Dr Noel Palmer, a retired academic, 85 years of age, slightly hard of hearing and renowned for being polite and mild tempered, had banked with the same bank for over 50 years.  He was unadventurous when it came to banking, just as he was to most things, and had never  been brave enough to venture into online banking.  He was content with setting up direct debits for regular payments and writing cheques for everything else.  He found it comforting to have a branch he could visit— though, he calculated, he hadn’t had occasion to do that for well over twelve months. 

One day Noel read an article in his newspaper about inertia and how organisations took advantage of loyal customers who failed to shop around.  He resolved there and then to be uncharacteristically adventurous and switch his current account to another bank and, perhaps after that, to change his electricity provider, his car insurer, his home insurance, his investment manager, his internet provider.…. 

Yes, from now on he would embrace change!  It would be exciting, a welcome antidote to his humdrum, repetitive life.  Why, he fantasised, he might even move house, stop wearing ties, grow a beard, join the local bowling club, change his pet tortoise.  The possibilities were endless!

Intoxicated by his own recklessness, Noel visited the local branch of Pretty Bank (chosen for no other reason than he liked the name and because they were offering a reward of £125 if you opened an account with them).  Feeling emboldened, he stood in a queue for a short time humming quietly to himself and, once he got to the counter, told the young woman behind the glass that he wished to switch his current account from Ugg Bank.

‘Excellent and congratulations on choosing Pretty Bank.  Rest assured that we’ll look after everything.  We’ve done this for hundreds of esteemed customers who, just like you, have wisely decided to switch banks.  You’ll not regret it.’  

Her name badge said ‘Sharon’ and, beneath it, a comforting slogan said: ‘We value your custom’.  She gave him a broad smile  (her teeth were suspiciously even and, he thought, much too white).

‘Thank you for your reassurances, dear lady.  I must admit to having succumbed to inertia and been with Ugg Bank for as long as I can remember.  I’m finding the prospect of making the change quite exhilarating.’

‘You’ll definitely not regret it, sir.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained!’  Sharon flashed him another gleaming smile.

‘I hope so.  Can you confirm the procedure?’

‘Of course.  You need to provide us with proof of identity, your passport or driving licence, and proof of address, a recent utility bill will suffice.  We contact your bank requesting them to supply us with a list of your standing orders and direct debits.  We then set up the appropriate mandates and notify you when the transfers have been done.  After that, you then authorise Ugg Bank to close your account and transfer the balance to us.  You just sit back and let us do all the work.  It’s all quite straightforward.’

‘Splendid, splendid!  Straightforward — that’s just the reassurance I need.’

‘We pride ourselves on under-promising and over-delivering, sir.  I can assure you, you are safe in our hands.’  Another smile.

That afternoon, Noel returned to the bank and provided Sharon with all the documents she required. 

An uneventful week passed.  Noel pottered around contentedly, humming absentmindedly to himself whilst doing this and that: some gardening, completing the cryptic crossword in the Times, continuing his researches into life and times of Neville Chamberlain, cataloguing his collection of political cartoons.     

From time to time he wondered when he’d be told that it was safe to close his account with Ugg Bank, but he was content to wait, confident, as Sharon had promised, that things would be progressing satisfactorily

Then Noel received an unexpected phone call. ‘Pretty Bank here, Dr Palmer.  Just a courtesy call.  I’m a supervisor in the quality assurance team.  It’s my job to check that we are following the correct procedures. Could you please confirm your Ugg Bank account details?’

‘Why?  I’ve already given you everything you need to proceed with the switch.’

‘I know, Dr Palmer, and I apologize if this seems repetitious, but we pride ourselves on our rigorous attention to detail.’

Noel sighed but, having a high regard for quality and orderly procedures, he cooperated and provided all the information the caller requested.  ‘Thanks for your patience, Dr Palmer.  Everything seems to be proceeding satisfactorily and we’ll be in touch in the next few days to confirm that your new account is up and running.’  

Another humdrum week passed.  But then a letter arrived from Noel’s local authority saying that his monthly direct debit had been cancelled and that his council tax payments were in arrears.  This was unsettling and, not being accustomed to falling behind with any payments, he phoned Pretty Bank (he’d have gone to the branch in person except that it was pouring with rain).  He listened patiently to part of the second movement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, interrupted with occasional explanations about how busy they were, how his call was important to them and that it might be recorded for training purposes.  Eventually his call was answered.

‘Thank you for waiting.  My name is Marcus, how may I help you?’

‘I was hoping to speak to Sharon.  Is she there?’

‘She’s not in today, but I’m sure I can help you.’

‘I do hope so.  I have just received a puzzling note from the Town Hall alerting me to the fact that this month’s council tax hasn’t been paid.  You assured me that you’d look after everything and that switching my account from Ugg Bank would be trouble free.’

‘Right,’ said Marcus.  ‘I just need to take you through some security questions.’  Noel obliged, going through the familiar routine providing his name, his address, his place of birth, his mother’s maiden name, the name of his first pet and the account number he’d been given. 

Marcus put him on hold and the Trout Quintet resumed.

‘Thank you for waiting, Dr Palmer.  I have just checked that your direct debit for the council tax was included on the list sent to us by Ugg Bank and I’m glad to say that everything is in order.’

‘Well, obviously everything isn’t in order.  Why hasn’t the council tax been paid?’

‘I’m afraid you’ll have to ask Ugg Bank that question.  I can assure you we are following our normal procedures and everything is in hand.  May I help you with anything else?’

Feeling increasingly exasperated, Noel phoned Ugg Bank and, after listening to reggae music, interrupted with the usual apologies for the lines being busy, for being held in a queue and assurances that his call was valued, a voice said, ‘Thank you for waiting.  My name is Diana, how may I help you?’

‘I’m in the process of moving my account to Pretty Bank but it seems that the direct debit payment for the council tax has gone awry.  I was told to contact you to find out what’s gone wrong.’

‘I just need to take you through some security questions,’ Diana replied.  Noel sighed but obliged, reminding himself to be patient as he went through the familiar rigmarole. 

After a pause, Diana said, ‘I can confirm that your account has been closed and the balance transferred.’

‘The account has been closed?  But why?  I didn’t give my authorisation.’

‘Yes, it’s definitely been closed and your debit card has been cancelled.  Is there anything else I can do for you, Dr Palmer?’

‘Wait a minute!  This isn’t supposed to happen.  I was told that I would be informed when the switch had been completed and when it was safe to close my account with you.’

‘I can assure you we have followed our normal procedures and that the account has been closed.’

Noel, feeling uncharacteristically indignant, raised his voice. ‘This is outrageous!  I have not authorised you to close my account.  You must reinstate it immediately.’

‘I’m afraid that isn’t possible.  Once an account has been closed it can’t be opened again for two years.’

‘This is unacceptable, completely unacceptable!  I wish to speak to your manager.’

Diana put him on hold, but not before saying ‘bear with me’, an expression that had always jarred.  Feeling increasingly stressed, Noel hung on, listening to inappropriately cheerful music and concentrating on his breathing — in, to a slow count of four and out, to a slow count of six — a calming technique he’d adopted after it was recommended on a recent Radio 4 programme.

‘Dr Palmer,’ said an unfamiliar voice.  ‘I believe you’ve asked speak to me about closing your account?’

‘Yes, that’s correct.  My account shouldn’t have been closed without my authorisation and I want it opened again.’

‘But, Dr Palmer, if you recall, you phoned last week to confirm that you wanted us to transfer the balance and close the account.  We were merely carrying out your instructions.’

‘I phoned?’ said Noel, completely nonplussed.

‘Yes, there’s no doubt about it.  It’s all here in our records.  You passed security and provided us with everything we needed to transfer of funds.’

The truth slowly dawned.  Noel, feeling weak at the knees, sank down onto the nearest chair.  He’d read numerous stories in his newspaper about elderly folk like him being conned and now it had apparently happened to him.  He felt panicky and embarrassed about being taken in so easily.  He stirred himself, adjusted his hearing aids, put on his mac, found his umbrella and, avoiding the puddles, marched to Pretty Bank.

‘Is Sharon here?’ he asked the woman at the counter, someone he hadn’t seen before.

‘No, we don’t have a Sharon.  How can I help you?’

‘Well you did have a Sharon a couple of weeks ago.  Where is she?’

‘I’m not really at liberty to say, but I believe she has left the bank.  Pastures new and all that.’

‘Left the bank?  Wasn’t that rather sudden?  Never mind, could I ask you to check whether my new account has been opened?’

The woman took Noel’s account details and consulted her screen.  ‘Yes,’ she nodded, ‘I can confirm that it’s up and running.’

‘And the current balance?’

‘£125’

‘No transfers from Ugg Bank?’

‘No, just £125 at present.’

Noel nodded and, even though he could anticipate the answer to his next question, he asked it nonetheless. ‘Tell me, when switching accounts, is it normal to get a call from your quality assurance people?’

‘That’s a new one on me. The switching service is a perfectly straightforward process.  We’ve done it for thousands of customers.  It only remains for you to tell your old bank to transfer the balance and we’re in business.’

Noel sighed.  ‘Regrettably that will not be possible.  It seems that £9,362.53 has been spirited away to I know not where.’

Crestfallen, Noel trudged back through the rain, telling himself he’d been a gullible old fool. Embracing change, he reflected, had been a costly exercise.  From now on he’d content himself with embracing the status quo. 

He hummed a dirge to himself, stopping abruptly when he reached his front door and realised that, in his haste to get to Pretty Bank, he’d forgotten his keys.    

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