I’ve had it with Barclaycard

[Forgive me reader, but I am cross]

My wife forgot to pay her monthly Barclaycard account. The consequence was a telephone call on a Sunday night from an agent whose job it was to take some money via any other card. She was very distressed to get such a call, after all she has been a customer for many years and has always paid her account in full each month; she paid just the interest owing.

Maybe this was a mistake for the next thing that happened was her credit limit was cut, the up-shot of which was the card was already at the new limit and our daughter (using her ‘mummy card’) was unable to pay for petrol. Daughter in service station, mummy in South Africa… you can imagine the stress…

To add insult to injury she then got a letter from Barclaycard telling her she was no longer entitled to withdraw cash in the UK (something she never uses her card for). The first line of the letter reads:

‘At Barclaycard we aim to prevent customers borrowing more than they can afford to repay.’ Shows how little they know about her.

All of these actions were driven by a computer, I am sure. I expect they call it a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. Ha!

CRM is a misnomer

The events to which my wife was subjected were caused by the rules managers put into the system (whether the IT system or the agent’s procedures); agents have to do as directed when the account pops up.

The rules have been a bug-bear for me every time I travel. When I go abroad with my Barclaycard, the card always gets turned off. It means I have to make an international call on a mobile phone. The conversations are always the same:
‘Hi, John here, you’ve stopped my card.’ ‘It’s for your protection Mr Seddon, we are trying to prevent fraud.’ ‘Well take a look at my history, I travel a lot and I always buy the same things’ (I have a habit of buying wine).

Any person with half a brain would put two and two together and realise John’s up to his usual thing. It amazes me that whichever country I go to I am told Barclaycard is experiencing high levels of fraud there. I assume this is a standard scripted justification. As well as getting the card switched back on I insist on compensation for the phone call. This means talking to a supervisor, more phone time, more cost. Sometimes it means up to three calls.

On one occasion I insisted on speaking to the boss. Look at this from my point of view, I suggested. Your records show it is normal for me to travel and normal for me to buy wine (and I’m thinking is this what fraudsters do too?). If your computer flags up my account as a query surely a quick call to me would be the way to go: ‘Hi John, your friendly Barclaycard people here, is that you buying wine in wherever?’

‘Couldn’t do that’, said the boss, ‘that would mean creating an out-bound telephone team’. Shows he has a thinking problem. He is content to have me embarrassed in front of a shop-keeper, have me wait around for half an hour while his computer gets corrected and have me spend half an hour on a mobile phone talking to and waiting to talk to his agents and their supervisors: big cost to him and maximum pain to me. I pointed out his job title (Director of Customer Experience) was a nonsense; he clearly knew nothing of the customer experience nor showed concern to design his organisation to optimise the same.

I notice, on the letter to my wife, his job title has now changed to Director of Customer Service. I expect others castigated him for having such a shockingly inappropriate title.

Can anybody recommend a credit card service that is customer-friendly?

Fear drives bankers

We recently completed an assignment with another UK bank. It was in their collections department. Just as with Barclaycard, as soon as the customer misses a payment, the IT system starts a predefined lettering campaign. If this does not prompt the customer to pay then the computer pops the account onto an agent’s screen and the agent’s job is to get money right then and there over the phone. Details of the payment taken are fed into the computer and it decides when to make the next call with the same (‘collections’) purpose. What was most frustrating for customers was that if they called to say they had a problem paying before they had missed any payments there was nothing agents could do to help because the customers weren’t in the correct IT system.

You only had to listen to calls to learn how awful this was from the customers’ point of view. It wasn’t unusual for customers to avoid the call, knowing it meant grief and in their words ‘to be treated like a criminal’. Agents were measured on calls made, monies collected and were incentivised to collect the
most money. No surprise there.

What had been completely forgotten was why customers were in arrears. The reality was most of these people had experienced either a minor cash flow problem or had a major life changing event (redundancy, divorce, serious illness, etc). Yet the system was designed to treat them all the same.

We helped them redesign the service, to make it work from the customers’ point of view. The first contact was a problem-solving contact: Hi, you missed a payment, is there a problem, can we help? Instead of following rules agents were to help the customer solve the problem, and there were no constraints; they could re-structure debt, repossess the item bought (for example the car) and so on.

The results were astonishing. The agents collected more money and the customers were happier – without prompting, many told the agents how impressed they were with the service. What’s more we showed this design could be delivered with only 30% of the agents. Delivering the service against customer demand meant the removal of massive volumes of failure demand and other types of waste. So, a major change: massive improvements in collections, vast improvements in efficiency and huge improvement in customer service. Furthermore agents were happier, for now they were doing a much more interesting and worthwhile job.

The only down side was the solution meant the computer system would be redundant, it meant managers would have to confess to their board that last year’s multi-million pound investment in technology was a waste. What did they do? Nothing. The redesign was dropped.

Deming used to say doesn’t anybody care about profit? All the customers wanted – just like my wife – was a conversation that would help them solve their problem. But banks seem to be designed on the assumption customers are delinquent.

What drives Mrs Kelly?

Last month I went to a presentation of systems thinking in one of Vanguard’s housing clients. I was so impressed with the work and, at the same time, disturbed at being reminded how the government requirements were part of the problem and not part of the solution. I was compelled to write to Mrs Kelly, the minister responsible:

‘Dear Mrs Kelly,

I am moved to write to you today because I have just attended a presentation by [client name not reproduced here]. They have taken the systems approach to re-designing housing repairs and, like others, now achieve levels of performance beyond what might have been considered achievable if set as targets. In doing this work they have learned, as others have before them, that the statutory BVPIs are actually making performance worse. Attendees at the presentation – board members, senior managers and contractors – were concerned that in the face of the evidence your agents have failed to act. Like others in housing who have taken this route these people now find themselves in the ridiculous position of having to measure and report things that they know are making their performance worse.

I first raised this matter with Roy Irwin and Roger de la Mare (heads of housing and inspection at the Audit Commission). It was also published in your own department’s report evaluating the systems approach to housing, but the report’s findings were not taken account of in the subsequent review of measures conducted by the Housing Corporation, despite making them aware of the issue. I have also raised the matter more generally with the chief executive of the Audit Commission.

This is a problem you could solve easily. In so doing you would send a clear signal that what matters is improvement, not compliance. I would like to propose a meeting between you and housing association leaders who have knowledge of this problem. They will explain the problem, how they have achieved outstanding levels of improvement and the measures they now use.

If you are obliged to delegate this meeting please send somebody who is able to make a decision.’

Would it surprise you to know I have not heard from Mrs Kelly? She must have something more important to do. I wonder what it is.

Public services fell into a trap

What ought to occupy the minister has been the subject of a television series. Over three Sundays in March, the BBC ran a programme called The Trap. Produced by Adam Curtis, the series explored the discontinuity between the government’s espoused promise of greater freedom in public services and the actual strangulation and sub-optimisation created by centralised control. The central thesis was government has been persuaded by economists, promoting the concept of game theory, that people are simple self-seeking, and react to stimulation (targets, accountability etc) from a purely self interested perspective.

The end of the second programme made me laugh. Adam Curtis told us the only people who responded to questioning and fitted entirely with the selfishness predicted by game theorists were economists and psychopaths.

Maybe we should add ministers to that list.

Vanguard in the Antipodes

I shall be presenting a special two-day event in Australia (June 18th and 19th) and New Zealand (June 21st and 22nd).

The Quality Renaissance

On June 29th, I shall be making a key-note presentation for the Chartered Quality Institute in London. My title: The Quality Renaissance: innovation, care and management thinking. I shall be talking about the fundamental challenges facing managers who lead the renaissance. In case you are in any doubt these are systems thinkers who lead organisations that have achieved a profound shift in performance and morale.

I shall illustrate that while the ideas are easy to understand it requires hard work to put them into practice. While significant barriers are found by simply going through the process of changing thinking, they are insignificant compared to the barriers created by having to deal with others for whom the ideas are foreign and a threat.