Hamper, Stall, Bind & Clog

HSBC Most folks know I have no love for Hong Kong banks.

The Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation in particular has been a thorn in my side for many years. If you're employed by that bank, take heed: the inner works need a massive shake-up.

HSBC specialises in removing or reducing services that make banking easier for customers, and replacing them with services designed to save the bank as much money as possible. Added to the mix is a Byzantine labyrinth of bureaucracy made of paper and maintained by drones.

"... a Byzantine labyrinth of bureaucracy ..."

The bank has the temerity to call it customer service.

Oh, you want an example. Well, for the longest time I've used the ATM at the Sha Tin branch to deposit cash and cheques. It was easy and simple: no waiting in a long queue, no hassles; the machine's precise function.

And then overnight, the bank yanked the deposit service from the ATM and replaced it with three cash-deposit machines and a single cheque-deposit machine. The cash machines accept nothing smaller than a $100 banknote, and the cheque machine doesn't take foreign demand drafts or money orders.

What: are the employees allergic to counting 20s and 50s? It all added up to more accounting headaches and more trips to the branch during business hours to handle the cheques. Wow, what a super service enhancement!

I complained, but got the usual self-serving, scripted apology letter in reply, which is par for the course with Hong Kong companies. The bank made no attempt to restore the ATM service; it was their way or the highway.

To add insult to injury, the cheque machine at that branch is down about 50% of the time. I play a little guessing game each time I approach the door: will my blood pressure rise or fall?

Only HSBC could take something simple and turn it into a major waste of time.

· ƒ ·

The latest round of abuse came after a vendor failed to return my debit card after a purchase. I was distracted and hadn't noticed; it happens to everyone sooner or later.

He called the bank's hotline number on the back of the card, and in turn the bank called me to let me know. I was just across the street, so I popped back into the shop to retrieve the card. Total elapsed time: eight minutes.

"So that's why they kept calling me "Mr. Joseph"."

That should have been the end of it, right?

Wrong.

The hotline staffer told me that she'd put a hold on the card in the name of security. This meant I couldn't use it until I visited a branch to have it "reactivated". I was warned not to use an ATM until then.

The following day was a public holiday, which meant an extra day's wait before I could rectify the situation.

Once I got to the branch, I explained the problem to a "customer service" representative, who passed the buck to a teller. In effect, she made me jump the queue. That wasn't what I'd had in mind, but she ushered me to the window anyway.

Feeling dozens of pairs of eyes boring hate into the back of my skull, I hoped the teller would be quick. No such luck.

I repeated the story, but she grew mystified as she stared at the monitor. She then summoned a supervisor, who concurred that nothing was amiss with the card. I asked them to be certain, as I didn't want the ATM to eat the card. When that happens, it takes days to get it back, including another trip to the branch.

According to their information, the card was clear and ready to use.

I should have known better.

The next day we had plans to hop across the border for a day-trip to Shenzhen. I stopped at the ATM to grab some cash. You don't have to be a fortune-teller to know what happened next.

I was livid. Not only had the bank screwed up our day, I had no choice but to visit the branch if I wanted my card back.

This was the point where HSBC could have sent me into a homicidal rage: all it had to do was serve up some face-saving, insincere apology, and insist I return in three days to retrieve my card.

Thank God someone with a modicum of professionalism took charge, or I'd be writing this from prison.

At first she failed to listen and take clear stock of the events which had forced us back to the branch. We could see where things were headed and told her in no uncertain terms that we wouldn't accept anything less than swift return of the card, delivered to our home.

"Couriers exist for a reason."

The bank caused the problem, it could eat the time and cost to fix it. She conferred with the manager, who agreed to have the card sent over but tried for a three-day delay, saying they'd need time to recover the card, and that the next day was going to be another public holiday.

Our response? Couriers exist for a reason.

While all this was going on, the service rep discovered that the bank's records for the card were incorrect. Amazing, considering we've notified HSBC in due course each time we've moved. The home address was out-of-date by two moves, an obsolete phone number and a closed chequing account were somehow still attached, and they had switched my first and middle names. So that's why they kept calling me "Mr. Joseph".

After getting all that sorted out, we decided on one final order of business: to get my wife's e-mail address taken off the mailing spamming list. We'd never opted to receive e-mail from the marketing department, and it offered no easy way to opt out.

To no one's surprise, the bank produced yet another form.

Rather than a single opt-out check box for our account, the form had no fewer than eight promotional methods listed. Of these, we didn't use two, one was necessary, and the remaining five covered unwanted contacts, including mail, home phone calls, e-mail, mobile phone calls and SMS.

Put another way: if you weren't aware that each item was separate, you could cancel e-mail and continue to bombarded by junk mail and phone spam until the end of time.

· ƒ ·

In my wildest dreams, HSBC hires me (a real customer with real needs) as a consultant, with a nice, fat commission to explain why its service blows monkey chunks and how to fix it. In this fantasy land, the bank's executives fall all over themselves in drooling gratitude as customers embrace feeling valued and respected, driving up the corporation's profits as they use more of the bank's services instead of taking their business across the street.

In this realm of all things possible, the company learns to grease the wheels of commerce for everyone, from big enterprise to the little guy: not to Hamper, Stall, Bind and Clog. Swine take wing, snowballs in Hell last forever, and gratuitous service fees are swept aside.

Alas, these are naught but flights of fancy.

First we must see how fast HSBC returns my ATM card.

May 3, 2006

Next Tale: Dogs, Frogs, Bugs, Slugs and Floods