Barclays bank is back in the news as details emerge of their 'Project Transform' process, targeted at taking the bank into the twenty-first century. The loss of 400 jobs on the trading floor won't be mourned by anyone except Porsche dealers, but the intention to close a quarter of their 1,600 high-street branches is a real concern to many.
The argument today is that telephone banking, Internet banking, and even self-service kiosks in supermarkets have replaced the need for branches. It could even be argued that over the past couple of decades branches have become little more than outlets for selling insurance anyway.
But is Barclays rushing too fast into their vision of the future?
If the Barclays bosses were running Metro Bank then they would be spending the money on a better website so clearly there is a very different strategy at work here. Metro Bank is known for their distinctive approach to customer service. Their branches open seven days a week, they provide free coin-counting so customers can deposit change, they let you bring your pet dog into the branch, and they guarantee that you can pop into a branch and leave with an account inside 15 minutes.
Metro Bank sounds just like the way banks used to be, personal and with a focus on great service for the customer.
A few years ago I probably would have argued that Barclays are right. I was a First Direct customer from 1990 and switched to the Internet-only bank Smile in 1999. I got my first mortgage from First Direct and second from Egg - I only ever transacted with my bank on the phone or online.
But I moved to Brazil three years ago and they still have a personable branch-focused culture, so I have seen both sides of this coin and I have to say that on balance I would now rather be dealing with a person who knows me and my banking history rather than a computer algorithm or call centre agent.
A good example is when I applied to HSBC in São Paulo for a mortgage so I could buy a house. When my wife and I initially talked to the bank about the kind of place and price we were thinking of our manager said yes without even checking his computer. He knew that he could approve the loan based on our history - having a current account there and the amount we were thinking of borrowing.
When we put our actual application in, there was a problem in the HSBC head office. They run a check over your banking activity in the past 90 days before approving any loan and that period included the London 2012 Olympic games. We were in London during the games so there was an entire month where our account in Brazil was untouched - almost nothing going in or out, apart from the regular direct debits.
Our branch manager called head office and told them that he was going to overrule their decision to block the mortgage because he knew that this was an unusual month - he had a longer view on our banking history. He was allowed to do this and we got our new home.
This is just one example, but the list could go on and includes things like a personal call from the manager to ask if we forgot to pay a bill or did we know that there is a big bill going out tomorrow and we might need to transfer some cash from savings to the current account to cover it? These behaviours may seem small, but they make a big difference and has made me a very loyal customer of HSBC today.
If I was a Barclays customer back in the UK then the issue I would have now about their business strategy is not about the loss of jobs or difficulty accessing a branch, I would be questioning why they no longer value me as a customer. Am I supposed to feel valued because the bank says I can go to Tesco to use a cash machine?
Kiosks in supermarkets are all very well for getting cash when I'm going to the pub, but if I want to talk to someone about my mortgage, my pension, my car loan, then who exactly is going to help?
If banks in the UK truly believe that their customers are important then why does it feel as if Metro Bank is placing customer service at the forefront of everything they do?Suggest a correction