I’ll never set foot in a bank branch ever again. Unless….

I can’t think when I last set foot in a bank.  And it’s even longer since I set foot in my own bank – so long, in fact, that in writing this I had to pause for a minute to remind myself where it actually is.

Being that kind of customer, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been a bit mystified by the industry’s recent surge of enthusiasm for branch banking. The papers are full of the plans of all sorts of institutions and consortiums to acquire large numbers of branches from big existing players like RBS and, I think, Lloyds Banking Group.  And considering the extremely limited scope of his immediate plans, my old friend Anthony Thomson has done incredibly well to make the forthcoming launch of his very branch-based new operation, Metro Bank, sound like the Big Four are about to become the Big 5.

Still, as I say, from a personal point of view, all this stuff about re-emphasising the role of the branch as the cornerstone of the customer relationship has all been sounding like sentimental nonsense to me – or, worse, like a rather poor-quality smokescreen intended to obfuscate the reality of the situation, which is that the moment you enter one of their sodding branches you’ll be manacled to a comfy sofa and not allowed to get up until you’ve agreed to buy a bucketful of stupid useless payment protection insurance.

As I say, that’s what I thought.  Until I heard Anthony Thomson himself tell a story about the success of Metro Bank’s US-based role model, Commerce Bank.  In America, he explained, Commerce Bank branches are mainly located in suburban residential areas, and open long hours seven days a week.  And one of the most successful parts of their re-invention of the role of the branch has been to give every customer a safe deposit box.  Why?  Because thousands of female customers owning expensive jewellery keep it in their safe deposit boxes;  drop in on a Saturday afternoon to pick up the items they want to wear that evening;  and then drop back in on Sunday morning to put their rocks back in their box.

Admittedly a Sunday morning image involving swarms of robbers with swag bags and stripey jumpers hovering outside Commerce Bank branches waiting to pounce on the ice-laden suburbanites does come briefly to mind, but actually the truth is that when I hear this example, I do have a lightbulb moment.  If a bank branch could make itself useful to me (or indeed to Mrs Camp) in this and maybe half a dozen similar ways, then, yes, I can imagine that much to my surprise a) the branch could become the focal point of the bank’s relationships, and b), as a result, the branch could indeed play a crucial role in enabling the bank to recruit and retain customers.

But “maybe half a dozen similar ways” – now, there’s the rub.  I’ve only heard two other less good examples from Metro Bank:  every branch will have loos (tempting, though a bit unfair, to call these a hygiene factor), and also a coin-sorting machine for the pennies and twopences in my candy jar (useful once every two years when the jar gets full).   One good idea and two much less good ones aren’t enough to make me re-evaluate my views about the role of branches.  But another four or five really good ones, and it could be a different story.

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