What we read from their press releases is corporately contrived justification for their latest ‘rationalisation’ of branches or the extension of their offshore service. And although the statements are invariably couched in spin – in the patronising misapprehension that a fancy turn of phrase will disguise the truth – we should acknowledge that most closure programmes have their roots embedded in commercial reality. The simple fact is that many financial services providers are over-branched.The fashion for acquisition and amalgamation has led to duplication of high street outlets that are costly to administer and increasingly unnecessary, given our increasing acceptance of online trading. Many financial transactions are now easier and faster if they are done on a home computer. This would seem to make downsizing networks a no-brainer when it comes to reducing costs. But not every bank is singing the downsizing tune. RBS/NatWest seems determined to convince us that it’s eschewing the trend of downsizing and offshoring – by trumpeting its commitment to it branches. What’s more, it’s putting its money where its mouth is by increasing staff in its front line offices. Whether this strategy is, or will prove to be, more successful than those of its competitors has yet to be established. But it’s a bold move that plays well not only to the prejudices of the British public but also very much to their experience. We hate lengthy queues, poor service, telephone hand-off options and, with spiralling vengeance, off-shore call centres staffed with people who can speak English but can’t hold a conversation. They might be cheap to run and therefore conceptually appealing, but let’s face it, offshore call centres in countries where English is a second language are a complete disaster in terms of customer satisfaction. In a financial services world that has become complex and confusing, the customer needs better service not worse. But it’s the latter that has become the hallmark and the benchmark within our industry. Service sucks pretty much everywhere you look, but especially at the high street banks. So, all credit to RBS/ NatWest for trying to buck the trend, or at least for seeming to. Of course, beneath the corporate surface there’s likely to be considerable angst. It is subject to exactly the same financial pressures as its competitors. So a strategy of increasing staff costs can only be viable if there are compensating savings somewhere else. And if ploughing a different furrow doesn’t lead to harvesting a greater yield then I guess we’ll see changes at the top before too long. But it’s a bold move that deserves to succeed. And if it does, it could start a trend. peter mounty
As barely a week passes without the announcement of further bank and building society branch closures, administrative outsourcing and UK job losses, it\'s interesting to speculate which of our big financial services players will eventually be found to have got their approach right.