Barclays joins the phone-in bankers: Strong branch network will be maintained

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THIS week's announcement by Barclays Bank that it is to introduce a telephone banking service, initially on trial, means that all the main clearing banks are now committed to offering telephone banking.

Lloyds is the last of the main clearers to introduce telephone banking, but intends to do so within a year.

Barclaycall will begin in July. At first only 10,000 customers recruited in the East Midlands, South and South-east regions will be hooked up.

Customers will be able to approve, alter and cancel standing orders and direct debits, order bank statements, pay bills, move money between accounts and stop cheques. Barclaycall customers will not have to open a new account to use the service, which will be open from 7am to 11pm on weekdays and from 9am to 5pm at weekends. People will answer the phones and calls will be charged at local rates with no extra charges for using the service.

Steve Richardson, managing director of Barclays Sales and Service, said: 'Telephone banking is here to stay. We intend to maintain a strong branch network, increase the number of self-service devices such as cash dispensers and add the extra convenience of an easy-access telephone banking service.'

Telephone banking has proved popular. Midland's Firstdirect is used by 400,000 people, with another 10,000 to 12,000 signing up each month.

Girobank's telephone banking, started in 1968, was the first, and it still claims to be the largest. It is available to all 1.5 million customers, and Girobank says all of them use it - making 100,000 calls a week.

NatWest has had a strong response to its Actionline system, which operates using Touchtone phones, and has signed up 870,000 customers. NatWest also has a Primeline service staffed by people and aimed at higher- earning professionals. Possibly the most heavily used system is that of the Co-operative, which is available to all 1 million customers, and used by half of them.

The Co-op says that the service logs 25,000 calls a day. In future the service will also be contactable from lobby banks, or 'Bankpoints' as the Co-op terms them.

The Co-op's first lobby bank will be opened later this month at Bury, just outside Manchester. It will have a limited counter service. Customers will be encouraged to use automatic machines for withdrawing cash, making deposits and getting statements. The branch will employ four staff on a shift system, with a minimum of two working at any one time. This compares with the six or more employees working in a normal branch. The branch will be staffed 12 hours on weekdays and eight hours on Saturdays, as well as providing 24-hour use of automatic machines.

Midland is the bank most committed to lobby branches, operating 15 without counter service that are fully automated and permanently open.

NatWest is the least keen on lobby branches, partially on the grounds of security - a concern that has grown with the bombing of the NatWest Tower. Instead, 10 per cent of its automatic machines are sited away from branches.

The move towards telephone banking and lobby branches is gradual, but at some stage could become the norm. The banks are anxious to reduce the cost of maintaining large city and town centre properties, and recognise that the current 40,000 bank and building society branches is too many. Banks are moving ancillary operations to industrial estates or regional offices. Consequently, staff numbers in the branches can be cut, and the size of branches reduced.

The new layout of branches will emphasise the sale of financial services. Banks increasingly regard current accounts as 'loss leaders' that provide the opportunity to sell other services. To do this more branches will open on Saturdays.

None of the banks is talking of ending the traditional bank branch. Many customers prefer counter service, and many of the banks' existing buildings are difficult to sell or adapt, and often protected by preservation orders.

Extensive market research will lead to other developments. Barclays admitted that it is piloting a number of further changes, but the spokesman said: 'Some of these are still confidential and we are not bringing attention to them.' The increased use of debit cards may have further implications.

Even though the reduction of overheads is an important factor in these changes, customers cannot expect to see the financial benefits.

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