Retail Banking is Dying . . .

A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain.  – Robert Frost

A few days ago my wife and I went to our local high-street bank branch to talk about getting a new mortgage loan.  We have just sold our house and are in the process of buying another.  Stressful times at best and more often than not, the process is not a smooth one.  And your local friendly neighbourhood bank makes the journey even more stressful.  And to be honest, it’s not only the customers who suffer from the current sorry state of retail banking.

We make an appointment, a week in advance, for 9am with the lead mortgage lending officer.  We turn up a 9 on the dot but not the loan officer.  In fact, the local branch seems to be just pulling itself together, like a drowsy bear after a long hibernation.  The front doors are open but many office lights are still off, employees are wandering in with bike helmets under their arms and in various states of disrobing their rain gear. We ask for the loan department which is downstairs, but have to wait for the loan officer to arrive.

“Why do I get the feeling that this is not the image of a great and successful global banking empire. I doubt if this is the way Bob Diamond’s office is run!”

I am beginning to see the difference between the amount of attention senior management puts on Investment and Commercial banking and the lack of attention to Retail banking.  I have had dozens of meetings with the Investment side of big banks and the level of attention to detail and the overall timeliness and professionalism of staff is a far cry from what I was observing today in this retail branch.

The story continues.  Our loan officer arrives in a whirlwind and we are finally settled in his tiny, windowless office in the lower-ground floor.  He looks up our banking details on the computer, then needs to call the main offices to get further details.  He calls, not a person, but a number at a Call Center!  Even the retail branch people have to deal with the same impersonal automated call centre process as normal people.

He punches in the responses to about 4 questions, then is put in a the electronic waiting line.  Even bank employees trying to help a customer and make money for the bank have to wait in an electronic queue! I am beginning to see why his energy level is so low.  Finally he gets a live human being on the phone, only to be told that the department he has finally reached cannot process loans above a certain amount, so he has to dial another number, another set of questions, another wait in line . . . .  And here comes the best part! After he finally gets through all the punching and waiting, he is told to call back in an hour since that particular department only opens at 10am!

Now I am feeling sorry for this poor guy.  He’s trying to help a customer and is at the mercy of a banking organisation that spends very little on Retail Banking and billions on Investment and Commercial Banking.  Somewhere I recently read about a banker at a conference who admitted, “We really don’t know how to make money on Retail Banking, everything is so small and needs such individual attention.  Retail is not nearly as efficient at generating profits as Investment Banking!”  Touché.

So, 45 minutes later we walk out with a promise from the loan officer that he will get back to us later in the day with some information and some answers. Especially since we told him we were also talking with a competitor branch.

Not a wonderful, uplifting customer experience!  And I don’t think we are the only Retail Banking customers who experience lack of investment, poor systems and poor service.

One bright spot, however, the loan officer did call us back with some answers and even a suggestion or two.  I wonder how much of his day he spent chasing the right department and ferreting out the right information?

How is your Retail Banking experience?

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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4 Responses to Retail Banking is Dying . . .

  1. Steve Borek says:

    I’m in the process of shopping for a new bank. There’s a small regional concern here in Syracuse called Community Bank that’s getting lots of good ink lately so I might move my business soon.

    I was with a big reputable bank for 20 years. Two years ago, when financial regulations were coming into play, I said the arbitrage of how banks would make a profit had begun.

    One day I walked into a branch and they offered to sign me up for credit cards galore. Shortly thereafter, it started raining small fees everywhere.

    I guess it’s a sign of the times.


  2. Anonymous says:

    Two words: First Direct. They’ve consistently been excellent at retail customer services. Only problem is that they don’t yet do business banking.


  3. I gave up on retail banking. There is not a whole lot I cannot do electronically these days, so that has become the way I bank. It is largely because I find that going into a bank is aggravating experience. My last visit was very similiar to your visit where I sat with an associate that had to call into a call center. The associate was great, but we both agreed that the call center provided a less than stellar customer service experience.


    • Thanks for your comments on my Retail Banking is Dying blog. I am frustrated in not being able to find a bank CEO that understands the real opportunity that retail banking can add to their brand image and also their financial foundation. They all seem to be focused on deal making and investment banking transaction fees. Ripe for disruptive innovation.


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