Sunday, February 13, 2011

Banks - why are they so much harder to use?

Many, many years ago I opened my first "instant access" bank account (the terminology for children's accounts is too confusing) at the age of twelve. There were various reasons for choosing the bank I did but a key one was out of hours access. Yes I could both withdraw and pay in money outside of those ultra-restrictive banking hours, even outside of branch opening hours.

(Well okay not completely. I could only withdraw at the counter during banking hours, i.e. weekdays until 15:30 when I could rarely access the bank. This made no sense when I could access the cash machines 24/7. More bizarrely, I could only get a statement machine printout during opening hours despite the machine being located in the 24-hour lobby section.)

As a child, one of the biggest benefits was that I could pay in cash - not just notes but also coins - whenever I needed to. The bank was one of the first to provide machines for paying in, and again these were available out of hours. If the machines broke down there was a back-up method of depositing via the branch letterbox.

I've been with that bank for nearly two decades now (although I do use others as well) and the situation at branches is definitely worse. The lobbies have generally been phased out without actually telling customers why. (The nearest lobby to where I now live is still there but always locked without any sign to say it's no longer in use.) The external machines don't handle deposits at all, unlike several rival banks that at least allow cheques and notes to be paid in. The letterboxes are mixed, with some sealed up. Even when one is accessible the bank takes a dim view of money being paid in - the last time I deposited that way I received an unhelpful phone call just saying that the box wasn't for that.

Depositing outside opening hours is pretty much impossible, short of using another bank altogether and transferring the funds electronically - not exactly banking made easy. But what about during opening hours? Well the branches now have machines for paying in cheques and "cash" (sic - actually just notes) which do work. However paying in coins is another matter altogether - there is a machine that takes coin deposits and even counts them but only a few, mainly large city centre branches have the machines. It is surprisingly easy to accumulate large amounts of coins when the opportunities for either using or depositing them are limited. And this in turn can lead to the machines that are around filling up and going out of service - very annoying when you've made a special trip just to use them.

The result is that it often feels like paying into the bank is increasingly a special mission, rather than the simple task it used to be. Banks are becoming ever more inaccessible for the ordinary customer. Could I just switch banks, some ask. Yeah but no but yeah but... It's a bit of a hassle to change the accounts many things are drawn on but the substantial problem is that other banks seem to be going the same way if they weren't worse to begin with. Many are stealthily restricting deposits at cashpoints by making it pot luck as to whether the deposit function works, and some never offered it at all. In the march towards an all electronic monetary system, many people are being abandoned en route.

So much for progress...


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