Thursday 22 February 2018

Bank customers now experience culture of intolerance

Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

IONCE had a summer job in ACC. Now it's gone – the bank, that is. It is my only claim to working in a bank and a speck on a circuit board could do that job a thousand times faster and more accurately now.

I was one of 10 in the convivial filing department. All we did was roam up and down the aisles chatting and misfiling, no special skills required other than knowing the alphabet. In those days, you could start out in a bank's post room and make it to the top, perhaps eventually providing unsecured loans and creating a massive property bubble. Even the financial regulator didn't have to comply with a job description.

The closure of ACC was followed quickly by another institution for which I have fond memories, Danske Bank, or rather National Irish Bank, as I knew it, bringing the total of job losses to 370.

My memory of National Irish Bank is coloured by the excellent female manager who treated me like a valued customer when I sought facilities as a sole trader.

The bank's head office was on the canal, you could easily find parking outside and a smile inside. She was the kind of woman who smoothed out problems and made things happen, as alien a thing in banking now as my time in the filing department.

Whittling down of employees and services and scaling up of fees continues elsewhere.

When I visited my local AIB recently, the interior had been transformed. Where once there had been a counter the full width of the building with at least six people attending, there was now a booth for foreign exchange and several machines handsomely integrated into the colour scheme.

The staff had virtually disappeared, but not the charges. A young man with a large piercing and unlikely AIB livery was on hand to demonstrate the equipment. Can you imagine how bewildering the situation is for elderly people who need someone to talk to at the counter?

Call it consolidating or trimming the fat, but the shakedown in bank staff is resulting in very black and white treatment of customers.

As SME owners or anyone trying to sustain credit facilities for a viable business will testify, where once a business relationship prevailed, there is now a culture of intolerance and even belittling. So when I needed a plan to pay my college fees for the next two years, I knew there was no point in going to my bank for a loan.

Credit unions have always struck me as quaint places where children or very old people saved. I had to do some creative thinking with this fee challenge and I set off with my passport and €50 to get started. All the staff had grey hair and there were lots of seats and no queue. There was a table with piles of paperbacks.

I was sent to an office where a man, well beyond retirement age, apologised for all the forms, "the new regulations", he kept saying. Then I was sent to a lady who took my photograph. "That's grand inannyway," she said. Next time I visited, I brought my dog in.

Apparently, I'm ahead of the curve for once; credit unions will soon be handling electronic payments and opening current accounts. Let's hope it doesn't turn them into downsized, automated, dehumanised banks.

We must preserve what's best about this great co-operative society, part of the local and small world, where old manners prevail. Ireland's relationship with borrowing and overspending has defined the country in recent times. Let's not measure everything against the Celtic Tiger; time to reflect and recalibrate our relationship with money.

Deirdre Conroy is an architectural historian, studying law

Irish Independent

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