Monday, January 18, 2016

New Ally Bank Bill Pay System:
A Problematic Service Now Made Even Worse

I've had a lot of problems with the Ally Bank bill pay system.

Since October 2014, I've been trying to set up automatic payment of only three household bills, Electric, Gas and Cable. It's still not working. Setup for each of the three vendors has been messed up in a unique way. I have twice gone to their highest level of support, "Executive Resolution," and the current issue is still unresolved.

In May of 2015 a name-change by my Electric company, NSTAR, broke auto pay through Ally Bank. I documented that situation at Eversource: Unintended Consequences of a Name Change. I had a great deal of difficulty getting the problem through to people at Ally who could fix it, and in coming to resolution to the problem. That difficulty of getting through continues to be an issue.

In August 2015, the Ally E-Bill system simply forgot the auto-pay I had set up for my cable bill. It took multiple phone calls to multiple supervisors to get someone to look into it and fix it. During one of my extended conversations, I learned that Ally was changing their back end bill pay provider in the fall. I was told I could expect much better service after the change.

It has been worse, much worse.  After six months of trying, failing, calling, and complaining, my electric bill is FINALLY auto-paying again.

More careful roll out of the new system, better implementation of the connections out from Ally Bank with actual error reporting, and real-time dry-run test capability would have enabled this problem to be resolved much sooner.

Additionally, Eversource seems to go out of its way to make everything as difficult as possible.  It appears that one cannot view one's bill through their web site UNLESS one is enrolled in e-billing.


In this article I detail how:

  • Documentation and training for the new version is still incomplete 5 months after go-live.
  • Migration of customers to the new version was problematic.
  • Basic customer workflow has annoying rough edges.
  • Previous useful functionality, including vendor verification and a calendar display of upcoming payments is gone.
  • Setup of autopay is the victim of idiosyncratic workflow.

The auto-pay of my Electric bill that required the first trip to Executive Resolution, has not worked since the cut-over to the new system. I persist in trying to get this working because I prefer my bank to originate the payment, and to specify a maximum amount to pay as protection against errors.

The interface to enable "automatically pay the amount due as long as it is less than a specified maximum" is not shown for this payee. Instead I see an interface appropriate to mortgage payoff, allowing me to set an amount to pay, the period to pay it, and the amount of the last payment.

Flawed Migration:

The problem starts with how Ally Bank decided to perform the migration of payees to the new system.

It could have been worse. I didn't have to re-create all the payees from scratch. Since Ally Bank is using the Checkfree/Fiserv back end, my considerable experience with Fidelity's use of Checkfree leads me to believe re-creating payees should be easy: Checkfree is able to use my address to fill in contact information on file. I flagged this as a problem with Ally Bank's previous system. But I've not actually been through this part of the workflow, so I can't say whether or not they've got it right.

When I got the email from Ally Bank telling me to verify migration of my payees, I found that my cable TV company, my gas company, and my Electric company were there, with the contact information I had manually set under the old system, but with the Electric company's old name, NSTAR. That email also told me that I would have to re-enroll in E-Bills and when the E-Bill was active, re-enroll in auto-pay.

I knew I was not going to enroll in auto-pay for National Grid. I gave up after 5 years of arguing with Fidelity and National grid about how Checkfree, "was screen scraping the wrong part of the bill." It would arrive at Fidelity the day after the due date. Fidelity would decide it was past due, and not auto-pay.

Feeling a bit annoyed that I had to re-enroll in auto-pay, I began. After all, as I said in my earlier article, if it is a choice between keeping my payee login information in clear text and re-entering it to the secure server, I'll re-enter it. For both the cable TV company and Eversource (formerly NSTAR), I got a boilerplate acknowledgment saying that it could be 1 to 2 billing cycles before the auto-pay went live.

The next day, I got email welcoming me to E-Bills for both the cable TV company and Eversource. The email also said it might be a few weeks before everything was actually working. Thirteen days later, at the usual and expected time, I got email telling me that I had a cableTV bill. The email reminded me that I needed to either schedule a payment or set up a recurring payment. At this point, I wish I'd documented a subtle point explicitly: I don't remember if I set up auto-pay before or after receiving that first bill, and now it turns out to have been useful information in knowing why my Eversource auto-pay is still not working.

Rough Edges:

I want to flag a rough edge in the documentation and customer workflow right here:

There are TWO activities that have been smooshed into one term:
auto-pay which pays the bill in full and
recurring payment which pays a fixed amount on a schedule.

This is an example of useful functionality from the old system that was lost. Indeed, for a month after the go-live with the new back end, the online documentation talked about these two separate setups as two separate things. The new interface offers just a link "Recurring Payments" you click on from the "Make a Payment" page to do the setup.

An example of basic customer workflow with rough edges is this "Make a Payment" page. Once again two activities have been smooshed into one page:
make a payment to set an amount and date to make a payment.
manage payees where you adjust contact information and set up E-Bills and recurring payments.

When a customer clicks on the Continue button after setting an amount and payment date, the payment is enqueued. But when the Continue button is pressed after any payee management activities are done, an error page is presented because no payment information was specified. Excuse me, but customers should not be told they made a mistake when the web developers were too lazy to properly separate functionality.

One Out of Three Working:

Of my three payees, the gas company kept working, because I didn't use the Ally Bank system. National Grid initiates an ACH transfer. This is not as safe as I would ideally like, because there is nothing to stop National Grid from writing itself a check that empties my account. This is what I mean when I say, "Nationalgrid online payments are all about their convenience and never about my protection."

The cable TV company got working, but there was some rough boilerplate messaging I got saying something about how I should expect E-bills to be working in 0 days or something. I wish I'd saved that one so I could more accurately report this rough edge.

The Eversource electric bill has, for the second billing cycle emailed me at my home email address to tell me I have a new bill. Ally Bank's system hasn't seen it. The Recurring Payment setup still shows me the fixed amount setup, instead of the pay in full setup.

When I first complained to Ally Bank about not getting the pay in full interface, the Customer Support Rep. said that it was supposed to be that way. I asked to speak to a supervisor. I explained in great detail how useless that was, and left the conversation expecting a call back from someone who could help. A few days later I called back and asked why I wasn't called back and was told it was supposed to be that way. Again I explained how useless that was, and got a promise of a call back. When I got a call back, they called the wrong phone number and I spent two days playing telephone tag. They wanted me to provide screen shots of the problem.

Again I say, excuse me, but if you are charged with helping customers resolve a configuration problem, particularly after a major back end system migration, there should be tests that can be run such that your developers can see what the customer sees without having to ask the customer to provide screen shots.

After having provided the screen shots, I was informed, "You will get the 'pay in full' interface when the first E-Bill comes through." When I probed about when to expect that to be working, both I and the Executive Resolution Rep. agreed that it should be with the next bill emitted by Eversource.

Well, four days ago, I got an email from from Eversource saying my newest bill has been posted. The Ally Bank system still has not seen the E-Bill. It's the New Year's holiday, so I can't call them up and express my continued displeasure with their ability to find and fix this problem. But in what we can call "Angry PoetNerd vindictiveness", I will be pointing the Executive Resolution Rep. at this blog.

Additional Site Problems:

I'm resorting to public shaming as a way to hopefully get Ally Bank to fix problems so that I don't have to move my money away. I wish I could demonstrate the number of customers who just go away mad instead of incessantly calling with obsessive repetition of basic problems until they are fixed.

Here are several other problems that are annoying and inconvenient rather than active failures in my ability to bank with Ally. I've reported them numerous times since first banking with them in December 2012.

Managing my telephone numbers

I have several times had to play telephone tag with Ally Bank personnel because they can't seem to read, "Use this telephone number," when picking up my case. I have three telephone numbers in their system, home, work and cell. On the "Profile | Personal Information" page, Two of them are on display. Why can't I manage all my contact information from that page? Apparently because the web developers can't figure out how to have a web page display all phone numbers, I just get whichever subset was convenient for them.

It turns out that my Business Phone number (one of the two with hard-coded fields to display) is almost never the right one to use. I am blessed with very flexible working hours, and am not predictably at my desk.

The right phone number to use is my Cell number which is the one that shows up in the "Home or Mobile Phone Number" hard-coded field.

Which number do they use? My land line, that is not on display, or my business number.

To work around the failures of their Customer Support personnel, and the laziness of their web developers, my recourse is basically to call them up on the phone and tell them delete my business and land line phone numbers.

Oh yes, and the telephone number you provide to receive a text message containing the second key to activate two-factor authentication for visiting the site from a new computer is on a separate page in the profile and has nothing to do with the other phone numbers on file.

Excuse me, but it is not difficult to have dynamic HTML display any or all fields in the database. It is not hard to have one checked off as "Primary" and another checked off as "Send Authentication Key Text message".

Reporting of Transactions in Foreign Currency

When I did some international traveling, I used my American Express card, and my Ally Bank Debit card for different things. The American Express card did a fine job of displaying the amount paid in the foreign currency, the transaction fees, the exchange rate, and the total amount paid in my home American Dollars.

Additionally, while awaiting the monthly bill, I could go onto the American Express web site, and review all that. Not so with Ally Bank.

The transaction display showed me the total American Dollar amount paid, and nothing else. It was not until the monthly statement was cut that I was able to see transaction fees. The foreign currency transaction amount was NEVER shown. This made it particularly difficult to match debits with my purchase receipts which often the only comprehensible text was the amount in the foreign currency.

I wonder if that lack of transparency violates some kind of national or international banking law. I've complained about it multiple times, but as the rest of this article has shown, it's very difficult to get basic facts through Customer Support to someone who actually understands the problem and who will successfully address it.

I plan to open a complaint with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau about this.

Other admittedly minor UI annoyances

Associations between Debit cards and accounts: It is simply not possible to use the Ally Bank web site to figure out which of multiple accounts a particular Debit card is associated with. You have to call Ally on the phone.

Limited subjects for Secure Messages: The secure message system has only hard-coded, generic subject headers, so it's not really possible to identify multiple threads of similar topics.

Sub-optimal locations of functionality on web site: The groupings of functionality under the "Gear" and "3-Bars" tabs make no sense to me. If "Gear" is for control, then Profile and Account creation should be there. Regular business like Statements, Messages, Correspondence" probably wants to be under 3 bars. I'd suggest creating "Manage Payees for Bill Pay" as a separate page under "Gear", separating "Statements and Tax Forms" into separate panes, and putting "Statements" under "3-Bars". Some of what is in a third side bar under "Account Services" seems more appropriate to live under "Gear". Alas, they went live with this seemingly confused notion of categories, and we are probably stuck with it, because such changes are very poorly received by customers. You get one chance to get this right, and Ally flubbed it.

The effective date of recurring transfers is not documented: If you do a single transfer, it is effective now. But if you do a recurring transfer today, the first one does not happen today, it happens next month.

Pending status of transfers not shown in a timely manner: The pending status of newly created recurring transfers doesn't get updated on the same day the transfer is created by the customer.

Disconnect between one-time and automatic payments: (May be fixed with new system.) With the old bill payment system, if you set up auto-pay, but also paid the current bill, auto-pay would not notice that you'd performed the one-time payment. My Electric bill got paid twice, and I had no recourse except to apply the credit to a subsequent bill. The people I exchanged messages with did not seem to understand how, Adding a new payee and setting up automatic payment all at once is a common use case. I'm sorry, but I don't accept that I "just have to know" that I need to mark by hand a one-time payment I make at the same time I set up auto-pay.

Event flow of bill pay is undocumented: Documentation of what to expect when is missing. Customers need to know what to do so that their bills get paid correctly, on time, and not multiple times.

New Bill Pay feature set still obscure: The documentation of alleged new features of the new bill pay system is still not available.

Sloppy follow-through announcements: On November 4, 2015, I got email announcing, the go-live of the new E-Bill system telling me that after November 8, I need to take action to verify my payees, re-enroll E-Bills, and re-establish auto-pays. However the help page referred to with the text, "For other steps you can take to make sure that your payees and activity convert to our new system, go to," even today is a document announcing that a new bill pay service is coming, and to watch for emails with specific steps to take. So instead of helpful follow-on documentation, we get a loop back to where we started.

Overall impression:

Ally Bank has a sleek looking interface. But when you actually try to use it, you discover that these pretty pages have rough edges that more hard working developers could have fixed but didn't. The 24x7 telephone and online support may be fine for getting simple answers to simple questions, but cannot usefully respond to bug reports. Some of these bug reports represent small annoyances. Some however, are show stoppers, and if I knew about them before parking my money in Ally Bank, I would have gone somewhere else.

When push comes to shove, it really seems like Online Banking Theater with a good interest rate rather than a genuinely smooth running and helpful system of web pages and support staff.


22 May 2015: The First Breakdown of Eversource

The rename of NSTAR to Eversource broke auto-pay.

9 June 2015: Executive Resolution Gets Involved and Fails

After working the problem multiple times with regular support I eventually heard from the Executive Resolution Group.  But then nobody replied to my email that included screen shots of the failure.

A couple phone calls complaining that I never heard back on the email thread seemed finally to get someone onto the problem.

26 June 2015: Eversource  Working Again

Finally on 26 June Eversource bills start showing up, and on 7 July the Auto-pay does its job again.

19 August 2015: The Breakdown with Comcast Auto Pay

Ally Bank spontaneously drops e-Bill for Comcast.  First person I spoke to promised to fix it.  Second person I spoke to could find no record of any action to be taken.  Third person got a SERIOUS ear full. I told them I was paying the bill via another bank and I was mondo upset about how my trouble report was lost.

24 September 2015: Comcast Auto Pay Resumes.

After receiving email messages from Ally Bank that my Comcast e-bill was not received on 26 August, something eventually got fixed. Maybe it was Comcast. Maybe it was Ally, but on 24 September Auto Pay resumed.

9 November 2015: New Bill Pay System Go-Live -- Troubles Begin Anew

Official notice is received that the new Bill Pay back end is live, and I need to confirm my payees and re-enroll in Auto-Pay.

20 January 2016: Log Jam Broken

The Representative from Executive Resolution took extra time, and we conference called Eversource where we learned that the e-billing I set up BEFORE enabling the old Ally Bank e-billing was going to cause the new Ally Bank e-billing connections to be refused.  Although this seemed incredible to me, I dimly remembered how, with Fidelity, I was told up front to resign from any pre-existing e-billing with payees.  We are hopeful that when the next Eversource bill posts, the workflow will complete, I will see my Ally Bank e-bill, and I can then establish auto-pay.

30 March 2016: First e-Bill Finally Arrives

Finally the first successful bill notification came through the Ally Bank system, and as predicted by the developers the "recurring payment" interface self-configured to offer the 'pay in full' interface.

At last I was able to set up what I tried to set up in November:  Auto pay in full.

I called customer support to ask if I need to pay the bill by hand, or if Auto Pay will notice there is a bill.  The person I spoke to put me on hold for several minutes consulting with "a bill pay expert" who told me that the bill would auto pay.  When I checked in with Executive Resolution, I was told, I had "been provided with inaccurate information" and that the bill would not auto-pay until the next cycle.  Executive Resolution was correct.  Luckily I watched carefully and manually paid the bill. But this means that five months after go-live, the "bill pay experts" are not properly trained.

13 May 2016: Finally Working After Six Months

Finally an automatic debit was made from Ally Bank to Eversource, and the credit was shown on the Eversource online system.  It took six months, and far too much work from far too many people to remedy what boiled down to overly clever, lazy developers not thinking clearly about use cases, and not providing useful test points and intervention points to fix things up after a problem.
Six billing cycles to get auto-pay working is simply unacceptable.

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