Santander tops the banking hall of shame as we reveal users overwhelmingly rate it worst for customer service.

A mammoth 62% of the 3,388 Santander customers who voted in our customer service poll, which attracted 17,675 respondents over the past week, rate its service as poor (see the Best Bank Accounts and Top Savings guides).

Only Halifax/Bank of Scotland (Hbos) came close in the scandalous service stakes as 48% of its customers surveyed also rate their experience as poor.

In stark contrast, First Direct has the best service, according to our poll, with the Co-op second.

Sorry Santander

Santander, which includes the Alliance & Leicester (A&L) arm it bought in 2008, has some of the best current account, savings and credit card deals available (see the Best Bank Accounts and Top Savings, Cheap Travel Money and Balance Transfer Credit Cards guides).

But over recent times, MoneySavers have complained of shocking service.

In particular, over the past month, we have been swamped by complaints from A&L customers whose accounts are being transferred to Santander.

Many say they have been denied access to their current accounts and savings for days during the switch.

In one of the horror case studies we feature below, one woman in the process of remortgaging her home, who was depending on the cash in her account for valuation fees, was told she had no access to it.

One Santander forum thread on the subject has already been viewed over 13,000 times with over 300 posts since it was started last month (also see the Santander shocking Service MSE Blog).

These problems, along with the arrival of Metro Bank, which promises good customer service, prompted us to conduct the poll.

Other complaints we have seen about Santander over recent weeks include:

  • Long waits to get served in branch and by phone.

  • Poor information given by staff.

  • Being passed from pillar to post by telephone staff.

  • Account transfer delays (to rival banks).

  • Slow release of savings following account maturity.

The other banking miscreants

It's not just Santander's top brass who should take note of their customers' fury. Many other bank customers share similar anger.

Almost half of the 2,044 Hbos customers surveyed also describe service as poor. Some 41% of Barclays customers think the same about their bank, as do 41% of Lloyds TSB account holders.

Happy customers

At the opposite end of the scale, 85% of the 1,195 First Direct customers sampled describe service as great. Just 6% say it is poor.

Co-op customers are also generally satisfied, with 75% saying service is great.

The only building society featured, Nationwide, also scored reasonably well with 39% describing service as great and 32% as OK.

This is despite the recent cessation of account perks, such as the imminent end of fee-free overseas use (see the Nationwide overseas charges MSE News story).

The table below shows the breakdown of our results:

Worst customer service uncovered
% of customers who rate service ...
Provider (no. sampled) Poor OK Great
Santander/A&L (3,388) 62% 24% 14%
Hbos (2,044) 48% 33% 19%
Lloyds TSB (2,322) 41% 36% 23%
Barclays (2,091) 41% 34% 25%
Natwest/RBS (2,416) 38% 33% 28%
HSBC (1,954) 36% 34% 30%
Nationwide (1,423) 28% 32% 39%
Co-op (842) 10% 15% 75%
First Direct (1,195) 6% 9% 85%

Total sample: 17,675. Percentages may not reach 100% due to rounding

Martin Lewis, creator, says: "In recent times, we've noted more and more complaints about poor banking service, and Santander's been at the pinnacle.

"That's why we asked MoneySavers to get a quantifiable, not anecdotal view. And a massive 17,600 responded.

"What's frustrating is the worst customer service banks are mostly the ones with the best rates; which makes choosing the right account even more difficult.

"The two most likely explanations are these banks are cutting corners on service to keep costs low.

"The other is they're attracting so many customers due to 'free £100' deals they simply can't cope with the numbers. My suspicion is it's a combination of the two.

"We'll be studying these results and working out how we best incorporate them in our Best Bank Accounts guide."

Customer service – the good

Deb Durrant, from Gloucestershire, has been a happy First Direct customer for just over two years.

She is particularly impressed with the personal service offered by the bank, and one customer service agent, in particular, called Peter Mudie.

Deb, a consultant, says Peter helped her set up the account and called back after a few weeks to make sure she was happy. This prompted Deb to write to his line manager to express her satisfaction at the service.

Deb, who has a personal and a joint current account, says: "When you call it is like having a conversation with a trusted colleague rather than someone in a call centre.

"I know they are in a call centre but the staff make you feel like they understand."

One incident, when the bank made an error, also stands out. When Deb set up a joint account with her partner, John, the bank opened the account too early meaning direct debits were taken before there was any money in it.

This put the account overdrawn, leading to £100 in charges. However, when Deb alerted the bank, it rectified matters immediately, refunding all charges.

She adds: "Mistakes happen, but this was all sorted out within one phone call."

Customer service – the bad

A&L customer Katie Goddard, from Surrey, was left fuming when she was told two weeks ago she had no access to her two savings accounts during the switch from A&L to Santander.

When she checked online, the accounts had disappeared from view.

She was told it would take five days to link them back to her current account and bank staff told her in that time her savings were effectively frozen.

Katie says she was in the process of remortgaging and needed the cash to cover valuation fees.

She said last week: "It has caused me great inconvenience. But more to the point, they are holding my money to ransom!"

Santander told even though Katie's accounts were not visible online the funds were never frozen and she was the victim of misinformation by staff.

It has given her £50 as a goodwill gesture.

A Santander spokeswoman says: "Unfortunately, Mrs Goddard did not receive the correct information from us. We apologise for any inconvenience caused."

Customer service – and the unlucky

Unfortunate Simon Wheeler, who started the long Santander complaint forum thread, had banked with Abbey (now Santander) for 20 years before getting so fed up with service he switched to A&L four years ago.

He says he had no problems with A&L until his bank transferred his current account and two savings accounts to Santander last month – the same bank he tried to escape initially.

Simon, from Morayshire in Scotland, was without access to his A&L accounts for six days during the switch, but it took a further two days to be able to make money transfers.

Even when the process was complete, his list of payees reverted to the list he had three years earlier, meaning he had to re-input data.

He said he was given scripted apologies when he called and says staff on the customer service helpline were particularly unhelpful and often passed him from one representative to another without fixing any problems.

Santander offered him £25 as a goodwill gesture to apologise after he complained, but Simon has since left the bank for the Co-op, and says that transfer has gone smoothly.

What the banks say

A Santander spokeswoman says: "We have started a phased migration of accounts of A&L assets to Santander, accounting for over five million customers.

"The transfer will offer customers a number of benefits including increased access to over 1,300 Santander branches across the UK.

"The vast majority of customers have had a trouble-free upgrade and we expect to complete this and rebrand the A&L business by the end of 2010.

"However, a small number have had temporary problems regarding specific internet banking transactions.

"We apologise for any inconvenience caused and are working to ensure these issues are rectified.

"If any customers are experiencing issues with their online banking account we urge them to contact us."

An Hbos spokeswoman says: "Customer feedback is really important to us, as it helps us understand where we can improve.

"We proactively contact our customers every 35 seconds to ask how we are performing.

"We use that feedback to help us provide a high quality service and develop a strong long term relationship with customers."

Further reading/Key links

Top deals: Best Bank Accounts
Money help: Budget, Money Makeover, Debt Help