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I chose the Co-operative Bank for all the right reasons. I care about human rights, fair trade, the environment and sustainable development - there doesn’t seem a lot of point donating to a charity which is going to save the earth/children etc, then depositing my money in a bank which will lend it to multinational corporations with scruples reflecting all that is worst about globalization. The Co-op’s ethical investment policy, upon which they have just consulted every member for review, is a radical charter for good in a world full of greed and corruption.
So some years ago, when my partner and I were looking for a little financial place of our own, to shack up in holy joint accountedness, I was attracted to a bank which seemed to match my own priorities for the world and my life. At the time I honestly thought that is was only a matter of time before I would move my personal account over there too, to make transfers etc more straightforward… however that was over 6 years ago, and to this day my personal current account remains resolutely with First Direct, and in the foreseeable future it ain’t going anywhere. Why? Because it takes more than superb ethical policies to make a bank I’m afraid. Operating both accounts on a daily basis provides a superb basis for a range of direct comparisons.
Example: On-line banking. I love on-line banking, how on earth did we manage before we could actually see a statement on the screen, and know for the first time how much money we had! You remember that kind of financial horoscope-casting, now let me see my wages should have gone in Thursday, that cheque I wrote won’t have cleared yet, did I put that restaurant bill on Switch or Visa..? But now we have computerized access to our accounts all that is history, right? Well it is at First Direct – a real time statement (Credit cards correct to close of business previous day), showing totals on each line. Co-op = 5/10. Yes they have on-line banking, but only correct to close of business previous day on all accounts, and there is no ‘totals’ column, so if you want to know exactly what’s in your account (or was yesterday) you are left adding up from the carry-over total. Grrr!
That’s if you can get in to your account details in the first place of course. First Direct operate a simple password system once you inform them you are using a secure (i.e. your own) PC, they ask for a different randomly chosen 3 digits each time, and prompt you to change the password every few months. No problem.
When the Co-op finally introduced online banking a year or so ago, I was asked to supply answers to a load of new security questions, any one of which can now be asked at log-in. This is a nightmare, as unless the answers are entered EXACTLY AS WHEN YOU SET IT UP, it will NOT log you in, and after 3 failures freezes the account! The questions are ones you could answer in various ways, such as ‘last school attended’. Now I have to wrack my brains, did I set up ‘Ellen Wilkinson’, ‘Ellen Wilkinson High School’, or ‘Ellen Wilkinson High School for Girls’ as my one and only correct answer!? It’s worse than BEING back at school, fergossake I’m a grown up now and I just want to know how much money is in my account…!
So if I get desperate enough, or the online banking condemns me as a con artist, I have to set aside half an hour or so and attempt to navigate the telephone banking system… Entering account, sort code and security code data without a flaw you are then asked to press the # key to continue. Cazz’ Top Tip for Co-op customers: Press it twice! This then routes you straight to the queue to wait for an elusive human being, rather than listening to half an hour of useless options (why would I want a list of my last 5 transactions, they’re the ones I can actually remember!) Odds are best out of 3 that said human being won’t be able to help you as their computers are down (this has happened so often I wonder if I’ve actually crashed it by confusing their website!)
Compare again with First Direct, I know this op isn’t about them, but there you go straight through to (usually) a pleasant-mannered northern female who appears to have been specifically instructed to be helpful to customers. Weird!
Other times I’ve had to call the bank are to discuss charges, usually to express my astonishment and disgust at their size in comparison to my supposed misdemeanours. All I want is a bit of flexibility and understanding! The Co-op has a policy of NOT charging if you regularly overdraw upto GBP50 for upto 3 days in a month. Fair enough, but we occasionally (OK usually) exceed this, so I have set up a GBP500 overdraft limit, for which privilege they charge us GBP8 WHETHER WE USE IT OR NOT, never mind stay within the 50 limit. So months we don’t overdraw we still pay the charge. The human being at the end of the hash key eventually agreed with me that this was unfair, stupid and illogical, but ‘that’s the rules’
On my personal account with First Direct I had a crisis a couple of months ago, when my salary went in late. It didn’t arrive in time to cover my BIG debit each month to the household (Co-op) account. First Direct honoured the payment, taking me 4 figures over my limit, and then promptly whopped me with GBP90 charges for unauthorized borrowing, transaction charges etc. I phoned them the next day once I realised what was happening, mainly to reassure that I had just established I would definitely be paid that day, and to ask them PLEASE not to charge me for anything else, the funds were coming. “I have already paid 90 quid!” I pleaded. “Fair enough, as this is a one-off occurrence beyond your control, we’ll waive those charges on this occasion” said pleasant normal female. Smelling salts were required urgently, I wondered if I had the right number – I was sure they’d said BANK when they’d answered the phone! Now First Direct send me a free text message if I am getting near my limit. I didn't even bother asking the Co-op about this...
It says BANK next to the word Co-operative in the High Street, who’s cashpoint I used the other day to withdraw a big wad on my Company Barclaycard. As many of you will know I run market research discussion groups, and had to sort out respondent incentive payments for that evening. However my incentives were GBP50 each, and the machine paid out in 20s, as I explained to the nice lady at the counter having gone in and queued up. So could I just change some of them for 10s please? Not unless I had a paying in book and time to spare, as they hadn’t got access to any cash(?!) unless I paid the money in to my Co-op account and directly withdrew it again, whereupon I could specify the denominations I desired. Haven’t got time madam? Well you could try NatWest across the road. ‘’You mean, A PROPER BANK!!” I exploded. She nodded.
Now I worked in the voluntary sector for many years, and in an environment where charities and other voluntary organisations were increasingly having to compete for funds, priorities and even contracts alongside public and private sector bodies, the ‘but we’re a charity we have to be a bit soft and cr*p’ attitude used to REALLY wind me up. I used to long for my Trustees to wake up and smell the herbal tea, it’s a tough world out there and all the principles in the universe won’t cut it if you are unprofessional, unreliable and give poor customer service. It is exactly the same with the Co-op – I really, really want them to succeed, as for day-to-day banking they appear to offer the only alternative to utterly profit-led big banks. If I am wrong and there is an alternative out there please tell me, I heard that Triodos were soon to be offering a current account but not yet?
For the meantime my current account will remain with First Direct, I justify it to myself by the fact that with my overdraft I am actually preventing some of their dodgy investments – for most of the month they effectively bank with me rather than the other way around. I will keep my joint Co-op account, as the account is mainly used for direct debits and other household things, and my daughter’s savings account is there. I am not going to save for her future by investing in companies that exploit children on the other side of the world. Our pension savings are in ethical funds too.
But principles alone do not a banking service make. You need to get your act together Co-op, as my principles are tested along with my patience nearly every time we interact.
http://www.co-operativebank.co.uk (nice intuitive little URL there!)
A good and well written review, although it feels as if much of the content is based on your own disdain for features that might not be a problem for most. Personally, I feel safer with more security questions but I fully appreciate your point about specification. Although, you can use their Telephone banking to speak to a person who can forgive you missing off the "high school" bit. Personally, I bank with co-op and find them truly excellent every time but that said, your point about more facilitating features for online banking was well made.
edtwozeronine209 26.05.2010 02:57
I've opened an account with another bank to try and get around the stupid 5 random questions thing. I've hardly ever managed to get into my account on my home computer.
I know for a fact that they are correct because I've written them all down and also phoned the helpline several times to confirm I have them right.
ChrisWar666 19.07.2004 00:14
Great opinion! I really do hate that "supply 5 security questions" thingy, it is really annoying!! I'd prefer a nice simple password, as Invesco Perpetual do the same thing to get onto their online service - CW666