Friday, October 06, 2006

West Bank Story

When I was young, I read a book called The Stainless Steel Rat. Among it's many premises was the idea that in the future, increasingly complex technology and bureaucracy had largely robbed people of the ability to think independently. To put it more bluntly, people had become dumb - at least from the perspective of the main character.

I've come to realise in the intervening years, with a little horror, that the author was not merely trying to be amusing, but rather satirical, because the world really is like this. Today's case in point, is HSBC, who advertise themselves as the world's local bank.

I have a financial problem in need of a solution, and if you'll forgive my obvious naivety, I didn't think it a particularly difficult one to solve. I needed a bank account in Busan, so that I could function financially in the local currency, and I thought this best achieved by having an account with a Western bank which had branches in the
UK and South Korea. Of the main banks in the UK, I mainly use Barclays, who due to an historical and continuing obsession with South Africa have chosen that country as the focus of their international expansion rather than going for the more fashionable - and one suspects profitable - Asian expansion. So they were out, but it seemed of little concern when I had a branch of the Anglo-Asian monster HSBC in my local city centre.

When I go into Barclays, and most other banks for that matter, there is an enquiries desk located somewhere reasonably visibly, yet discretely. In my local HSBC, it's the first thing that hits you as you walk in the door - so it's basically a reception desk defending the inner areas of the company. So I asked the receptionist, who's title though is probably something more like 'customer relationship engineer', whether I could open an account in the UK which I could use overseas - specifically Korea in this case.

If I opened a HSBC UK account they could 'introduce' me to HSBC Korea, increasing the chances that HSBC Korea would let me open an account there, but no, I couldn't open an account in the
UK that I could just access in the Busan branch of HSBC Korea. And in any case, HSBC UK wouldn't be so keen to 'introduce' me if I hadn't been a customer of theirs for at least a year, which obviously I hadn't. What's more, I could only open an account with HSBC UK if I agreed to move my main bank account to them from Barclays, which I said wasn't going to happen. So we smiled at each other, his I think the slightly apologetic smile of someone who's hands are tied by procedures (though it could have been the smile of turning away obvious Barclays riff-raff from the superior HSBC), and mine the sympathetic smile I specially reserve for facing the mentally ill. I found the whole story so unbelievable - even knowing the limitless stupidity of corporates - that I was tempted to bypass the reception desk and hunt down a manager to explain my displeasure - but unfortunately I've been employed by corporates long enough to find running past reception desks an insurmountable psychological barrier.

The upshot of this is that I won't have a Korean bank account - HSBC have lost a customer - and I'm always going to hold a grudge against HSBC and will no doubt spend the next 20 years bad-mouthing them (this is just the beginning!)

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