An open letter to HSBC on trust

Dear HSBC

Yesterday the camel’s back was broken. To you it will be only a minor thing, a mere drop in the ocean. In fact, not a thing on your radar at all. A single customer with no influence, who you can afford to lose. A trifling amount of money within your global portfolio that would be many zeros short of showing on your financial statements.

But to my family and me, it was considerably more. The money itself was significant. Over £50,000. Part of our savings built up over a lifetime. More than that though, it was an indication of how you want to treat your customers. History apparently means nothing. More than 30 years of banking with you immaterial. Banking that started at a time when banks were operated from branches, by people who were a part of the community, who knew their customers. How do I know this? Because my father was one of your managers, and I saw first hand how he worked with his customers.

Of course, I work in business myself. I understand the demands of shareholders. I understand the need for profit. Efficiency savings. Cuts must be made in the drive for corporate growth. But somehow, for HSBC, this has become “decency” savings. Something got lost in translation somewhere.

I could start at the beginning of this story although it might be a little bit boring. After all, up until around 18 months ago it was simply the story of a family with some bank accounts. Nothing out of the ordinary. A bank operating as a bank might do, with all the usual quirks and foibles that we accept in return for a safe place to look after and grow our money.

So let’s just jump to the interesting part. A letter arrives in the post, addressed to my wife. She has been a customer for 7 years, since I convinced her to move to HSBC who I had banked with for so long. No matter, you, HSBC, have decided you are closing her current account and she is no longer welcome as a customer.

There must be some mistake, we thought. This was the first we’d heard of it. Of course, something simple had gone wrong. Easily resolved with a call to customer services, we thought.

Apparently not. “What was the reason for you closing the account?”, we asked. “We can’t say”. Passed from employee to employee, the response was the same. They were unable to say. Surely someone could tell us. Surely someone has made a decision that they were prepared to defend. But no.

It didn’t take long for the penny to drop (excuse the pun). Closing the account for reasons you are unable to disclose could mean only one thing. You suspect my wife, and by association my family, of money laundering. And of course, legally you are not allowed to communicate your suspicions. A nice easy defence, that ignores the circumstances or your failings to engage with your customers and to take the time to understand what they do.

And let’s also overlook the fact that my account has had exactly the same type of transactions as my wife’s, but somehow I am an acceptable customer whereas she is not. Some might see explicit sexism and pre-conceived ideas of gender roles and how they manifest in banking transactions somewhere there. Not me of course.

It’s a complex world out there. As a bank you have to have tight regulations to understand the provenance of funds. I get it. After all, its well documented you’ve been very poor at that in the past. And you’ve paid the price. I can picture the meetings where it was determined that this must be tightened up. Maybe someone raised the concern that no-one had ever taken the time to raise concern with customers previously. To try to ascertain where these transactions deemed “suspicious” came from or how they could be explained. “We can’t satisfy everyone” will have been the response. “It’s a tough choice but there always have to be sacrifices. If we lose a few customers that’s a price worth paying.” You’re sorry I’m sure — but nothing that can be done about it.

Let’s just consider this for a minute though. You, HSBC, have decided that the way you wish to operate your business is as a totalitarian enterprise. You will be complainant, judge and jury. Presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Not necessary here. Much too expensive that.

So what about trust? Well in that one decision, and your refusal to engage in any way, you lost mine. And my father’s. Someone who had worked at your bank for more than 30 years. Not to mention, my wife, the main sufferer of the injustice. But then she’s no longer allowed to be your customer, so why would you care if she trusted you or not.

But maybe I shouldn’t be talking to you about trust. Of course you know the value of trust. In fact, you put complete trust behind the algorithms that flagged the transactions as suspicious. Much more trustworthy than people. The metrics you have show that the machines are much more reliable than people. Trust the algorithms, not the people.

Maybe someone had to sign off on that decision. That person was just an employee though. No need to really trust them. We must let them be accessible to be able to justify the decision. That’s the law anyway, so you’re protected right?

And of course, if the algorithms are so good, there is no need to trust the customers. No need to ask for evidence. No need to check with your own employees who may have built up relationships.

Well here’s something I forgot to mention earlier on. I am actually a data scientist. It’s not glamorous, I know. It kills conversation at parties. To be honest, that’s not why I studied for 7 years at university. But then again, as I’m just another faceless customer, why should you care? Well you see — let me let you into a little secret: your unwavering trust in these algorithms is misplaced. They may be good. They may indeed be more reliable than people. But they make assumptions. And mistakes. And blind trust without this understanding is a slippery slope towards tyranny. Maybe someone who built these models for you should have reminded you what George Box, the notable statistician, said:

All models are wrong, some are useful

Maybe they did. Maybe it was a “business decision” and another price worth paying.

I get distracted. That decision to close my wife’s account was more than a year ago. In my anger at the time I vowed not to put any more of my money with you. I certainly wouldn’t be buying any of the many products you tried to sell. Somehow though, life took over. Time is not a great healer, but it is a big distraction. Just like I am just another customer to you, you became just another disappointing corporate to me. And so not wishing to expend any energy on you I never actually did close my accounts.

My wife on the other hand did. She complied. Well you gave her no choice. Embarrassed and angry, made to feel guilty for no reason, she shut her current account and savings account. Throughout the process your customer service team did their best but were powerless. In India, they struggled with the language and were unable to do anything that allowed independent thought. In the UK, they were always polite and at least more culturally aware, but still disempowered. I am thankful for small mercies. At least I don’t work for you.

Just to twist the knife, as she closed her accounts she was informed she wasn’t allowed to withdraw her funds from her fixed term bond. No, she had to wait for that until 11th August 2016, when it would mature. Because it suited you. “What would you do with the proceeds?”, she asked. “Don’t worry about that”, you replied. It didn’t matter to you after all. What’s £50,000 eh? What choice did she have. She waited.

So in the month before the 11th August, your marketing machine (which obviously didn’t get the memo) sent a letter inviting my wife to re-invest her bond. She contacted you and kindly let your representative know she had been blacklisted so she suspected this wouldn’t be possible. She also enquired again how she would receive her proceeds at the time of maturity. This time the lady explained an instant access account would be opened solely for this purpose so that my wife would be able to withdraw her funds. Instantly. The lady seemed empowered — she was able to give assurances and even gave the account details. Sadly she was also just wrong.

Yesterday, on the 15th August my wife contacted you to withdraw those funds. Indeed the balance from the bond has been transferred into the account. But when she requested that the transfer would be made you informed her that the account had been marked as locked and so withdrawals were not possible.

Three phone calls and more than hour on the phone and we are no clearer. Passed from operator to operator, with no way to escalate the matter without getting increasing frustrated and angry with someone whose fault it certainly is not, we have no answers. We can’t speak to anyone in the UK. We certainly can’t speak to anyone who is prepared to own the decision to lock the account. Of course, we were told, we could go to our branch. Oh, apart from you shut all the branches within 30 minutes of our house within the last 6 months. Needs must, eh?

So where does that leave us. The best that we have been told is that you might send a cheque at your convenience but it would take some indeterminate time that you can’t commit to. But you know what — I no longer trust you or anything that anyone who works for you says.

If anyone else took £50,000 that belonged to me and adamantly refused to return it providing full evidence, I’m pretty sure I could report it to the police. However, you’re a bank — so I’m sure different rules apply.

So this is that final straw.

I started the process to close my accounts that I have held for more than 30 years this very afternoon. I honestly don’t understand how you have any right to refuse to return someone else’s money. I’ll talk to the people I trust who understand the law better than I do and take it from there. We will get our money back, because it is our money, earned honestly, as law abiding citizens. And thank goodness, you have no authority within the UK court of law to condemn us in the same way you have internally.

We may be faceless to you. I may have little or no influence, and ultimately be powerless. I don’t mind that. In fact, I’d rather be like that than like Stuart Gulliver, your CEO. I am sure he has had to make huge personal sacrifices to hold such a position. I know nothing about the man. But I do know that having such influence, this is the path that he has chosen for the company, the path to lead his executive team to follow. I’m glad that I don’t have such influence: at least I can tell my children that I have never done people harm.

So, my motivation is more humble. If I can convince, or even plant a seed of doubt in even a single person who is wondering which bank to choose that they should avoid your company at all costs, I will consider this letter a success. I know there isn’t much choice. The majority of your competitors will be no better — how could they be? Treating customers like this in a competitive market would be corporate suicide.

But the world is changing. I am an optimist. Service like this cannot persist. One day a new bank will do something “disruptive” and revert to actually treating its customers like the individual people they are. Maybe that bank already exists. If they do I sure hope they trust what they are doing now, and resist the temptation to sacrifice their customers for profit.

Trust the machines and algorithms. They add incredible value. But trust the people more. Only that way will sustain customers who trust you.

Yours distrustingly

Dr. David Hastie.

P.S. Oh and by the way, it may be worth telling your marketing department that you had blacklisted my wife. It might have saved sending out lots of your uninvited periodic spam. Just mentioning it, given your drive for efficiency.

P.P.S. There is a huge irony in sending out paper letters to your customers to tell them that as an environmentally friendly bank the the word “Green” has been removed from their account name. No action is needed. The irony might be beyond you, but you could have saved a bit of money there too.