Thursday, December 20, 2007


One of the great things about Britain, apparently, is that it's very easy to set up a new company here. Sometimes you hear that in Britain, you can set up a new company in a day. Woohoo the land of the free market economy, milk & honey, Richard Branson, etc.

In practice it doesn't quite work like that. Not - amazingly - because of government red tape, but due to the MASSIVE BUMBLING INCOMPETENCE of the companies you have to deal with in order to get frivolous perks like a working phone line, an internet connection, a working mobile phone and a business bank account.

The past six weeks have furnished me with enough examples of institutional bungling to fill several instalments of Tony Levene's column in the Money Guardian. Follow me now as I probe the compacted strata of inefficiency lurking beneath the shiny surface of some of our nation's leading 'brands':

Phone line/Internet connection: I ordered two phone lines from BT on the 19th November. They came to install them on the 5th December (two weeks with no phone line or internet connection - luckily Mr BC had his old flat until the 30th, so we could go there for such things). Then it turned out that they could only install one, but that was OK, because at least we had a working phone line and broadband connection. On the 7th December BT engineers came to install the second line, and in doing so broke the first one. They then left without connecting the second line to the house. With no landline and no internet connection, I was completely stuck*. I spent days trying to persuade BT to fix the first line - or just to get through to BT at all. On one occasion I was told that their systems had been down all day, so they couldn't tell me anything. On another, I was on hold for an hour and 20 minutes before giving up.

(Let us pause briefly to reflect on the fact that BT's tagline is 'Bringing it all together'. I propose this be amended to: 'Fucking it all up to an almost unbelievable degree of fuckedupness, then not answering the phone when you call us, while merrily charging you £249.98 as if nothing at all amiss had occurred.')

After a while it occurred to me that I might have more luck persuading them to complete the installation of the second line, but when I phoned them about that they claimed to have no record of me ordering a second line - despite the fact that it was at that point sticking up outside the front door waiting to be connected into the house. Eventually on the 13th December - almost a month after I'd first ordered the lines - a nice man came and fixed up the whole lot, but not before I'd made about a thousand chargeable calls to BT on my mobile. Super.

(* During this period I spent a lot of time in Falmouth's free wi-fi enabled bars, and can thoroughly recommend the tea in the Q Bar and the interior décor in the Townhouse - and the early 90s indie soundtracks playing in both of them.)

Mobile Phone: I went into Phones4U to upgrade my embarrassingly retro mobile phone to a shiny new model with a camera and everything. The girl in the shop recommended I move from T-Mobile to Orange, as Orange has better reception in Falmouth. I spent an hour in the shop going through the whole procedure of moving my number to the new network, setting up a direct debit for monthly payments, etc. The shop girl presented me with my new phone, plus - for some reason - a second, free, pay-as-you-go phone with £20 loaded on to it, and the promise of £120 cashback from Orange for moving to their network. A week later my number hadn't moved across to the new phone, so I phoned Orange, who had no record of me asking for a transfer, and no record of any direct debit being set up either. So I had to go through the whole procedure again. The pay-as-you-go phone doesn't work, and the £120 cashback hasn't appeared. However, it does appear that I am paying Phones4U for insurance on both phones.

(Phones4U's tagline: 'We'll find the right deal 4U'. I propose this be amended to 'We'll find the right deal for us'.)

Bank Account: I first went into Abbey in Chiswick on the 5th November to set up a business account. They asked me to come back on the 8th at 10am. When I asked if there was anything in particular I had to bring, the girl told me 'there's a kind of number - you'll need that.' She then fetched a colleague who confirmed that this number would be my company registration number. I duly returned on the 8th at 10am with my certificate of incorporation and various other proofs of identity, to be told by another lady that I didn't need an appointment, and that her colleagues didn't really know anything about business banking and had told me all the wrong things.

Much faffing about then ensued, including the Falmouth branch of Abbey losing my company secretary's faxed proof of identity, then losing the replacement proof of identity she sent them in the post, then the woman dealing with my application going on holiday for a week during which nothing was done.

Yesterday, a mere six weeks after I first went into a branch of Abbey, I received confirmation that my business bank account and my business savings account had been set up. Everything is fine, other than that they've mis-spelled my name on both accounts, my current account and my savings account mysteriously have the same number, and there's a sentence on one of their letters that says 'Abbey and it's employees will never ask you for your PIN number'.

I rang Abbey to ask how it's even possible that two separate bank accounts have been allocated the same number, but they told me their systems were down and I should call back 'early this afternoon'.

Still, they've sent me instructions for operating my account by fax (still awaiting instructions for operating my account by carrier pigeon, vacuum tube and shutter telegraph), and they've asked me to send them my password, security question & answer and mother's maiden name in the post. I dread to think how they're going to react when I ask for a dollar account.

(Abbey's tagline: 'Part of the Santander Group'. I propose this be amended to: 'Part of an international conspiracy to ensure that your business goes bust before it's even started'.)


Sarah said...

It is true that most companies appear to be crap at doing what you'd guess would be the most basic of their core functions. For example, I wanted to add my husband (a co-op bank customer) to my co-op account. They demanded proof of id (apparently just because they know where he lives doesn't meant that they... know where he lives), lost proof of id, demanded that I ring a certain team who only worked nights, told me the team worked days whenever I rang during the night, and that they worked nights whenever I rang during the day, and were generally incompetent in that vein for quite some time. We moved to Smile, who are part of the Co-op but, so far, friendly and helpful. And as it's on-line, I can do most stuff myself...

Stef the engineer said...

I'm trying to set up a company account in India at ICICI Bank, having negotiated the minefield of establishing an Indian subsidiary company. The Indian and UK bits are currently arguing about what they can and can't do for us, which apparently varies as I'm not actually an "NRI" (non-resident Indian), and they get all confused about whether it's a private or business account. It's a marvellous new level of bureaucratic incompetence, that every so often requires a new set of documents to be authenticated at the Indian High Commission ...

Tim Footman said...

Vacuum tubes! That's what the world needs more of.

patroclus said...

Sarah: It's almost unbelievable, isn't it? What makes it worse for me is that I write for a living about how new technology advances are making companies more and more efficient, when everywhere I look I see evidence that the opposite is in fact the case.

Stef: Bloody hell, you're a brave man - the best of luck with that!

Tim: It turns out I meant pneumatic tubes. Now *that's* what I call a communications technology.

Smat said...

in all fairness, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs were astonishingly quick in registering you for VAT, causing jaw-dropppingly "WTF?s" in accountancy practices up and down the land.

patroclus said...

Smat: Was it because you gave Alistair Darling your 'teacher's look'?

GreatSheElephant said...

Hang on. You read Money Guardian and yet you still decided to bank with Abbey?

I also hate Phones4U because of their blatantly anti ugly people advertising.

patroclus said...

GSE: How I laughed (hollowly) when I read Money Guardian's end-of-year review of Worst Companies To Deal With, and saw my good friends Abbey and British Gas in the top five. Still, I like to have pointless problems and obstacles in my life; it makes me feel alive. Welcome back, by the way!