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25 October 2008

Royal Bank of Scotland incompetence

I have always been a bit surprised by the banking industry. It must be that there is a special set of skills you can only get when working for banking that is completely unavailable anywhere else. The vast majority of banks (when they used to hire people) only took on people with previous banking experience. You might be the best web project manager going, but if you haven't worked for a bank they won't interview you. You might have all the relevant qualifications, but if you haven't worked for a bank, they won't interview you. You might even have extensive payments, e-commerce experience and been security vetted, but if you haven't worked for a bank they won't interview you. Although I have worked in financial services, retail, government and a wide range of sectors, banking is unique in that they require previous experience and will wait forever for the right person and pay over the odds for them rather than take someone who is capable of doing the job. Even government has realised that just employing government people to top jobs is a loser and is keen to recruit from outside. Not so the closed and incestuous world of banking which being so far shoved it own backside is now up the proverbial creek without a paddle and in the biggest mess for nearly a century. Led of course by people who are lifelong bankers, rather than well rounded individuals with a breadth of experience.

I turn now to the fiasco which is Royal Bank Digital Banking which has been the biggest disaster of a service imaginable ever since it first launched, failing of course to casually ignore the bank’s obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act to provide an accessible service for many years.

7 years after the likes of Egg and Intelligent Finance implemented online secure messaging, Royal Bank (they like to claim they are a leader) still doesn't have it. The "alternative" is a long phone call, possibly at expensive rates overseas from a mobile. Not very much of an "online" service then.

They also used to have a very useful financial planner application online. This service was withdrawn.

Recently, and completely unannounced, they made some changes to online banking such that even amending a payment to myself requires a card reader and a card with PIN. Being a business banking customer, my account had no card as all my transactions are online. I write a cheque about once a month and since it's posted, there is no requirement for a card, nor does my account come with one. So in order to do my transactions online I had to have a special online-only card issued. I also need a PIN and a card reader and I have to pack the card and reader as additional extras when I travel just so that I can pay wages into my own account. The alternative (having done it twice now) is a long conversation lasting about 20-30 minutes on the phone to do exactly the same thing but at great expense if I was calling from overseas.

I won't debate the merits of how secure or otherwise this recent change is nor indeed why they would need to implement all that security online when the phone system is as insecure as ever and of course is over an open channel, anyone within earshot can hear it etc. Bit like having 1 lock on your front door and 2 million locks on your back door then saying "we just added another million locks to the back door; our service is really secure now". Burglars aren't stupid. They break in at the weakest point; therefore the security of the back door is irrelevant until the front door is up to the same standard.

So now I turn to the latest set of problems with online banking. They sent me a card, PIN and reader for use with the online banking service over a year ago. However, at that time I had no need for them. The service didn't require their use either for regular payments. A year passed and in all that time I didn't need them once. Then all of a sudden without warning RBS changed the website behaviour so that paying myself via the same payment I had successfully been using for years was now deemed as high risk as setting up a brand new payment to Nigeria in response to a possible scam. Both transactions now need the card, card reader and PIN. No problem I thought and dug out the card and reader I'd got a year ago.

Went to set up transaction and the system said I would need to order a card reader. Funny that, I wonder what the system thought the thing I was holding was that was called a "card reader". There was no way to reset the flag in the system to say I already had one other than to order another one and wait several days until the system thought it had arrived, by which time I could then use the one I already had.

Then I went to use the card I'd had for a year and realised that since I'd never used the card, I couldn't remember the PIN. I called RBS and asked them to send me a new PIN. No can do, that type of card can't have its PIN reset, they had to order a new card instead. However, there's a problem with the supplier and the new card might take up to 3 weeks to arrive. 4 weeks later, I still have no card, no PIN for use with new card and therefore no on-line service. This remember is from a so called leading bank. Buggy websites, poor card functionality and supplier problems too.

On 15th October I put in the following complaint:

1. That the on-line system was changed without warning and for customers like me who required both a card and PIN we needed a 3 week warning at least to ensure no loss of service. This advance warning was not given.

2. I need a card and a PIN to do trivial on-line transactions between my own accounts that have never been a problem, if you are going to change the service to require cards and PINs, you need to check that these cards and PINs are actually available and there isn't a supplier problem. If there is, you need to either delay the upgrade or have an on-line workaround.

3. My wife and I share the same bank account. It isn't possible to set up pay from the business account to our joint account so that my pay goes through as one transaction and her pay goes through as another transaction without endless security checks. Paying a husband and wife who share a common account is such a basic item it is astonishing that it is impossible with direct banking to set up two payments to the same account but with two difference references (e.g. Craig pay and Joscelin pay). Never mind the "Craig dividends" "Joscelin dividends" and expenses payment references I might need as well - one account can only have one reference at a time.

4. When logging the above complaint on 15th October I was passed between several agents all of whom re-requested my details verbally. This is a security risk when I am calling from a phone as it increases the opportunity of people overhearing the conversation. RBS should implement an internal secure call transfer system, just as they already have when transferring from the telephone banking system to when you speak to an agent.

Points 1,2,3,4 were logged as a complaint on 15th October and I was told I would receive a response by 17th October. On 19th October I complained that no response had been received. On 21st October they wrote me a letter saying that they had tried to call me on the 21st but were unable to make contact. My phone has no record of a missed call or otherwise from the bank on 21st October. The response to my complaint was to explain that a card reader order was pending (which I knew) and that I could order a card reader on-line (which I don't care about as they've just acknowledged one was on its way). The letter then said that the changes were introduced to safeguard customers from possible fraud. No explanation as to why no notice was given, no explanation to explain why the loss of on-line service was not considered any explanation as to when my card and PIN which I am still waiting for would actually arrive, no explanation as to their poor call handling and complaint response times.

So I thought I would document the problems on-line just so they have a written record they can look up in case they lose the details again. I also find that telling an organisation I have put my comments on my blog generally results in a better response than the usual stock half-hearted template reply.

Maybe the next time I think of applying for a bank I should put "I want to work for an incestuous company that has no concept of customer service, technical capability or approach to delivering a high class product" and I might stand more of a chance in future. On the other hand, I might just put "Previous banking experience: UK taxpayer. Through your own incompetence taxpayers like me own a part of you. We bailed you out."

Surely an organisation that used to make billions of pounds profit a year and was bigger than Coke could actually deliver a basic on-line service and help desk that is better than this?

23 October 2008

Estate Agents and the no commission model

So the property market is now at the point where estate agents are selling houses with no commission charges (This is London; 20th October 2008)

Hardly news for me however, I wrote about this in the Linlithgow Gazette on 17th October and on this very blog almost 5 months ago.

How many more estate agents will go bust before they realise the commission model driven on a low number of high profit sales is no longer viable?

These days the main source of house sales is the Internet. If websites didn't run a closed shop estate agents only model, then members of the general public could sell their own homes for a tiny fraction of the present commission driven cost.

The longer that estate agents cling to the 1%+ sales commission model, the more incentive there is for some real competition from the likes of House network - commission free selling.

I should not more have to pay an estate agent several thousand pounds for picking up the phone and sending a seller my way than I should pay autotrader a commission for selling my car. Even eBay don't charge a commission for selling property.

Conventional estate agents pay attention! Time to wake up and smell the coffee.


Letter from Linlithgow Gazette 17th October 2008:

A challenge

Sir,— I have lived in Linlithgow for over seven years and during that time have seen businesses close in the High Street and seen a reduction in diversity in the High Street, including no toy shop, more sandwich shops and properties lying vacant. Coming from the other side of the argument, I worked for Tesco and was IT manager of the grocery website at their corporate HQ in Hertfordshire last year. Yet I feel that another out of town shopping centre is the last thing the town needs – I would rather have Tesco where it is than a larger supermarket that you need to get in a car to drive to.

The £10 minimum charge levied by retailers on credit cards doesn't apply at Tesco and if the small retailers don't want to alienate people they need to drop this requirement – even small retailers can use credit card clearing facilities that charge a flat amount per month (just like Tesco) rather than a per transaction fee.
My job as an e-commerce consultant takes me all over the UK. When I work in London, I see that small traders get more passing custom yet seem much more willing to capitalise on the internet to supplement their passing trade.

With online shopping continuing to rise, the efforts of the Linlithgow High Street to reach out to anyone wanting to shop on line are woeful by comparison. Even something as basic as a one page website listing the company name, address, email address, products and services and opening hours is missing from most of the High Street traders and instead people searching often find traders in Livingston or Falkirk instead – for example enter Linlithgow Plumber in Google and the first site returned says there are none.

Enter West Lothian computers and Google maps returns nothing for Linlithgow either. Most of the time entering generic search terms, for example Linlithgow pubs or Linlithgow restaurants such as tourists would use, simply results in generic listing type sites over which local businesses usually have little or no control – actually returning the site belonging to a local business or would be far more useful.

Whilst is a useful first step, in times of a credit crunch and competing with out of town shopping, the woeful presence of Linlithgow on the Internet does not help businesses reach out to new customers who would rather look online.

Indeed even those with the most developed websites, that is estate agents, now face challenges from online-only estate agents who list property for sale on the same websites and at a tiny fraction of the price charged by Linlithgow High Street agents. Even the might of can't tell me what's in stock at my local shop in Linlithgow.

The challenge of out of town shopping, online searching for businesses and online shopping presents a problem for businesses from local high street shops to major retail groups, and the people of Linlithgow. In difficult economic times we need to come together and do everything possible to reach as many customers as possible.
Not having an adequate Internet presence in this day and age is like not having a phone number 30 years ago.

Making Linlithgow at the heart of Silicon Glen fully connected with modern shopping trends would not only complement Cittaslow status, but would help businesses of all kinds to combat the challenges posed not only by Springfield's development but also global shopping trends.—Yours etc.,
Chartered IT Professional

17 October 2008

Star of Bombay, 157 Westbourne Grove, London W11

If you bought some goods and then had a mandatory 30% charge slapped on them without warning you'd probably be pretty annoyed.

Restaurants do this with alarming regularity, nowhere else indulges in such a dubious practice so why do restaurants such as the Star of Bombay and indeed about 90% of other restaurants annoy and mislead customers like this when 99% of non restaurant businesses are open and honest about their pricing?

Supposing the price of the food is £20. On top of this slap the 10% mandatory service charge whether you like the food or not and even if it's just you eating. So the price of the food is now £22. Rather than an honest price for the food of £22, it's a dishonest £20 with an extra £2 even if the service was rubbish.

On top of that, as a VAT registered business I should be able to claim back the VAT by getting a VAT bill. So the real cost to me should be £20 * 100/117.5 or £17.02. Instead, because the restaurant just issues a piece of paper with a VAT number and a total on it, this is not a VAT bill and as the VAT isn't separately itemised, it can't be reclaimed. Combined with the dishonest 10% mandatory service change (little more than a table ordering charge, since pub bring the food to my table and don't charge a tip) the cost of the meal is £22 instead of £17.02, a mark-up of over 29% and nearly £5. Eat out 5 times a week on business and approx 1.5 meals equivalent cost is due to rip off charges and poor billing practices by restaurants rather than the actual price of the food which I need to eat. When I registered for VAT, one of the first things I learned was how to issue a correct VAT invoice for customers and all it takes is a piece of paper, a computer or till, a printer and calculator/excel/word or similar so that the invoice has the total, vat total, date, address, and VAT number. Hardly rocket science, so why do restaurants think they are the only sector that can do what it likes in terms of billing? It also makes me wonder if a restaurant can't meet its VAT legal obligations, do they have the same laissez-faire attitude towards legal obligations towards food hygiene which require more skill to meet?

Anyone that rips me off by nearly 30% doesn't deserve praise. So in a recession where places are competing for customer business, I will be sending more business the way of pubs because 95%+ of pubs can produce a proper VAT receipt and don't rip me off with a mandatory service charge, whereas 90% of restaurants do (and they are more expensive). I note most restaurants, especially midweek, are pretty quiet just now. They might be busier if there wasn't a 29%+ surcharge in the bill.

As for the food at the Star of Bombay, well it may be the favourite restaurant of The Chemical Brothers, but I found the food fairly ordinary, the poppadoms were too crispy and disintegrated on touching and dumping the sweet menu in my face without asking me if I would like to see the sweet menu meant the mandatory 10% "service charge" was taking liberties with the name of service.

As for the Star of Bombay, I'll leave the Chemical Brothers to it and eat elsewhere in future. There's no chemistry here for me.

'Craig ate here' on 16th October.

16 October 2008

The Swan, 66 Bayswater Road, Lancaster Gate, W2

Decent enough pub serving a good choice of real ale and large portions of food. The slab of salmon completely dominated my plate and was one of the largest portions of fresh fish I've had in a while. Speedy service and a proper VAT receipt (unlike most restaurants) count in its favour, although having to walk through a smoky beer garden to get to the door was no fun. Convenient for Lancaster Gate tube and probably worth a repeat visit that next time I fancy a large slab of salmon!

'Craig ate here' on 14th October.

13 October 2008

The Victoria pub, Strathearn place, Paddington W2

Excellent traditional London pub steeped in history, serving great food at competitive prices. Good choice of Fullers beers makes this an ideal destination for the real ale enthusiast. Ample wine menu. There is also an upstairs function room. Quiz night 9pm Tuesdays can be busy, but there are also a few outside tables if it's full inside. Decent curry across the road too. Unlike many restaurants I've eaten at in the Paddington area, there's no mandatory rip off 'service charge' for the cheery service and unlike said restaurants, The Victoria CAN give you a correctly itemised VAT receipt. Excellent food, excellent atmosphere, excellent service. Recommended and will return and I suggest a few restaurant owners should dine at The Victoria too and learn how it should be done.

'Craig ate here' on 13th October.

09 October 2008

Khan's Indian restaurant, Westbourne Grove, Bayswater

Food poor, service even worse . Mandatory service charge even if you think the service doesn't deserve it. They can produce a bill with the service itemised but not a correct VAT bill with the VAT itemised, even though they know it should be. Oh and my credit card receipt said "cash". Dodgy food, dodgy billing. Avoid.


05 October 2008

Multimap goes down the toilet (literally)

I have already blogged about the failings of multimap. I first wrote to them in March 2001 that EH49 7PL is in fact called Avalon Gardens and always has been since the road was first built in 1999. Anyone, including multimap, can check this via the postcode database. Avalon Gardens is a cul-de-sac and only connects to Mill Road, is not a through road to the Falkirk road and indeed since there has been a school at the end of Avalon Gardens since 2002 on East Mill Road (no connection to Avalon Gardens) then the road name for the school is also wrong. Nearly 10 years later, the information is still completely wrong. Despite them writing to me in April 2007 with this information:

Your comments are much appreciated as having accurate data on the site is very important to us. Having investigated the issue you reported, we have identified a potential data anomaly. Our data comes from various suppliers and we have forwarded your query to the relevant supplier in order for them to investigate and make any necessary amendments at source. We receive regular data updates and although we are unable to give you a timescale of when this improvement will take place, you can rest assured that any corrections will filter through to the Multimap website in due course.

OK, here's another rather more humourous "anomaly". I entered a postcode to get a map. The correct map came up (surprise!). I then clicked on directions thinking it would use my map position as the starting point. I then entered my destination postcode. However, the initial postcode location wasn't populated from the map search, instead it was blanked off and the "default" postcode used instead. Not content with using the point in London where all distances are measured from, namely the equestrian statue of Charles I at the south end of Trafalgar Square (the original site of Charing Cross), multimap has its own central point of reference.

The actual centre of Multimap's universe is show on the following image (click to enlarge), taken from a screen capture and easily replicated via the above steps.

So now we know from the enlarged image. Not only is the centre of the multimap universe a gentlemen's private part just off King Willy (sorry William) Street, but on a journey to what should be the centre of UK mapping it sends us past Nelson's column and Cockspur Street (that's enough genital references) in a convoluted path apparently going the wrong way down a one way street between stages 3 and 4. All in all, rather a cock up.

I think that the orange advert says it all: "When turning back is out of the question you have to put your trust in what you know". Which is this case is knowing that multimap once again is not the dogs bollocks, rather it belongs in King William's toilet.


01 October 2008

Correct VAT receipt

I've blogged before about VAT receipts but just for the benefit of the 90%+ of restaurants who seem to think that a total and a VAT number constitutes a VAT receipt, here's the news - it doesn't.

The two things that most restaurants leave off is the separately itemised amount of VAT included in the bill and the rate of VAT applicable. If any restaurants are reading and want to know what you need to put on a VAT receipt, please check out the HMRC website.


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