Researchers at consumer group Which? have found that NatWest's heavily advertised MoneySense scheme – in which bank staff dispense personal-finance pearls of wisdom to open-mouthed consumers – is being used by staff to plug the company's products.
Now, the Which? survey only incorporated 20 branches, a small number, but I think it's fair to take the findings as another indication of the culture that pervades British banks. And when I say culture, I mean the victory of marketing over substance and staff being primed purely to sell product.
A while back I went into a London branch of NatWest with one of the country's leading mystery shoppers. We asked for information on the bank's credit cards but before you could say "commission" or "sales target" the staff member was trying to get us to take out a consolidating personal loan and payment-protection insurance. The mystery shopper explained to me that the problem with the banks he visits is simply that they only take in what they want to listen to – in other words they are forever looking for – in sales speak – customer "buying signals". Imagine a partner who spends their entire time looking for ways to turn a conversation around so that they got what they wanted – I think I've been there, actually – how long would it take for you to get fed up?
Banks have for years been aware of this trait – they know they do it but like true egotists they just can't stop. Their method of counteracting it is to spend millions on marketing so they appear to be listening. NatWest has tried to brand itself differently, making a big deal of keeping branches open when others were closing them and, more lately, with the MoneySense programme. But, really, unless banks break the habit of commission sales and training staff to seize on buying signals to sell this and that, then I'm afraid it will always come to nothing.
It's a universal truth that scammers are always among the first to see an opportunity. Federal authorities in the US are warning of bogus swine flu medicines and emails offering cures, if only the consumers hand over their credit-card details. Closer to home, a contact of mine recently received a text offering access to a better savings rate if he texted or called back to what was – you guessed it – a premium-rate phone line. In this country, premium-rate lines are a cash generator for big-name companies and scam artists alike. They should be banned. The industry regulator, PhonepayPlus – yes, someone thought that was a proper name – says if it gets complaints it will act, and every so often their website lists firms it fines and disciplines. But it's on a loser, the scam artists always find a way and they're quick, be warned.
Work till 70 – but at what?
The respected National Institute of Economic and Social Research says that if the Government wants to close the chasm in public finances it should raise the state pension age to 70. Let's leave aside the irony that we all get to work longer while Sir Fred the Shred suns himself on his pension in his 50s, and ask a simple question: Who will employ us? Our society is incredibly ageist, with some careers over in their 40s. Media is particularly bad for this and more so for women. All that is good is young. It's a nonsense, but what is being done? We have some limp anti-ageism legislation in place and that's all. However, as Lord Turner pointed out in his report on pensions a few years back, unless we tackle ageism in the workplace, we won't get people working to 67 or 68, never mind 70.