14 MARCH 1998, Page 28


Think of your bank as a mother-in-law why pop in if you can ring up?


My contribution to modem banking is the Mother-in-Law Theory. This says that some relationships work better at a dis- tance. Banks used to believe that the cus- tomers liked popping in to their local branch to see their friendly manager, if they could arrange to be there when the branch was open and he was inside it. My theory assumes that they find this prospect daunting. I go on to argue, from my own observation, that they would rather talk on the telephone to a helpful girl called (for example) Helen in a branch in (for exam- ple) Manchester. First Direct is the bank that has taken this theory to its conclusion and even beyond. It has no branches at all, but numerous helpful girls chirrup away in a vast airy hangar in Leeds, all day and all night, all the year round. Eight years ago, when Kit McMahon and Gene Lockhart spun it out from the Midland, their com- petitors declined to take it seriously. Today it is our fastest growing retail bank, and the others have had to come back with tele- phone services of their own. This week, First Direct says, your personal computer can talk to us, too. Soon your television set will get the hang of it, and then your digital mobile telephone, and whatever electronic wheeze is coming next. . . . A subset of my theory provides that the best technology is very clever at the far end of the line and very simple at mine, but I take it that more people will find personal computers simple. Technology has already changed the face of banking and blurred its frontiers. Anybody with something to say or to sell can join in. The trouble with my modest level of sophistication is that Helen has been head- hunted by the bank next door. I dare say that First Direct will use the techniques of virtual reality to recreate her in synthetic form, but I shall need to be won over.