Handling the calls for all-night service: Lisa Vaughan joins the late birds who field the queries at Firstdirect, the bank that never closes

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The Independent Online
WHILE the majority of Britons are celebrating Christmas Day with family or friends, a nucleus of about 10 people will be manning the phones at Firstdirect, the bank that never closes.

Who would ring their bank on a holiday, and what on earth for? On past experience, at least 600 people will pick up the phone.

They will be ordinary customers who want to do ordinary banking: they will ask to check their balances, pay bills and transfer money between accounts. As on any other day, Firstdirect expects calls from overseas customers too.

Last year, over Christmas Day and Boxing Day, 1,200 people phoned the 24-hour telephone bank, headquartered in Leeds.

The number of holiday calls could double this year, Firstdirect's third year in operation, because the number of accounts has grown to more than 350,000.

Jan Bowers, a night-shift supervisor in the department that handles the calls, has worked every Christmas at Firstdirect.

'We're always busier on Christmas than we anticipate. Many people call just to wish us a happy Christmas, and a lot are curious to see if we're really open,' she says. 'People of some religions that don't celebrate Christmas will also ring in to the bank, almost as a matter of principle.'

The employees who volunteer to work Christmas will get extra pay, but some who are divorced or on their own prefer to work the holiday. Shifts will be shorter than usual, and bosses will pop in to offer their staff moral support and mince pies. 'It's not the same pressure as on a normal working day,' Ms Bowers says.

Sarah Conwill, an assured 24- year-old, is one of the night owls who will answer phones in the wee hours while Father Christmas is still doing his rounds.

On a recent visit to Firstdirect, I talked to Sarah on her regular shift at 1.15am. She is part of the 'Mushroom Squad', the tiny group of employees that answers Firstdirect's phones in the small hours every night.

The team receives calls from people on night shifts, nurses, policemen, insomniacs, taxi drivers, customers abroad. 'People are so pleased to realise it's a 24-hour bank,' she says.

Customer calls at night are much the same as in the day. 'People want mortgage quotes, they want to sell stocks and shares. We went wild on stocks and shares on election day.'

For emergencies, Firstdirect comes into its own. Last year, a customer came home from a night out to find her flat burgled and her purse stolen. She rang Firstdirect at 1.30am, and was able to cancel all her cards and arrange to get money in the morning.

The Mushroom Squad gets occasional obscene calls or calls from customers who have had too much to drink, but Sarah says they are trained to handle any situation.

At about 1.30am, Sarah is one of only about 10 to 15 people on duty at Firstdirect's sprawling office. Up to 600 of the bank's 1,000 staff may be in the building at any one time. But since my arrival at 5pm, the number of banking representatives in the Call Centre (one of five departments) has shrunk from about 100, in line with the estimated incoming calls.

In a typical 24 hours, Firstdirect gets 12,000 calls, and about half of those are outside normal banking hours. One November day, between 500 and 800 calls were made each hour from 8am to 9pm. This means the banking representatives finish one call and immediately pick up another.

But late evening is still busy: on this sample day, 448 calls came in between 10pm and 11pm, and 266 between 11pm and midnight. Between 1am and 6 am is always quietest, with an average of 60 to 100 calls taken.

I listened to calls coming in after midnight on the night of my visit. Firstdirect attempts to answer each call after 20 seconds, and polls customers regularly to find out how it is doing. There is a sudden surge of calls this particular morning.

The callers sounded to be between the ages of 30 and 45, and three out of four were men. Most were making sure they had enough money and credit to get them through the holidays.

Half a dozen people wanted to pay bills, and others had requests from ordering cheque books and asking to increase an overdraft limit to checking a balance and ordering more money than the cash machine could give.

Although Midland Bank has developed Firstdirect as a separate bank, the calls show that the Midland branches are used as a backup if funds greater than the 7,000 ATMs can provide are needed, or for emergencies.

Firstdirect says most customers call once a month, and each call lasts an average of three minutes. Even for the longer ones I heard, full attention was on the customer for no matter how long it took.

An American man rings to transfer money into his US bank account, and inquires about the charges involved.

A rather drunk man rings, wanting to pay bills and check standing orders, and keeps saying: 'Oh, and just one more thing . . .' He is handled with the same courtesy as everyone else.

Another customer rings to see if a payment has cleared. He has a long conversation with the banking representative about why the cheque was 'truncated' and when he can start spending again. They talk it out until the customer is happy.

As I leave for a few hours' sleep, I blearily notice that the whole of Firstdirect is being run by the four people in the Mushroom Squad, and one technical expert.

When I return about four hours later, at 6 am, they are all still there. Sarah says apologetically that the calls have been routine. 'Oh, a man rang to order money for a trip to India, and wondered if it was safe to go because of the recent trouble there.'

I sit with Jane and listen to some more calls. At this time of morning, as the sun comes up and Firstdirect employees begin arriving for the day's work, the callers are mostly female.

A man who is switching to Firstdirect from a phased-out Midland Bank account calls. He has received his cheque books and materials the previous day, and at 6.15 is keen to start telephone banking.

The Mushroom Squad goes off duty at 7am and has a Christmas breakfast in the staff canteen.

I join Simon, another banking representative. The Call Centre, arranged open-plan like all of Firstdirect, is now buzzing with energy as calls and employees flood in. About a quarter stand up at their desks to work.

Simon enthuses about Firstdirect. He loves his work, loves being busy: 'Half of it is the people. But the other part is it's something completely different.'

(Photograph omitted)