I am back with a new part of the story on how I started out in the corporate world. The whole story spans a period of around 17 years from the year 2000 all the way to the present day.
As I was enjoying my new job and everything was going to plan news of an advance in technology made the rounds: The processing of authorisations of card transactions was going to be automated.
Automation is the fear of many workers worldwide. The disdain of old school industries like car manufacturing and textiles. You would never think that something like this would affect you personally and when it does you are in shock. It is inevitable.
To explain it all, I need to also outline how this authorisation process actually works and then conclude with how the automation part affected me and the team I was working in. I will try to keep it as simple as possible but bear with me.
When you have a debit or credit card and you go shopping you tend to stick your card into a terminal, enter your PIN and then you have paid. What you probably don’t know is that there is a rather large process behind the payment. It consist of a string of processes that are connected from the moment you put your card into the terminal to you receiving your bank invoice.
As soon as you enter your PIN a data set is submitted to your bank. This data set is stored on your card and are things like the long cardnumber, the expiry date of the card and some security features.
Your bank then checks all these details against risk parameters they have set up. These parameters are dependent on your shopping history and what type of merchant you are and if the PIN entered is correct (it is much more rudimentary than you think. Banks don’t tend to collect as much data on you as Google or Apple…). If everything checks out, your bank says “OK, you can go ahead with the transaction” and sends an authorisation code to the merchants’ terminal and the transaction will happen, you take your goods and go home. All good, everybody is happy. By the way, this happens within less than 5 seconds. The whole process is ultra fast.
However, if one of the things the bank looks up on you does not check out, the transaction may either be declined (when the bank has tough risk parameters in place) or the transaction will be referred.
Let’s say you just got your brand new debit card with a brand new bank you’re new to and you take that card and want to make a £1000 purchase at a jewelry shop. It will be very likely that your bank is going to stop that from happening. At least in the first instance.
When a transaction is referred, the display of the terminal would show a number to the merchant to call your bank (me in that case). I would then talk to the customer and ask some basic questions like “Are you on holiday?”, “what are you buying and why?” (Mind you this is not intrusive. If it is a new customer you need to verify these things) “Are you on holiday?” If you are talking to a customer who has been with the bank a bit longer you would ask “are you on holiday?”, “what were your last 5 purchases?”. Something along those lines and after you have asked them what their DOB and address were.
You would then make a manual decision on the referred transaction and the merchant you are with would use the manual authorisation code to advance the transaction and you can get your goods and leave.
The whole process would take 5-10 minutes maximum. No longer.
Cue the automated system or AVR (Automated Voice Recognition) how it was called at the time. This systems was a direct replacement for us, the human element talking to the customer and meant that if a referral took place, the customer would talk to a machine to get the transaction through. You would enter your cardnumber and then answer a series of YES/NO questions and based on that the AVR would decide to go ahead, or not.
Nowadays, card transaction referrals are all but eliminated and you either get an approval (YES) or a decline (NO).
We were done.
All the good work we were doing was to become undone as the bank prepared to shut down the team. A part of the area was supposed to survive and move to Spain. We were told that we could apply for roles there but personally, I felt I wasn’t ready to move abroad just yet. I was just about to leave home and going away to Spain, not speaking the language or knowing anything about the country seemed too daunting to me at the time.
The transition period was rather weird in that when the automated system was switched on we were kept on pay roll with the requirement to be in the office. That meant: Card and board games for four weeks straight with management approval. No calls came in. None whatsoever. It was dull.
Then, the actual cut happened and we were asked where in the business we wanted to move to. No one thought about redundancy at all and it was clear that we would all stay on in the business in some capacity.
This was the first time I had a proper corporate HR experience. They tried to push me into the Customer Support Team which no one wanted to really work in as the general opinion was: Once you are in Customer Support you can never get out and your career was pretty much over. Besides, we heard horrific stories of the evil customers that team had to deal with.
My meeting with HR at the time was pretty strange. I had already my mind up in that I definitely didn’t want to go into Customer Support and therefore chose, in my mind, the lesser evil: Collections.
As I will describe later, it was one of the worst decisions of my life but also one that got me where I am now which is also a paradox.
More on that in a later chapter.
For now, I will leave you with this part and next time I will share with you what it was like working in Collections and what would turn out to be some of the most grueling years of my life.