AT LARGE: Branch out

AT LARGE: Branch out

Whatever happened to banks? When I opened my current savings account, my home branch was housed in a big red brick building with marble floors, high ceilings and huge columns. Now my home branch has moved into the shopping centre across the road. There are no columns, no marble, and a low ceiling.

I paid a visit to my home branch the other day for the first time in some years. I was applying for a fairly substantial personal loan, so I thought I would not simply go to whatever branch was nearest, and I certainly wouldn't apply on the Internet. I wanted pomp, ceremony, and a sense of welcoming.

Imagine my surprise on arrival as I was told "we don't handle loans in the branch any more - you have to phone the Personal Lending Centre". And that was where the "customer service" person I spoke to was prepared to leave it. I go to the branch, and she wants me to go away and phone. Absurd.

She then offered to let me use one of the phones in the branch. I don't know what's more absurd: leaving the bank to phone the bank, or sitting in the bank and phoning the bank. Either way, I went to a little room in my home branch, and I called up the Personal Lending Centre, which is probably in South Korea. This is not an image I recall from the advertising.

The thought occurred to me that I had probably received some notification of this change to the fundamental rules of customer service. In among all the glossy bumf that accompanies every bank statement, offering me membership of frequent flyer programs, valued customer programs, prestige this and elite that, there probably was a bit of paper saying, "by the way, we don't want to see your face in our branch again, please phone instead and have a nice day".

This is convenience gone mad. I mostly do my banking electronically. Money arrives, and I shuffle it wherever it needs to go using a Web browser. I've even been known to do my banking over WAP on my mobile phone (oh the shame). But sometimes I want to be overwhelmed by my financial institution's show of wealth and self-importance. In the new model, where you can bank anywhere except in a bank, all I get is the self-importance.

I'm still waiting on a call to tell me whether or not I can have the money. When it comes, I'll have to go and sign the bits of paper. In a branch.

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