08 January, 2009

National Australia Bank Behaves Stupidly

I just had an interesting conversation with the National Australia Bank. The NAB is our credit card service provider and has been for many, many years. Yet, while Wifie was in town this morning attempting to pay for a ride-on mower we just had delivered (see picture), the eftpos machine in the mower shop said our card had been cancelled.

She called me and I transferred some cash (we have our other accounts with another bank) so she could pay for it and then I got on the phone to NAB to ask them WTF?

I had the usual fun with the telephone menu system. I sat through many minutes of chatty little adverts and reassurances that my call was very important and they'd get to it real soon now (by which time I was shouting into the phone that they would better demonstrate my importance to them, and they'd get to me so much sooner, if they just put more staff on at their call centre - or words to that effect.) Finally, a very young woman for whom English was clearly a second language, started asking me 'security questions'.

I asked her why she was doing this because I wasn't interested in playing. I just wanted to know why my card had been cancelled. It seemed she wanted to verify my identity so she could set up a phone banking account for me so that I would be able to talk to the credit card department. I told her I wasn't going to do all that. I just wanted to ask someone about my card. She was totally flummoxed by this, so I suggested she put me on to someone who was more senior.

So I went back to the ads and the assurances for several more minutes until a young man came on the line asking me if I was having a good day. I explained that I was not. This was the young foreign woman's supervisor, it turned out, and, although he sounded even younger than she was, he at least spoke good English. He explained again the need to establish my identity so that I could be issued a PIN for telephone banking, so that they could be sure of who I was. I explained again that I didn't want to waste my time doing that and would he just answer the damned question.

It took a while but he finally persuaded me that he was completely incapable of taking any initiative and I'd just have to follow the very stupid procedure. So I said, OK, fire away.

We started off with some easy questions - my date of birth, my middle name, etc. - then he asked for my current account balance. I pulled out the folder that holds my NAB statements (I was sitting in Wifie's office and she has such things beautifully organised) and read out the value at the bottom of the last statement. And the boy said it was wrong.

No, no, you halfwitted monkey, I explained politely. That is precisely the number you sent me. But it isn't the current balance, he complained. I checked the dates on the statement. The statement was for a period ending near the end of November. That's it! I exclaimed. The December statement won't have reached me yet. (A small side explanation ensued concerning my remote location, the unreliability of the mail - often two weeks late - and the fact that Christmas and New Year have happened between the end of the last billing period and today. In fact, it would be a miracle if I had received a statement for December.)

Sorry, he said, I had to give him the latest account balance. But I haven't had it yet, you stupid robot! I remonstrated. Nevertheless, he went on in his best 'customer service' voice, that is the only answer he could accept. So tell me my current balance, I said, and I'll tell it back to you. Sadly, for that, I'd need my telephone banking PIN and we haven't established that you are who you say you are, he explained. So, I said, allowing myself a moment of sarchasm, if I'd stolen this month's statement instead of last month's I'd be OK now. I shouldn't have said it, I know, but it worth it to hear the silence at the other end.

We seemed to be at an impasse and I was just about to ask if there was someone even younger I could speak to when my adversary found a solution. If I were to go to my nearest branch and ask them, they could tell me my account balance. Then I could call him again and we could carry on with our delightful little game. I asked him if they even had a branch where I lived. He looked it up and said they did, in a town 20 km away. I said it would take me at least an hour to drive there, talk to the branch and drive back, just so I could do something I don't even want to do, so he can tell me why the hell his stupid bank had cancelled my credit card. Tough, he replied, as politely as possible.

I was not exactly happy by this point, so I explained to the youngster that if I had to travel 40 km and queue in one of their branches to get some information they already knew just to prove that I am who I am and not someone fraudulently demanding to know why their credit card had been cancelled, I would be closing my account and moving it to another bank. Wouldn't it be so much nicer if he just told me why they had cancelled the frigging card.

For the first time, he stopped sounding so smug and robotic and spoke as if he was a real person. I imagine he was thinking about how these calls might be recorded for 'quality assurance purposes' and how his side of our conversation might seem from a third party's perspective. I mean, it's all well and good doing exactly what you were trained to do but if that ends up with you losing a customer (two if you count my wife) I suspect you haven't actually achieved what you set out to. And, given that so many banks are struggling at the moment... So, probably against all training directives, he told me that the words 'card cancelled' can appear on a shop's machine for 'hundreds' of different reasons - almost none of them meaning that card had in fact been cancelled. Line outages, software errors, and any number of temporary glitches in the system will lead to the same message - 'card cancelled'. Why?For the love of God, why? I cried. Surely that is a completely insane way to design a system? Surely only the most stupid moron who ever lived could conceive of something so utterly crass? Well, he explained, the bank never sends actual account statuses down the lines to shops, so it sends the 'card cancelled' message instead. Nice one, NAB. Way to piss off your customers!

So is my card cancelled or not? I asked. He couldn't say. And there we left it.

I called Wifie after this and asked her to drop in at the branch in town while she was there. She had a similar experience, I gather, but got the anwer that the transaction she was attempting (worth about AUD4,000) would have taken the account a few hundred bucks over the limit. So they sent the 'card cancelled' message, BUT all such messages come with a code number. Shops, it seems, are issued with books that explain what the code numbers mean and the shop assistant should have been able to explain it there and then. Clearly the shop assistant (actually the owner in this case) had not known that he was an integral part of the NAB error-reporting system, or he had somehow failed to understand the esoteric intricacies of the NAB's security procedures. Whatever it was, NAB caused me and my wife a lot of grief, wasted masses of time, and cost themselves about an hour of staff time - all for nothing.

They also lost two customers.

Now, I'm not saying you don't need security on people's credit card accounts but when that security becomes so tight that legitimate account holders can't get a simple question answered, it is a sign that something is very, very wrong. I would prefer to be with a bank that made a little less money because it was a little more open to fraud, and instead treated its customers with a bit more trust and consideration. Even if the security system was a bit more intelligent, it would have helped. After all, in this case, what was at risk? What was the bank saving me from that was worth wasting so much of my time and its time and, ultimately, losing two customers for?

And as for the practice of telling shopkeepers the customer's card has been cancelled for every damned reason under the sun, well, it just creates embarrassment, bad feeling, and a lot of wasted time. It is a really stupid thing to do.

Finally, there is the problem at the root of all this. We exceeded our AUD9,000 card limit by a few hundred bucks. Firstly, I wonder why the limit is so low. Fourteen years ago, when we left the UK, we had a GBP9,000 limit on our credit card and the bank was always clamouring to raise it. That's two-and-a-half times the current limit - and a lot of inflation under the bridge since then. What is wrong with Australian banks that makes them so stingy with their limits? As I say, I've been a customer of this particular bank for about 12 years and have never once failed to make a payment or in any way transgressed their rules. Yet this is how I'm treated when my credit limit is marginally exceeded on a single, large transaction. Well, if I don't even get one chance, if I don't get even the slightest consideration for my long-term custom, then they don't get a second chance either

Sod 'em.

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