I got an email message from the Oyster card system this morning. It seems that the "auto top-up" failed. No information about why. I followed the link in the message and was simply asked to reconfirm that I really did want the payment to go from the card I had nominated (the one they said had "failed", remember?). I clicked on the "yes I really did mean that card" button and was told that all was now well, except ... there is still a "payment failed" message showing on the screen.
To the phones. TfL have one of those for-profit phone numbers that mean that they earn more money when they force their customers to call them, and also by keeping them on the line as long as possible. After jousting with the options for a while, I went for the one I knew would work right away; the "I want to buy something from you" option. Sure enough, a real person answered. This person was very nice and said that everything looked fine on the card, but she was unable to tell me what the problem was with the payment, for that I had to speak to another department. I managed to persuade this person to just put me through rather than go through the monster phone system again. And she did.
And so I sat in a queue waiting to talk to another person. I waited several minutes (with the Reassuring Messages and the Calming Music) because this is not a "let me give you money" number. In the end I speak to someone who tells me that everything is just fine, and that I have no need to worry. But wait a minute, I say, what was the problem that caused the payment to fail? No idea, he says. The only people who could answer that are a department that will not talk to customers (I kid you not).
At this point I am taken by surprise as the operator tells me that they will walk over to the hidden department and ask them what the problem with my payment was, and he will then call me back with an answer in just a few minutes. Gosh. Sounds good!
... and he called back! Holy moley. It seems that my bank refused the payment because of some kind of anomaly with my address. I need to sort this out with my bank. OK, I say, so what is the reference number of the payment that the bank rejected so I can call them and ask about it? I don't know, he said, ... but I'll go and ask and call you back again. Knock me over with a feather.
... and he called back again! I was not surprised at all to hear that there was no reference number for the payment request (well, of course there is, but I was not surprised to be told there isn't one) and that I'd just have to call the bank and mention TfL and the date. So, top marks for Derek (for it is he) for being the best customer service representative I have dealt with for many years. Big pat on the back there. However, no brownie points for TfL whose systems should have saved me from having to bother Derek in the first place by giving me a reference number I can use to call my bank.
At this point I should be able to go via an on-line banking system and see exactly what the problem was by entering the id of the failed transaction, but no, no such system exists, even if I did have a reference number. And so to the bank and yet another for-profit phone number. The bank spends ages digging through their systems while I am on the phone. I get bulletins every few minutes as they look through one system after another. In the end, they can't see any problem, can't see any rejected transactions. No idea. What should I do? Call Oyster because they will know exactly what the problem was at their end. Can I get Nat West to talk direct TfL to sort this out? Not a chance.
In the end I just have to be happy that both my bank and Oyster think that my accounts are in a good state. Nobody knows what the problem was, and only I care.
So, what can we learn from this mess? First that good customer service is important and apreciated (thanks again Derek). Second that if a customer is presented with a problem there must be a way to understand what the problem actually is (or was) so that there is confidence that the problem will not re-occur. Lastly that bouncing a customer back and forth is not nice. One or other of the organisations should have offered to call the other and get to the bottom of the problem.
BTW, the other matter with Oyster/TfL is still outstanding. Very poor show indeed.
One last thing: standards. If there was a standard for exchanging financial information it could include a reference number which would be valid regardless of whether the transaction was accepted or not. In cases where a transaction fails I could receive the exact data structure that (in this case) Oyster tried to send to my bank. That would be a big help.