The Long Tail of Service Mistakes

In a slight diversion from my usual posts on travel and innovation, I want to tell you a story of the knock-on effects of seemingly small acts of poor service.

A number of years ago I got myself a Post Office credit card in the UK. The reason I got the card is the exactly reason that they promote it – no fees for purchases in foreign currencies, and the ability to buy currency from the Post Office for less than it would cost with another payment method. The key point here being that this is a card people use to buy currency.

Track forward to the frantic period of time before I set off on this leg of travels to South Korea and Russia. I had just moved back from San Francisco (with most of my belongings still in transit over the ocean), was finishing up my last weeks working for the bank, living out of hotels and bouncing from place to place. In the space of a month I stayed in London, Edinburgh, Norfolk, Spain, London, Colchester, London and Spain again. I attended my brother’s wedding and I undertook the first (and unbelievably intense) week of my Master’s Degree, all while trying to sort out the details of my travel and arrange research meetings in foreign countries with people I didn’t know.

Admittedly I left my currency purchase a little late, but frankly everything got done at the earliest opportunity I feasibly could get to it. Plus, I still had time – I was on the Post Office website two days before my flight, ordering currency to pick up the following day in London. I successfully placed the order for my Korea Won, and then thought to myself ‘Oh, I should order Rubles as well!’. If I wasn’t in such a ping-ponging state of mind I probably would have ordered both currencies together in one, and saved myself all the problems to follow, but as it was I tried to place a second order on the same website.

My purchase was blocked. It didn’t say why; it didn’t say there was a problem with my card or to contact the card issuer; it just said no. I’ve worked in banking for 8 years, so I could see why my attempt to purchase two different currencies so close together might be flagged as suspicious, but still, this was a credit card designed precisely for you to buy currency from the Post Office! I called the number on the back of my card and when I got through I explained the problem and they told me for fraud I could respond to the text message I’d received. I gritted my teeth and explained that I had received no text message (I told this to several different people) and eventually they put me through to the fraud department… who didn’t answer the phone. After being on hold for 20 minutes, I was gnashing my teeth – the whole point of separate fraud lines is for a faster response.

In the meantime, I was trying the payment again and looking at my account online to see if I might be able to unblock my card there. No luck. I eventually gave up on the fraud department and gave up on my Post Office card, and placed the order using my main travelling card instead, deciding I could sort out the Post Office card when I had less to do and their lines were less busy.

The following day I headed to London, for my final day of zig-zagging around to tie up loose ends and carry out final errands, which included a trip to the Post Office to pick up my currency. It was only as I handed over both of the order numbers, and the man behind the counter pulled out only one envelope did I realise the unfortunate truth. While my order of Won had gone through before the daily cut-off for next-day delivery, all of the hassle sitting fruitlessly on hold to the Post Office fraud team had pushed my Ruble order too late, and they wouldn’t be there until tomorrow, when I would be at Heathrow Airport.

Of course there was nothing to be done but grind my teeth down a little flatter, and phone the Post Office currency team to cancel and refund my order. I would get my Rubles in Russia. The exchange rate was supposed to be better inside the country anyway. No biggie.

Later that day I finally got through to the Post Office fraud team, while waiting for some Chinese takeout to eat as my last meal before I left the country. Pacing outside the tiny restaurant on a South London street I got increasingly fed up with the girl on the other end of the phone as I uncovered the root of the whole issue. It all came down to a request to change my phone number.

A couple of weeks earlier, once I was back in the UK and had got myself set up with a new UK phone contract, I set about the annoying process of informing all my financial providers of my new number. The Post Office was included, and they had told me that it was all sorted, was there anything else they could do for me, no, well then thank you for your call today! But as it turns out, it wasn’t all sorted. The hapless call centre worker had in fact not changed my number, they had just added the new number as an alternate, leaving the old, discontinued phone number as my primary contact number. This meant, as you’ve probably worked out, that the reason I never got the magical text message that would have allowed me to clear my fraud block in a snap, was because it was sent to a number which no longer existed.

And so it was this one seemingly minor slip up in the processing of an ordinary request by a member of call centre staff that led to my aborted attempt to get Rubles. However, the long tail of ramifications from this mistake unfortunately didn’t end there for me. I recently checked the account I had tried to buy the Rubles from, to ensure that the Post Office had sent back the refund. They had, but then I noticed a $26 fee for the privilege of purchasing currency that I never received - $26 that I would never have paid had my Post Office card worked as it was supposed to, or the fraud department had answered the phone, or the call centre worker had done his job properly. That $26 would have gotten me a bed for a night or a few days’ worth of food out on the road. But never mind, nothing I can do about that, it’s only $26, best to just forget it.

What’s harder to forget is the exhausting morning I spent, alone in a strange city on the Far-Eastern edge of Russia with barely any grasp of the language, struggling through torrential freezing rain to bank after bank desperately trying to find one who would change my currency. Frustrated tears mingling with the rain as I was constantly turned away with a brusque “No.” from an icy blonde behind the counter, or arms raised up in an X like I was a drug peddler. Eventually I managed to swap my dollars are slumped back to my guesthouse to pay my bill and hide from the rain, all the while imaging what my day could’ve been if only that man in the call centre had just changed my number like he was supposed to…

Moral of the story: service matters, and accuracy of service matters. If you are a company then you should pay it proper attention, or risk ended up as the point of blame in a customer’s sad, angry story, posted on the internet for all to read.