Net banks: New channel, same old bankers

There are some professions that inspire feelings of trust from the public - doctors, nurses and firemen are a good example. And...

There are some professions that inspire feelings of trust from the public - doctors, nurses and firemen are a good example. And then there are other professionals that people would not trust to change a lightbulb - we're talking about journalists, politicians and bankers, reckons John Charlton

Right down there with journalists and politicians in the trustworthy stakes should come bankers. This once lukewarmly-regarded occupation, formerly the fiefdom of irreproachable mild-mannered charmers from middling suburbia, has had the kind of PR year that not even Max Clifford could turn round.

And a prime cause for this, apart from a level of greed that would put a Premier League footballer to shame, has been the financial sector's obsession with the joys of Internet banking, especially Internet-only banks.

This technological breakthrough/breakdown (delete as appropriate) had bankers salivating at the thought of all the money they could save by persuading customers not to trundle off to their local branches to conduct their business, but to use their PCs instead. Branches could be sold, staff given the heave-ho, while customers who wouldn't play ball, or rather mouse, would jolly well have to shut up, put up, or push off.

Well the best laid plans of Egg and man "gang aft agley", as some Jock poet once said.

Internet banking hasn't proved to be quite the plain sailing it should have been, and some operations have taken on the appearance of the Marie Celeste on a bad breeze day.

Looking totally becalmed in the Internet doldrums is the Halifax's IF.com, which launched its Internet banking service over the phone. Egg may be working but it is no longer top monkey in the Net banking jungle as Barclays and Lloyds are climbing up the tree.

According to my man in the virtual utility bill settlement queues, this is because consumers and would-be customers don't trust Internet- services, preferring the reliable old household names that have been fleecing them with dodgy interest rates and overdraft charges for years.

In the end of course, it's all about security. Most of us crave it and we ain't getting enough of it in Internet finance. We'll put up with our other halves having the odd fall from grace at the work's Christmas do, but we can't bear the thought of our hard-earned moolah disappearing into some electronic swag bag never to flicker on our screens again.

And is security getting any better? Not from where I am standing it isn't. Security in IT demands, above all else, thorough testing. But the dullest job in IT - perm any one from many - is testing. A recent poll, by Benchmark Research of 211 UK companies with e-business operations, found a hit and miss approach to testing, with the emphasis on the miss. Only one quarter of managers responsible for e-business type applications were using automated testing tools, while most of the rest were testing "manually". In view of recent security glitches in Internet transactions perhaps it's more a case of manfully.

It's the responsibility of us all to make banks' lives as difficult as possible, and force them to provide services that they'd rather were consigned to a financial theme park - imagine "BarclayLand", probably situated under a flyover or in a disused quarry by the Bluewater shopping centre, a kind of uber-Hades for disturbed cheque-a-holics.

But why wait till then? All it takes is for all of us to carry on writing cheques, paying by post, queuing up for our weekly withdrawal, and doing all the things that banks rather we didn't - such a making appointments with bank managers. We do not have to be slaves to the rhythm of technology. Of course it won't happen. We are the sheep and Barclays, Lloyds et al are the shepherd, and we must follow them to the fleecing sheds.

The truth of this was recently borne out by a survey from the consumer watchdog Which? It found that most people think their banks are worse than a package tour to Serbia. For example, just 15% of NatWest customers questioned said they would definitely choose it again, while Barclays and Lloyds TSB scored 21% and 26% respectively. Even William Hague would outscore this bunch in the popularity stakes.

"It's astounding how many people stay loyal," commented a Which? spokeswoman. Perhaps that is the overdraft or the mortgage with the huge redemption penalty speaking...

Yes, just as in other fields, loyalty brings no rewards in banking.

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