MARKETING MIX: HOBBY HORSE; Why banks should take lessons from the supermarkets

Those readers - and I am sure there are many - who are convinced that all advances in technology are the work of the devil are about to have their prejudices confirmed. I don’t like doing this, as I’m a bit of a big kid when it comes to flashing lights and whirring noises, but I’m left with no option. That’s one surprise. The other is that I’m about to praise a clearing bank. Perhaps you’d like to sit down now.

Those readers - and I am sure there are many - who are convinced that

all advances in technology are the work of the devil are about to have

their prejudices confirmed. I don’t like doing this, as I’m a bit of a

big kid when it comes to flashing lights and whirring noises, but I’m

left with no option. That’s one surprise. The other is that I’m about to

praise a clearing bank. Perhaps you’d like to sit down now.



Barclays was one of the first high street banks to get into telephone

banking in a big way, with its Barclaycall service. Here at last was a

bank working out what customers wanted and giving it to them at a price

they could afford, which in my case means free. All I had to do was

memorise a password and give the bank some other personal stuff only I

would know. Then, whenever I called, I spoke to a friendly operator who

‘took me through security’ and then asked how he or she could help.



It was a splendid service. I could use it to pay bills, and the system

would remember the account details so that, until recently, all I had to

do was say ‘pay Orange pounds 27.50’, the operator would ask me which

day, and that would be that. I ended up doing much of my banking from my

car on the long, slow crawl into the office.



To me, this looked like a sign that the bank was finally putting

consumers first - making banking easier, while simultaneously easing the

strain on the branch network. Lately, there have been more signs of new

thinking at Barclays: the Additions Account, and in particular the tie-

up with Microsoft Money, itself a coup with long-term benefits that have

yet to be realised.



Then, one evening, my dream collapsed. On calling the 0345 number, I was

asked for my ‘membership number’. I don’t have one, I explained. ‘Oh,

then you’ve come through to the wrong line’. ‘Really? But no one told me

anything about needing a membership number’. ‘Well, we’ve been telling

callers to this number to use a different one - but I’ll deal with your

call now.’



It turns out that Barclays has indeed sent membership numbers to many

users, who now have to key it into a touch-tone phone and listen to

recorded voices giving them options. My wife has tried it. You can’t cut

off the voices by pressing the number you want early, so each tiny

transaction means listening to a tedious description of every available

option. From being warm and friendly, the whole experience has turned

into something akin to a visit to the dentist: necessary but thoroughly

unpleasant.



It is now clear that saving money, not satisfying consumers, is the real

purpose of the Barclaycall exercise. All these changes are purely for

the internal convenience of the bank, with no thought to the effect on

customers - short-term cost savings to the long-term detriment of what

could have been a market-leading product.



How dispiriting. Just as I thought there was glimmer of hope, another

clearing bank reverts to type. Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected

otherwise. When was the last time we heard of a bank adding staff to

make customers’ lives easier, as we do from Tesco and Sainsbury’s?



I opened a Tesco Clubcard Plus account this week. Roll on the day when

they can run my current account, too.



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