Banking in the medieval age - or - my experience with the Halifax

Peter Gothard

24 hours to clear a fax, phones that don't dial out, and siloed offices where nobody talks to each other. This is the Halifax in 2015.

I was a saver when I was young. At the age of 17, I'd worked two part-time jobs - a paper round I'd kept on since I was younger, and as a librarian in my local council-run reading palace.

One day, I wandered into my local Halifax bank to open a new savings account for all the money I was starting to save up. As I was talking through the process with the cashier, a very impressive, suited and booted man with the slickest demeanour shook my hand and beckoned me into his office.

I remember sitting in the comfy blue seat in front of his desk, behind the posh, spotlessly clean glass windows and enjoying the cup of tea that had appeared with a snap of his fingers.

The man (I forget his name and title, but in my head he was The Bank Manager) told me I shouldn't be so hasty at putting my hard-earned paper round and library money in such a low interest savings account. The Bank Manager suggested I have a bit of fun with it.

He asked me if I knew what the FTSE 100 was, and showed me some graphs. He said having a "flutter" with stocks and shares was a great way to build up savings. I was impressed. It felt very grown up.

Ten minutes later, I had handed over £1000 of my money to be placed in a Halifax ISA Investor account.

Fast forward to today. I am 31. The UK is clawing its way out of a financial recession which, if ex-spin doctors of the last government are to be believed, is soon to be followed by another one, even more severe than the last. I've watched my ISA Investor with, in turn, a small amount of pride, absolute horror, despair, depression and finally bemusement. Yesterday, I decided enough was enough. It was time to cash out.

I called the Halifax's Edinburgh office (there is no electronic way to access my ISA Investor with the Halifax) to close it, and was informed that the only way to do this would be if they posted me a letter, I signed it, and I posted it back.

A letter. And 10 days' clearance after that. In 2015.

Also, I would need to prove I was who I said I was by taking my passport and full driving licence into a local branch. Prove who I was to a bank I've been a customer of, in one way or another, since I was three years old.

Until four years ago (long story as to why I closed all my accounts, but again it was about IT and utter incompetence), I did absolutely all my banking with the Halifax. The Halifax know who I am. The Halifax know which home address I have been registered with since my first account was opened when I was a tiny child. I know they must have all my details on file. That's the way IT works. That's the way databases work.

I pushed the point. I asked if it was at least possible to email me these important closure documents. I also, I have to admit, added I was a journalist, and was already finding this matter interesting on a technology (or lack of) level.

I was placed on hold for a few mintues.

Suddenly, it was fine for the Halifax to email me the documents, not post them. They arrived in my inbox in a flash. But I wasn't allowed to fax the signed form back: my signature had to be in pen, not photocopied by a fax.

I worked in car insurance claims for one of the UK's largest firms of that type for a short time in the early 2000s, and we were perfectly happy to accept faxed signatures. Pull the other one, Halifax.

The Edinburgh customer service agent said my misgivings were being taken very seriously, and a complaint was already being escalated. I thanked the person very much, and set off to a central London Halifax branch, in the pouring rain.

On my way there, a Scotland-based phone number called my mobile phone, and hung up two seconds after I answered. I called it back, and it again hung up after two seconds. Perhaps an autodialling facility was malfunctioning at the Halifax?

I only had my driving licence, not my passport, and intended to ask if I could see written policy on forms of ID required to simply get at my money when I arrived at the Green Park branch of the Halifax. Instead, I was diverted down a new and interesting route - "Do you live in London? Is this your home address?" I was asked (I am originally from Manchester, but still take some post back at the homestead. It makes no difference).

At this point, I was informed that the Halifax would do nothing for me anyway until I'd officially changed my address - I was told that the person on the phone in Edinburgh must have been mistaken. No case files were checked, there were no notes on the system to back up anything I'd been told previously. The branch also seemed completely unaware that I'd lived in Bournemouth for three years prior to moving to London in order to follow my change of address trails, because, again, there were no IT systems connecting my story together.

Right on cue, my phone rang again. It was a man with possibly the most condescending, hostage negotiator-style voice I think I've ever heard. I think he was attempting to calm me down, but he enraged me still further. I asked him if he could point me to an electronic copy of the Halifax's policies for something as simple as accessing my own money.

He explained he couldn't help me. He said his only advice to me was to "do what the people in the branch office tell you to do". He also admitted that the Halifax prefers taking money from people rather than giving it back because, "It's not against your interests to put money in an account, only take it out. And how do we know you're who you say you are?"

How, indeed. Well, perhaps by having the relevant, detailed and longstanding customer databases to know who I am. By having electronic scanners for my ID to send it instantly to accreditation systems and cross reference me. And that's just two of the ways to help you not have to accuse me of being a criminal. Thanks, Halifax.

I stormed out of the Green Park branch.

At home in south east London today, I've had a much nicer in-store experience. My passport and driving licence were scanned and faxed to Edinburgh ("You don't need to change your address. I don't know why everybody has tried to make it so difficult for you" said the wonderful manager - though, in fairness, this again reeks of inconsistent policy).

When I started firing salvos onto Twitter last night, customer services were very keen on shutting me down and taking me to direct messages. Once there, they couldn't do anything to help me, and couldn't, again, direct me to any official policy documents about how the bank deals with ISA Investor accounts.

My only conclusion? The Halifax is making it all up as it goes along.

After my (better) experience in the local branch today, I called Edinburgh again, armed with my copy of the fax header confirming it had gone through (luckily, I know what a fax cover sheet looks like as I worked in the public sector a decade and a half ago, when faxes were still normal).

And now for the killer - I was told there is nothing the Halifax can do for me for the next 24 hours, as this is the time it takes to process a fax in that office. "To get it onto the computer" - whatever that means.

Twenty-four hours to process a fax. And I was asked for the second time for my personal contact number, despite being asked for it yesterday (not for data protection - simply for reference. This clearly hadn't been retained either).

In the past day, the Halifax has demonstrated to me one, or both, of two clear points. One: it does not have modern, robust or capable CRM systems. I slipped through the gap every single time I tried to deal with a new person. There is no accessible, centralised policy documentation which customers and staff can access on a peer level to make agreements, or which branches or offices can cross-reference with each other. There is no decent customer services model - even the outgoing telephone systems don't work properly.

And overall, there is no way for me, in 2015, to access money they and I both know is mine, instantly and remotely, when I am absolutely legally entitled to that money.

The second point - although I can't so easily prove this - is that I believe the Halifax is quite happy to maintain this state of affairs. It seems to be a bank that does not want its customers to access their money. It seems to be a bank that is quite happy to enchant a 17-year-old kid into forking out his cash over a cup of tea in a posh office, but not quite so happy to give back the pittance that's grown on that money in 13 years.

Computing has covered enough catastrophes in UK banks in the past few years, so it's no real surprise the IT situation is this lax, but to anybody who deals with the public's money I would say this: we don't trust you anymore.

And if you'd like to build a better relationship back up with us, the first thing you could do is build some seamless, transparent and effective IT systems that are built in the favour of the paying customer, not your shady, ever-shifting backroom decisions.

I, of course, understand regulation and law is of paramount important, but there's real regulation and there's hiding behind a suggestion of it. After 24 hours, I'm still to be directed to the Halifax's official policies on any of the lines I've been fed.

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