Woolwich from Winchester

Just before a trip to London a few days ago, I inserted my Woolwich card in an ATM near Winchester Station. I hit the ‘balance on screen’ button, and saw ‘your card issuer has declined your request’. A bit mysterious. I don’t normally keep much money in that account, but obviously I still wanted to make sure that someone wasn’t in the process of stealing it. So I phoned up the ‘lost and stolen’ line on the back of the card and explained the problem. I was told that, because I wasn’t an Openplan account holder (whatever that is), it wasn’t possible to do any telephone banking past 5.30pm. Although my security details could be verified, I was told that no further information could be given. The card could be cancelled, and a new one sent out, but I didn’t want to go through the hassle for the risk attached to such a small sum of money.

My worries were further compounded when I phoned during office hours the next morning to check again. They could find no record of the card being declined, or an explanation as to why it was. The only suggestion I was offered was: ‘try it in another ATM’. Well, duh.

I’ve no doubt my card will probably work again next time I try it, and this was a one-off glitch. It’s not entirely reassuring that the problem doesn’t seem to have been recorded, but what is surprising is the illogical service I was offered by the Woolwich. This isn’t price discrimination, this is just stupidity: with 24-hour callcentres and computerised records, there is no excuse.

This type of problem in the past has been one of the things that has encouraged me to keep multiple accounts with different banks (so I can get at money when I need it). I suspect the Woolwich might soon lose its place in my portfolio, though. Any recommendations for a replacement?

New Coffee; Old Beans?

We’ve recently got some new break-out rooms at Hursley, which contain some very comfy sofas; I must go in there more often. I tried the new coffee machines therein too - they were more disappointing. I’ll stick with my no-way-to-obtain-good-coffee-at-my-workplace theory. Back to plan A.

Zopa Away!

I’ve just signed up for an account with Zopa, a UK-based peer-to-peer money lending market (for a similar US-based site, see Prosper). It’s going to be a few weeks before I can seed my Zopa account with some capital to lend, but the concept looks absolutely fascinating (as well as potentially lucrative), and I can’t wait to see how well it turns out. It looks like it has the potential to cause some disruption to a part of the financial market in the same way as Paypal did, and I hope it does well. Given the recent news of Muhammad Yunus winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his novel microcredit form of lending, let’s hope that innovation in finance continues, and governments don’t choose to regulate it further.

Ideas Are Assets

IBM loves patents. We’ve held the record for thirteen years for the most U.S. patents granted each year. IBM’s margin over the competition is also good (2941 in 2005, compared to 1828 for our nearest competitor, Canon). IBMers are actively encouraged to develop patents (which is probably why we do so well in the patent charts), and IBM is a large company with a lot of resources and a disproportionately large R&D; spend - perhaps no-one should be too surprised.

But in the chart position / size stakes, Nathan Mhyrvold’s company, Intellectual Ventures, is impressive. Their only products are patents - in much the same way, says Mhyrvold, as Coke’s product is a brand (trademark), and Microsoft’s is software (copyright). In other words, they are just focusing on another aspect of IP. A recent In Business episode looked at Intellectual Ventures, and they hold the record at 25th place for most U.S. patents granted in a year, despite being a minnow in a world of IBM and Canon. It’s an unfair comparision with IBM really, as IBM produces much more than just copyrighted product (a substantial portion of IBM’s business is services, not software), but IV has a fascinating business model, and one that’s still comparatively rare.

Update 2006-10-23: It’s unlikely to calm the debate I’ve been seeing on this topic any, but as Richard points out, IBM has just filed suit against Amazon for patent violation.

Update 2006-10-25: Greg at IBM Eye has more details on the suit.

Update 2006-10-29: John Simonds from IBM Analyst Relations (We allow these guys to blog? Wow!) has a personal perspective on the IBM-vs-Amazon case.

Update 2006-10-30: For some comment in defence of Amazon, see this article from PC Magazine.

Proactive Customer Service

Well, it looks like writing about customer service can have an effect. About two months back I wrote about how 82ASK had disappointed me - they found my prose, replied, and made it all OK. Now, another recent posting about the LOVEFiLM/Screenselect merger has elicited a comment from the LOVEFiLM team. They haven’t entirely addressed my concerns, but their proactive approach is encouraging, and might tip the balance in favour of hanging on, if and when problems do occur.

If these were my businesses, I’d do a quick back-of-the-envelope cost-benefit analysis to make sure this type of research was worthwhile (although I’m not sure what numbers I’d use). From a customer perspective, though, this feels like the way service should be - more please.

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