As a techno-evangelist standing at the dawn of the Information Age, I
should be con- fident that matters needing attention before the end of the
tax year are no reason for delaying a much needed holiday. So what if I
have yet to set up my Isa or take full advantage of the capital gains tax
exemption? As an e-enabled member of the online community I should be able
to take care of these simple tran-sactions anywhere in the world, shouldn't
This was my belief in early March, when I recognised an approaching 12-day
window in my schedule. Thankfully, e-commerce is now sufficiently developed
to mean that I should be able to carry out all the necessary transactions
from anywhere in the world. That was the theory. What about the facts?
I don't imagine that I am alone in finding that it is always my own
financial needs that are the last items to get attention. Consequently, the
fact that I found myself completing DLJ Direct's on-line Isa application
only a matter of hours before leaving for the airport was no surprise to
me. However, having filled in the online application I found I had to post
DLJ a cheque. Sadly, there was no mechanism for automated electronic
Elsewhere in the world, a number of cash transmission initiatives to
support internet trading are rapidly reaching maturity. Regrettably, the UK
has been excluded from these as the clearing banks insisted that their
direct-debit system obviated the need for an alternative. In practice, this
is far from the case and the area of cash transmission is probably the
largest single obstruction to the development of financial e-commerce
services at this time.
Having entrusted my cheque to the Royal Mail, I simply had to hope it
would arrive properly. Not quite e-commerce.
After staying remarkably sober at the Money Marketing awards the night
before, a grey Thursday morning found me sitting in a British Airways'
lounge at Gatwick.
Before I even left the ground I suffered my first e-failure.
I have lost count of the number of times that I have used the credit card
phones in airport lounges but, true to all technology, when I really needed
it, the system would not let me send that last essential email to a client.
As someone who on a weekly basis has to suffer the trials and
indignations, no let's be honest, the downright discomfort of the BA
Heathrow-Edinburgh service, I decided a little comfort was in order. Users
of the service will know that, following the installation of the latest,
smaller seats, you can't even get enough room to open your laptop fully.
So, for a change, I decided to indulge myself and travel first-class to
The difference in the service on first class is beyond compare. On the
London-Edinburgh route you squeeze into a less than economy-sized seat,
despite paying a full business fare. But first class to Barbados was a joy
– apart from one small oversight. The on-board duty-free service will sell
you an adaptor to let you use your laptop in flight but, unless you are
flying Heathrow to JFK, they do not have sockets in the seats to take the
adaptor. Clearly, a BA motto is never to let practicality get in the way of
a sales opportunity. At the prices charged, I would expect BA to give you
Come Monday, April 3 it seemed timely to take a view on what one was going
to buy and sell to take best advantage of the impending end of the tax
period. A quick look at my portfolio on Moneyworld (www.moneyworld.co.uk)
gave me a summary of my investment successes and failures during the last
year (nearly all successes).
The first priority was to get some equities in the newly opened Isa. I
must give full marks to DLJ Direct whose service could not have been easier
to use. Having accessed my online account to confirm that my cheque had
been received, it was a breeze to identify the stock I wanted to buy and
place an order. Even though the size of the order was in excess of what it
could deal with as an automated trade, a message came back offering to take
the transaction as a market order. Having accepted this, checking my online
account again a short while later, I was able to confirm the transaction
had taken place.
Regrettably, dealing with Halifax's ShareXpress service was not such a
joy. All I wanted to do was sell one block of shares and buy another. It
The service itself is easy to follow, although probably slightly more
user-friendly to the non-professional investor, but I had to repeat each
transaction several times.
This is because I kept receiving “our servers are busy, please try again
Each time I finally managed to complete the process, I received a message
saying the order size was in excess of what the system could process
automatically. Each time I was referred to a phone number for assistance.
This happened to be an 0870 number, which is fine if you are in the UK, but
does not work from abroad.
Equally the normal dealing number is a 0990 number, presenting the same
problem. An important message for any organisation hosting a website is
that is that they should display international as well as national numbers
on their websites.
To be fair to Halifax, when I tracked down the main switchboard number,
the staff could not have been more helpful. The transactions were swiftly
processed. But it has to be said that the online service needs a little
more development to complete with DLJ.
Having spoken in more detail to Halifax about this issue, I gather it is
operating the online service under fairly tight criteria from market-makers
and that the size of trades it can deal with via the automated process can
be changed at very short notice. Needless to say, given the computer fiasco
on the last day of the tax year, I was very relieved I had not left things
right until the last moment.
I probably would not even have tried to make these transactions from
abroad a few years ago. This shows we are making clear progress. Although
the Halifax online service failed to deliver what I wanted when I needed
it, it does deserve credit for an excellent manual back-up.
I believe the most important lesson from this experience is that the
technology is still far from perfect and manual back-up is essential.
At the Money Marketing awards dinner, publisher Tim Potter talked of the
benefits of “clicks and advice” as we move into the knowledge economy,
“clicks and back-up” also seem to have a very important role.