Jeff Salway: Customer service races to the bottom

THE head of Santander UK last week bragged that it was “not the most complained-about bank in Britain”.

THE head of Santander UK last week bragged that it was “not the most complained-about bank in Britain”.

Ana Botin went on to claim that “just a very tiny percentage” of its 25 million customers were not obtaining the right level of service. So it’s all right because you’re not as bad as Barclays or Lloyds? Some benchmark.

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Botin’s certainty is, at best, complacent. At worst it implies that Santander – rated by Which? members last year as rock-bottom for service out of 28 banks and building societies – believes it doesn’t have a serious issue with its service standards.

The reality is that Santander’s culture is, as with most banks, not one in which customer interest comes first. Quite the opposite, thanks to a rewards-based system that insulates those at the top and ensures those at the sharp end focus on sales targets, not service.

Botin downplayed the service issue and claimed her goal is to make “every single customer happy with the bank”.

Most depressing is the inference that there’s no real problem. But that’s not unique to Santander. On the contrary, it’s universal.

I’ve spent two weeks battling with BT in a saga that has taken my appreciation of just how bad customer service can be to entirely new levels.

BT assured me that when I moved flat they could disconnect the first place and connect the service at the new one on the same day. In the event, I went more than two weeks without a phone line and broadband. I primarily work from home, so it couldn’t have been more inconvenient.

Dozens of (expensive) calls yielded nothing but obfuscation and plain lies. Having been forced to turn down work because I couldn’t guarantee getting online, I spent days seeking for an explanation as to what was happening.

None was forthcoming, but they clearly expected me to be pleased when they eventually said they had arranged a new appointment for 25 July. Never mind the failure to arrive on 2 July, or even to tell me why they cancelled it. From same-day connection to waiting for almost a month. Thankfully, further calls and disputes somehow produced a quicker response, but it should never have gone that far.

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The individuals I spoke to were, on the face of it, helpful. They were friendly, apologetic and said the right things. That’s customer service, in the modern corporate mindset.

In reality they were entirely unable to help me, failed to record our conversations, lied to me and then asked if there was anything else they could do. There was no accountability, nor any real attempt to actually help the customer.

This was BT, but the experience was depressingly familiar. For all that the banks have got wrong over the past decade and more, their continued failure to understand what people need – and to deliver it – is right up there. Judging by Botin’s words, however, they’re no closer to working that out.

Pensions divide

With every passing week it becomes clearer just how much rests on reforms that will soon see millions of people shifted into workplace pensions for the first time.

From October this year, employers will have to move employees into existing schemes or into the government’s new National Employment Savings Trust.

There can be no doubt that we need radical action to boost the number of people saving for retirement. As if to erase any lingering doubts, however, the Office for National Statistics published more alarming figures last week.

While total household wealth continues to climb, the gap between the haves and have nots widens further. The top 10 per cent of households have pensions wealth adding up to some £2.4 trillion. For the bottom 10 per cent it totals just £8 billion.

In 2010, just over a third of people in the UK were paying into a private pension. More than four in ten had no savings at all. And it’s fair to say, given the deepening of the financial crisis in the two years that have since passed, that the situation is even more bleak now.

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Without ensuring more low and middle-income workers in the private sector save for retirement, the gulf will only grow. It’s increasingly difficult to overstate how important it is that automatic enrolment succeeds.