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Spend & Save

Do you know your bank manager? Do you even have one? If not, you're far from alone...

James Moore reports on a British institution that is facing extinction

During the past century, he evolved from an avuncular chap who invited you over for a glass of Christmas claret and steered you towards the best mortgage deal, to a shiny-suited salesman who'd steal your pension as soon as look at you. But is the bank manager now about to go the way of dinosaur, dodo and Amstrad e-mailer?

It could happen. And it's not just managers – bank branches are rapidly becoming an irrelevance, particularly to younger people. When vouchercloud.com surveyed 1,722 18- to 30-year-olds, a sixth said they had never been to a local branch. Of those, nearly half admitted that they had no idea where it is.

"It seems that a trip to the local bank may be a thing of the past," the company said of its findings, which came out of research into how this age group manages its personal finances. The slow demise of Captain Mainwaring, the famously grumpy bank manager of Dad's Army fame, started in the 1990s.

Ian Gordon, a banking analyst with Investec, was then working for one of the big banks. "I recall a purge of one-third of what we then used to refer to as branch managers," he says. "It was a function of efficiency drives prompted by the crushing of bank profits in the 1990s crash. Generally speaking, banks killed them off because they weren't needed so much."

This was partly driven by the rise of a sales culture that banks are now trying to eliminate, having been fined one too many times. It favoured a younger, more aggressive type of person who could "close".

David Buik, the veteran City commentator, is one of those who regrets this development, and the lack of communication that banks now have with customers as a result.

"I used to be called in to see my bank manager every six months. Usually, I'd be overdrawn, and I'd get a bollocking! But it was invaluable. The level of communication now is appalling."

Those managers that still exist, he says, do everything they can to avoid speaking to the public. In fact, this is a trend among big companies generally, as anyone who has tried to change their mobile phone, or sort out a malfunctioning broadband connection, can testify to.

"No manager wants to be spoken to. They want to deal with customers over the internet or email, and 'submit a request to head office and we'll let you know'," says Buik. "This has to stop."

But perhaps there is some hope for the David Buiks of this world. When those younger people in the survey start thinking about bigger financial commitments, such as mortgages, they may find that they want to seek out their branch – and bank manager.

But will branches themselves go the way of the bank manager? Barclays has been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to technology. Its Pingit mobile-phone money-transfer system been responsible for an 8 per cent fall in the number of people contacting call centres, let alone branches. In fact, its research shows that branch use is down 10 per cent in the last five years.

Barclays is now planning for a future where old-fashioned counter-style branches will cease to be required by its customers due to their increased reliance on mobile technology. But don't panic – it has realised that customers will still want to use branches when they need access to expertise.

"What technology is doing is freeing up our staff from handling transactions so that now they have the time to sit and talk to you, and help you with what you want to do as well as being available to teach our customers how to get to use the new technology," says a Barclay's spokesman.

So maybe a time-travelling Captain Mainwairing would have a future if he landed in modern Britain after all.