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
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
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.