Thursday, 30 October 2014

Why shared branches could be the answer to avoiding closing the last branch in town

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The announcement by Lloyds Banking Group that it would stop honouring the promise to not close the last branch in a town at the end of 2015 caused some furore amongst politicians and those representing rural communities. Lloyds having the largest number of branches of the major banks in the UK and partially owned by the tax payer has in many cases been left as the last branch in town as competitors have closed their branches knowing that Lloyds were obligated not to close theirs.

The response by Vince Cable, the UK Business Secretary, to the Lloyds announcement was to give all the major banks yet another rap across the knuckles in a sternly worded letter stating that this was unacceptable. However unacceptable it is what is the answer? While the banks may point to the many transaction services that the Post Office offers on behalf of the banks, a better answer is for the banks to get together and have shared branches for those villages and towns where they cannot justify the costs of having a single dedicated branded branch.

This joint branch would allow customers to perform transactions with their bank either with the help of a teller or by using self-service machines. If there is a teller then they would need to be trained in using each of the banks’ technology for the transactions covered by the branch. The simplest implementation would be for the branch to have one teller device for each brand sharing the branch and similarly for self-service machines, however this would have the disadvantage of requiring a larger branch than each of the individual branches will have required. The smarter option would be to have single devices which allowed the customer to say which brand they wanted to deal with when they first signed in and then the appropriate screens for that bank to appear. This would keep the size of the branch down.

The shared branch could include one or more meeting rooms where customers could meet with advisors from the appropriate bank by making an appointment in advance, allowing the opportunity for the advisor to service multiple branches and therefore maximising their productivity. The advisor would not even necessarily have to be physically in the branch but could converse with the customer via videoconferencing. This way a branch could remain open in low populated areas at a relatively low cost to each individual bank.

This service could even be provided by a third party or the local community under a different overarching brand.

This is not a new idea and is one that was first floated (by me amongst others) at least ten years ago. However that was at a time when the banks were making larger profits, there was less regulatory pressure and the technology to easily and cost effectively deliver these types of solution was neither mature nor available. While there was some initial interest from the major banks it was the idea of collaboration amongst the banks that was unthinkable even though it provided a benefit to the customer.

Maybe as the big 5 banks look to reduce their number of branches and rebuild their reputations this could be the right time to look to shared branches as a means of not being seen as the bank who closed the last branch in town.

Friday, 3 October 2014

The FCA is wrong to focus on account portability

The news that the FCA is to explore the move to full account portability as part of a review of current/checking account switching is disappointing as the FCA appears to be rushing to a solution without having really understood why customers are not switching their account providers at the levels that politicians and consumer lobbyists would like to see. The reason that these parties wish to see higher levels of switching is that they see this as an indicator of competition in the current account market which is dominated by the big five banks – Lloyds, Barclays, RBS, HSBC and Santander.

Customer switching has gone up by only 19% since 7 day switching was introduced

The FCA have been triggered into action by their disappointment at the low increase in the level of switching following the introduction of seven business day current account switching service introduced in October 2013. Despite the investment of $750m by the large banks in creating this guaranteed switching service levels of customer switching has gone up by only 19%.

The large banks have been the beneficiaries of switching

The irony is that the biggest beneficiaries of the account switching services have been Halifax (part of Lloyds Banking Group), Santander (one of the world’s largest banks), Nationwide Building Society and TSB (a Lloyds clone and still partially owned by the bank). With the exception of Nationwide, the account switching service has done little to change the market share of the major banks and even Nationwide has hardly changed the percentage.

The parallels between mobile phone numbers and account numbers are not valid

However for the FCA to jump to the conclusion that this is down to customers being reluctant to change their bank account number and therefore account portability will change this is both bizarre and illogical. Parallels are often made with the mobile phone industry where phone number portability has encouraged customers to switch between providers. However the use of phone numbers and bank account numbers are quite different. Whereas in order for telephone customers to be able to keep in contact with the hundreds and even thousands of people who have their number programmed into their phones keeping their mobile number when changing suppliers is essential the same cannot be said for bank account numbers.

Most bank customers have not memorised their bank account numbers. Once access to internet and mobile banking is set up a customer very rarely needs to know that number. When paying bills, transferring money, checking their balances, setting up or changing direct debits or standing orders there is no need for customers to know their bank account number. With the seven day switching services direct debits are transferred and guaranteed that if a problem occurs that the customer will be refunded for any charges occurred during the transfer process. With the increasing availability of P2P (Person to Person) mobile banking applications such as Pingit customers only need to know the mobile phone number of the person that they are transferring the money to (which is very likely to be stored in their phone) and don’t need to know the bank account details of the person that they are wanting to transfer money to. It is a fallacy to say that the reason people are not changing their bank accounts is because they don’t want to change their bank account number.

Customer interest in switching accounts is far lower than politicians and lobbyists

One of the primary reasons that is quoted despite the Seven Day Switching Service making it far easier for customers to switch current accounts is what politicians refer to as ‘customer apathy or inertia’. The reason that customers aren’t bothered is because for most customers banking really isn’t that interesting (until it goes wrong or they have a financial crisis), that the actual amount that they would save by switching from one bank to another is so minimal that it isn’t worth the effort and that they see one bank account much the same as another. To most customers banking services are a commodity and a largely undifferentiated one. They have better things to do with their lives than monitor whether one bank account is better than another.

There are significant numbers of providers of current accounts

The fact that the main beneficiaries of account switching have been the larger players is not because there is not a lot of choice in the market. Examples of organisations offering personal bank accounts include Nationwide Building Society, Tesco Bank, Marks & Spencer Bank, Metro Bank, Co-op Bank, Yorkshire Bank, Clydesdale Bank, Bank of Ireland (via the Post Office) and Handelsbanken.

The reason that Halifax, Santander, Nationwide, TSB and Metro Bank (though on a lot lower scale than the other four) have been successful in getting current account customers to switch to them is because of their attractive propositions whether it be paying interest on current account balances, discounts on utilities and other bills, convenience of branches or even offering dog biscuits. The fact that some of the most attractive propositions have come from the larger banks is because for most banks most personal current accounts are either loss leaders or have very low margins and therefore to be profitable in the current account market you need scale. That is very difficult and takes a lot of time to build from scratch as Metro Bank is finding.

Many of the so-called challenger banks e.g. Aldermore, Shawbrook, OneSavings Bank and Handelsbanken are not even attempting to engage in the personal current account market because of how unattractive it is financially. They would rather focus on the mortgage market or SME banking where the margins are higher and the cost to enter the market are far lower. As Virgin Money comes to the market it is based on the profits from mortgages and credit cards that the value will be attributed not current accounts.

The FCA is not focusing on the real issue

If the FCA is really interested in seeing greater competition in the current account market then rather than investigating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist (customer only don’t switch because they don’t want to change their bank account number) then they should look at how to make it more attractive for the existing sub Big Five and new players to engage in the market with customer friendly banking propositions. It is only when there is significant differentiation between bank accounts in customers’ minds that switching volumes will become significant.