Santander

This is the contents of an Open Letter that I sent to Santander Customer complaints. This letter was responded to approximately four weeks after it was sent, and following an email conversation chain, I was eventually offered 460 in compensation, which I took.

You will note that the letter states I will remove this page from the internet if Santander resolves my complaint - while they eventually paid out, it took an additional five emails and several weeks following the promise of compensation for them to actually fulfil their promise. Thus, the letter remains.


Introduction

Dear Santander.

I have in the past informed your employees that I maintain a website with a modest readership, and that I would publish my complaints if they were not addressed - they were not, and so I write this as an open letter. While I don't make a habit of this, I have done it before. As with other companies I've dealt with in a similar fashion, should you address my concerns fully, I promise to remove this account and replace it with an account of your good service.

Before we begin, I must apologise on my behalf for the sporadic nature of my interaction with your team. Frequently I have been left so frustrated at my attempts to get anything done that I have simply given up, not attempting any further interaction for several months. I realise this makes me a difficult customer to deal with, but given how insulting your service has been I do not feel that it is entirely my own fault. The contents of this page constitute a full account of all my interactions with your staff to the best of my memory.

I also apologise for the somewhat cynical and sarcastic tone that I adopt throughout this letter. I attribute this to the mood that thinking about having to deal with you puts me in.

Should you wish to contact me about these issues, I would ask that you email me at "dtb26@cantab.net" making sure to include the reference number "Santander0001" in the subject heading. This will assure me that I am dealing with a real person who has actually read my concerns, and not another auto-generated email response. It may still end up being another copy-paste response from the database, but I'm banking on my complaint not having a standard answer.


Why I have a Santander account

Upon leaving university, and also upon the sad passing away of a close friend of the family, I had saved up an amount of money that was significant enough to consider for serious investment. Overall I decided to invest a little over 9000, with plans to add to my savings later as my income exceeds my earnings. For the purposes of this document I'll just refer to the sums of money as 5k in a stock tracker ISA, and 5k in a fixed term bond, as this is a round figure in the right ballpark.

I must admit I didn't do a lot of research, but I did take some recommendations from friends and peers, and thus decided to invest the money with Alliance and Leicester. I already had an ISA with them and they had one branch in Cambridge on Sidney Street. It was relatively small, and tended to have quite long queues, but the staff were friendly and helpful, and fairly quickly sold me two investment schemes. I left the building that day with three accounts: 5k in a Stock Tracker ISA, 5k in a 1 year fixed term bond and about 20 left over in the old ISA account. These being savings, I promptly forgot about them for a year or so.

For those who are following along at home: the terms of the stock tracker ISA go something along the lines of this: I put 5000 in an account, and it's stuck there until February 2013 - at this time, we compare the value of the FTSE100 with its value in February 2008. If this has increased, then I take home a large return on my investment (something like 20%) - if it's lower, then I take home my original investment with a small return. In hindsight, this wasn't the best deal, but it looked good at the time. The fixed term bond earned a small amount for a year and then stopped earning any interest at all. Part of the terms of this product was that my money would be "instant access" in case I needed to dip into it during an emergency, even during that year.

This was early 2008 - as you will no doubt be aware, Santander took over the company later that year. In other words, you bought my account of Alliance and Leicester. You sent me no letters informing me of any changes to the terms of my investments.


The initial complaint

I guess that's enough background and unsupported acrimony. Let's move on to the main thrust of my complaint. I've already sent this to you once, via webform, on May 30th 2011. I recorded this on the internet. Parts of this story also exist in a poor quality webcomic here and here. For your information, I repeat the entire text of my complaint here:

A couple of years ago, I took out a fixed term bond with you for one year. I was informed that this would provide a good interest rate, and instant access to my money in the case of an emergency.

The term of the bond is over, and I have now been trying to access the money in the account for over 5 months. Santander seems to be completely incapable of providing me any access to this money whatsoever. I just want the money from my account, that's all.

In detail. I visited Cambridge Sidney Street branch in early January, and ask "how much money is in my account?" - I'm told that only a financial advisor is able to access my account, and that none are in. I am directed to the Trinity Street branch. I visit the Trinity street branch, and the same issue occurs and I am directed to the St. Andrews Street branch. I visit the St. Andrews street branch and I am redirected to the Sidney street branch. I inform the person on the desk that I have already visited Sidney Street, and she instead redirects me to Trinity Street. I inform her that I have visited that branch too, and she looks confused, and then decided to book me an appointment with a financial advisor. These are only available on Tuesdays, and I work full time.

I ask for a Saturday appointment, and one can be arranged for March. (Remember, this is an "instant access" account!) - so I book the March appointment.

In March, I visit the Trinity Street branch, where the appointment is. He takes my name, and asks me to confirm that the details on his print-out are correct for me. I correct my address, which has changed recently, but the rest is fine. The man on the desk then informs me that the appointment has been cancelled. I am not given a reason. He informs me that they have phoned me to tell me, but could not get through.

I pull out my mobile phone, and check it. I have not missed any calls in the last two months. I inform the man on the desk of this, and he insists that they phoned me, and claims that my phone number must be incorrect. I point out that I have just checked a printout with my phone number on it, and it is indeed correct. The man on my desk refuses to accept this and insists on taking my phone number to update his records. As it must be wrong.

I am booked in for another appointment at the end of April.

I visit St. Andrews Street in April. I am informed that the person who is supposed to be taking my appointment is ill, and that they have phoned me to cancel my appointment. I have no missed calls. Not wanting to again correct my phone number to the one that is currently in Santander's records, I apologise for not answering my phone and ask if I can book another appointment. This appointment is booked for May.

At the beginning of May, success! I actually speak to a financial advisor, who can access all of my accounts. She checks my details and finds out that my address is wrong in the Santander system. Indeed, two addresses are on file for me, and both are wrong, despite me having corrected them in March.

I appear to have three separate accounts, a stock tracker ISA, a cash ISA and the fixed term bond. The last two of these are "instant access" - have been earning no interest for over six months and contain about 4700. I close the accounts and am told the only way to remove the money from these "instant access" accounts is by Santander mailing me a cheque.

It is now the end of May. I have been mailed a check for the remaining contents of the cash ISA. This amount is 23.29. The contents of the Fixed Term Bond (about 4700) have not been sent to me.

I am deeply concerned with the practices employed at your Cambridge branches, and especially concerned about what would have happened if I'd have needed this money in an emergency. The products I was using were sold on the pretence that it would be possible to get the money out quickly if such occurred. This is clearly false. I should not have to visit branches more than ten times, book three appointments and wait five months to get at my money, and this is only so far, no cheque has arrived!

Additionally, the money in this account has not been earning any interest for the last 5 months, so my decision to save with you is evidently flawed.

Please aid me in resolving this problem, before I am forced to report your practices to external authorities.

Your website says that you endeavour to answer complaints submitted by the webform on the "same day" - I'd happened to submit my request on a bank holiday, so I expected a failure on this front - but a reply the following day instead.


What happened next

First, you sent me an auto-reply. While this was technically on the same day, I don't really count this as a "response" and I assume you don't either. The response said "This is a receipt to let you know we've received your message, and we'll reply as soon as we can." It also said that I could contact customer services by phoning you, however I'd already contacted customer services through your webform and I have a not-so-irrational hatred of telephone call-centers. Finally, your email directed me to click on a link to your website to find the phone number, before immediately ordering me to IN NO CIRCUMSTANCES CLINK ON ANY LINKS in Santander emails. Smooth. I also got a tracking number.

A couple of days later, I had not received any response, and remembering your promise to respond "same day" I sent a second email to your customer services department, pointing out that my complaint had not been answered. I received the same auto-reply with a new tracking number.

A week after my initial complaint (i.e. on the 6th June 2011) I received the following email.

Dear Mr Birch,

Thank you for your e-mail.

I'm sorry that you haven't yet received a reply to your recent communication. Please be assured that we do welcome complaints as an opportunity to improve the service we offer.

Your comments have been passed to my colleague who works in the relevant business area. They will reply to you in full as soon as possible.

I received a third tracking number, and began to wonder why all these tracking numbers were different.

Seeing as how "my complaint had now been passed to the right person who would deal with it as soon as possible", I stopped emailing you for a while.

On the 20th June, (or as I like to think of it, two weeks after the complaint got into the hands of someone who could deal with it as soon as possible, five days after it would be dealt with as soon as possible, two days after it would be responded to the same day,) I sent you the following email:

Hello Santander.

Thank-you for the automated email i will recieve in response to this note, informing me that my complaint will be responded to as soon as possible.

David.

I'm sad to say that I didn't get around to forwarding my complaint to the financial services Ombudsman, mostly because it would be a lot of effort, and partly because I was still visiting your branches trying to access my funds and wanted a whole story before I sent a letter to them.

On the 22 June, I received the same email that I received on the 6th June. Every email I'd received so far had been signed by a "Customer Relations Officer" with a different name. Given that the first one of these had "passed my comments on to the relevant colleague", and the second one had also "passed my comments on to the relevant colleague" am I to assume that your staff were at this point hot-potatoing my complaint around the office in an attempt to avoid answering it?

I didn't pursue this further at the time, because I finally managed to get my money out of my "instant access account". We'll get onto that soon, but I have some loose ends to deal with first.

On the 15th September, (or: three weeks after my complaint got put into the hands of someone who could deal with it as soon as possible, two days after it would be dealt with as soon as possible, two weeks after the complaint got into the hands of someone who could deal with it as soon as possible, five days after it would be dealt with as soon as possible, two days after it would be responded to the same day,) you sent me a paper letter, it had a reference number on it: DST 8392040. I have scanned it here.

As you may guess, I have a number of issues with this letter:

Since you seem confused by my complaint, I get the impression that the long narrative of what has occurred simply isn't effectively communicating the problem. I assure you that reading it takes considerably less time than the amount of time I've wasted trying to find any member of your staff who'll even acknowledge that I even had an account with you. So, here is the complaint I would like addressed in simple easy to understand sentences.

A charitable soul might ascribe these failures to incompetence. A cynical soul might ascribe these failures to malice. A comedian would point out the statement "We don't understand what you mean when you say you want to access your account" is an excellent summary of your failings here.


How I got the money from my account - A second complaint

Sometime in July, having received no response from your complaints department, and still having received no cheque, I tried again to access my account. Since the meaning of this statement is apparently unclear: My account had some money in it, and I wanted to remove some of that money from my account. Having experienced how difficult this was in the past, I decided to take a new approach.

For my plan, I needed a "disguise". Normally I'm quite a scruffy individual: my day job is as a physicist, I spend most of my time in t-shirts or jumpers. Given that being warm friendly and patient had gotten me nowhere, I decided instead to dress up for the occasion. I dug out my formal trousers and my nice black leather shoes, and I put on a shirt. After some debate I added a tie, but not the jacket (it was horribly hot that day.) To complete my disguise, I added some essential props to my panoply. The first was a very posh black A4 leather portfolio my aunt gave me for Christmas a few years back with a notepad in it. I added some random paperwork and letters to the portfolio too, just to bulk it out. The second was a very flashy expensive fountain pen. I put both of these into a leather messenger bag. Armed now with my "I totally look like an inspector" disguise, I went into the smallest branch in Cambridge: the Trinity Street branch.

Initially, I was disappointed. Nobody was manning the desk in the branch at all, and there was no bell. My phone informs me that I waited over ten minutes to be served in an apparently empty branch, and I spent most of that time wondering if my "inspector" disguise would be ruined because I didn't have an expensive wristwatch.

Eventually, a young gentleman came and served me. I informed him that I wished to access my account and remove some money. He said okay, and took my details, as usual. At this point, he informed me that I would need to speak to a financial advisor in order to access my account. This, I had come to expect. I paused and wrote this down in my portfolio.

I asked him if there was a financial advisor present, he informed me there was not, but that I could try another branch. I asked him if he could confirm that a financial advisor would be available to see me at one of the other branches if I visited them. He spent five minutes playing with the computer and informed me that no financial advisors were working today, but he could book me an appointment. I wrote this down in my portfolio too.

I asked him when the first available Saturday appointment with a financial advisor would be. He tapped away at the computer, informing me that "next week was not available" and then "the week after was not available either" and so on. I stopped him when he got to the end of October, and asked him if he was aware that my account was an "instant access" account. He said that he was, and I wrote this down in my portfolio.

At this point, I asked him if I could see the manager. He told me that the manager was out, but I could try another branch if I wanted to. I nodded, and wrote this down in my portfolio. I then paused for a moment, and looked around. There were no other customers waiting, so I spent a minute doodling a small caricature of him in my notebook. This was mostly to ensure that I looked like I was writing for some time.

I informed the man that I had been trying, without success, to access the money in my account for over six months, and that I had visited branches on more than ten seperate occasions, and had three appointments cancelled. I also informed him that I had spoken to a financial advisor two weeks previously, who had promised to mail me a cheque with the contents of my account, but that they had not done so. He checked on the computer system and informed me that no attempt to mail me a cheque had been made, and that no record of my request to withdraw the money was on file. I wrote this in my portfolio and drew a frowny face next to it.

I told the man that I believed Santander were deliberately withholding my funds from me, and that this constituted theft. I said that I was willing to take the bank to court over the matter if I did not get my funds today.

At this point, the man asked me to "bear with him a moment" and disappeared into a back room, where I could hear that he was having a conversation with another gentleman. Five minutes passed. A customer showed up, queued behind me for a couple of minutes, and then left without comment.

Both of the men returned from the back room. The second man was considerably older, and informed me that he was the manager. Due to the design of the branch in a listed building on the corner of Trinity Street, I'm pretty sure this branch has only one entrance although I don't have plans of the building, so I don't know for sure that there isn't a back way in to the office. Assuming there isn't, I was lied to about the manager not being in. Alternatively the older man had lied about being the manager. He asked me if there was a problem and I wondered what the information content of the 5 minute backroom conversation had been.

I explained at some length the problem - although not in the level of detail here. The manager listened to my story, and then told me that if I wanted the money from my account, we could close it right now, and he could have a cheque mailed to me. I informed him that I had already been promised a cheque mailed to me, and that this hadn't been done. He told me that there was no way that he could give me a cheque in the branch without proof of identity. I note that the lady I'd spoken to previously had demanded that I fill in several paper forms to be mailed to an office somewhere, and that this was a requirement of "removing the funds from my account." If we could do it right on the spot, then this was also a lie.

I put on the counter my passport, my driving license, three utility bills, two bank statements from Natwest, one letter from Santander, my national insurance number card, my debit card, and my birth certificate. I also told him that my shoes are size nine. This is untrue, they're eight and a half.

The manager informed me that this was all in order, and instructed the junior member of staff to close my account and give me a cheque.

The junior member of staff then dutifully closed my account, and printed me a cheque for the complete total of the contents. I must commend his ability to manipulate accounts that he can't access, but suggest that you might want to keep an eye on any member of staff with this supernatural power. He then informed me that Santander would send me a letter asking about the reasons behind my account closure. He told me that there would be a section referring to the conduct of the member of staff who had dealt with me in the branch when I closed my account, and then instructed me to tick "good or very good" in all of the questions in that section. I asked him why and he told me that "because he had dealt with my complaint, I should tick good or very good for each question, as that's what good means."

I did not receive a letter asking me any questions about the closing of my account.

I would therefore also like to complain about the treatment your staff offered on this occasion. I worry that my narrative may again be "unclear" - as such, I feel it prudent to update my simple summary:

An aside: I took my cheque to Natwest around the corner and cashed it into my account with them. I asked if I could speak to someone about my money, saying that I would like to open an investment. A financial advisor came to meet me in under five minutes to discuss this, and he also gave me a business card with his mobile phone number on it. I'm told that I can phone him "any time" to discuss my investment, and have done this in the past successfully (although I have yet to try after 7pm).


A note on my Stock Tracker ISA - A third complaint

On all the days I tried to speak to a financial advisor or go to an appointment with one, I brought with me a notebook. I did this because I wanted an accurate record of the state of my finances so I could plan for buying a mortgage in the future. During the meeting in May where your staff actually kept the appointment, I placed the notebook on the table and wrote down all the useful information the financial advisor told me. Here's a summary of what she said:

In December 2011 you sent me an "Investment Statement" - it doesn't have an exact date, but it does at least call me "Mr Birch". It informs me that you received a Gold Standard Award in Fund Management for the years 2009 2010 and 2011. It also informs me that the value of my fund has increased slightly. (It's currently at 101.9% of the original investment.)

On the back of this statement is an "Investments Summary". One of the columns is listed as "Maturity date" and it informs me that the date my "Direct Share Investment Plan" matures is 22/07/2013.

I'm pretty sure that this is incorrect. Given your previous track record, I'm glad to see that the five month delay in obtaining the funding from my account has already been factored into your plans, but I worry that once again, you're trying to illegally withhold my money from me. Please reassure me that this is an error and correct it.


What now?

I am a firm believer that good customer service should generate loyal customers who recommend your products. I read somewhere that if a customer has an outstandingly good experience with a company that they'll tell ten of their friends. Conversely, if they have an outstandingly bad experience with a company, they'll tell ten of their friends about that too.

This is old thinking. The internet makes it very easy to spread your views and opinions amongst your peers, and I don't think it's too unreasonable to suggest that my treatment has been somewhere between abysmal and appalling. Why tell ten people when you can tell ten thousand people? I believe passionately that banking with you is a mistake I can help people avoid.

However, I don't think it fair that I embark upon this endeavour without first giving you the opportunity to address my concerns. So, I am going to print the contents of this webpage and mail it to you, and I am going to send you a webform with a link to this page too. There's a lot to think about, and your records are incomplete, so I'll wait for a month before doing anything.

Normally, I would offer a proposal for what would satisfy my complaint in a situation such as this, but in this case I'm at a loss. I'm genuinely interested in how seriously you take the problem though, and am happy to talk to you about it via email. I do not wish to talk about this by snail-mail, it will take forever. I do not wish to talk about this over the phone - the last time I tried that, the company conveniently lost all their records of conversations where they made promises they later failed to keep.

If you have not begun to address my complaints within one month, I promise to distribute my grievance as widely as I can, starting with the Financial Services Ombudsman, BBC watchdog and "Which?". "I genuinely believe that this is fair and reasonable."

I await your response.
David.