For all the talk about channel integration, banks have little in the way of back-up when online banking goes awry. The trusty branch – maybe shared by competitor banks – needs to play its part, writes Brian Caplen.

My usual complaint about internet service is that when it all goes wrong there is no one to call. The big tech companies are the worst offenders whereas most banks do have good telephone back-up services. But what if this fails too?

I recently opened an online account with a UK challenger bank and was told to wait for postal ID verification. After receiving this I had to phone up to get online, all of which seems to make a nonsense of online banking.

Even more so when this account ran into a technical hitch and after four phone calls, and with the account still not up and running, the bank’s telephone operator explained that it could take up to eight weeks to fix. From the nonsensical to the ridiculous, you might say.

Now everyone in banking understands that the move to put everything online and reduce branches is logical in terms of both reducing costs and responding to customer demand for digital banking.

But in the above example it would have been much easier – and cheaper for the bank – for me to show up at a branch with ID rather than get bogged down in letters and phone calls.

The problem is that even if the bank allows this (some online accounts do not) most UK challengers only have a handful of branches. When online and telephone options fail there is no fallback position.

What is needed is a rethink of the branch so that it can play its part as an integrated channel. With banks sharing ATMs and many back-office services why don’t competitor banks finally take the next logical step and set up agency branches where the staff can process transactions for a group of banks?  

Banks should also start to think creatively about what services they can offer cost-effectively in a branch. For fixed-term savings accounts there are likely to be only two transactions – one to set up and one to either renew or close and transfer the funds at the end of the term. The policy of insisting that everything is done online has its limitations.  

Brian Caplen is the editor of The BankerFollow him on Twitter @BrianCaplen

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