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March of the Robo-banks: Banks cut cashier services to the bone

Visit your local Barclays branch this week and prepare to be greeted by a new 6 ft sign. ‘Look out for changes to banking in branch,’ it reads. ‘For everyday banking, you’ll now need to use our self-service machines, the Barclays app or online banking.’

This notice has now been placed near the entrance of 500 branches across the country.

And the message is clear: the days of the traditional bank branch are numbered.

Automated service: Friendly cashiers, with whom you might once have been on first-name terms with, are increasingly being replaced by machines

The biggest banks have axed 2,766 branches in five years, according to Money Mail research.

And as the regulator looks at halting more closures, banks are cutting branch services to the bone. Friendly cashiers, with whom you might once have been on first-name terms with, are increasingly being replaced by machines.

Last month, Money Mail exposed how Barclays staff were refusing to help elderly and vulnerable customers in person, insisting they used a self-service machine instead due to pressures from head office. At the time, the bank said that these cases were unfortunate one-off incidents.

But today, we can reveal how banks across the country are turning their backs on the traditional branch in a drive to boost profits.

Bad sign: Signs have been appearing in Barclays branches since August ¿ suggesting a concerted drive to push customers online once and for all

Bad sign: Signs have been appearing in Barclays branches since August — suggesting a concerted drive to push customers online once and for all

Sign of the online times

Both Barclays and HSBC, which have more than 32 million UK customers between them, are closing counters. 

Signs have been appearing in Barclays branches since August, suggesting a concerted drive to push customers online once and for all.

Attached to a notice spotted in a London branch are two small plastic holders containing leaflets. 

One reads: ‘Taking out less than £300 cash? Please use our self-service machines instead of the counter.’ 

Another says the bank is ‘on a mission to reduce how much paper we use’ and includes detailed instructions on how to sign up for digital statements. 

If you still want a paper copy, ‘you can use our online banking points in branch,’ it adds.

The branch also has a blackboard at the entrance boasting a list of telephone numbers customers can call to get help with their banking, rather than in branch.

Both Barclays and HSBC, who have more than 32 million UK customers between them, are closing counters to ordinary customers

Both Barclays and HSBC, who have more than 32 million UK customers between them, are closing counters to ordinary customers

Both Barclays and HSBC, who have more than 32 million UK customers between them, are closing counters to ordinary customers

Meanwhile, by the end of 2021, HSBC will have 208 counterless branches, more than a 40 per cent of its network. And 58 Lloyds locations are machine-only.

Indeed, a Money Mail survey today reveals that almost one-in-five customers has been turned away when trying to use a counter. 

Banks say they are responding to customer demands. Yet nearly half of the 1,027 adults polled by Consumer Intelligence said they prefer a face-to-face service.

Many explain this is so they can be sure their transaction is completed correctly. Others simply prefer speaking to a real person, and complained that the machines were often not working.

Branches with no counters

Bank branches have disappeared from our towns and cities at an alarming rate.

High Street giants have shut 36 per cent of their branch network in the past five years alone.

And at the end of June this year, 93 per cent of the biggest banks were still only open part-time after reducing their hours during the pandemic, according to City watchdog, the Financial Conduct Authority. 

One in three were not open after 3pm. Critics say the latest push to get customers online is an attempt to speed up closures, because by forcing customers to use machines, banks will find it easier to justify shutting more branches.

Dennis Reed, from over-60s campaign group Silver Voices, says: ‘The High Street is being dehumanised with more and more transactions becoming digital. 

‘With branch closures, reduced opening hours and face-to-face services, customers likely feel they are being forced online against their wishes.’

Yet there is still a strong need for branches, particularly among the elderly and vulnerable. Some 38 pc of customers surveyed by Consumer Intelligence said they visit their branch at least once every three months. 

And one in five go several times a month. Of those, who said they rarely use a branch, many claimed this was because their bank had closed.

But even when banks allow branches to remain open, many are limiting services, with some even refusing to accept cash.

Of HSBC’s counterless branches, just 19 have a coin pay-in machine, while the rest will not accept change. About 12 Barclays branches are cashless.

Some 58 branches of Lloyds do not have counters, but the bank says cash and coins are still accepted. Many banks are also closing their counters hours before the branch shuts.

Most Barclays branches open at 9.30am and close at 3.30pm or 4.30pm, while counters may shut as early as 2pm.

TSB closes counters at 4pm, an hour before the branch. Nationwide says each branch is able to open or close counters depending on demand throughout the day.

Bullied into using machines

Even branches that still offer a counter service are increasingly restricting who can use it. 

Some say they are only for business customers, or those with more complex needs, such as the recently bereaved. 

It means anyone who just wants to bank a cheque, pay a bill or deposit cash is being turned away and sent to self-service machines instead. Barclays also has online banking points where you can print statements, pay bills and manage regular payments.

And Nationwide has iPads where customers can open new accounts in branch. But many elderly customers complain that they find these machines difficult to use, and that they regularly reject their transactions which means they have to queue to use a counter anyway.

Options: Santander says it asks its customers what they want to do in the branch to decide how to best help them

Options: Santander says it asks its customers what they want to do in the branch to decide how to best help them

Soaring numbers of customers are also complaining that they feel bullied and patronised by staff.

Derek French, a former bank executive and founder of the campaign for community banking services, says: ‘The big banks don’t seem to want to interface with humans any longer. By making mass branch closures, reducing opening times and restricting counter access, they are getting there, but if that is not enough we are relentlessly pressured to take up their apps, do everything online and engage with robot chat lines.

‘Enough is enough: please stop.’

Rising backlash from customers

Money Mail has been inundated with complaints from customers who feel aggrieved at the way they have been treated in branch.

HSBC customer Sandra Hornblow, 71, says her local branch in Andover, Hants, has recently removed all its counters.

When she visited earlier this month to deposit cash, she overheard an elderly gentleman trying to explain to staff that he could not use the machines because he had poor eyesight and did not have a computer to use online banking.

She says: ‘All he needed was someone to help him do what he wanted. What the large banks fail to realise is that they are making life extremely difficult for their elderly customers who do not have or want computers in their lives. A friendly cashier is all they want and expect from their bank.’

Former bookkeeper Sandra also prefers the counter service. She says: ‘If HSBC had asked any of us if we were happy with this decision, I think it would find lots of people would disagree. This is not progress, this is a cost-cutting exercise.’

Pensioner Alan Stewart says his branch of Yorkshire Bank, which has since been rebranded as Virgin Money, in Scarborough refused to let him pay a £200 credit card bill with cash a few weeks ago.

Abandoned: Last month we exposed how Barclays staff were refusing to help vulnerable customers in person - insisting they used a machine instead due to pressures from head office

Abandoned: Last month we exposed how Barclays staff were refusing to help vulnerable customers in person – insisting they used a machine instead due to pressures from head office 

The former postman says he was told the bank does not take cash over the counter. So he had to pay by debit card and deposit the cash back into his account.

Alan, 78, says: ‘What are banks for if they refuse cash? Older people do not need this hassle and it feels as if the banks do not want to know us.’

Tess Webster says she has been ordered to leave a queue for a counter twice in recent months. But both times she has had to rejoin after the machine failed to work.

On one occasion, she had visited her local Barclays branch in Southport, Merseyside, to transfer money between accounts.

There was one customer ahead of her but before she could be served, a cashier called out to ask what Tess, 69, wanted to do and directed her to a machine. However, because the sum involved was more than £2,000 the transaction was rejected, by which point there were eight people in front of her.

Tess, a former administrator, says: ‘There were lots of customers waiting around for staff to help them. The counter also closes earlier than the branch at 2pm or 2.30pm. And on one occasion staff were reluctant to help me as it was 15 minutes prior to closing.

‘It was only after I kicked up a fuss that they dealt with the transfer by laptop. Barclays is letting us down.’

Our story: Barclays blasted

Our story: Barclays blasted

Cathy Harvey, 72, was shocked to see a new sign at her local Barclays branch in Pinner, Middlesex, ordering her to use self-service machines. And it took her four attempts to send £50 to her granddaughter for her birthday because an error message kept appearing.

She says other customers were also struggling, with staff running around like ‘headless chickens’ trying to help. Cathy, who has been with Barclays for 30 years, says: ‘I left feeling so angry. I just want to be able to go into a branch and do what I need to do. Why should we be forced to use machines?’

What the banks say

Barclays says if customers can carry out their transactions at a self-service point, they are directed to do so.

With HSBC it depends on what type of branch you visit. Customers who visit one of its digital service branches must use machines as there are no counters. 

At other branches offering a full service, which are typically in cities, you will have choice. You can also use counters at sites based in communities with a greater need for cash.

Lloyds, NatWest and Nationwide say staff may let customers know a self-service option is available, particularly if there are queues, but that customers can always use the counter service if preferred. 

NatWest also has a service called Banking My Way which allows customers to specify how they wish to be served.

NatWest has a service called ¿Banking My Way¿ which allows customers to specify how they wish to be served ¿ should they need extra time or a quiet space, for example

NatWest has a service called ‘Banking My Way’ which allows customers to specify how they wish to be served — should they need extra time or a quiet space, for example

Santander asks its customers what they want to do in the branch to decide how to best help them.

TSB says it does not direct customers to use its machines.

A Barclays spokesman says: ‘We’re sorry that these customers were upset at the service they encountered and being asked to use self-service machines. 

These machines allow branch colleagues to help a greater number of customers more effectively, and to become self-sufficient and feel more confident in managing their money themselves.’

An HSBC spokesman says: ‘We are very conscious that there will be some customers who are less confident or comfortable using self-service options, and we would like to assure them that we will not be leaving any of our customers high and dry. Branch staff are always on hand to help in the banking hall.’

A Virgin Money spokesman says: ‘Customers can pay their bills in store using cash. However, for security purposes, we ask customers to pay the cash into their account and then pay the bill from there. But we do not ask customers to pay the bill online.’

a.murray@dailymail.co.uk

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