Seeking the right service

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HIGH-STREET banks and building societies do not always score highly in the popularity stakes, as a frustrated Yorkshire Bank customer recently showed.

He changed his name by deed poll to "Yorkshire Bank are Fascist Bastards" after the bank charged him £20 to warn him of a £10 overdraft.

While YBFB's response no doubt caused grins of wry amusement from many account holders who read of his name change, banks and building societies - not surprisingly - see things differently.

They point to the fact that over the past few years standards of service to their clients, while not perfect, have improved dramatically. This message appears to have filtered through to many account holders.

Despite high-profile cases where financial institutions appear to adopt insensitive tactics to their customers, surveys show that the overwhelming majority of us are happy with the service we receive - most of the time. Of course, banks and building societies will vary in the quality of their service delivery. Standards will also vary from branch to branch of the same bank or building society - in contrast to supermarkets, where the "offer" is almost identical from one branch to another.

Of even greater importance is the way these institutions have moved in recent years towards providing a vast range of financial services. Long gone are the days when all a potential client could count on were a loan, a mortgage or a few choices of savings scheme, paying greater or lesser amounts of interest depending on how long a deposit was tied up for.

It is now possible to walk into most banks and building societies and start a pension scheme, invest in a unit trust or personal equity plan, or obtain detailed financial and tax-planning advice.

There has also been the spectacular growth of increasingly sophisticated telephone-based banking services.

This expansion, which helps sustain profit margins for banks and building societies, has not been without some strains. Complaints from some customers occasionally point to over-eager selling attempts from sales consultants.

The potential for the mis-selling of financial products and bad advice is just as great as with any insurance company salesman. And performance from some of the funds now on offer from institutions may not always be as good as that offered by specialist fund management companies.

The institutions would defend themselves by pointing to the fact that, unlike the specialist providers, they aim to serve millions of customers.

Either way, there is no doubt that banks and building societies are now an increasingly important part of any person's financial planning agenda.

This supplement, which continues on pages 12, 13 and 14, gives details of the many areas where banks and building societies have carved out an increasing presence, including telephone banking, pensions planning, loans, investment, mortgages, travel insurance and other savings schemes.

Where necessary, most institutions will offer independent financial advice on their services if asked. Beware of opting for less.