Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Losing the Abbey Habit

I’m relocating my UK base. So I’ve written something like 50 letters telling the taxman, the banks, and my pension funds. It’s amazing just how many people need to know.

By return, letters flood back. Sometimes two; one to my old address and one to the new. The process is remarkably easy and pain free.

With one exception.

Grupo Santander, the Spanish operation that is now the owner of the Abbey National, requires me to present myself in person at my branch. With ID. ‘Just to keep your account safe, we have kept the passbook.’

Now it happens that I spend the winter in Spain. Santander knows that because they write to me every month in English and in Spanish telling me how little interest they are paying me on my Sterling and Euro investments.

But the letter telling me that they cannot do the change by post has been sent to my new address in England. The very one that they supposedly cannot use until I present myself in person. Together with a form of identification.

My builder rescues the letter from an area between his concrete mixer and my new study and informs me of its contents. Not only does Santander want me to present myself in person with some ID, they also want a form filled up. I have to submit details of my marital status, whether I am earning and a lot more besides.

I ring a chum from another life, who is now editor of one of Britain’s leading financial publications and seek his advice. ‘It’s nonsense’, he says. ‘They have no right and no regulatory requirement to demand any of that information.’

Unusually, my presence in England is required in the dark depths of winter, so I call my Santander Branch to enquire if they really do need all that they are requesting. Upon their affirmation, I request to meet with the branch manager the following morning.

The day arrives and I present myself with several forms of ID at the former hotel that now houses the local branch of the organisation that gave me my first piggy bank at the age of four or five.

A short while after announcing the purpose of my visit, a woman arrives clutching my passbook. No handshake, no smile of welcome. This is a woman on a mission. Clearly out to achieve a victory.

‘I don’t have a meeting with you,’ she declares abruptly.

‘But you have my passbook,’ I splutter, ‘you must have been expecting me.’

This extraordinarily brusque tirade continues for ten minutes.

No question of ‘I am terribly sorry for the inconvenience and would be grateful if you would fill up the official form. Or ‘no, we don’t actually need to know if you are married or if you are working or not.’

This is a case of being told, rather like a five year old at primary school, that if I don’t eat up my scoops of mashed potato, I can’t have my tapioca pudding. Or my passbook. The woman’s attitude is appalling. I wonder several times who is supposedly providing the service.

I query why my signed letter is not sufficient. ‘We don’t have a copy of your signature at the branch.’ ‘What about the one in my passbook?’ I enquire.

I produce a folder containing copies of letters from a host of banks and other financial institutions who have changed my address, including the Alliance and Leicester, also now owned by Grupo Santander.

‘I don’t care how anyone else deals with this. I need you to fill up the form and I am not giving the passbook back to you until you have done it. Apart from anything, my staff could have dealt with this, you didn’t need to ask for me’.

With hands shaking with rage, I fill up the form, querying on several occasions whether my marital and employment status are actually needed. I point out that my financial journalist chum tells me there is no FSA requirement for such information.

She is as impressed with this as my helpful suggestion when she has last been on a customer care course and whether she is hoping for a long career with Santander.

On completion of my form filling and presentation of my driving licence, I ascertain whether this amazingly customer-focussed individual is now happy that I have provided sufficient information to change my address. The one to which they have already written to me telling me that they can’t.

‘Yes,’ she replies, ‘this meeting is at an end.’

‘No, it’s not, said I. ‘You have just discussed my financial affairs with a complete stranger for fifteen minutes without, until now, checking my identity. NOW the meeting is at an end.’

When I tell my editor friend of the altercation, he laughs. ‘My wife had exactly the same treatment. They really do not care about the customer any more.’

There’s no point in complaining. I shall just move my investments from Santander in the UK and Spain. I shall sell my shares and in due course accept the proceeds from the endowments they mis-sold me nearly 25 years ago. I shall remove all traces of a fifty-year long relationship with an organisation that certainly used to be quite habit-forming.

But I shall tell everyone I know about what happened, including some senior folk at Grupo Santander. Maybe, just maybe, madam will have her fortune told, be sent on a customer care course or, better still, be given early retirement.

I have my passbook in front of me as I write.

It contains £4.28


Monday, 15 February 2010

Air Canada's Lack of Communication

I have been writing about travel for almost all of my adult life; for half of those forty years I ran a media consultancy specialising in leisure and tourism. Twice we featured in the listings of Britain’s leading PR agencies. For many years, as a consultant, I acted as head of group communications for one of the UK’s top 5 business travel firms. My other clients included Air UK, KLM, British Airways and several leading retail travel agents.

I think, therefore, I can justifiably claim to have a pretty good understanding of what good communications practice in the travel industry should be.

Last week, I was on a great press trip to Ontario with five other journalists. The group included representatives from Britain’s biggest circulation Sunday paper, the two leading regional titles in Scotland and England and the UK deputy editor of an international magazine with a worldwide circulation of nine million. Together, we brought potential coverage, just for the UK market, of around 4.2 million.

Trying to get a decision from Air Canada as to whether or not they would become involved with the event was a nightmare. I offered to use my contacts to help out, but it was like trying to make your way through treacle. Calls and emails to Air Canada’s media team went unanswered. I have never experienced anything like it.

Eventually, apparently reluctantly, the airline did confirm the seats, but in the intervening four weeks of dithering, the price of my connecting flight had gone up from £75 to almost £300. The transatlantic seats were not on a complimentary basis; they were at a ‘media special rate’. In other words, they had to be paid for; we owed the airline nothing.

Now you would have thought that a write up in some of the leading newspapers in the land would have meant something to Air Canada. It is almost unheard of on these trips for the airline not to make an effort to curry favour with the media. This can range from an extra baggage allowance, entry into the business lounge, a little overnight kit or an upgrade on at least one of the legs.

But Air Canada’s team did nothing. No phone call, no press release, and no email. Zilch. Nada. That despite countless emails and telephone calls to their sales and PR teams.

They couldn’t even be bothered to make a comment on the booking to tell the check in people or the cabin crew that journalists were on board.

Now, of course, you might say that we should be given no other privileges than anybody else. And I understand that. But from the perspective of someone who has always prided himself in attention to detail, I find Air Canada’s attitude to the media both astounding and remarkably complacent.

It’s tough out there. There is enormous competition on routes between the UK and Canada. It was an opportunity to get positive PR completely missed.

For the record, the fairly antiquated 767-300 on the Heathrow to Toronto flight had a load of about 25%. We all had space to sprawl. Executive First, AC’s business class product, had empty seats aplenty.

Catering consisted of a mediocre breakfast shortly after takeoff and a hot wrap just before touchdown. On arrival in Toronto, everybody was starving.

There were no games and a lot of functions inoperable on the outdated in-flight entertainment system.

On our return leg, an almost full aircraft with a pretty ropy dinner and, wait for it, a muffin for breakfast. Yes, a muffin!

Finally, two of us on the trip have Star Alliance frequent flyer cards. One of us, Elite. The other, Super Elite. The Alliance’s top two tiers.

But, because we were travelling on a ‘media rate’, Air Canada said that they would not be honouring them.

Now how bonkers is that?