In fact, it's the banks that I want to discuss in this article. Lloyds TSB to be precise. Let's get back to that great word 'incompetence'. I went to Lloyds TSB to initiate a balance transfer from a Nat West credit card to a Lloyds one. In other words, I'm bringing some custom to Lloyds. You'd think that they would bend over backwards to help me (and keep my custom) but no, they are incompetent. Oh, hold on, they want my custom, but they have no interest in me whatsoever. As long as they can get my money, that's all they care about.
Sadly, despite the fact that I'm a journalist and possess a very sensitive (and tiny) digital recording device, I didn't think of taping the whole thing. If I had done, I could be having a field day right now. But let's just live with the fact that I didn't and that all future conversations with bank managers will be secretly recorded – for training purposes, you understand.
So, I enter the Redhill, Surrey, branch of Lloyds TSB and ask if I can make a balance transfer. I'm not planning on closing my Nat West credit card. By and large, Nat West have been very good and very helpful. I'm just working on a way of reducing interest charges and freezing a debt for a few months. I won't go into details for obvious reasons, but allow me to continue.
I want a balance transfer for a certain amount of money. I'm directed to an office with my banker (I use that word advisedly and should, perhaps, substitute the 'b' with a 'w') and take a seat. We discuss the amount and contact Nat West by phone to check the existing balance and most recent transactions. A figure is reached and I say that is how much I wish to transfer, ie pay off. But oh no, that's not enough for Lloyds. They want more money and suggest that I should make the transfer for a couple of hundred pounds more to cover any interest payments that might still keep my Nat West card 'active'. I agree, but it's my lunch break, I'm a bit rushed, but okay.
Later I leave the bank with a brown envelope. I think the envelope contains information about the transaction I've just made, telling me, perhaps, how much was transferred, what the fee amounts to and so on, but it doesn't: it's just basic information about my new card and I'm left in the dark about the details of the balance transfer other than those I can remember from the conversation.
Over the weekend, I get a little disgruntled about the whole thing. It niggles a bit and I get a feeling that I haven't really been treated fairly. In fact there were a few things that got to me: one was the fact that the man in the bank was asking me how much I earned. Why? It wasn't necessary. Foolishly, I told him. Another was that, because we both phoned Nat West while in the meeting, he knows my security question. On top of that he told me that, should I so wish, I could, if I ventured into the high street, get credit for up to £25,000 if I wanted to (inciting me to get into further debt). In short, I realised that I didn't like the bloke one bit, but, for the moment, let's leave him out of this.
The next scene of this sorry tale is that I'm sitting in a car, in a car park, on my mobile phone, with my wife, trying to talk to Lloyds on the phone about the whole thing. In a nutshell, I want to know if it is possible to simply stop the transaction, take a rain check and then, possibly reconsider the transfer in less hurried circumstances, ie not in my lunch break. I have to go through the procedure: 'key in your account number, key in your date of birth, key in the last three digits on the back of your debit card'. And then there's the infuriating 'you are important to us' bit where they keep you hanging on the line waiting for 'an adviser'.
Eventually, I get through to Sue. She is incredibly rude. Very curt and bad-tempered and showing a clear sign that she lacks patience with her 'customers'. I ask for her name but she's only prepared to give her first name. She's not obliged, she tells me, to give me her full name despite the fact that I've given her my full name and my date of birth. I am transferred to another adviser and have to explain the situation again. If possible, can I stop the transfer going through, I'm not happy with the bank's attitude and I'd rather stop the process and restart it at a later date. I'm told to hold on as she, whoever she is, needs to talk to her supervisor.
I can only imagine what goes on while I'm put on hold. Something like, "Listen, this guy wants to stop the process, get out of the deal. What do I tell him?" And I imagine the 'supervisor' says something like, "We can't have that. Tell him, I don't know, tell him he can't." So she comes back and says I can't and, to cut a long story short, I realise that I'm not getting anywhere. Another line of questioning I take is this: "Can you tell me if the transfer has actually gone through?" There is simply no record whatsoever and nobody appears to know. I'll have to wait for it to go through – which means that Lloyds gets its fee and then, of course, they don't care, they've made their money and if I want to transfer the money elsewhere I can. But for now, they've closed ranks and are being very, very unhelpful. I realise that I'm not getting anywhere and hang up. Oddly, the night before, I'd dealt with a very competent member of staff who told me that changing things on the transfer shouldn't be a problem. How wrong he was! And how interesting it is that different members of Lloyds' staff are told different stories. For some it's a case of it should be fine to make changes. For others, it's simply impossible to do anything and I'll have to wait to see what happens. Amazing. I hang up.
As the week progresses, I wonder why the transfer hasn't gone through. Nat West has heard nothing and Lloyds claims it has no record of the transaction. Well, we all know why Lloyds has no record. It wants the transaction to go through so that it can collect the fee. Bankers are wide boys, rogues and, in some cases, criminals. Wasn't it HSBC that was discovered money laundering for drug dealers? I can't remember the details, but it'll be out there on the internet somewhere.
All week I'm left feeling a little anxious. Nobody seems to know whether the transaction has gone through or not, Lloyds says that once a transfer is initiated it can't be stopped. Nat West – the innocent party in all this – says nothing is pending. Meanwhile, having transferred a fairly large sum of money from my Nat West credit card into my Lloyds current account, I'm accruing interest that won't stop until the card has it's balance 'transferred' by Lloyds.
It's now Wednesday morning. I'm in London at the Marriott County Hall. Just across the river from that other rather dishonest institution, the Houses of Parliament. After my meeting, I decided to call Lloyds again. What I want from them is fairly straightforward: I want to know a couple of things. First, has the transfer been activated. Is it, in other words, in the process of happening or has it stalled for some reason, possibly due to my conversations with the bank in the car park last weekend? In which case, fine, I'll simply initiate the process again.
But I can't get a straight answer. First I go through all the fuss of keying in my account number, the last three digits on my debit card, I answer security questions and, once again, I get through to somebody at the call centre. I ask the questions, but I get, "I'll have to talk to my supervisor about that that, I'm going to put you on hold and...". The line goes blank and then, about two minutes later she comes back. She's stalling for time, but she does let slip that there's no record of a transfer having taken place and would I like to do one on the phone with her now? No, thanks, but what I would like is a letter of confirmation that the transfer has not happened so that I can either to do the whole thing again at a later date or do it with another bank, a bank that might, perhaps, be a little more competent than Lloyds TSB."I'll have to go back to my supervisor...." and off she goes again.
By now, I'm losing my patience. Surely she can tell me whether my balance transfer has gone through or not and surely, if, as the customer phoning 'customer services' I should be able to get a letter confirming that the transfer has not gone through or, conversely, that it has gone through. But no, she has no idea what to do and has to discuss the matter with her supervisor again. By now, I'm getting very edgy. "But I'm the customer, you're customer services, surely...".
I was on the phone for at least 90 minutes and by the time I finished – having achieved nothing – I was in a quiet, seething rage. I went back to the office and decided to call the branch, in Redhill, and speak to the guy who did the balance transfer for me – his name was Jack. But when I called the number first there was no answer, then, on a second try, I got somebody else who said Jack was in a meeting. I said I'd call later and when I did, I got Jack. Could he tell me anything about the balance transfer that him and I had arranged and whether or not it had gone through?
"That was cancelled, wasn't it?
"I don't know, you tell me."
"Uh...I'll call you back..."
I never heard from him.and then I went home and I thought I'd try again, and see if somebody at the Swansea call centre was less incompetent – although I already knew the answer to that question. Watch out, I thought, for anybody who uses the word 'obviously'. Whenever it's used, you can bet that whatever is being discussed or whatever point is being made, isn't obvious.
I was pleasantly surprised. Donna, for that was her name, was understanding and friendly and put my mind at ease. Fine, she'd have to speak to her supervisor, but the word 'obviously' was not used and she came back with an answer: in short, the balance transfer had not gone through and it wouldn't go through unless I went to the bank – any branch of Lloyds – and started the whole process again.
"Are you 100% sure about that?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
I went downstairs to watch television, safe in the knowledge that the balance transfer hadn't gone through and that, under more relaxed circumstances, I'd go to the bank over the weekend and start again. What a relief, I thought. There's nothing worse than not knowing where you are, being in the dark, especially when it concerns money. But now, thanks to Donna who, incidentally, compensated me for the long mobile phone calls I'd made earlier in the week AND gave me £25 for the simple fact that I'd been messed around, all was fine.
The following morning I went to work, safe in the knowledge that I knew the position and that all was resolved. No more anxiety.
After lunch my phone rang. It was my wife. The balance transfer that I'd been assured hadn't gone through, had gone through. I found myself back in a rage and stormed off to the Redhill branch to have a go. I felt like Michael Douglas in Falling Down and had somebody handed me a gun or a rocket launcher, I'm convinced that I would have massacred half of Redhill as I stormed towards the bank.
Unfortunately for the manager, who was out to lunch, I spotted him and pointing at him like a football hooligan chanting at rival supporters, I said, in a raised voice, "incompetent!" He looked confused so I explained all of the above to him, throwing in a few choice expletives in the process.
He ushered me back to the bank and into an office where I continued my rant about how incompetent they all were and I demanded, menacingly, my hair resembling that of the Toecutter in Mad Max, a letter that I hadn't received before, detailing the entire transaction, the fee, the lot. I noticed his hand shaking (either with anger or fright) as he typed and printed out the letter. We shook hands and I left the bank, still seething, but feeling a bit like John Candy in Uncle Buck when he emerges from a meeting with one of his neice's teachers. I needed a drum roll and a 'yeah!' as I headed back to the office, but then changed my mind and headed straight for the barbers for a number four crop – just what the doctor ordered.
The moral of this story? Forget being nice to people. Remember one thing: they're out to get you. Nobody's your friend and least of all banks and big business. Forget also 'peaceful protest', it'll get you nowhere. The only way to achieve anything is to be confrontational. Direct action, armed struggle – alright, perhaps that's a little extreme, although you could use a Spud-o-Matic – is the only way to get people to sit up and listen. Talking is a waste of time. Alright, I felt mildly guilty about my behaviour, but now that I've calmed down, I realise that had I maintained a sense of calm, I would have achieved nothing – treat people like they treat you.