Saturday, July 16, 2005

Life's so much easier when you are a monopoly provider...

It is with shame that I admit my only knowledge of Kafka was gained from listening to conversations I didn't really understand at College. However, I think reports of his demise may have been premature. He is alive and well and working for Experian.

The are one of the top two credit reference agencies in the UK. (The other being Equifax).

This story begins with my bank. I hold one of their Visa credit cards. I tend not to carry any balance on my credit cards but use them to bridge a gap between business expenses being incurred and being reimbursed into my account or when I want the protection provided by the UK's Consumer Credit Act.

They wrote to me a couple of months ago telling me my credit card would be cancelled because it was too much effort for them to upgrade their systems to support Chip and Pin. (Don't ask... it's a story in itself)

This meant I needed to apply for a Visa or Mastercard somewhere else. I have a personal Amex but it's not as widely accepted and there are many online retailers who only accept Visa and Mastercard (Experian being one but let's not go there just yet...)

So.... I did some research. Since I don't carry any balance on my cards, the interest rate or balance transfer features were unimportant to me. This meant I was free to optimise the only variable that actually matters in a credit card..... how good it looks.

I found a provider of good looking Visa cards and applied. After I had heard nothing for two weeks, I called them to check on progress - to be told that they had rejected my application. I just don't understand it. I'm nice. I say 'please' and 'thank you'. I smile at strangers. Of course, I also represent zero opportunity for them to make money - but it seems a little unreasonable of them to take that into consideration.

Nevertheless... they told me that they use Experian as their credit agency so I decided to get hold of my credit report from them.

This is where the fun started...

Rewind 6 months. At Christmas, I signed up to both Equifax and Experian to look at my credit reports. They were both offering 30 day trials for their premium services that allowed you to produce reports online and get notifications if anything bad happened. (One can get a full dump of the information they hold about you for £2 but this was billed as being quicker and provided more value).

Equifax were a joy to use. They had a really cool sign up procedure that allowed them to determine that I really was who I said I was. They had figured out that they could use their extensive information on me to "quiz" me on my financial history. If they asked enough obscure questions they could be sure that only the "real" Richard Brown would be able to get them all correct. They varied from "which of the four following providers have you banked with?" to "Which month did you sign up with XXX credit card company?" So you see: the second question was quite hard. If you don't keep good notes or have a good memory, you'll fail and have to resort to sending in copies of bills and things.

However, if you do get the questions right, you can get instant access and it's super. Equifax are one of my favourite ever companies as a result. Hurrah for Equifax, I say!

Experian's website, however, isn't in quite the same league.

Their sign up website is very poorly designed (e.g. it assumes all area codes are four digits long. London's area code is 020. As you can tell, that is just three digits long. Perhaps it's because they're based in Nottingham - area code 0115) Note: I've told them about the problems... I'm not just moaning without trying to help them fix it :-)

Anyhow, at the end of the sign-up, the browser waits for a bit and then tells me I must send in a pile of bills and bank statements which they will review. And then they will write back with a password for the website. Jeez!

Like, I imagine, many users of their service, I didn't bother sending in my forms.

Fastforward back to today... I now need Experian's services so I sign up again. I moved flat a couple of months ago so sign up with the new address and tell them what my previous address was. Instantly their system detects I have an old application and it tells me it's still waiting for my paperwork. Very good!

So I send in my paperwork. Of course, there's a problem now. My paperwork proves I live at my new address but their system is waiting for proof that I live at my old address.... Needless to say, they can't handle it and I still don't have access to their site, after a week of phonecalls.

In the meantime, my £2 statutory report (which required no proof of address at all....) arrived this week and told me everything I needed to know anyway.

As I should have guessed, applying for a credit card immediately after moving house, when I wasn't yet on the Electoral Roll, with a credit history showing a tendency to pay bills in full and on time was enough for any provider to turn me down: "If he is who he says he is, there's no way we can make money out of him but in any case we're not sure he is, anyway, since he moves house so often. Turn him down".



Postscript: There is a reason for documenting this story. And it relates to my area of expertise. One can think of Experian's sign up process as a long-running business process. There are some automated and human-based tasks at the start and then the process sleeps, waiting for an event (the arrival of the paperwork) before it progresses to activating my trial. The reason why it interests me is that the problem I experience last week was entirely due to a flawed choice of correlation variable. They had decided that my name and address were sufficient to allow the incoming paperwork to be matched to the slumbering process instance. Since they believed this was a safe thing to do, they didn't assign a reference number or tracker. My moving house meant that my incoming docs didn't match the process that was waiting for them and so they were put into a holding "pen" and the sign-up process was left perpetually marooned.

So, for us BPM consultants, it's a timely warning that decisions that appear "no-brainers" can cause end-users (or customers) EXTREME pain!

[EDITED 13:57 17/07/05. Tidied up]

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