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Branch culls are inevitable but ironic

An interesting card from the branch closure hand has been played by Portman. Under the same financial juggling pressures faced by all branch network providers they’ve come up with a neat trick of deflecting the blame when they eventually pull the plug. They put the matter in the hands of the local branch and its customers.

Having slapped on a notice of closure it gives the condemned team 12 months to prove the bean counters wrong – by boosting profitability.

Sounds compassionate but I suspect this approach will prove more diversionary than functional – more likely to deliver a stay of execution and some acclimatisation time than a lifeline. Not that this makes Portman manipulatively cynical. I’ve no doubt some branches will live to fight another day as a result of its policy. But however you dress it up, if it looks, feels and performs like a small branch – it’s a small branch and will remain vulnerable.

The problem for these tiny offices is that most people don’t need them any more, not for financial transactions anyway. There isn’t much they offer that can’t be delivered via phone or internet. And cash is available at every supermarket checkout and ATM on the high street.

The customers who tend to visit the branches are from the sector of the public that is least profitable. Their requirement is company – not products or services. And banks and building societies aren’t day care centres.

Against this background, perhaps the Portman should be applauded. It is after all giving individuals and communities the chance to influence their situation. And that’s a lot more than most do these days.

I used to campaign loudly for the viability of branches and still lament the prospect of their passing. But these days I reluctantly acknowledge that they are doomed to a massive cull.

And isn’t this ironic when much of what the branch networks offer is so high on the list of things that customers say they want? These include courteous service, attention to customer care and contact with real people – requirements that are often absent from the remote, centralised or offshore operations we complain about but are forced to use.

Of course, there is one notable exception to my generalisation – mortgages. In any branch survival strategy, mortgages will hold the key. In the regulated world of mortgages borrowers are more in need of face-to-face guidance than ever.

So, if you’re working in a branch and want to survive, look to the borrowers and your local brokers to help with your stay of execution. Even if it’s only temporary.

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