It was 1989 when Abbey National became the first building society to give up its mutual status and become a bank. All depositors and borrowers qualified for free shares.
In 2003 Abbey underwent a complete re branding - divorcing itself from the 'National' moniker to become simply 'Abbey'. It even scrapped the familiar logo of the couple sheltering under an umbrella shaped like a house roof.
Its £11m new lack of logo and pastel colours were described by one critic as the most effective and expensive camouflage job since WWII - as the subtle new logo-less letters rendered Abbey's branches virtually invisible on the high street.
18 months later the new branding was ditched. Unsurprisingly the bank was in trouble. Not trouble like Northern Rock (heaven forbid) but ripe for the taking. Spanish giant Banco Santander agreed to buy Abbey for £8.5 bn. The old shareholders could convert their former Abbey habit (as the famous advertising jingle of the 1970's went "Get the Abbey habit, with Abbey National" ) into Santander shares and many of us did. In fact I was surprised to read the other day that Abbey is currently the only former building society whose shares are trading at a premium to the flotation price. In other words shareholders who still hold the shares have made a paper profit.
However not all has been plain sailing. The Spanish owners have undoubtedly increased shareholder value and raised dividend payouts - but at what price? Customers are very unhappy. In a recent BBC Watchdog survey Abbey was rated by its own customers as the worst bank - a staggering 47% of Abbey customers said they were thinking of closing their accounts and taking their money elsewhere - but worse 83% of customers said they wouldn't recommend Abbey to anyone else either.
I was horrified. Could I really be doing business with a bank voted the worst by the viewers of the BBC's infamous consumer programme? In my opinion Abbey were dismissive of the poll - further underlining their arrogant stance where customer service is concerned. Funnily enough included in Abbey's annual results and targets for 2008 is increased emphasis on customer service...
So surely it was time to email Abbey's chief executive and express my dissatisfaction at the way the business is being run (remember shareholders own the business). Actually this was the second time I had emailed Abbey's chief executive in 12 months, so I already had his email address handy - which is fortunate. Mr Antonio Horta-Osorio only uses one of his hyphenated second names in his email address (the second one in case you're wondering). However I wasn't expecting a personal reply. Being highly regulated, by the Financial Services Authority, Abbey takes complaints seriously (as it should) so all replies come in the post with an enclosed leaflet advising that you can take your complaint to the Financial Ombudsman if you remain dissatisfied.
Last year when I wrote my complaint had two parts:
- Abbey had failed to open a Shareholder Account after a long delay and had lost the paperwork.
- Under staffing in my local branch meant they attempted to turn me away when I went to open a cash ISA close to the tax year deadline. Heaven knows how many other potential customers they turned away while simultaneously paying for full page newspaper ads to announce their market leading rate.
This time I wrote to express concern that;
- Abbey's response to the TV poll would damage the business (who in their right mind would open a new account with the bank voted Britain's worst?) and therefore the value of the shares that once loyal customers hold.
- I also took the opportunity to point out that poor customer service wasn't the only image problem facing Abbey. At my local branch a large area in front of the cashiers desk has been coned off for weeks to allow for a bucket collecting water dripping from the leaky ceiling.
Today Abbey triumphed. In a lengthy 2 page reply a Senior Customer Resolutions Manager wrote to say of the water leak:
"I am grateful to you for bringing this matter to our attention and your concerns have now been escalated to the Regional Manager."Delighted with my success I immediately hot footed it down to the branch to see this 'escalation' in action.
Where until recently there had been just one bucket catching the water it has now been joined by a second. 'Escalation' indeed!
Well done Abbey!