Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Banking – is the Branch broken?

Today I learned how the push for online banking puts bankers’ jobs at risk.

Now we all know the image of bankers has taken a bit of a hammering of late – largely unjustified as the actions of a few very senior, and very well-paid, risk takers caused the whole industry to be scorned.

Of course with such bad PR we would expect your local bank branch to be a welcoming place. The staff there are the public face of the bank. Their actions keep customers loyal and prevent them looking to see which bank offers the best online experience.

It is in this context that a good friend shared his experience with me. Resulting from his visit today – a Monday morning – 18 June 2012.

My friend visited the Knock branch of the Northern Bank – in Belfast. He dealt with a middle-aged lady who I will not name.

His needs were simple. He wanted to transfer some money from one account to another, and set up a monthly transfer to do it in future. Was it that simple? Sadly no.

There were no other customers in the branch and about five staff present when my friend went to the counter. When he explained what he wanted to do he was asked if he did online banking. When he admitted to being registered he was told he had to do the things online.

Pointing out that he was in the branch now and would like to do it now, the official again told him he had to do it online. She refused even to walk him through the transaction using her own computer.

When he said that he would really like to do this in the branch he was told he would need an appointment – and that would be about two weeks away! This from a bank teller in a branch with no other customers and at least 5 staff.

My friend had to leave the bank having had no help whatsoever with two simple transactions. Just a list of reasons why they could not help him.

So the questions are:

  • Do bank staff want to keep their jobs in branches?
  • Do the banks want customers cluttering up their branches?
  • Do banks want to make visiting a branch so unpleasant that people stop going – so the bank can close the branch?

There are plenty of people who are not keen on internet banking. They worry about online access, safety of their money, phishing, security of passwords etc. Some sceptical people reluctantly register for online banking but still prefer to use it very little – or keep it for an emergency or when abroad. Whether you love internet banking, or fall into the above groups, then so long as your bank keeps a branch open then you should be able to seek help there.

I know that days of a friendly bank manager there to offer advice, handle complaints, and who is a pillar of the local community, are long gone. But I did think that you could still go into your local branch and get help with some simple transactions. It seems not, and certainly not at Northern Bank Knock.

Is the bank branch broken? It is time to saw it off completely?

Adrian Huston, a former tax inspector, is a director of Belfast tax and accountancy firm Huston & Co – www.huston.co.uk or 028 9080 6080.

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