Thursday, December 27, 2007

Return to the Trial, or, why Western Union sucks

For a recent project I had to make use of Western Union to send some money offshore. I had never used Western Union before, and never will again. For a business which is 100% about trust, it is abysmally run and organized. I'd have reps say they were going to call me back to confirm my home number and then not do it. So I assumed transactions weren't cleared, only to find out later that they were (OK, just one, which I pulled back). Fees were non-trivial, ca 8% for phone transactions, 4% for in-person (probably closer to reasonable).

I sent one transaction over the phone and never got a receipt. I called up and the first rep said she couldn't send an email receipt (why not?), that a snail mail one was on the way. OK. But it never got here. A month later I call back and give some slow French-sounding dude the primary key for the transaction and his system won't let him pull up any details on it. So he transfers me to another woman in West Virginia and she can't find the date it happened. Finally she pulls it all together and gets my email address, then has to forward my case to the
"correspondence desk."

One thing Western Union does do is authenticate thoroughly on the phone to guard against identity theft. That's all they do well. Otherwise the place is a mess.

Most of us need not concern ourselves with this. Western Union is a business for the underclass, a way to get money home easily. But what I saw gives a small window into the quality of financial services being offered to the lower-income set: pretty shabby. I suspect there's opportunity for market entry here for better wire-transfer services at lower fees, using an already existing network such as an ATM network.