HSBC: Firing the world’s most incompetent bank

Dear reader, I’m going to beg your indulgence as I take a brief editorial detour from my normal writing about new media, journalism and innovation. I promise I won’t make a habit of it.

But, hey, blogging is about personal expression, and I need to vent about my former bank, HSBC. I promise to return to return to our regularly scheduled blogging after this.

Sorry it’s so long, but HSBC is just that crap. Skip to the bullet points, and if you’ve experienced horrible service with HSBC (or another bank), feel free to share. Retail banking customers deserve better than we’re getting, and it’s time for our governments to not just bail out banks but also to work with consumers to ensure we’re well served. Many banks are not just too big to fail but also simply too incompetent to survive.

To relevant regulators, I ask that you start doing your job and look out for retail customers too. Retail banking may not be a high margin business, but like or not, people need banking services. It’s long past time to clean up this industry.

Again, if this story or even parts of it are familiar, share this and share your stories. A little social media action might help. We need retail banking reform now.

Dear HSBC CEO Mr Stuart Gulliver:

I thought about sending this letter to relevant banking regulators, but I don’t have faith that they’d actually do anything so I thought that this public letter might be more effective.

HSBC, you’re fired. I wish I had the power to fire you, the CEO, personally and not just the divisions of your bank that I had the infuriating misfortune to bank with since 2005. I would have fired you long ago, but you know that switching costs are high. I actually thought about buying some HSBC stock and leading a shareholder revolt, but after my experience as your customer, I see you as a very bad investment. Besides, I’ve got better things to do with my time and my money.

Why am I firing you? Where to begin. If it were one branch of your global empire that was totally incompetent, I might write it off, but no, my experiences with HSBC UK, HSBC Expat and HSBC US (or what is left of it) were so uniformly bad that I came to believe that you have serious systemic service and security issues at your retail banking and credit card divisions. On that point, I’m not joking at all. I am completely serious.

I’ll try to make this brief, but it’s hard to summarise all of the crap I put up as one of your customers.

• Moving to the UK in 2005 for what I thought would be a brief work assignment, I opened up an HSBC US account. Things started off well enough, although as I would come to find out, the whole “world’s local bank” looks good on the ads at the airports but is actually nonsense.
• In 2006, I opened up an HSBC Offshore (now Expat) account because I needed an account quickly and needed multi-currency services. I had the money to open the account, and the minimum balance to avoid paying fees was better than your competitors. Then it started to go all wrong.
• You sent me my first credit card and cancelled it a few weeks later. You said that I must have used it online on an insecure site. Nope, and then when I asked how a card could have been compromised so quickly, your staff said it was “a known Milanese fraudster”.
• Several months after opening the account, you sent your customers a letter saying that “in order to serve you better” we’re jacking up the minimum balance required to avoid fees. You didn’t increase it a few thousand pounds, which would have been high. You didn’t double it. No, you increased the minimum fee-free balance 5 times to £25,000. The better service never materialised. As a matter of fact, over the next several years, your service got worse and your fees just got higher. I don’t mind paying fees, but I do expect good service in return. You didn’t hold up your end of the customer contract.
• In 2008, I was in the US on business, and my PayPal account was compromised. PayPal immediately snapped into action calling me on a Saturday. The thieves rang up purchases of $1800 in less than 24 hours. I called HSBC alerting you of the fraud and asking what I could do. The answer? Nothing unless I came into a branch. The nearest branch was a seven hour drive away. On Monday, I watched helplessly as my bank account was drained. You then you slapped an overdraft fee on me. World’s local bank my backside. Weeks later when I was near a branch, I demanded a refund of the overdraft fee. You gave me one, but I should have fired you then and there.
PayPal was excellent, and having been a customer of theirs for several years, they waived the fee for a security token to help me prevent this from happening in the future because I had been with them for years. That’s customer service and a business repaying customer loyalty. You didn’t help me solve my problems at all.
• In 2011, I was woken up in the middle of the night in Australia on business. I had an automatic payment scheme setup on my HSBC UK credit card to pay for my storage space in the US. For some reason, that stopped. Fortunately, Public Storage rang me, and I was able to process a one off payment. I still don’t know what happened.
• In 2012, HSBC’s incompetence was on full display. In January, my employer was unable to pay my wages. To be fair to HSBC, my employer’s bank, Lloyds, was pretty useless too, but HSBC really took the biscuit. You screwed up changing your sort code to the new faster payments system, and my employer couldn’t pay me. You didn’t inform your customers. Why not? You were so kind to allow my employer to pay me via free SWIFT transfers. Normally, you charged £20 a crack for that service. For emphasis, your screw up meant I didn’t get paid for a month. Most people don’t have that luxury.
• Despite the fact that I’ve travelled 310 days out of the last three years, for some reason, HSBC UK started blocking my credit card when I travelled outside the UK, even when I called or left instructions on the website. HSBC blocked my card after a flight to Dubai because the WiFi company on the flight had a US billing address, and I had only said I was travelling to Dubai and Indonesia. You’ve got those cute ads with the kids taking multiple currencies at their lemonade stand, but yet, you’re thrown by a US company providing WiFi on an Emirates flight? The reality doesn’t quite live up to your ads, does it now?
• Last summer, HSBC UK blocked my credit card while I was on a business trip to New York. I’m a US citizen. I travel there at least once a year, and I had an HSBC US account at the time. What would be suspicious about that?
• As my credit card was blocked, I then had to use my debit card, which was compromised. WalMart alerted you to the fraud, and you blocked the payment or so I was told. You might want to change the script that your foreign call centres use. They didn’t tell me that £400 would go out of my account for up to eight weeks until I called them up and asked them about it. I had totally lost my patience with you and your bank.

Saving the worst for last

By this time, I had already decided to fire you. I was tired of paying your exorbitant fees, which by this time seemed a perverse way of rewarding you for being utterly useless. Moreover, your serial incompetence and poor security were too much of a risk to my personal finances.

I did some research, and Citibank had a managed transfer service. They brought the switching costs down, and I couldn’t risk banking with you anymore. However, you still had a few opportunities to shine as the masters of suck, and you didn’t miss a single one.

It took me months to fire you. Citibank worked with me, and you did not. I had more communication from Citibank in the first month of being their customer than I did in years of being a customer of HSBC. HSBC Expat didn’t even mention that Citibank had requested information on my direct deposits and transfers. As a security issue, I would have expected that much.

When I was in the US on business, I fortunately was in one of the last remaining cities where HSBC US has a physical branch so I could close my account. I went to the branch, and you were going to charge me $12 for a cashier’s cheque. It shouldn’t be standard procedure to charge for a cashier’s cheque when closing an account. Lovely, I have to pay you to get my money so I did the very insecure thing and withdrew the cash. Fortunately, the Citibank branch was just across the street.

But wait for it, your worst is yet to come. Several years ago, my HSBC US credit card was compromised. Sigh, who runs your security operations? A known Milanese fraudster? The card was cancelled, but for some reason, it had a one cent balance. I had tried to pay it off several times, but you only allow payments of one dollar or more online. Knowing HSBC’s level of stupidity, I had the foresight to bring a penny to the branch with me when I closed my bank account. The teller struggled a bit with what to do because the credit card account was closed. Bless her. She tried to sort it out and meekly asked if I had a penny.

I tried to cancel the credit card too, but I was told that I couldn’t do that at a branch. Face palm. Was the mystery one penny balance sorted? Hardly. I now have a one cent outstanding balance on the old card and a one cent credit on my existing card. I’ll give you points for consistency, the consistency of never missing an opportunity to screw up. Seriously, this is a global financial institution?

Sir, I wouldn’t trust you or your managers to run that little girl’s lemonade stand in your ads. Let’s make a deal. You got an $11.1 m bonus last year. Flip me that penny, and we’ll call it even.

Your utterly incompetent service and your farcical security has cost me time and money. I’ve got a choice in banking, and you have come up wanting over and over and over again. You left me with no choice. You. Are. Fired.

Sincerely, your former customer,

Kevin Anderson

11 thoughts on “HSBC: Firing the world’s most incompetent bank

  1. Nice writeup. I spent 3 months last year attempting to get them to send a credit card to my Australian address, which appears to be a completely unusual and complicated request. It took 3 attempts for the cards to arrive.

    Their online “global” banking has also had a “system error” attempting to connect a UK and AU account for the past 12 months.

    Any suggestions as to how to close my UK accounts from Australia? 🙂

    • Dan,

      Exactly, HSBC’s ‘global’ banking services are an antiquated, expensive joke. They charged me £7 for 3-day transfer from my UK to US accounts. Citi does it for free, instantly (even if the exchange rates aren’t quite as good).

      The only suggestion I might have is try finding an Aussie bank that can help you manage a transfer. Citibank helped me break through the complete lack of effort by HSBC. When I was getting impatient with the progress, I mentioned it a Citi customer service representative, and he called me back several times over the next 24 hours to get things moving.

      Hope Oz is treating you well.

      Good luck!

  2. I’ll briefly* add my tale of woe.

    I set up a small business account with them when I started trading. My first customer – a large corporation – paid me by cheque. Rather than risk losing a few thousand pounds in the post, I walked to the HSBC across from the office and paid it in.

    I was ecstatic! My company’s first payment! I was a real business owner.

    Then, with no warning, phone calls, or emails, HSBC suspended my account for “suspicious behaviour.”

    I had out-going payments delayed, Direct Debits stopped, and no access to online banking.

    To this day, HSBC refuses to explain how a new business owner paying in a cheque is “suspicious”. Nor would they explain why they didn’t contact me – or the company who wrote the cheque – in order to query it.

    I tried ringing them – but they wouldn’t speak to me because I only had an online account. The only way, apparently, was to contact them through the website WHICH THEY HAD LOCKED ME OUT OF!

    Eventually, and with no explanation or compensation, the account was reinstated. By which time, of course, I’d had to find alternative ways to pay my accountant, insurance, etc.

    After a litany of other errors I decided to close my account. Apparently, that can only be done in person and not via the Internet (so much for “manage your account entirely online”!)

    Or course, my “personal business adviser” didn’t work weekends, so I had to take a day off work, wait in HSBC’s shabby offices, and then had to listen to them lie, obfuscate, threaten, and cajole me into staying.
    After I pulled out my smartphone and showed the useless twonk that he’d just mislead me on what the terms & conditions of my account were they finally relented and I was free.

    I currently have 17p sat in an HSBC account I had as a student. Once a year they write to me to say they’re going to close the account unless there is any activity on it.

    So I withdraw tuppence and pay in a penny – then wait another year. Petty, I know.

    * Ok, not so brief, but OMG that’s cathartic!

    • Terry,

      Thanks for that. I completely relate. That’s why I wrote this. I just needed to get it out there. I found myself randomly ranting about them whenever anyone brought up banks. As for their online availability, the HSBC US site has had serious outages this year, which made my life even more challenging before I fired them.

      I know I’m not alone in my experience. I just cannot believe how they can have bumper profits when barely being able to keep their websites up or provide basic services. I’d switch to a banking society or a credit union in a second, but sadly, being a Yank in the UK, I need international services.

      Thanks again for sharing your story. I’m hoping to hear more like them.
      best, k

      PS Sorry to you and other commenters. Our spam filter seems to be a bit over-zealous. We had to set it to stun after a series of hacking attacks last year.

    • Terry, Love your tuppence in, penny out trick! Wish I”d thought of that!

  3. One minor redeeming feature of HSBC is that they didn’t need to take taxpayer’s money to stay afloat. This is also true of Barclays – but I had to fire them and move to HSBC because Barclays refused to give my wife a debit card (note debit, not credit) on our joint account, and wouldn’t give an understandable explanation as to why.

  4. I had to fire HSBC too. I’d been with them since I had my junior “Griffin Saver” account with the Midland Bank.

    Fraudulent withdrawals were made on my card and no matter how many times I wrote itemising each transaction (and each mistake they’d made), and no matter how much they ‘escalated’ my case, they still consistently failed to both credit back the naughty transactions without ‘reversing’ some of my own legitimate ones (eg. my mobile phone got blocked). Each new ‘customer service’ level expressed how appalled they’d been at previous incompetence and then made the same mistakes again; and so I’d be passed on to the next level.

    So I fired them, left the ‘big four’ behind, and haven’t regretted it.

  5. I hear you about the bailouts. For me, it came down to service rather than whether they accepted taxpayer money or not. Citi had to be bailed out three times, but they have provided infinitely better service.

    When I changed my US account from HSBC to Citi in January, it was like walking from the 18th Century to the 21st as I crossed the street. HSBC gave me a hand-written paper receipt. I made my first deposit at the ATM outside of the Citi branch with the help of a member of staff to see if my new temporary debit card worked. The ATM took the cash, counted it, and I then was able to email a receipt to myself. I was so used to HSBC’s totally useless online services, I was blown away. It really did feel like I had been transported to the future.

    As I said though, it’s not about one bank. It’s about root-and-branch reform of retail banking. Banks need to be held to minimum standards of security and customer service.

    Thanks for the comment.


  6. Sounds all too familiar, hope Citi proves a better experience long-term as well. One of these days I have to fly over to the UK to close my UK bank account as it’s too much of a liablity, even when hardly in use it the bank manages to make my life difficult. And they won’t let me change my postal address from abroad, I have to actually come into a branch to do that – so I can’t imagine they’d let me close off the account from abroad (as per now, they insist on sending all bank correspondence to an old address). And this is really the least of it. British banking is a complete mess from all I’ve heard and experienced – personally I’ve banked with two, none of them HSBC – it’s so hopelessly fraudelent – it’s a great example of “rip-off” Britain – and incompentent I keep wondering how on earth they’re allowed to keep operating like this in such a seemingly civilised, supposedly modern, relatively democratic part of the world. Norwegian banks are like utopia in comparison: As a customer, I experience them to be comfortably well-run, effective and predictable – understanding, service-minded and flexible even (though I wouldn’t be suprised if some of their investmenst are somewhat naive, in fact it has been proved to be in several well known cases). I think my life might have looked very different if it wasn’t for that very understanding Norwegian bank consultant who’d always give me extended credit whenever I needed it during my studies and right after graduating (I had good credit history, she knew I’d pay it back). The system doesn’t allow for that much individual flexibility anymore, but still I’d take Norwegian banking any day over British (there are pros and cons to any country, Norway included, but the state of British banking beggars belief.

  7. I totally agree with this article. HSBC is rubbish. Very poor customer service. Very incompetent bank. Opened an account with my husband and they lost our details twice. You go to a branch and there are 4 staff members in suits talking to each other and you have to wait 15 minutes to be seeing.
    Despite us selecting the option to not receive any phone calls, they constantly keep phoning us and when we enquired what was the call about, they told us that they needed to go through security questions first. Ridiculous! I would never give details when people phoning me… Complained about that to HSBC and they said that it is normal procedure! Also, even though you have set your preferences to not receive phone calls, they change your preferences whenever they want and you have to waste your time updating that. On the branch I’ve enquired about the reasons of the phone calls and they told me that there were essential details missing from my profile, such as my marital status. I couldn’t believe, as Ive opened the account with my husband and on that moment they even took a copy of our marriage certificate! I said to the guy that I dont have time to waste to keep providing the same information over and over again to a bank that it is so incompetent that cant even keep basic details about their clients. Going to close this account ASAP.
    In a slightly different note, I love living in the UK but I do have to agree that the bank system here is from the Middle Age. It is very complicated and very primitive. First time I went to pay a bill here and someone stamped the bill to prove that it was paid I could not believe. That is what they used to do in my country (Brazil) 20+ years ago. Nowadays they use barcodes and electronic stamps.

    • Patricia,
      Yes, when it comes to retail banking, I’m shocked at how antiquated certain aspects of the British system are. Yes, I understand they have strict anti-money laundering regulations dating back to the days of the IRA, but that’s no excuse for some of the manual, paper-based nonsense at British banks. I was just back in the US recently, the Citibank ATMs are space age, allowing me to email my transactions to myself rather than having them printed on paper (although I’ll have to check on the security of the details sent in plaintext emails).
      As for HSBC, they started sending me a multi-page document that they said I needed to have witnessed by a notary to update my details. Utterly bizarre, and frankly, I didn’t understand why they needed any of the information. Some of it was personal, non-financial, details that I don’t see why they needed, even for security purposes. As for having to get a notary to stamp it, why? It’s the 21st Century. Have me log in securely to my account and allow me update my information. I can’t believe how little can actually be done electronically with HSBC, whereas Citi seems to fully understand that using the internet has been around for a few decades now. Thanks for the comment!

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