Following me to Leeds: A customer service story

Well, it all started innocently enough as yet another attempt to get a customer service department of a major institution to give service to the customer. For a couple of years, I had been trying to get the attention of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) to a simple plight: I just couldn’t find out about my account. Now, it’s partly my fault for opening a bank account in the UK. But, I can explain. RBS was a new incarnation of a bank with whom I had an account since I started working in England in the 1970s: the bank was then called Williams and Glyn’s (WG). It had my private account there, in The City, despite the fact that as a Bank of England (BOE) employee I also had an account there, with its fancy old-fashioned cheques.

Fancy!

Truth was, the BOE didn’t really do full retail banking, but I had the dual convenience of the swish and the bank that would do my wish.

Fast forward.

I resign from the BOE and move to the USA and work for the IMF. I closed my BOE account and let life take its toll. I really saw no need for another account, either, so also closed the RBS/WG account. Well that was fine until I went on a trip to London and found that trying to always use my US bank account had a few problems, not least the fact that he K was ramping up banking security and if your cards did not have a chip it was hard to do electronic transactions. So, I went back crawling to RBS and opened a new account. I did not get grandfathered, but let that slide ūüôā I could open it without funds oe fees (Jamaicans will relate to that) and did so. So, things stood, languid, for a while.

The old-fashioned look of Williams and Glyn’s

Well, two things happened, and I am not going into the whole saga. First, RBS decided to go on another corporate shake-up. Second, the BOE decided to get out of retail banking. Both conspired to make me think more seriously about my RBS account. So, I tried to get attention to arrange for balances from BOE to be transferred to RBS. But, I couldn’t hear a dickey bird, as they say. But, persistent that I am, I just kept trying. But, no luck. My bank balances were reportedly transferred from the BOE, but I could not verify that at the RBS end. I was frustrated, but not too much. I was also a bit stymied, though, as without the BOE account and its fancy cheques, I could not make sterling deposits easily in Jamaica, which I needed to do occasionally.

Then, I moved a few weeks ago, and now things took on another turn. I needed my bank to know that. Simple, yet a bit complicated. Again, I tried the route of replying to emails to get attention. No joy. I could see that RBS was really a bank that dealt with customers by phone. So, I phoned and got caught in a little voice loop. Then, I just took a look at the website that said there as a Facebook page. I went there and posted a question. All of a sudden, roses bloomed, butterflies fluttered, ambrosia flowed and I was getting somewhere. ūüôā

Within¬†moments, someone wanted to chat to me on Facebook Messenger, so off we went. In the space of a few minutes, we were humming like…a humming bird.

screen-shot-2017-02-08-at-8-38-10-am
Someone’s interested in my case ūüôā

I left that conversation to go to bed, as the RBS agent couldn’t complete the checks, then. As is the way of the world, I slept well but woke at about 2am to have some water.screen-shot-2017-02-08-at-8-38-34-am

Well, as I was sort of awake, I noticed a message pop up on my phone. I checked. RBS was bright and awake–they are in England, five hours ahead of me. Someone wanted to actually talk to me on the phone. Well, I was game, and we engaged in a nice chat for about half an hour. The bottom line: I activated my online banking credentials, sorted out the activation of my Visa/debit card, was able to check my balance (yes, my money had arrived, and new deposits were flowing in). I was happy.

But, I was happier to have had on the other end of the line a lovely lass from Yorkshire, in Leeds, who’d been to Jamaica for her wedding 30 years ago! We joked about English regional rivalries–my affinities are to the other side of The Pennines. I love Yorkshire pudding, and Ilkley is one of my favourite places.

She joked about how her child had been born in Cumbria. To her husband’s joy, the child was a girl. Had it been a boy, he would not have been eligible to play for Yorkshire as he was born outside the county. You didn’t know England had these separate republics within the island? Shame on you! Well, Yorkshire changed that rule in 1992, to include those educated within the county, a dispensation that allowed Michael Vaughan to play; and was then abandoned altogether. Yorkshire’s first overseas player that season was 19-year-old Sachin Tendulkar.

Well, having established those links, I went on ambassadorial watch and suggested that my agent think about coming back to Jamaica. As we’ve left it, she and her husband will think about it. I promised her lodgings, so let’s see.

Funnily, I had another query later in the day, and got another invitation to chat via Facebook Messenger. Again, I was passed to the same agent, this time a text chat. It was a pleasant as the punch she yearns for in Jamaica ūüôā I got my other issue resolved and we went off to enjoy the rest of our respective days.

Now, if we could get this sort of service working in Jamaica.

You can bank on me, but be patient

I spent too long in a bank, yesterday, doing a routine transaction. My daughter’s piano teacher wants her to take one of the music board exams. She wanted proof of payment by today, meaning a deposit voucher. So, I stood in line for over an hour to put $4000 or so into the board’s account. The line was about 40 people long when I joined it, and it stayed about that amount as people came and went.

image

When I joined three cashiers were working.

Some in the line began venting their frustration. A lady several places ahead grumbled about how the many other bank staff were doing nothing and could ease things by dealing with the line. She looked over to the customer service desk and complained how “there was no customer service”. I just happened to have been given clear advice from the person at that desk. “That’s nonsense,” I chimed in and explained why. The lady rolled on with her serial complaints. She was going to vent.

A man just in front of me started opining about how “we need to unite” and get the country moving in a better way. He chanted that two more cashiers would ease our waiting a lot. I began discussing with him the problems of slow cashiers and customers who love to talk about the world and their mothers. In the meantime, another cashier started to work. The line started to move a little faster.

I avoid going to banks. I pay every utility bill online. I use ATM to withdraw cash and now to make deposits. The limits on cash withdrawal from ATM force me to join the lines, occasionally, so that I can deal with some bigger cash transactions. Jamaica is heavily dependent on cash and I can’t change that singlehandedly. I try by using my debit/credit card a lot.

I’m not used to having to be in banks. But, most Jamaicans are. They spend hours there and I wondered about the lost man hours and productivity it caused. This is nothing new, but it seems in no hurry to change.

It’s chicken and egg. Many organizations are not set up to handle electronic payments. I recalled my long conversations with a hospital about how to settle bills other than by visiting it’s office or a bank. I felt like the archetypal alien. But, I got my way to work. Maybe, my refusal to schlep around helped.

My line was moving well and I was next to a large cardboard poster of a smiling bank employee, welcoming me and promising to serve me better.

image

I felt like putting my money into her hands and asking her to call me when all was done. It was an ironic assertion.

Some comments suggested that free WiFi would make waiting more bearable. One man was using his time to make his lotto picks. I noticed that some people were in line for others, mainly businesses, as places were exchanged. That made sense. Such is life. I would have liked tea and biscuits, milk no sugar and Digestives. Banks, please note.

Just like that, I was at the front. My “unity” man was already being served. He smiled at me. “You see, extra cashier made a difference,” he said with a smirk.

Over one hour had been spent in the company of my affable compatriots. I looked over at the section of the bank where senior citizens were seated, for their special services. They did not seem to have budged. Such is life.

Be careful what you wish for

Several days ago, I reacted to a column I read in The Gleaner by sending a response to the author and the newspaper’s editor. The author responded that he hoped the paper would publish my reply; I’ve not seen it, yet, and I am not worried about that. He has my views and that’s what’s really important. Just before the Easter holidays, I read another article, in The Observer, which had my hackles rising, so again I wrote to the author and the newspaper. Over the weekend, I heard from one of the paper’s editors that he was considering publishing my remarks as a column. We had a few exchanges and I sent a short biography and a picture–funnily, one I had just taken while relaxing ahead of tournament. Yesterday, my words and picture graced the pages of The Observer…and life has not been the same since.

I’ve had my views published before in the press, but a column is always seen as a bit more substantial and often leads to more reactions. Well, after my early morning excursion on the golf course with one of the ladies who’s both fun to play with and also just a hoot, I came back to bask in the glory of being a newspaper columnist. My older daughter had suggested earlier in the year that I do this¬†and I had a plan in my head about how to go forward; I had even made a pitch to the papers. But, life is its own wheel of fortune, and I roll where it rolls.

I received some very nice comments. I had a publisher suggest that I do a book about my life experiences–it’s in my thoughts, already, but I cannot get the flow as I want, yet. I had another reader suggest that I write more about the mish-mash that is English–that’s tempting, and I do it in a way all the time; maybe, I need to see if I can ‘package’ it more clearly or better in some way.

However, exposure is not all about adulation and back-slapping; it comes with a fair amount of brickbats. I mentioned to my older daughter–an English and History graduate–how amazed I was¬†at what people see in what is written, often way beyond ideas in the mind of the author. Sometimes, my reactions trigger something in the reader but I’m flabbergasted when that turns out to be some seemingly visceral¬†reaction either to me or the object of my writing. I’m not going to share the comments, but suffice to say that some people get hold of the wrong end of the stick and then turn it into corn pudding. Otherwise, some people have to vent and I just happen to be in the way; they harbour some serious resentment about the writer of the piece that triggered my reply. So, much of my afternoon–once I had gotten the body rehydrated and refuelled–was spent reading and responding to comments.

In the current age, when we have so much access to each other’s views without face-to-face contact, it’s really a blessing.

Dennis the Menace (UK version)
Dennis the Menace and Gnasher (UK version). Is this my new image?

I was absolutely exhausted after a few hours of reading and thinking about comments, and then deciding how to respond. Of course, I’m not obliged to reply, but I like to do so if it helps me clear up some misunderstanding or a point needs expanding.

Well, it’s just 24 hours since I hit the streets, so to speak. I have not had a call to do a radio or TV interview about my ideas–yet.

I’ve a wry smile on my face. Much of the last seven days, though I wrote briefly about how Jamaicans speak, was consumed thinking and writing about how I think Jamaicans feel about something afoot in the economy. Finance Minister, Dr. Peter Phillips, has summoned all wrath of The Furies and they are still headed his way over his proposed ‘bank transaction tax’. There, too, my views got some airing, but not obviously attributable to me. Some of the possible ‘unforeseen consequences’ of the measure that I touched on got a response from the Minister during his press briefing on Tuesday, eg, he does not see people fleeing the formal banking system and heading towards barter. Interesting, though, the Jamaica Bankers’ Association seem to come out on my side. As reported in The Gleaner: ‘The levy may discourage some individuals and businesses from utilizing the formal banking system, which not only conflicts with the country‚Äôs aim to achieve greater financial inclusion, but encourages greater activity in the informal economy‘. Some people claim to be ‘dunces’ about things economics, so those of us who think we understand how economies work are duty bound to try to help others understand what may seem obvious to (some of) us.

Jamaica is blessed with a relatively free press, and I am glad that I can benefit from that in expressing myself to the public–subject to an editor’s approval. But, in the modern world, I don’t need such approval because I can publish and be damned, anyway. Here’s to healthy conversations about things that concern us all.

Get out of my kitchen!

There’s a part of me that ought have been dancing a jig yesterday. I read that the Minister of Finance may be¬†stripped of certain powers related to the banking system. Yipee! In particular, the post holder has lost¬†responsibility for appointing the Governor of the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) and will also lose the power of having direct responsibility for the monitoring of banks and other regulated financial institutions on the island. In addition,¬†the BOJ Governor to now get the power to grant or revoke licences to deposit-taking institutions.¬†This would bring the BOJ in line with the Financial Services Commission, which is empowered to grant and revoke licences for the institutions it supervises.

One man and his pot
One man and his pot (courtesy of The Gleaner, Las May)

Bills¬†tabled in the House of Representatives recently make these proposals. They propose that the BOJ Act be amended to allow for the governor to be appointed by the governor-general for a period not less than seven years–recommended by Cabinet, we can presume (so, it may not really matter that much).

But, there are a few wrinkles that make one a little uneasy. The minister with responsibility for finance may recommend to the governor-general that the governor may be removed for, among other things, failing to adequately discharge the functions of his office or failing to ensure that the bank achieves its targets. Also,¬†at present, the governor, the senior deputy governor, and deputy governors are appointed by the minister for a period not exceeding five years. Despite a change in the way the governor is appointed, the minister will still be responsible for the appointment of the senior deputy governor and the deputy governors, who will be appointed for a period not longer than five years. I don’t understand that and hope that some consistency¬†in appointments gets inserted when the bill is debated. Under the IMF programme, the bills must be passed by May.

The king is dead. Long live the king!

Jamaican law makers are piloting through Parliament legislation to limit cash transactions. Under the amended Proceeds of Crime Act, it will be illegal for a person to pay or receive cash in excess of J$1 million in a transaction for the purchase of goods or services, or for the reduction of any indebtedness, accounts payable, or other financial obligation. That’s near par for the course when it comes to measures to thwart money laundering, and many countries have similar restrictions and they revolve around the US$10,000 equivalent mark.¬†It will also be illegal to artificially separate a single activity or course of activity into a set of transactions, so that each transaction involves a payment and receipt of cash of less than J$1 million, if the activity or course of activity involves payment and receipt of cash that exceeds J$1 million.¬†Persons convicted of either offence face up to 10 years’ imprisonment if convicted in the circuit court, and may also be fined. If convicted in a resident magistrate’s court, the fine is up to J$3 million and/or three years’ imprisonment.¬†Banks and other financial institutions will be allowed to collect cash above J$1 million.

I understand the logic in trying to deal with money laundering.¬†Jamaica’s need to comply with the money laundering and combating of the financing of terrorism framework advocated by the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF), of which Jamaica is a member and which requires compliance with international standards. But in Jamaica it’s going to lead to a raft of problems, mainly for merchants (many of whom work on small margins and try to curb banking costs). Many parliamentarians were quick to point out that it will be banks who will get the biggest benefit from this measure. Banks charge fees for almost every transaction customers make, and for many it’s a real burden, and customers (once the kings) have to bow to the blows that fees impose.

In Jamaica, cash is king. I’ve learned this quickly. I used to be able to walk around with about US$100 in my wallet and it would still be there from the start of the month till the end. I was smart, I thought, in setting up most bill payments electronically, and using credit (or sometimes debit) cards for most transactions. Fast forward to Jamaica, since June. If I go to a bank ATM, I am limited to withdrawals of J$15,000 (about US$150); I can get more if I actually go to a bank branch. That can be gone in a day. Many places will allow transactions with debit cards, so if I fill my car with petrol, at J$130 a litre (about J$7800), I don’t have to dip into my cash and can pay with that card. Likewise, for supermarkets and many stores. However, many transactions are with street vendors, and there’s no way that anything but cash can be used.

However, it’s the case that some large companies do NOT take debit or credit cards and must have cash or checks. That may not seem so hard, except not all current accounts have checking facilities associated with them. I had to get some medicine for my father, recently, and was sent by the hospital to a pharmaceutical company. The bill was more than could be paid with an ATM cash withdrawal, and they would not take credit cards. So, I had to drive around to find a bank, line up, take out a bundle of cash, then head back to the company and try to complete my transactions. Now, admitted, my needs were far from J$1million, but the point is that without the facility to make large cash payments you’re often stuck in this country.

Some politicians pointed out that the system has not kept up with inflation, and that bail bonds, for instance can only be settled in cash, and could easily run above J$1million. I hope that anyone convicted under the Act will be able to pay the fine in a form other than cash.

People understand that the financial system in Jamaica is biased towards cash and that makes some business people into sitting ducks for criminals. So, while the limits may be a problem, the larger issue is that non-cash transactions are not as easy as they need to be in order to reduce the dependence on cash.

Private sector is a problem too

Economics teaches us many things that suggest that enterprises, driven by the profit motive, will deliver many efficiencies. But, our daily lives tell us otherwise.

Jamaica is a country with an IMF arrangement. The government and central bank negotiate the details with the Fund and sign an agreement on behalf of the country. The message often given with such arrangements is that the government and public agencies are charged to do many things. The impression sometimes given us that the private sector, both firms and persons, are bystanders, usually suffering from a range of financial constraints and living with new laws.

People often see failures in public administration as the only problems to be corrected, and IMF arrangements tend to highlight these, making it seem that private business problems do not need to be addressed. Truthfully, the IMF does not have levers that can change many people’s behaviour in non-financial ways. But, bad or unhelpful business practices impose costs on us just as government inefficiency does.

Let’s just look at some common private sector problems in Jamaica.

You have some financial transactions to do and enter a bank and are guided to take a number to be served in order. During any given day, you may be behind 30 or more people. At least, this business has seen the benefits of single queues. However, you have some simple questions. But, the bank has no ‘Information’ counter; you must pose your questions to a teller. You may find that you cannot do what you want to because you lack some documents. But, to get to that point you’ve lined up for say 20 minutes. I really think it could be much more time, based on my experience. That’s a lot of time, though, especially if you consider what else may be involved in getting to and from the bank. But let’s say that a person needs to use their whole lunch hour to do banking. You can imagine how that time lost can ripple back to the person’s workplace.

Perhaps the bank has studied its customers and found that it’s more cost effective for THEM to organize things this way. Perhaps head office has sent instructions to branches and they are being applied nationally. There may be a process of assessing how the bank functions in the main banking hall.

Whatever their gains or savings, what has been imposed on the rest of us?

All I know is that for the past 30 years I’ve barely set foot in a bank to do transactions. I’ve been able to do them mostly online or electronically. Admitted, I’ve been living in the USA or UK. When I visit banks in either place I don’t see long lines.

Banks worldwide and in Jamaica are pressing customers to do more online, yet here I am stuck in lines.

For most transactions, I have to use cash. I can sometimes use a bank debit/credit card. Cheques may be accepted. I don’t want to walk around with tens of thousands in cash. It’s risky and makes little sense.

Part of the problem is on the bank side, part is a problem with other entities which may not facilitate electronic payment.

From what I can see, government has nothing to do with this situation. But the country may be much the worse for it in terms of wasted time, lost production, and lower productivity.

We could look at other aspects of any bank and how it functions; its administration; its accounting; its handling of personnel. Some things may work well in many senses, some may be on the verge of collapse. Hopefully, the good practices can spread and the poor ones get weeded out.

While the government and central bank are trying to get our macroeconomic state improved, we also need to work on fixing our microeconomics.

I’m not singling out banks, and could easily point my finger and several other sectors with whom I’ve come into contact recently.

I could cite almost every contact I’ve had with private companies in the past few months.

So, while we may gripe about the bloated civil service or bureaucratic red tape we have plenty of non governmental hurdles to cross.

Unfortunately, the spur for businesses may be profits and they may be fine. However, we’re all paying costs that could be lower or avoided.