Abbey National Business and Vodafone: Two companies that just don't "get it"

My bank can't accept wire transfers into my account and I can't connect to the Internet with my 3G card although I'm forced to pay a monthly fee for it. Neither business is bothered by the fact that they are failing me in their core business functions. And I'm having a hell of a time trying to find alternatives. What is up with the state of customer service and consumer's rights in these two industries these days?

The Little Bank That Couldn't

My bank is Abbey National Business. But not for long. But before you being to think that I'm hard to please, let me tell you: I don't have high expectations of banks in the UK. I learned very quickly that they are still operating in the Dark Ages.

When I came over to the UK four years ago, I had a horrible time trying to find a bank that would accept me as a customer. Me: "Hi, I just arrived here! Here, take my money, earn interest from it, I don't want an overdraft or anything." Them: "Have you lived at the same address in the UK for over three years?" Me: "Umm, I just arrived here!" Them: "Uh, sorry, can't help you!" As difficult as it was to get up and running with a bank account you'd think people never move to the UK from elsewhere. (I finally got a bank account from the Royal Bank of Scotland but they initially wouldn't give me even a debit card for the account for the first three months -- this, despite the healthy balance in my account!)

In the four years since, I've learned to downgrade my expectations. I bank with Co-operative Bank for my personal stuff because they're an ethical bank (they don't invest in or lend money to corporations that pollute the environment or to regimes with low human rights scores, etc.) but their online banking interface is a violation of human rights in and of itself. You like to use the Back button? Get ready to be logged out of the system every time you use it.

So, basically, I don't expect much from banks here and thus I have very low expectations from my business bank. What I do expect is for them to be able to accept money into my bank account when someone pays me and for that money to be available to me if I want to make a payment. This is their core business function as far as I'm concerned. And you'd be surprised (or not, if you bank with them) how often they've gotten it wrong.

Initially, when I first set up my business, they gave me the wrong wire transfer information THREE TIMES! I got different information each time I called and my client was unable to transfer payment for close to two months. Finally, they gave me the right information and things were well for a while until they apparently changed some of the details and never bothered to tell anyone. I found out again when a wire transfer payment failed. I had to call them up and get the latest information and had to wait, again, for the payment to go through. Since that time (about a year or so ago, I believe) things were fine on the wire transfer front until recently when a payment I was waiting for didn't come through. Here we go again! This is ridiculous!

And that's not even mentioning the debacle with accepting foreign cheques. You see, you can't submit foreign cheques (for example ones from the US in US Dollars) using one of their regular envelopes. You need to ask for a "Foreign Cheque Acceptance Form". So, when one of my clients from the US paid me earlier this year by cheque, I called Abbey National to ask for these forms so I could submit the payment into my account. It took SIX PHONE CALLS over a period of over TWO MONTHS for them to get me the forms.

When I google "Abbey National Business", I don't get a single review of their service. Not one complaint. Either I'm having the worst luck with them ever or there is a real need for a review/watchdog site on banks. In fact, I can't seem to find any reviews about banks written by consumers and it's making it very difficult to seek alternatives. All the various review sites (most of which appear to be commercial entities that are either affiliated with some of the banks or make a commission or something) have comparisons of the fees that the various banks charge. What about the service? I'm really not asking for much. In fact, here's all I need:

I was enticed by Abbey National Business's "no fee" banking offer when I first moved to the UK and started up my limited company four years ago. In retrospect, that "no fee" offer has cost me a lot of time, money, and aggravation. I just want a business bank that works. I don't really care about their fees -- I care about their customer service. Any advice?

Vodafone to Aral: You know that 3G datacard...

So Vodafone told me exactly where I could put my 3G datacard when I told them it wouldn't fit into my new MacBook Pro. I'm on a contract with them and my current contract has about three months left on it. The PCMCIA 3G datacard that I have doesn't work with my MacBook Pro since it doesn't have a PCMCIA slot (it has the newer ExpressCard slot). As I understand it, the newer Dells don't have a PCMCIA slot either. The problem is not that Vodafone doesn't have an ExpressCard or USB version of their 3G datacard available today (they are reportedly working on a USB version currently). The problem is that they don't feel the need to address the problem at all.

When I called Vodafone (their business department, as my phone and datacard are registered through the business) to ask them what my options were, I was expecting them to either offer to send me a PCMCIA to USB adapter like Elan Systems' u132 (which apparently doesn't work that well) or to offer to suspend my monthly fee for the datacard until they had a solution for me. Instead, they told me that they couldn't do anything and I just had to keep paying them the monthly fee even though I couldn't use the service. The guy I spoke to even went so far as to comment in his best are-you-sure-you've-plugged-it-in voice that I shouldn't have bought a MacBook Pro knowing that their 3G card didn't work with it. In other words: Not our problem. (This is made worse by the fact that new customers can happily purchase a Vodafone 3G card from Vodafone's website without ever being warned that it won't work on a MacBook Pro or a newer Dell. This information just isn't visible on their site.)

Now I pay Vodafone a good couple of hundred pounds (read: an even better couple of hundred dollars) every month on my cell phone bill. I would love nothing more than to deprive them of this but the mobile field isn't really full of options. Vodafone has the best network coverage in the UK and their Passport plan makes sense when traveling. I'd love to switch to T-Mobile's "web 'n' walk" plan (unlimited 3G) but it specifically disallows using your mobile phone as modem for your computer. And their 3G card is PCMCIA. Grrr!

Why isn't there a 3G mobile plan with unlimited data where I can use my phone as a modem? I don't want to carry a 3G data card. I already have one. It's called my mobile phone!

So, I guess I have no choice but to bend over and take it from Vodafone. I'll pay them to the end of my contract and by that time they'll have brought out the USB datacard so I'll probably keep on paying them. But oh, how I hate them. That's the sort of customer they have in me. So the MOMENT something better comes along, I will be gone.

What a great business model! Rest In Peace "The customer is always right", you lovely novel, naive concept, you. Adios "customer loyalty". Welcome to the world of 18-month contracts because that's the only mechanism some businesses have of keeping you chained to their services.

A silver lining?

On the bright side, though, the more these companies screw people, the more opportunity there is for future companies to compete on customer service and usability -- in other words, the entire user/customer experience. I hope we begin to see the Web 2.0-ification of traditional businesses and their processes (Business 2.0?). The traditional business world has a lot to learn from the online world in this regard. The online business sphere is such an agile, competitive, low-barrier space that it has gone through many evolutionary generations in its short history, culminating today in what we call Web 2.0. There is much potential for bringing the best of what works in Web 2.0 back to the traditional off-line business world.

Now I shall go and flog myself for perpetuating this whole Two-Point-Oh business! :)