Populist pressure groups are quick to rise to the cry that banks are uncaring, unsympathetic and generally deserve eternal damnation for their sins. Unfortunately, they tend to forget the context. With 54 million personal accounts, and millions of transactions every day, some mistakes will happen - but fortunately they represent a tiny percentage of the total. Of course banks make mistakes, and of course there are improvements to be made to services. No one denies this. However, it is wrong to think that banks make a lot of mistakes routinely or wilfully.
The tone of this week's National Consumer Council report is that banks do not care about customer service, particularly when the customer is poor or has fallen on hard times. This is simply not true. Customer care is a primary concern of the banks and forms the basis of the fierce competition within the industry, even for the small percentage of those who fall into financial difficulties. All banks' corporate strategies place service and good client relationships at the top of their agenda. Competition within the industry means that millions are spent to improve service.
The NCC's report, which criticises elements of the banks' service to customers, contains comments and ideas that deserve careful study. Any suggestions that may help banks to improve further the service they provide will be looked at very seriously. It is in their competitive interest to do so. However, the figures simply do not justify the broad-brush criticism levelled. The NCC report was based on discussion groups consisting of no more than 70 people, some of whom did not even have a bank account. This is a very small sample compared with the individual banks' regular surveys of more than 400,000 customers.
Figures produced by the independent Banking Ombudsman tell a different story: in the annual report for 1994-5, the number of preliminary complaints recordeddropped by 16 per cent, while the number of genuine complaints accepted for full investigation fell by 14 per cent. This suggests that things are getting better, not worse. Looked at over a two-year period, the evidence for both categories shows complaints down by as much as a third.
Banking is one of Britain's most successful industries. Service improvements are more likely if we stop using emotive, anecdotal evidence to fuel prejudice against banks. Instead, we should look at the figures objectively and concentrate on constructive suggestions.
The writer is director-general of the British Bankers' Association.