Friday, February 17, 2006

English customer (dis)service

I like almost everything about the British so far--but they have a lot to learn about customer service. Mrs. Werbenmanjensen has summed it up so far when she said (I'm paraphrasing here) she understands now where a lot of the Monty Python sketches come from, because the English (particularly their banks) are a maw of useless bureaucracy and paperwork.

Mrs. Werbenmanjensen's employer has a close relationship with a bank that, in theory, made it easy for her to open an account without first obtaining the archaic letter of credit (mind you, in the United States we owned a house now valued at a half-a-million dollars, among other assets, but never mind that, we're in England now, and they're evidently incapable of pushing the necessary computer buttons that will allow them to find our paper trail). This bank has been nothing but a burr under our saddles for the better part of the month we've been here.

Now, for reasons that are a little bit too complicated to explain even in a longish blog post, Mrs. W has suffered more from this than I have. But as an example of the silliness: When I arrived, Mrs. W had, of necessity, already opened a bank account. I needed to be added to the account once I arrived, however. We went over there to the branch near her office. Now, it was a busy downtown branch at lunch hour, so a long wait was somewhat expected. There were forms to fill out, sure, that's understandable. But at the conclusion of the form-filling-out, the clerk asks, "Now I'll need to see some proof of address."

Mrs. W and I look at each other dumbfounded.

The clerk continues: "Since you're not married ..."

We say in unison: "We are married."

Now, in our real lives, Mrs. W and I don't have the same last names, but we've never been asked to prove this to anybody. But oh no--this is an English bank, so I have to present a marriage certificate to them. (I expected this of immigration when I arrived, but not the freaking bank. Immigration was easier: They just asked, "Who's the work permit holder?" and then didn't even bother to check that.)

Today was a breaking point for me. I've received neither debit card nor credit card for this account, so I'm more or less reliant on Mrs. W to give me my allowance and do things like pay for dinner and such. While I'm a sensitive 21st century man, and I realize it's community property, it's still nice to "buy" your wife dinner, and I'm sure it's annoying for her to keep having to give me cash. I have U.S. credit cards--but the account backing one of them is being kept alive only to pay a couple of things in the states and is dwindling rapidly. I can't use them online because the cards are associated with a U.S. address. In addition to that, the UK has moved over to the chip and pin cards, rendering my U.S. cards somewhat obsolete. In short, I need UK cards.

So I call the hell spawn at this bank to ask them where my cards are. We have the usual security questions: full name, then date of birth. And then this question: Can I name a transaction since the last statement?"

Me: "Does a deposit count?" (I made one two days ago)
Hell Spawn: "It must be a debit."
Me: "Well, you see, there's a problem with that in that I can't possibly make a debit because I don't have a card."
Hell Spawn: "You need to have that in order for me to be able to answer any questions about the account."
Me: "I can't possibly do that because I haven't made any transactions, because I don't have my cards. That's what I'm calling about."
Hell Spawn: "If you can confirm from your partner ..."
Me (bright idea--try The Magic Customer Service Words): "Can I speak to a manager?"
Hell Spawn: "He's going to ask the same questions."
Me: "Can I speak to a manager?"
Hell Spawn: "He's going to ask the same questions."
Me: "Can I speak to a manager?"
Hell Spawn: "Hold on."

Silence. No comforting Muzak.

Hell Spawn: "My manager says he will ask you the same questions."
Me: "Can I speak to a manager?"
Hell Spawn: "My manager says he will ask you the same questions."
Me: "Are you telling me I can't speak to a manager?"
Hell Spawn: "He'll ask you the same questions."
Me: "Are you telling me I can't speak to a manager."
Hell Spawn: "He stepped out."
Me: "So I can't talk to a manager."
Hell Spawn: "He'll ask you the same questions."
Me: "Can I speak to a manager then?"
Hell Spawn: "He stepped ou--"

It was at that point I ended the conversation.

Seriously: It was kind of like a cross of the Python cheese shop sketch and the dead parrot sketch. What I really wish is that it had been the room for hit-on-the-head lessons, only I wanted to hold the hammer.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aw quit yer whining. My older girl was born in Italy. The day after her birth, Mr. QL dutifully went to register her birth at the American Consulate so she would be eligible to run for prez one day. They wanted to see a marriage certificate. We have the same last names, and supplied them with passports and Italian identity papers. No go. Without the marrigage certificate, they would only register her birth with my maiden name and under "father" they would put "unknown." Even though Mr. QL was willing, nay, anxious to file an affidavit attesting to paternity. So we have to write to NYC Bureau of Records and get a copy of our marriage certificate. Basically, she was unregistered as an American for the first two months of her life. I had just finished reading "Winds of War" and had many a nightmare.

So you having to cadge a few meals from your wife doesn't get much sympathy from me. ;)

11:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shit, that was me.

ql in ny

11:17 PM  
Blogger Middle Kid said...

Wow, what a bummer! All that while your spirits, wine, and
perfume/toilet water are still stuck in customs.

4:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel for you man. Stiff-ass Brits!

11:00 AM  
Anonymous vaara said...

"I can't use them online because the cards are associated with a U.S. address."

What kind of online transactions are you talking about? I use my U.S. cards for intra-European purchases all the time (for example, ordering stuff from

You can also get cash advances on your credit cards, if you have PIN codes for them and you don't mind paying the interest.

One tip: if it's not too late, make sure to choose a bank that allows you to make online transfers to the U.S. I use this service all the time to transfer money to myself to pay off my U.S. cards (which I also do online).

Re: stupid bureaucratic hassles, before my partner could sponsor me to live here, the Netherlands required us to present proof that we *weren't* married. Imagine that -- having to show proof of a state that doesn't exist! Fortunately the U.S. Embassy was used to such requests, so they just took our word that we weren't bigamists and gave us notarized letters.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Smitty Werbenmanjensen said...


I haven't updated the addresses on my U.S. cards yet, and I'm a little bit afraid of what will happen if I do.

11:54 AM  
Anonymous vaara said...

Well, it helps if you have a trusted friend or relative back in the States whose address you could use and who's willing to be your bookkeeper. I'd volunteer my mom, but she's already busy enough with my endless stream of bank statements and credit-card bills...

One more thought on the UK bank situation: Don't they still use those quaint "check" (excuse me, "cheque") things over there? If so, you could just write someone a cheque for £1, then as soon as they deposit it and it clears, voilà! You'll have a debit on your account.

(Oh, and make sure you get the quid back.)

12:08 PM  
Blogger Smitty Werbenmanjensen said...

We could do that. It'll get straightened out as soon as we have a debit this weekend.

It's just silly, you know? How about asking me my mother's maiden name as a security question ...

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Emma Appaloosa said...

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3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I stumbled across your blog today because we are potentially moving to London as well. I laughed myself silly with the hellspawn bit... ;-) Thanks for the laughs & the great info.

12:33 AM  

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