IF YOU utter these two words, you could save yourself hours on the phone — as a Westpac customer found out the hard way.
What many Australians don’t realise is that the banks are required by law to maintain a “financial hardship” helpline for customers who find themselves facing unforeseen difficulties such as being widowed, losing their jobs or falling seriously ill.
ASK FOR THE ‘FINANCIAL HARDSHIP’ DEPARTMENT
A Westpac customer who didn’t know about this option found himself wasting seven hours on the phone dealing with five different departments.
James* said he contacted the bank after his biggest client had gone into liquidation, leaving the small business owner with less than one-third of his usual income.
But what should have been a simple discussion turned into a customer service nightmare, he said, when the bank refused to deal with all of his accounts at once.
Instead, James said, he was told that he had to contact each department separately — a time-consuming endeavour as he had not just a deposit account and credit card, but also a mortgage, business and personal loans with the bank.
“I asked them if they could all be dealt with by the one person, but they said ‘no you have to call the other departments’,” he told news.com.au, likening the experience to a trip to the mechanic where you have to speak to a different person about your tyres, clutch and transmission.
Only after three months and dozens of half-hour telephone calls was he finally put onto the department where he should have been directed in the first place, James said, estimating the bungle had cost him about seven hours — time that could have been spent drumming up new clients.
BANKS ‘SHOULD BE MORE PROACTIVE’
Choice head of campaigns and policy Erin Turner said Westpac should have referred James to its ‘financial hardship’ line the first time he called, but that the big banks were not always “proactive” about letting customers know about this option.
“Westpac have a dedicated line for this and they should be directing him to it,” Ms Turner told news.com.au.
“It’s really disappointing that someone should have to go through the wringer like that.”
She said many Australians did not know about the banks’ hardship assistance programs, but that customer service staff should be trained to let people know about it.
“You can use the magic words ‘I want to speak to the hardship team’, but you shouldn’t have to,” she said.
Ms Turner said it could also be useful for people who found themselves in hardship to speak to a financial counsellor.
A spokeswoman for the bank said in a statement to news.com.au: “Due to the large variety of product and services we offer, it is essential for us to offer specialists in key areas to provide the best in-depth service to our customers.
“We are continually upgrading and investing in our customer technologies and aim to provide a seamless service experience every time.”
FUNDS ‘DRAINED FROM ACCOUNT’
Another Westpac customer affected by the bank’s financial hardship policy posted on its Facebook page last week to complain that her account had been cleared of funds.
“Once again Westpac have taken over $1300 out of my account — this is the third time!” the struggling mum posted.
“What’s the point of setting up a payment plan when you guys just decide to take whatever you want, whenever you want!”
She vowed to fight the withdrawal but said that, while she expected this to be successful, she faced being unable to pay her rent and bills while waiting for the money to appear back in her account.
Westpac’s social media representative promised to investigate the matter.
WHAT THE OTHER BANKS SAID
NAB said its bankers were trained to identify if a customer was experiencing financial hardship, “at which point they would be referred to our customer care team who can offer temporary provisions to help them get back on track”.
“We always aim to ensure our customers can have a holistic discussion about their finances when speaking to us,” a NAB spokeswoman said, adding that it helped more than 25,000 customers transition through rough patches each year.
A CBA spokeswoman said that its customer assist team “considers every request for assistance on an individual basis and works with customers to develop a solution tailored to our customer’s’ circumstances”.
“Commonwealth Bank always seeks to engage customers early to discuss options and to work through any financial difficulties that may arise in meeting their obligations,” the spokeswoman said.
ANZ did not respond by deadline.
* Not his real name.