Online banking has increasingly become the norm: why would digitally-savvy consumers want to stand in a queue at a branch when they can open their app and manage their finances in a matter of seconds?
In fact, the only time most consumers now go into a branch is to cash the odd cheque or apply for a mortgage – but even that is now changing, with banks developing a method to pay in cheques via a photo scan function on banking apps and mortgage applications being completed online or via a bank’s telephony unit.
This societal shift has caused many banks to neglect their branches or even close them completely.
However, there are still significant customer groups who rely on branches – those who are older and less digitally savvy, who don’t trust online banking or who would simply prefer to speak to a human when they need financial advice, rather than messaging a bot or waiting in a telephone queue.
For these customers, the bank branch is still essential to their financial wellbeing – but are the branches still serving them?
To find out, I went undercover to branches of five different banks. In every bank, I attempted to get information on key products, such as joint accounts, loans and pensions.
While there were minor differences between the branches, the overall impression was one of total disarray.
Mystery shopping: a miserable customer experience
Upon entering Lloyds Bank (the bank that made the best overall impression of the five), I was immediately greeted by a member of staff. A good start I thought! I asked whether I could get some pension advice as I had a number of pensions I wanted to consolidate.
I was told that the only way to access this was via their private banking arm. After indicating I earned the appropriate salary I was swept upstairs to discuss my financial needs.
So far, so helpful. However, I was then asked to provide extensive personal information (including details of my salary, savings, etc.) before the bank would offer me any further insight into their potential products, instead being told that a financial advisor would call me to follow up.
Of the numerous booklets available to take away, there wasn’t a single one on pensions. Call me they did, half an hour after I’d left the branch – but only to find out my address, which they’d failed to take during the initial fact find. I’ve not returned their call.
Other banks performed even more poorly. At Barclays, I reached the front of the queue and was politely informed by the woman behind the counter that I had better make an appointment as, if I didn’t, I’d ‘be here forever’.
I then approached another member of staff to ask about pension products. After what seemed like an eternity (when I honestly thought he’d forgotten about me), he returned asking me if it was definitely a pension I was after and not investment advice. I left further dispirited.
The Halifax branch, which had notices in the window saying it was closing in 5 months’ time – already looked closed when I approached it. It was notably rundown and so under-staffed that I waited for 15 minutes to ask about opening a pension, only for the woman at the counter to Google whether or not the bank even had a pensions product.
At NatWest I could have been speaking another language and once again left none the wiser. What I did discover was the leaflet stand behind the counter not only stored product leaflets but also a battered pack of tissues.
The fifth branch wasn’t even a branch at all; upon seeing a sign for HSBC, I rounded the corner expecting to see the bank’s entrance, but instead there was nothing but a row of ATMs.
I finally called it a day some hours later, with nothing to show for my efforts but a couple of leaflets and a phone number for a pensions provider scribbled on a torn piece of paper.
It was not the experience I was hoping for.
I then decided I would see how I would fair with a couple of challenger banks, in the name of comparison. The one I visited could not have been more different. They were friendly and only too willing to help and listen to my needs. It was quite a different experience from the traditional banks.
I also went online and applied for a new bank account with a challenger bank. Within 10 minutes I had opened a new account. The process was simple and easy to use. What a joy! This was head and shoulders to my experience a year ago of having to spend an hour and half in my local branch opening a new current account.
So what could banks do to not only save their branches, but turn them into a serious business asset?
It’s a cost to maintain a branch and many banks don’t see the point when customer visits are falling. However, there is a point: hear us out.
The point of the branch is to humanise the bank - people want to feel safe and secure and that should be reflected in a neat, clean and modern environment, with friendly and professional staff that are trained to understand and represent the bank and its offerings.
That physical layout of the branch needs to evolve to be more inviting and significant in the community. This could mean serving coffee or hosting events, or simply changing opening hours to match the needs to the local area.
Banks must review their processes to maximise the available time of staff to deal with customer enquiries. What’s more, these enquiries need to be dealt with efficiently and effectively in shorter time periods than would previously have been the case.
Branches must be ‘local’ once more, offering a level of service and customer understanding not currently seen at most high street banks. Staff must be quick to understand customer needs and offer the right advice.
The branch is dead! Long live the branch!
Jonathan Burston is a financial Client Director at Starcount.