unwarranted complexities of my case. And, of course, I was profoundly appreciative of a return to a breathable atmosphere.
I think there are lessons here, and they're all about customer service. It doesn't 'just happen' on its own. Without a deliberate, intentional approach to delivering a service, it simply doesn't exist. And that principle applies to all of us.