I phoned a bank today. It was a call I didn’t need to make and which created no value for me. The bank may or may not care about that. It was a call which the bank didn’t need to receive and which cost them money they didn’t need to spend to deal with. The bank really ought to care about that.

The reason for making the call was that the process worked as it should have done from the bank’s point of view. The reason for making the call was that the bank didn’t seem to have realised that working for them wasn’t the same as working for me.

Start with needs* as the GDS design principles have it. The asterisk leads to a snarky footnote, *user needs not government needs. But it isn’t just government which needs to pay attention to that.

This is a story about opening an online bank account. The online bit was fine, but wasn’t enough actually to open the account, because banks legally and prudentially like to know who their customers are, and on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog. So they want to see some pieces of paper. The recommended approach is to take the relevant documents to a branch of the bank where they copy and return them, then send the copies on to their processing centre. Perfectly straightforward, so that’s what I did.

A week passed without hearing from them. Perhaps they are just a bit slow. Two weeks passed without hearing from them. Maybe something has gone wrong. Towards the end of the third week, a letter arrives: they are still waiting for the documents. That’s both irritating and worrying. Irritating to have to repeat the process, worrying that they seem to have lost documents – albeit copies – the whole point of which is that they are sufficient to support a claim to an identity. To say nothing of the fact that losing things is really not what you want a bank to be doing.

And so the phone call. After a little toing and froing I talked to somebody doing his best to be helpful and largely succeeding. There is, it turns out, no record of an account opening application under the reference number I have given, which seems more than a little odd since I have a letter in my hand with that very number on it. But one possible explanation it seems, is that the account has in fact been opened. Would I like him to check? It’ll take a moment, because that’s on a different system. Of course. And it turns out that indeed, the account was opened three days ago, or two days before I got the letter telling me that they were still waiting for the documents.

So from their point of view, everything has been fine: the right things happened in the right sequence through to a successful outcome – at least until I spoiled it by making a pointless phone call.

From my point of view, it’s not fine at all. I spent two weeks not knowing what was going on, followed by two days thinking that the process had failed altogether. A lot of that is down to the long period between their having the documents and their having the knowledge that they had the documents. The letter chasing me for the documents was dated twelve days after they had already been given them (and it took them a further six days to get that letter to me).

Amazon realised a long time ago that the most common question they had to deal with was, where’s my stuff? Overwhelmingly, they deal with that not by being able to tell you, but by making sure you never need to ask. Banks, it seems, still need to learn this lesson.

The more significant lesson though is the one I started with. Process efficiency is in the eye of the beholder. If as a service provider you don’t take the trouble to identify and address the needs of users, the best you can hope for it to meet your own needs as a provider.  And that best is not nearly good enough.

This is not really a story about opening an online bank account. This is a story about how service integration is still rooted in the base as much as in the superstructure. There is still much to do.


  1. Sounds like the typical large megabank so prevalent today in the financial services industry. I had the same runaround in the past when I had reason to call my bank with a question. I think it confuses them to have an actual live human being contact them with an issue. In the past, it took me months to resolve a simple issue, because there are so many departments I think their left hand doesn’t know what their right hand is doing. I even had them tell me they had no record of my account number, even though it was the one they had furnished me. I closed my account and took my money to a credit union. I’m glad I did.

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