Your Money: The brave new world of round-the-clock banking

Accessing your account by phone was once at the cutting edge, yet modern technology will soon make it look passe
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Indy Lifestyle Online
GARY MACKIE is one of thousands of financial-services workers who will be on duty throughout the Easter weekend to capture the last flows of tax-free PEP business, before they are abolished at midnight on Bank Holiday Monday.

He is a financial adviser with Abbey National, which has taken the unprecedented step of opening most of its branches on Good Friday and Bank Holiday Monday to cope with the expected last-minute rush.

And they are not alone. Staff at most large investment houses including Fidelity, Virgin, and Marks & Spencer will be working over the Easter break to make it easy for the public to exploit the tax-break before it disappears.

Working over a family holiday attracted the wrath of various churches at Christmas, when some staff had to forgo the seasonal festivities to prepare for euro's arrival. The PEPS jamboree, which will keep employees chained to their desks this Easter, could well provoke a similar storm of criticism.

But the world has moved on from the traditional nine-to-five working day. Just as supermarkets open all night, customers now want access to their financial institutions 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

All the major banks now offer an around-the-clock telephone banking service. First Direct, the first to arrive on the scene 10 years ago, says it receives most of its 45,000 daily calls outside normal banking hours.

Many of the callers throughout the night are shift-workers, from oil- rig crews, to student nurses and even actors.

However, long hours and frequent travel are no longer the prerogative of the travelling actor alone. Longer working hours prevent many people from focusing on their financial affairs until well into the twilight shift.

Mark & Spencer financial services regularly opens on Sundays to meet this demand. A spokesperson explained: "Modern lifestyles leave customers with very little free time. They feel comfortable operating over the telephone. We have to be there when they need us."

This is echoed by Virgin which says it receives a strong steady flow of business from 9pm into the small hours. Its bank is open round-the- clock, and it has just extended the opening hours of its PEP and pensions business to 11pm.

A spokesperson said: "By the time many people have arrived home from work, had something to eat and unwound, it is 9pm or 10pm before they can begin to think about whether they want a PEP or not.

Prudential's new Egg round-the-clock service found a good chunk of its overnight calls were from people abroad. Head of operations Andy Deller said: "If you have been working in Australia, for example, you will have to deal with a range of complex financial decisions to come home. It's a huge convenience to be able to organise things at a sensible time, even if it happens to be 4am in England."

But the technology is moving rapidly in a direction which could soon make the telephone call centre look as archaic as the bank branch does today.

Within the next two months First Direct will follow Barclays and the Co-op and launch its mobile-phone service. It will transform the way we conduct our financial services, because the mobile phone is the one piece of equipment which can be carried at all time, putting us in control 24 hours a day. First Direct, which is the only bank so far to use over- the-air programming, hopes the phones will be able to carry out transactions in the very near future.

The growth of digital TV could also see a huge surge in the use of the Internet to conduct banking and other financial services, which despite big strides forward is still something of a select medium. Head of Egg operations Andy Deller explains: "The thing that's holding the Internet back is the fact that only 20 per cent of homes have a PC. Those that do, use the Internet very enthusiastically, but the total numbers are much smaller than we tend to think."

The most exciting new technology is the Micro-wave bank recently developed by NCR, which takes the concept of time famine to the ultimate degree. The microwave door doubles as an easy-to-use interactive touch screen, which allows you to pay bills while you watch your evening meal being cooked.

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