New year, new bank account.
Or at least that was the thinking that went though my mind in December after a painful conversation with my existing provider, in which I was told that changes that had been made to settings on my online account that were "for your own good, sir" and that "you have no choice, sir". I didn't take kindly to being told that decisions were now being taken on my behalf by someone providing a service to me, so decided to take my business elsewhere.
As luck would have it, I had received communication from retailer Marks & Spencer about its banking services. It all looked fine to me and had the added temptation of a £100 gift card upon signing up, always handy in January as those post-Christmas bills roll in. So I went online and filled out the (lengthy) application form - I didn't exactly have to send a blood sample, but it was a close-run thing! - and waited for confirmation to come through.
It arrived in the form of a letter, a letter which said that:
Despite searches of a variety of electronic records available to us, we could not confirm the personal details you supplied on your application.
Come again? On further investigation, this turned out to mean that they couldn't find my address on any of the "variety" of databases they had apparently searched.
This raised a number of questions in my mind:
- How come Marks & Spencer is able to send me junk mail to this address that they cannot find on file?
- How did I manage to have a store card from M&S at this address?
- Why, given that the firm has my email address and phone number from the application form, did they choose to tell me that they couldn't find my address by writing a letter to, er, the address that they can't verify exists?
- Given that M&S Bank is run by HSBC and I already have an HSBC account, how come the M&S arm can't find my address?
- In fact, how come every other company I do business with and every other automated 'address finder' I've tried, both before and since this situation arose, has been able to find my address straight away? What database is M&S Bank using? The Domesday Book?
Anyway I was told that what I now needed to do with bring two pieces of proof of address and identity into a physical M&S Bank store. There were some additional caveats here.
For starters, I'm not allowed to use the letter that M&S Bank has sent to my address as proof of that address's validity, despite the fact that of course I wouldn't have received the letter that M&S itself had sent to me if it hadn't gone to the correct address. It seems M&S Bank don't trust their own correspondence as being good enough proof! Nor can I use any HSBC documentation, despite that bank operating M&S Bank.
Secondly, I am not allowed to print off proof of address or identity from any form of internet-based record. So if you're remotely in the digital age and don't get sent paper-based phone or utility bills or credit card statements, then tough luck. This despite M&S Bank obviously making a big play of its own internet account handling services.
On the other hand, the good news is that if I have a certified copy of a UK firearms certificate or shotgun license or a blue disabled parking badge, I'm good to go with M&S! Quite what this says about M&S perception of its customers is a moot point...
Armed with driving licence and local council tax bill, I headed off to my local M&S and up to the second floor and the financial services desk. There, festooned with leaflets advertising the allure of the M&S Bank, sat a teller. I showed her the letter from M&S Bank and the two items of identification and asked what she needed to do to verify them.
I might as well have asked directions to Timbuktu. She just looked blankly at me, then declared:
We're not a bank.
No, I conceded, you're a high street clothing and food retailer and UK national institution that now offers insurance, energy provision and banking as part of a wider strategy to expand your commercial footprint. She looked even more blank, before defaulting to:
We're not a bank.
Recognizing that this was clearly a major hurdle over which we were going to have leap if this conversation were to proceed any further, I asked her why then was she sitting behind a desk with lots of advertising for M&S Bank around about her and pinned to the wall behind her. She brightened up:
We can give you the application form. But we're not a bank. We only do currency exchange here. You'll need to go to an M&S that does proper banking.
So, there's no way that you, as part of the arm of M&S that provides financial services, can take a scan of these forms and confirm my address, I asked.
She had the answer to this one so she brightened further:
Where is the nearest branch where I can do this, I ventured, vaguely conscious of all hope high-tailing it towards the horizon with its ass on fire. A frown, then cautiously:
So, just to check, I said, you're telling me that in order to take advantage of the 'new-fashioned banking' so prominently advertised in your immediate physical vicinity, I need to travel more than 50 miles in order for M&S, which has stores in hundred of UK towns and cities, to confirm an address that every other service provider I deal with has on file, and which you yourselves are happy to use in a letter telling me that you don't trust my address as legitimate?
There was a flicker of panic at this point, which then settled into a resigned sort of shrug. Then she pointed out that I could send a photo-copy of my documents by mail IF I got them signed and certified by one of a small group of people, namely :
a commissioner for oaths, a barrister, a solicitor, a chartered legal executive, a notary, a licensed conveyancer, a chartered accountant, a Member of Parliament (!!!!!), a member of the judiciary, an approved person in a financial institution or a medical doctor.
As I'd foolishly come out without my lawyer to hand and feeling that contacting my Member of Parliament about this might be seen to be a tad excessive, I asked why the teller didn't count as an approved person in a financial institution, seeing as how she worked for (a) M&S and (b) as part of the financial services bit of M&S and (c) she could physically see my photo ID with address on the counter in front of me?
By now I'd just about given up, but the whole situation was so ludicrous that I wanted to find out more. Given that we're in the age of mobile and internet banking, could I send a scan of the proof of address with a digital signature?
Could I send a scan of the proof of address if that scan was of a document that had already been signed by, for example, the Prime Minister? (NB: I took a gamble here that the UK's most senior politician might be accepted as a legitimate source of confirmation by M&S, but I might be wrong!)
So it has to be a physical photocopy sent in the post with a stamp?
A piece of paper?
In an age when the likes of Atom are about to launch a purely digital bank, how exactly does all this fit with your claim to offer "new fashioned banking" , I asked by way of conclusion.
And then came the words, the dreaded, doom-filled words that closed down the conversation completely:
It's just our policy.
At this point, I really did give up. Once someone with name badge behind a counter starts bandying around the p-word, you really are on a hiding to nothing, a total no-win situation. The next step is down the slippery slope towards "security, sir", "for your own good, sir" and the ultimate "It's to do with data protection, sir". It never is. It's always to do with out-of-date cultural practices and a head-in-the-sand corporate obduracy.
This whole experience has left me utterly baffled and hugely disappointed in M&S as a brand which has in the past been built around good customer service.
In an age of internet commerce, the idea that a print-out of an online bank or utility statement is not acceptable proof of address is so desperately behind the times that it's laughable.
And when one part of your company clearly does have my address on file and another part doesn't, then it speaks volumes about the seeming lack of joined-up data infrastructure, which in this day and age, in competition with the likes of Amazon and online supermarkets like Ocado, is something that will ultimately prove fatal.
M&S has largely failed in digital retail - see When will Marks and Spencer’s approach to digital retail get some magic and sparkle? - and on the basis of this farce. I see little reason to assume that it's going to do any better up against digitally-savvy banks.
Calling yourself 'new fashioned' is a nice marketing slogan, but when backed up by old-fashioned practices, it's utterly meaningless.