“It has to fit in the box on the front”

Business banking. Who hasn’t lived or at least heard the stories? Getting a business account in the UK is a nightmare. It takes forever, the hoops you have to jump through are bureaucracy at its worse and no entrepreneur has ever come out of the battle unscathed. But it is, of course, a necessary evil for any of us starting a business.

I’ve had the pleasure of this experience four times in the past 3 years. Once I have been at arm’s length as I opened Meniga’s office in London but since Meniga is by no means a startup anymore and is well established in Iceland and Sweden already, an accountancy firm dealt with this for us so the only reason for higher blood pressure has been how outrageously long it took (tried to remember exact time frame but it seems I am repressing the trauma effectively and can not but it must have been over two months). The frustration was even greater as I had incorporated an Icelandic company I owned with a friend a mere year before that in the UK while still living in Sweden myself by using one of the company formation set-up companies and that took 6 days in total to create and 6 hours to open the account. Of these 6 hours, 5 were spent on a train to somewhere in the middle of England where this firm had their HQ, 30 mins were spent for them to drive me to and fro to the bank from the train station, 25 were spent copying documents and having coffee at said bank and exactly 5 were spent in the HSBC branch manager’s office during which he pleasantly looked at my passport and wished our new venture the greatest of luck after spending 30 seconds intently looking into the eyes of the company formation firm representative and asking him “so they’re good people who need an account to trade is that right, John?”.

That particular assistance firm was bought by a major chain and they no longer are in the market but my HSBC business account subsists. So when I needed to open a pair of others (a new venture and my consultancy) I asked them first if my history with them would mean I could get a second business account faster/easier. They did all they could not to laugh but no, being an existent client would mean nothing in a new application for another business. Neither did being a retail account holder with Santander. I take that back, it did offer me an advantage – that of the business manager in my local branch telling me in confidentiality it could take up to two months.

So I caved and entered a Metro. For the first business I was setting up we filled in the forms and then spent 30-45 minutes with a manager who asked us what seemed like silly questions about our business plan then walked out. 4 days later they called and we were given the account and card. Seemed like magic and should that have repeated with my Consultancy account, this post would have been one to maintain that good solid service where I am sold a product when I want it, not made to wait after I had to beg and threaten really does trump bad branch decor and an obsession with dogs but as you guessed already, it was not meant to be.

I waltzed in on a Friday morning with an already filled application form and asked if there was any way I could have it the next day as I am starting my first engagement very soon and I would like to have an account to be paid in. They said they can not promise it on Saturday or Sunday despite being open but by Monday I should have it. 15 minutes of typing later we hit the roadblock.

Brancher: “Mrs Blomstrom, is there any way you could write more words in this box?”

FullSizeRender (2)Me: “Excuse me?”

Brancher: “We just need more information about what you intend to do and what consultancy means”

Me: “Fair enough I suppose, can I continue on the back of the paper?”

Brancher looking stricken “The back of the form?!?”

Me: “Yes, so I write more detail. I could perchance draw a small arrow to indicate it continues on the back or say so with words for clarity’s sake? I just need more space to fit a longer text.”

Brancher: “Let me ask my manager, Ma’am”

Brancher returning 2 minutes later looking dejected “No Mrs Blomstrom, I’m sorry it all has to fit in the front box”

Me: “Fine, please print another page 6 and I’ll write smaller and fit more”

And so I did and then left the branch in the knowledge that synonyms are good and long heralded concision and brevity bad and proceeded to wait patiently till Monday when I received nothing and my three calls were met with empty promises then till Tuesday when I had barely sat down at Finextra’s Future of Money when I received this:

“To Mrs Blomstrom:

 I am currently working on opening your business account with Metro Bank but just need to obtain a little bit more information around what you specifically do as a business.  I have tried to call you but unfortunately haven’t been able to get through.

 If you could tell me a bit more information about your day to day activities.  My colleague has told me that you advise banks around their digital banking services such as mobile banking.  Is this correct?

If you could provide some information on how you do this?  Do you just advise the banks or design the products themselves? Who do you work for and how do you generate your work?

 Please don’t hesitate to call the store on the below number. I look forward to hearing from you.

Many thanks

 Will 

Metro Customer Service Representative”

Now in his defence Will is polite and we’ve all been faced with forms with a minimum number of characters and let’s admit it, Metro is keeping cost down, people are not employed to use critical thinking or look into the eyes of company formation firms to ascertain suitability. Knowing this should have seen me add even more synonyms to my previous attempt, but I’m not in a forgiving mood seeing how we’ve been talking about “Invisible banking”, “seamless delightful experiences” and “emotional contextual experiences” in Canary Wharf so I send this:

Will,

I have tried to call. I can’t speak today as l am attending an event called “Future of Money” which considering our context is ironic.
Let’s see, l filled this form in and your colleague has stated it contained “too few” words so he handed me another form to write more. No, l could not continue on the back of the form l was told, it has to be contained in the box on the front. So l crammed more words on the topic. Evidently this effort too has been deemed insufficient. 
To answer your questions below l just advise not design products. In banking we all “just advise” really. Do l design the products? No. No one does that. Not in the last 50 years. Well not if you don’t count alternative lending, P2P and blockchain technologies but I digress. The products are savings, deposits, cards, current accounts for private customers and businesses such as this one in question, etc and no on is much inclined to think of more – all we do is talk about (and if we’re lucky design) the experience on top of these products. As an example the product here is a business bank account and the experience is what l, as a customer, have to go through till that product is being sold to me. Incidentally banking is the only industry that makes buying something difficult, even painful. 
If l were consulting Metro on this experience l would have said “If the system-form that your business bank managers fill in for this product will ask for a minimum number or words, while consecutively the paper application form only offers a tiny box and no indication on desired level of detail and furthermore, no one in the bank will use their critical thinking and fill it in on behalf of the client (such as Jay in the Bromley branch does, BTW, should promote him) but keep asking them inane questions delaying an unnecessarily slow process further, the customer will become frustrated and disillusioned with the experience your bank provides which is the opposite of your intent. You must change this.”
Makes sense? 
I advise banks on a consultancy basis on how to provide their clients with compelling experiences on top of their existent products. I know about this because l have engaged with and consulted many other banks all over the world over the past few years on the same topics and l will use my personal name in the industry backed by my online presence such as Twitter and my website blog to further my personal brand and market my skills and knowledge and banks will buy these services from me.  This I believe to be my -admittedly still unproven- business plan and go-to-market strategy. 
Lastly I should outline that parts of the “not enough words” account opening adventure will feature in a new blog post on www.duenablomstrom.com which l encourage you to read if you’d like more detail still and feel free to copy&paste as much or as little of this response or really my website intro to complete this famous form of ours.
I can expect the account opening to be completed today, yes?

Best regards,
Duena Blomstrom
Knower”
If you made it this far in this long story you’ll know that it’s likely resolved, otherwise I would have had to be mad to jeopardise it by posting this and indeed it is! I am the proud owner of a business account at the time of writing this, after a mere 5 other calls the next day, a Branch Manager apologised for Will and assured me they adore me and my business, they have sent my feedback about boxes and forms to “the centre” and that the account is one mere step from being opened – a few simple questions about you guessed it…. what it is I do.
dilbert
Since many of my FinTech Mafia pundits friends have went through painful business banking account setup experiences of their own, I can only hope they’ll share those with you in either the comments here or their own posts (looking at you Jim Marous and David Brear) and together we can try to make our banker friends remember that business owners are customers too, they too deserve some semblance of pleasant customer experience while parting with their anxiety ridden cash!

5 thoughts on ““It has to fit in the box on the front”

  1. Great article Duena and very familiar to my experience…. mine was nearly 10 weeks, lost documents, lost current account cards, escalations and about 6 hours on the phone!

    It was only resolved when i called in a friend who runs the business banking division for the bank in question. 🙂

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  2. It is not just a problem on your side of the big pond. My experiences in opening up a business banking account include:
    1) Nobody who could open a business account since the person was ‘at lunch’. When the hell do they expect small business people to open accounts?
    2) Requiring ‘articles of organization’. This ended up being a stock form that I filled out that said that I am a business person wanting to do business. No notary, no legal document. Just me saying I am going to start a business. I still don’t know why this was important after they received the state document saying I was a business.
    3) To being able to access my business account online, I needed to wait to get a PIN mailed to me. Yup, rather than allow me to use online banking immediately, I had to wait for a PIN to come via postal mail.
    4) My limit for mobile deposits was set at $2,500 … a month. This is the limit for my business even though my limit on my personal account (at the same bank) is $10,000, is $20,000 for my other business account and is a much larger number for my personal account at another bank.
    5) Because of the cumbersome nature of transferring funds between accounts between banks, I have found myself writing checks to myself and using mobile deposit. I have written more checks (all to myself) in the last 6 months than I have in the last 10 years.
    6) Realized the reality of not knowing fee structure. Despite having relatively decent balances in my account, a wire transfer fee was $75 (non-waivable). That’s a mistake you only make once.

    As Duena found out, starting a small business is filled with challenges and surprises. Unfortunately, dealing with your bank is one of the first (and worst) challenges you face.

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  3. Duena, I think you should produce the first ever crowdsourced Monty Python on this subject (or The Office if you prefer). Here is my contribution to the collection: https://youtu.be/9c5InCWW-Jw
    The protagonist in this video is a “privileged” customer – the treasury guy of a medium sized company of international importance, due to its “critical financial infrastructure” status (or otherwise known as SWIFT) and he and his team spend 3 hours every working day of their lives going through the complicated acrobatics of paying the bills… :-).
    And this is just a fraction of the pain they are subjected to. Don’t get me started on what they have to go through to change signatories, for example, every time there is a reorganisation in the company.
    And I will soon be able to contribute another story about what the opening of business bank account experience looks like in Bulgaria… So far one of the first comments I received was “What, you want to be able to send money electronically to an account? Well here usually people come with a suitcase…. We are not really used to doing “electronic”. But we are proud to say our online banking service is world class – it works till 19:00 on Friday!” Ahmm – “digital” obviously has a different meaning in Bulgarian.

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  4. I cannot really understand for my life why it should be this difficult. (or why does the bank has to make sure your business will actually fly, if you’re not seeking a loan).

    Yes, there are things we need to know (for AML, etc) but here in Hungary we’ll open you a business account in 30 minutes tops. As will probably most other banks here too. (Jim, we don’t have checks here, in the 50 years they were popular, we had another thing, called socialism going on here 🙂

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  5. A little late for the party, but I had to comment here.

    Opening a business account here in the US is about a 30-45 minute process rather than months, but it’s still a harrowing experience. For us bankers, at least. The formation documents we need to collect are complicated and we have to understand the ins and outs of how your business works. How you make money, who you sell to, where you keep your inventory, how you advertise. This is stuff I only care to research if I am investing in a business, not opening an account for one. And we will use Google Maps to verify that your business is real, while you’re there too! Google freakin’ maps! We are essentially law enforcement officers, but for much less pay.

    Some banks–including mine–require proof of address for the business as well (mainly an invoice that shows you are doing business). I understand why this is a requirement (since I can go on Legal Zoom and register ARB’s Airplane Manufacturer’s Inc., print out the documents, and declare myself a business owner in a few hours, all for a small fee (then claim a tax write-off when the “business” fails, after I’m done spending myself into overdraft and not repaying the bank of course)). But so many of the people who are opening these accounts are doing so for brand new businesses that haven’t actually started operations yet, creating a holy war more difficult than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to resolve.

    I can imagine that it’s a miserable experience for the business owners, and trust me, it’s a miserable experience for us bankers as well. When someone comes in to open a business account, all I know is that there’s either about to be a fight and no account is going to be opened, or that the account will be opened and I will be told to call the customer back the next day to provide more information on how the business works and provide whatever other documentation has been determined to be missing or else the account will be closed.

    Trust me, you guys are the lucky ones. At least you only have to deal with the process once.

    Duena, please contract your services to the banks here in the US in regards to business accounts ASAP. The banking world needs you.

    Sincerely,
    ARB–Angry Retail Banker

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