Business

No talking please: The new banks you cannot speak to

man uses megaphone to shout at phone Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption No more shouting matches with your bank - customers will only be able to use the internet

Never again will you have to justify why you've gone overdrawn, or explain why that trip to Ibiza was essential spending.

Because two new banks are offering their customers the chance never to communicate by phone ever again. Let alone speak to them in person.

The future involves fingers on apps, not talk on the telephone.

"Everything you want to do - from a banking perspective - you can do on a mobile," says Anthony Thomson, chairman of Atom Bank, which is hoping to launch in the second half of 2015 and aims to be one of the UK's first internet-only operators.

And he doesn't mean using a mobile to speak into.

Indeed the company's research suggests that customers hate having to engage in conversation with their bank.

"Customers who have less contact - face-to-face or voice-to-voice - with their banks are, surprise, surprise, most content," says Mark Mullen, Atom Bank's chief executive.

As a former boss of the telephone bank First Direct, he should know.

'Banking is fun'

But Atom Bank is likely to be beaten to the market by the world's first pure internet bank, Fidor.

Image copyright Fidor
Image caption "Another thousand likes": Fidor cut its lending rate by 0.1% for every 2,000 likes on Facebook

The German company is planning to launch in the UK before the end of March.

It describes itself as a "community", because its favourite method of communication is via social media.

In one of its campaigns in Germany, it cut its lending rate by 0.1% for every 2,000 "likes" it received on Facebook. Savings rates increased at the same rate.

"Banking is fun, not fear," proclaims its website.

It has 300,000 customers in Germany, but since its staff do not take phone calls, it needs only 34 employees.

That might make for great business fundamentals, but not everyone believes that UK customers will appreciate the lack of a phone line to their bank.

Charter Savings Bank is another internet start-up, for savings only, launching in March.

It will have no branches of course, but it has decided to run a full-service call centre to enable customers to speak to their bank on the phone.

"I think it's essential," says Ian Lonergan, Charter's chief executive. "I value great customer service delivered by people over the phone. People want to speak to somebody."

Atom will have a call centre of sorts - but it will deal with technical queries, not banking transactions.

'One atom away'

Image copyright James Cummings
Image caption Mr Mullen suggests Atom customers won't have to remember passwords

The internet-only banks are adamant that we are more happy fiddling with an app than speaking on the phone.

Atom Bank hasn't yet revealed exactly what its app will look like but it promises to be different.

For example, its users won't need to carry around information in their heads to be able to log on.

"The idea, for example, that you have to remember things to be able to bank with Atom - that idea is redundant," says chief executive Mark Mullen.

And why the name?

"Having the ability to bank in your pocket, in your handbag, or on your wrist, is about being close to you," says Anthony Thomson.

"We never want to be more than one atom away from you."

Sceptics might do well to remember that this is the man who helped found Metro Bank, now winning 15,000 new accounts a month.

Savings charts

What all the new players agree on is the importance of a regional, low-cost base, which should translate into beneficial rates for customers.

Atom Bank currently employs 40 people just outside Durham, although it expects that figure to rise to perhaps 500 eventually.

Many of its investors are local businessmen and women in the North East.

Charter Savings Bank, based alongside Jaguar Land Rover's new engine plant in Wolverhampton, employs 250 people.

They both relish the fact that they don't have the legacy issues of the High Street banks - not just the branches, but what Anthony Thomson calls their "creaking" back-office systems.

As a result, they both expect to offer highly competitive rates.

"We are in no doubt that we need to position our products at the top of the savings chart in order to attract consumers," says Ian Lonergan.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Let your fingers do the talking - banking apps are getting more convenient

'Slow burn'

Indeed, like making it to the first page of a Google search, reaching the "top five" best deals will be key for the new internet banks.

Consumers have already shown they're happy to eschew personal contact, if it means getting a better savings rate, a cheaper mortgage or a good value current account.

Look how we drive further to fill up our cars where petrol is cheaper.

Chris Skinner, author of Digital Bank, believes that internet-only banks could well steal a lot of business from their traditional High Street rivals.

But he thinks it will be hard work for them, pointing out that it has taken Germany's Fidor eight years to grow to its current size.

"It isn't going to happen quickly," he says.

"It's going to be a slow burn and a long trail."

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