Martin Vander Weyer

The great NatWest computer cock-up is merely a symptom of a deeper failure

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The great NatWest-RBS computer cock-up has upstaged my personal campaign to expose the lamentable standards of service offered by high-street banks. I was relieved not to find 12 million emails in my inbox from all those whose wages have not been paid or whose house purchases have been held up, and now have to chase compensation through the same dysfunctional maze that was at fault in the first place. RBS chief Stephen Hester’s lame attempt to compare the continuing chaos to a stack of planes waiting to land safely after a spot of bother in the airport, inadvertently conjuring up the mayhem of Die Hard 2, was the last straw. Where’s Bruce Willis with a machine-gun when you need him? 

Meanwhile, readers have kept the anecdotes of incompetence flowing. NatWest features in its fair share — from Sandwich comes news of an ATM issuing forged £20 notes — but is also the only bank so far with a customer who’s prepared to say it isn’t all bad: ‘The saving grace has always been the ability to walk into my local branch at Kenilworth for a friendly greeting and an absolute commitment to solve whatever problem you have.’ By contrast, Lloyds, Santander, Barclays and Halifax have been taking bucketloads of stick with no one (not even their own people in disguise) speaking for the defence. Expatriates struggling to manage finances from afar are the most frequent complainants, followed by those who encountered endless obstacles when they tried to close unsatisfactory accounts.

But the saddest story comes from a reader whose terminally ill wife sold her share portfolio and instructed her bank to transfer the proceeds from a private account to the couple’s joint account. The bank omitted to do so, she died a few weeks later, and the widower was advised he must seek probate in relation to the money on the private account, the only asset in her sole name, before it could be released to him as beneficiary of her will. The cost, using an adviser suggested by the bank, would be £18,000. Repeated complaints elicited no coherent response or apology from the bank — which happened to be Barclays, but they’re all as bad as each other.

The problem of which RBS’s breakdown is an extreme example is the hollowing out of human networks in favour of ill-matched electronic systems overlaid with clunking security and an ethos of product-pushing rather than customer care. It is perfectly possible to provide a highly systematised but efficient and courteous service to millions of households, and (at the risk of being inundated with complaints about them) I would cite British Gas as a company that has learned to do that well. Instead of blaming their computers, banks should hire some wise non-bankers to start redesigning them. 

O’Leary’s offer

Does Michael O’Leary of Ryanair really want to take over Aer Lingus, or is he just trying to flush out potential buyers for the 29 per cent stake Ryanair already holds in the privatised Irish flag-carrier, after two previous unsuccessful bids? He has never had a high opinion of his rival operator: asked by a reporter before his 2003 wedding whether he expected his bride Anita to arrive late for the ceremony, he famously replied, ‘Yes she will, she’s flying Aer Lingus.’

Victory this time would open the possibility of transatlantic flights at Ryanair prices — but competition authorities are likely to frown on a combined airline that would control four fifths of the traffic between London and Dublin. The hard-up Irish government, meanwhile, might be glad to turn its remaining 25 per cent of Aer Lingus into ready cash — even at O’Leary’s offer of €1.30 per share, little more than half of the airline’s 2006 flotation price. But Dublin would prefer almost any foreign bidder (Turkish Airlines is rumoured) over O’Leary, who routinely treats Irish transport and tourism ministers to tirades of colourful abuse. If they do have to sell to him in the end, they should of course apply the Ryanair pricing model, in which the headline price is merely the starter, to be mysteriously increased by extra fees and taxes before the punter is allowed to press ‘Pay’.

Bright and dark

PR folk were working their little socks off last week to put some positive spin on a deal in which a downmarket American drugstore chain called Walgreens has acquired 45 per cent of Alliance Boots, with the possibility of full takeover in three years’ time. What’s clear is that this is a happy outcome for Boots’ executive chairman, Stefano -Pessina, and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the New York private equity firm that backed his leveraged buyout of the high-street chemists chain in 2007; having turned the group’s finances around and moved its domicile to Switzerland, Pessina and his investors could now triple their stake money.

Perhaps more remarkably, they will have done so without destroying the essential character of Boots. Its outlets retain the bright, hygienic ambience and selective product range devised for them by a previous generation of modernising managers, pioneers of the science of ‘retail engineering’. ‘We’re not university professors,’ one of them told me when I visited the architecturally striking Boots campus at Nottingham in 1995. ‘But the newcomer could be forgiven,’ I wrote, ‘for thinking that he had strayed into an exclusive business-school-cum-science-park, funded by some benign but publicity-shy religious cult.’ Victorian founder and philanthropist Jesse Boot’s high sense of social purpose may have been mislaid several decades ago, but he would still recognise something subliminally virtuous about the shops that bear his name.

Walgreens’ only claim to fame, by contrast, is to have invented the malted milkshake at an in-store soda fountain in 1922; one report this weekend described the US chain’s style as ‘a dark labyrinth [where] signs yell at you to buy, buy, buy’. Let’s hope the Americans decide to study at the Boots school, not remake it in their own image.