Friday, July 13, 2007


So, you want to send a small amount of money to someone in the Philippines who needs the cash immediately and has no bank account. What do you do? Your mind may turn to Western Union - self-advertised as "a fast, reliable and convenient money transfer".

You determine that the recipient has a convenient Western Union location to receive the money and go online to (because the UK is where your credit card was issued) - reassured by the statement of that you can "send money overseas in minutes*".

You are offered a choice of currencies so enter 3000 PHP (about 30 GBP) and are told "Maximum amount is 500 GBP" - some fine coding there. Enter 30 GBP. The first attempt gets rejected with a message stating "There is a problem".
You try again with another card and get "In order to provide final approval for your transaction, we need additional information". You're curoius now - it's 30 GBP so can't have fallen foul of any "money laundering" processes (the transaction fee is 12 GBP so it's unlikely any money launderers would break their payments up into such small payments unless they own a lot of Western Union shares). There's a hotline number but it's in Ireland and it's closed! The person in the Philippines is already waiting to collect the money so what do you do.

You search for another number of the site and find the US 24 hour hotline. Success. You ring and listen to a long message telling you that despite it being an 800 number it's not free (wondering all that time if you're already paying to listen to the message) before you arrive in Automated Response Hell.

  • Press 1 to do something unrelated
  • Press 2 to do something unrelated
Down to option 7 by which point you can't remember which option was most appropriate and there was no "or hold the line to speak to a representative"

You start again and pick one that offers you a choice of "Send a new transfer or check fees". You try this but only get a submenu which offers a choice of "check domestic fees" or "check international fees" - no send a new transfer, damn, you can't get through to a person! You hang up and start again. This time cursing the "it's not free" message and simply mashing the keypad with your palm until you hear a human on the line.

You explain, carefully, that you have commenced an online transfer but have received a message asking for more information.

The highly-trained, American, customer services representative leaps into action. Tired of poor customer service in China you know that the Americans have this part down to an art:

"OK sir, so you want to create a new transfer to send money overseas".

You re-explain, carefully, everything you've already said.

"Ah! You want to know the fees for sending money overseas!"

You bite your tongue and explain, using the shortest possible words and speaking slowly in case Chad can't comprehend English the way it's supposed to be spoken.

"Ah! I can't help you with that. I'll put you through to the credit card department"

This sounds like a minor success and you are momentarily pleased. You're paying by credit. The credit card department sounds like they might be the right people. You wait expectantly.

"Good evening Tammy speaking. How may I help you".

You explain, for the fourth time, in monosyllables and get the reply you're half expecting...

"Sorry sir, I can't help you with that. I can put you through to the international department."

Customer Services drone 3 comes on the line. You begin to wonder if this call from China to the USA has already cost you more than the 30 GBP you were trying to send in the first place. You explain. Again.

"Sorry sir, I can't help you with that. Can I take your transfer number and I can pass the details over to someone else who can help you.".

This sounds promising so you comply. And wait.

"Good evening Western Union. This is Charlene. How may I help you?"

You grimace and explain the whole story again only for her to say "Is that Mr.B?". You assume that she did, in fact, get all of the details from drone 3 but was just prolonging your "customer service experience". You confirm it is, assuming that you're finally getting somewhere. Alas.

"Sorry Sir, I can't help you with that. I'll put you through to someone who can help" your cry of "But..." drifts away on the wind.

Drone 5 comes online. You begin to notice that each time they transfer you the call gets quieter. You aren't surprised when you discover that drone 5 neither received any details from Charlene, nor is she able to assist so on to drone 6.

Drone 6 is barely audible. You ask him to speak up. He doesn't. You ask, very loudly (in case you're equally quiet) for him to speak up. He doesn't. Then he hangs up.

Once you've retrieved your phone from where it landed and reassembled it you wonder what to do next. The bank! You ring your bank (who have a charming, helpful, 24 hour customer service (God bless you HSBC Premier Team) who not only confirm that the transaction has cleared but they look up a UK 24-hour telephone number for Western Union for you.

You ring and explain that you've been trying to "send money overseas in minutes*" for over an hour now. You are, however, told:

"Oh, that's an online transaction. You need to ring this number. It's open 7am-11pm UK time"

You patiently explain that you're in China and it's in the middle of the day here and, after all, it's only 30 quid! Hang on, you remember that when you rang this number it said you could send money over the phone, so you ask "So, can I do a new transaction over the phone and forget the online transaction".

"Yes sir, you can. But you've just told me you're in China and you can only do it from the UK so sorry, sir, I can't help you".

Thwarted at every turn you give up, dejected, and conclude you're going to have to wait 4 hours until 7am UK time.

The appointed hour arrives and you ring. By now, you're in the office so you can use the phone system to route your call to a UK office and then on to their hotline, hoping the call looks like it originates in the UK.

"Hello..... Western.. Union" - clearly the online team have just come out of hibernation. You explain. Finally you're talking to the team of experts. They'll be able to fix this in a jiffy.


Nervously you explain again. Surely to God these people can help. He asks the question you were expecting.

"Where are you calling from?"

"Liverpool. I'm calling from my office in Liverpool. I'm Scouse me. Eh, eh!" (quickly muting the call you start to cough from your performance).

"Hold the line"

Minutes pass and he returns explaining that your transaction looks suspicious.

"You tried three times to do this transaction using two different credit cards".

You explain, trying oh, so hard, to avoid sarcasm, that it was only 30 GBP and that the messages were so vague that you had no idea what was going on.

More minutes pass and success. Your transaction goes through!

Only 5 hours after you started to "Send money overseas in minutes*". So, apparently the '*' is to cover up the fact that it's really "Send money overseas in 300 minutes".

Transfer amount: 30 GBP
Their fee: 12 GBP
Many, varied, lengthy international phone calls: God knows but no doubt more than 42 GBP
The catharsis from being able to blog about it and share your customer service experience with the world: Priceless

(with apologies to Mastercard for using their strapline - your part in this went OK!).

A fast, reliable and convenient way to send money abroad.


1 comment:

Meursault said...

That's nothing. Try and do anything with a UK mobile phone company from China. Now that's really a nightmare. Oddly.