Consuming Issues: Looking for bad service? Visit a high street bank

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The Independent Online

Unlike our homes and cars, most people never change bank. Two years ago the Office of Fair Trading found 64 per cent of consumers had always had the same current account. As a result most of us are stuck with mediocre rates and rotten service.

Which?, the consumer group, surveyed 43,425 people about their experience of 31 leading banks and building societies. It rated each financial provider for current accounts, savings, mortgages and credit cards, and produced an overall satisfaction score, above, which shows which banks are doing a good job, which aren't, and where we should be investing our money and trust.

There are several trends. First, the top performers are small, new financial institutions rather than the old high street names – even if some of them are owned by traditional banks.

These are the top three providers First Direct, HSBC's internet offshoot founded in 1989; the One Account launched by RBS and Virgin Direct in 1997; and the Co-op's internet bank Smile, founded in 1999.

Other new-ish businesses near the top of the list, which have won business and plaudits by concentrating on good customer service, are Cahoot, Egg, Tesco and Saga.

Four of the top 10 (five if you count Smile, from the Co-op) are building societies. While still financial entities, these mutual firms have a social purpose and value ordinary customers.

At the bottom are the big old banks, most of them listed on the London stock exchange (with their founding year in brackets): Bank of Scotland (1695), Halifax (1853), Abbey/Santander (1849), Royal Bank of Scotland (1727), NatWest (1833), Lloyds (1765), Barclays (1690).

About 90 per cent of the UK's 54 million active current accounts are with these traditional banks. Only one large old banking group came in the top half, and that was HSBC at 15th. Remarking on the survey's findings, Peter Vicary-Smith, chief executive of Which?, said: "Time and again, the big high street banks are found to be lacking when it comes to good customer service."

High street banks primarily make their money by using hard-sell tactics to punt poor-value financial products to their largely immobile customers, safe in the knowledge most will not leave. Interestingly, and you may wonder whether this is a coincidence, the worst institutions are the banks which verged on collapse during the financial crisis. True they didn't teeter on the brink because they treated ordinary customers shabbily. Rather, they bet spectacularly on the casino of international finance because they weren't interested in the humdrum business of running current accounts or providing small loans.

Some £65bn of our money has been pumped into two of these groups and the taxpayer owns 83 per cent of RBS, which includes NatWest, and 41 per cent of Lloyds, comprising Lloyds, Bank of Scotland, Cheltenham & Gloucester, Halifax and Intelligent Finance.

Despite this, ministers don't seem to be very concerned about the poor record of these publicly controlled assets. Asked why they continue to treat the public so badly, the Treasury replied it managed our shareholdings "on an arm's length basis" and directed inquiries towards the banks.

But it added: "The Government is committed to greater transparency of complaints handling where this will help consumers... From the end of August, firms will have to publish complaints data every six months, allowing people to see how many complaints particular firms receive and how they handle them."

In my view it will be many years before Bank of Scotland, Halifax, Northern Rock and RBS score well in a customer satisfaction survey. In the meantime, if you are unsatisfied with your bank, there is something you can do.

Under industry rules switching is easy and all direct debits are transferred painlessly. In my personal experience staff at the top-scoring banks are impeccably polite and helpful: you may be surprised at the difference. If you don't like your old bank, move to a new one.

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