A couple of weeks ago I finally decided to ask Barclays why I was paying a monthly fee on an overdraft that I haven’t used for a long, long time.

I knew that finding an answer to this simple question could be a painful process, but I braced myself and set about to find out what was happening…

I logged in to my online banking and looked for a ‘Contact Us’ page, fearing the worst, as Barclays hasn’t always catered for this sort of thing. So naturally I was happy to see that Barclays had introduced a contact form since I last attempted to communicate with the bank from the safety of a secure website. Another bank, Intelligent Finance, has had this in place for at least five years and it works well. I was glad that Barclays had caught up.

How did I find the form?

I clicked on Contact Us in the top navigation. A new window appeared. I selected ‘Email Us’, which eventually opened up another window, creating too much desktop litter for my liking but at least I could now ‘email’ the bank.

Yet immediately I could see some issues…

I started my journey from my online banking page, where I was logged in. This is a secure area, as is the messaging area. But the form invited me to answer some dumb questions: Name, Are You A Barclays Customer, What Is Your Sort Code, that sort of thing. I don’t think that pre-filling a form with known information is too much to ask. None of this conveys trust, which is surely the number one challenge for banks online.

Regardless, I ploughed on, in order to submit a complaint. In fact it wasn’t so much a complaint as a question: ‘Why am I paying you for an old overdraft that I don’t use?’

I was then given four options, relating to how I wanted to receive a reply:

  1. No Reply Required,
  2. Email (leave address),
  3. Telephone (leave number)
  4. Letter (leave address).

I chose email. Then I submitted the form and waited for a reply. I got one, within 24 hours, by email. Great!

It said:

“For us to be able to progress with your complaint could you please contact us again providing us with the following information: Your full postal address, as held on our records please.

“As soon as this information is received your complaint will be forwarded to the relevant area for investigation.

“For security reasons, we are obliged to respond to your complaint in writing.”

So much for customer satisfaction and that business about ‘always communicate with the customer in their channel of preference, not yours’.

Three things immediately annoyed me.

  1. Why didn’t they ask me for my address while I was logged in?
  2. Why did they allow a form to be submitted without this seemingly necessary information?
  3. ‘For security reasons’… hold on, either this is secure banking or it isn’t! If I’ve logged in, then hit ‘Contact Us’, and the whole thing takes place behind on a secure server, then what is the problem? If you do not want to email me, then how about you leave me a message in my online banking admin area?

So, amid huffs and puffs, I logged in again and left my postal address, along with a genuine complaint about the crudeness of their online form, which they subsequently said was ‘being investigated’.

That second email also advised that: “Your address is required to enable us to locate your account on our computer systems, for security reasons we do not ask for your account number.”

Security, security, security. A recurring theme. Well, this business about security has gone too far. It is, after all, a secure website, is it not? When I’ve logged in to my account and hit the ‘Contact Us’ link I’d imagine that they could very well know what my account number is. And my address. Intelligent Finance manages this very well, and let’s face it, it isn’t rocket science.

But Barclays wasn’t finished: “Please note that for security reasons they will respond to you in writing rather than email.”

Oh boy. You know what, I’d sooner take my chances with email than with the postman. Isn’t this sort of thing fundamentally up to the consumer?

To put this into context, let’s look at a story about that heavily-fortified offline communications channel. Earlier this year, according to the BBC: “Royal Mail has admitted that more than 14 million letters and parcels were lost, stolen, damaged or tampered with last year.” It faces a fine of about £11m as a result.

In the end I received a letter, by post. But that wasn’t the end of it.

There was no email address on the letter, so Barclays clearly does not want any incoming (or outgoing) email. This is despite them asking mehow I wanted to receive a reply! Why bother asking in the first place? Why not tell me: “We will post you a letter, and it isn’t our fault if the postman is dodgy.”

The cherry on this ugly cake was that if I wanted to take the matter further I needed to call a telephone number, which directs to one of those godawful automated messaging systems (‘select 1 to wait for another 8 minutes’, ‘select 2 to enter sub-menu hell’, etc). And worse still, I’m forced into calling on their terms: between 9.30am and 2.30 pm. A 5-hour window, using a channel I loathe. I don’t need to tell you that I haven’t bothered.

What a wonderful customer ‘communication’ strategy (or anti-communication, which figures, since I complained…).

So, to sum up:

  1. I started out online.
  2. I selected ‘email me a reply’.
  3. Barclays ignored that and sent me a reply by post.
  4. And then told me I had to to telephone them if I wasn’t happy.

This is a four-channel customer communication mess, folks.

And the morals of this sadsack story are about keeping it simple, about managing customer expectations, about encouraging communication (and thus satisfaction), about not throwing any curve balls, and about allowing the customer to exercise a little control (especially if you offer them control).