Could switching your bank account become as easy as switching your mobile phone provider?

Financial Services Team Blog

Georgiana Brown

You’re sitting on a train with a friend and as you go through a cutting you lose your 3G connection, just as you’re trying to open up a web page.  Your friend though is surfing away happily and so, after a quick chat about what network they’re on you think that when your contract is up you’ll switch over to them.  Or maybe you like getting away from it all, but it’s important for your sense of security to have a decent mobile signal when trying to scale a Munro.  So you switch to a provider that better suits your needs.

But what about if you’re not sure you’re getting a very good deal on your current account and you’ve heard about better rates and slicker service elsewhere?  Will you switch?  Well, the chances are no, not if you’re in the 97% of people with a bank account who didn’t switch last year (just 1.2m of 46m account holders did so).

So why is this?  Well, for most, it’s neither a sense of confidence in your own bank account provider, nor a feeling of trust towards it, with fewer than 1 in 5 having a great deal of confidence or trust in it and just under half having either a great deal or quite a lot of confidence or trust in it (Harris Poll Omnibus data, May 2013).  Instead, it’s more a feeling that all banks are the same, and a distrust of the switching process itself and the perceived hassle involved that puts consumers off switching.

Now though, the Payments Council has stepped forward to ease the switching process for consumers by offering to do it for them and have the transfer complete in just 7 days – much speedier than the 30 days that it can take at present.  Its free Current Account Switch Service will start on 16 September and will include a Current Account Switch Guarantee, supported by almost all UK banks and building societies.  This means that if anything were to go wrong, with payments missed and charges incurred, you will get your money back.  The service will last for 13 months ensuring that even once a year payments will be redirected.

Now this is starting to sound pretty attractive to me, as I rather enjoy handing control over to someone else – like that moment when you take your seat on a flight, happy in the knowledge that you’re temporarily handing control over to a trained pilot and that all you have to do is poke your nose in a book whilst accepting a drink from the smiling cabin crew.  All very well at least if it works smoothly; the proof will be in the switching.

But who to switch to?  Looking to take any advantage they can in what is a massive but difficult and competitive market, NatWest and RBS have launched Cashback Plus, offering customers the chance to earn cashback on debit card purchases (albeit with a limited list of just 11 retailers signed onto it at present).  Meanwhile First Direct, who have already experienced some success with their generous £100 joining incentive, have just increased this to £125, whilst Halifax have just extended their £100 joining incentive to include existing customers who make Halifax their main current account provider.  We can expect heavy marketing campaigns from this lot and others, both around new products and anything they believe differentiates their service and brand, to coincide with the Payments Council’s communications over their switching service.

But is this enough to make switching easy and tempting?  Well, possibly, possibly not.  It’s still seen as an inconvenience, what with changing account number and all.  With mobile phone switching, you get to keep the number, and that does take the stress out of switching – I know the number, others have it, it’s mine for life, if I want it to be.  And that’s exactly what the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards wants to see happening with current accounts: consumers with an account number for life.  This so-called ‘account portability’ is not particularly popular with UK banks and, at an estimated £2bn-£5bn cost, according to Lloyds Banking Group, it is hardly the cheap option.  However, it certainly might make things easier, it’s seen by the Payments Council as the “natural successor” to their switching service and, in the light of growing pressure to increase competition in the banking sector, the Treasury has promised to look into it next year.

So, could switching your bank account become as easy as switching your mobile phone provider?  Well, the answer has to be not yet – but, as far as I’m concerned, the new switching service certainly looks to be a welcome step in the right direction.