Simon Read: Music is not the solution to banks' continuing errors and rate-rigging
Saturday 30 June 2012
Just when you thought banks couldn't get any worse, Barclays has admitted rigging interest rates. The bank has been fined £290m by UK and US regulators and bosses have been forced to hand back their million-pound bonuses.
Meanwhile, NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland have struggled to right the computer wrongs that have left millions missing payments and facing overdraft charges or even black marks on their credit score.
At least RBS has apologised and promised that no customers will be left out of pocket, but who can trust it now? Especially customers of Ulster Bank, who are still waiting to have services resumed some 10 days after they collapsed.
But enough of that. Let's turn to a more prosaic banking matter; music played in branches. The issue has struck a chord with many of you.
The subject was raised last week by reader Fabian Acker who compared the music played in his local HSBC branch to "the same background noise that you get in a third-rate supermarket".
This week I was sent several emails supporting Fabian's view.
David Holmes of Leamington Spa weighed in with: "The gratuitous introduction of background music by HSBC is an insult to its customers. Banks are places to be business-like in and concentrating on financial matters with that distraction is difficult."
He has complained, as has another reader, Nicola McAuley.
"I know some of the staff don't like it either," she wrote. "I would be off in a flash if there were another bank with a branch local to me."
David Jones of Oldham says he deplores music in banks and shops. "We have complained on the basis of maintaining standards in banks where the primary aim is to deal carefully with one's affairs," he reported. "But it makes no difference."
Katharine Barker of Harbury said she was glad to find out she is not alone in hating the music.
"When I visit my bank I want to be in a quiet environment where I can exchange information with the bank clerk, without constantly having to ask them to speak up."
Having never having heard the music, it was time to find out for myself. First I contacted HSBC. The bank told me its music was provided by HSBC Live Radio which has been played in all its branches for several years "and is generally well received by customers".
The station, apparently, broadcasts "a mix of popular music, news and adverts highlighting bank products".
This week I visited the HSBC branch in Paddington to see if the music is, indeed, popular.
When I walked in, my ears were accosted by a dreadful, wordless version of the old Guns N' Roses rock classic "Sweet Child Of Mine". It was certainly not sweet, more painful.
But it was a joy to hear compared to the ultra-bland DJ who then piped up flogging overseas bank accounts. You could almost hear the despair in his voice as he read the deathless, promotional prose.
That was enough, I had to leave. Then an old Alanis Morissette hit came on. The opening lyrics seemed particularly ironic for a bank to play to hard-up customers: "I'm broke but I'm happy, I'm poor but I'm kind..."
When I thought about the experience afterwards, I realised that the annoying music and DJ made me feel uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that I wanted to get out of the branch as soon as possible.
But, the thing is, I visited two nearby branches of rival banks. And my experience there were even more uncomfortable.
First was Barclays, a smaller branch which reeked of austerity and despair. It almost felt like I'd walked onto the set of a depressing, Ingmar Bergman movie. Sure, there was no annoying music, but there was also a noticeable lack of warmth.
The same was true of a NatWest branch opposite which, dealing with the fall-out of its computer cock-ups, was pretty full. But it still felt like a dentist's waiting room with an air of general unease and unhappiness.
Banks have long gabbled about creating a positive retail experience and other nonsense, but it seems that, apart from a few, showpiece branches, they remain as depressing a place as you can find.
So despite the annoying music and gibbering DJs, at least HSBC has made an effort to lighten the mood. It says if customers find the music too loud they should ask staff to turn it down.
If enough people complain, we could maybe persuade the bank to rethink and scrap the music altogether. But would that really improve the experience of visiting a branch?
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