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Calling your bank – do you miss the ‘human’ touch?

With 24-hour access to your bank accounts via online and telephone banking, it’s never been easier to manage your money. So why does calling your bank sometimes leave you tearing your hair out?

Automated telephone systems aren’t always a bad thing. For example, if you simply want to check your balance, they come in very handy.

But every now and then, you’ll have a question about your bank account that can’t be answered by a computer. Unfortunately, trying to get through to a human being can feel like a bit of a battle against a barrage of recorded options, none of which seem to include, ‘speak to an adviser’.

Frustration with automation

My brother recently called NatWest to order a new card and found it was a frustrating experience. After entering his customer number three times (it wasn’t recognised on the first two attempts), he had to wade through five more options before getting the option to speak to someone.

When he eventually got through to an adviser they were polite and helpful, but this was overshadowed by the length of time it took him to get through in the first place. And he’s not alone. In response to Richard Wilson’s guest Conversation on automated services, commenter Wavechange said:

‘There is nothing more annoying than going through all the button pressing when you know that you need to speak to a human being. All service providers should offer this option at the start.’

Despite the growing trend for automation across a wide range of services, not all banks have succumbed. First Direct is often praised for how quickly it deals with incoming calls; something which has no doubt contributed to its number one ranking in the Which? customer satisfaction scores for bank accounts.

Less doesn’t equal more

It could be argued that automated systems are a necessary evil for the bigger banks due to the high volume of calls they receive. But at a time when public confidence in the banking system has hit rock bottom, the least banks could do is make themselves more accessible to their customers.

Simplifying the impersonal call menus would be a big step in the right direction. When you call your bank, would you prefer to speak to somebody immediately? Or do you find automated systems useful for the most part?

What do you think about automated customer service helplines?

I don't like them (63%, 185 Votes)

It depends on the individual helpline (35%, 104 Votes)

I like them (2%, 6 Votes)

Total Voters: 305

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I think a bit of both is fine, as long as when you get through to a human you can understand them!

The barrier that companies create to speaking to a human is largely caused by other customers whose first option is to use the phone instead of trying first online or another automated method, whether this be out of laziness, stupidity or selfishness. This means that the rest of us have to go through an unreasonable number of menu options when we really do need to speak to a human. If I am phoning to do something that doesn’t require a human, I wouldn’t be phoning. I wish those people would think about the costs they are incurring for companies before making unnecessary calls to humans, as their actions unnecessarily increase the prices paid by the rest of us.

This actually hadn’t occurred to me, nfh, but I can see where you’re coming from. Ultimately what I want from a bank is super-efficient online banking and the ability to do as much as possible online (and this includes emailing/secure messaging the customer services team if I need to). As a general rule I don’t like being on the phone to companies anyway – I always prefer to have a written record of correspondence, not to mention the fact that it can sometimes be really expensive. However it is sometimes necessary to call, and I think I agree with nfh here – I will only ever phone if I know that I definitely need to speak to a real person, and in this case the automated options serve no purpose other than to make my phone bill that bit higher.

Nikki, you make a very good point about e-mail and secure messaging. I would much prefer to deal with all companies by this method, as it creates a written record and it doesn’t prevent me from getting on with something else at the same time. One emerging trend is online chat whereby you interactively use instant messaging with a representative of the company via the company’s own messaging system. It combines the best of both worlds in that it combines the instant response you expect from a phone call with the written record that can be so useful if something later goes wrong. The best companies e-mail you a transcript of the chat at the end of the session. There is no reason why this trend shouldn’t spread to banking.

I know nothing about smartphones but am thinking about getting one.

As I experience intermittent deafness, something that could make one particularly attractive to me is a facitlity (in the strict meaning of the term) that converts any stressful “if…press 1” etc spiel into a succession of instant touchscreen menus that I could tap through. I would want one with a “Human contact” icon at any stage.

Does such a thing exist? If not, from what has been said already in this conversation, it would seem to be of benefit to the banks to finance its development.

We agree that making customers jump through hoops to speak to someone isn’t great customer service. We always try to answer calls in under 20 seconds, in fact our average response time is 7 seconds at the moment. We know it’s our Telephone Representatives that make first direct , they’re the ones who deserve thanks for our number one Which? ranking.

I see you are using an 0845 number. That’s fine for those whose tariff includes calls to these numbers. A geographical number could help the others.

Its good to see some other Customer Services departments copying FD’s policy of allowing their reps to be “normal”, chatting with the customers, apparently not following a script and still being efficient.

I just wish banks etc would have an option for general queries which don’t require security.

Syddall says:
5 February 2013

Fine to praise your telephone service,However it is impossible to open a new First Direct account without an e mail address, which either makes your banking service inaccessible for anyone who is not online or a secondary service to anyone who is online.

I tried to assist a relative earlier today who was advised she coudl’nt change bank accounts without an e mail address, I later rang myself later and was advised this was not the case. She rang again and was told that she had been misinformed and WOULD need an e mail address.

Congratulations FD you have just lost a potentially good customer!

John, that’s an interesting idea. I’m not aware of any apps that can be used to replace these audible telephone prompts with a human. Although more and more services, like paying bills, giving meter readings etc, can be accessed online or through the company’s own proprietary apps. I find these much easier to use than the “press 1 for…” telephone prompts.

There are also banks, like First Direct, that don’t use automated prompts for their telephone banking. You are dealt with by a real person throughout the call, this is particularly helpful for people with a hearing loss.

Alternatively have you tried using TextRelay? It is a free operator-assisted text-relay service via a textphone or textphone software (including textphone apps) to make and receive voice telephone calls via text. Calls to services with telephone prompts can also be made through TextRelay by dialling 18001 before their telephone number. Instead of hearing the options, the operator will type them out for you to read. I’ve been told that all services with call prompt should be accessible using TextRelay, which is run by BT. For more information please go to http://www.textrelay.org or call 0800 7311 888.

I hope this helps, Tom Fiddian, Design and Development Manager for Action on Hearing Loss

Sophie Gilbert says:
3 August 2012

My missing the human touch isn’t restricted to when I call my bank. Try Virgin Media. I find the robot’s voice and more particularly its patronising intonations insufferable. I don’t know if when they did the recording they tried to get it to sound hip, in touch, cool, young, whatever, but it grates every time and doesn’t make me feel well disposed at all towards the company. By the time I finally get to the human I’m ready for a fight. Surely this is not what Virgin Media wants.

Our daughter, son-in-law and four year old grandson were left unable to access cash from their Bank of Scotland accounts, when their account was frozen by the bank, without warning. At the time they were 200 miles from home and had only £30 in cash to buy food or fuel to get home. We were abroard at the time and transfered £100 to them, however, they were still unable to access this.
This seems to us to be a completly heartless action for the bank to adopt, with no consideration to their customers. We have been account holders at Bank of Scotland for over 40 years. However, we will be looking elsewhere very soon.