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I Said, Be Right With You

June 29, 2003

Anyone worried that the nation's street corners, mini-malls and office buildings contain an insufficient number of bank branches with the most inconvenient hours for customers not named Gates or Forbes to enter and stand in the most interminable lines with half the teller slots unmanned can relax now. They're building more such places.

More branches are being built daily. More unattended teller slots. More places to stand in line on hard floors next to shiny poles and nifty smooth ropes like at the movies. And more jobs for tellers to have lunch breaks that precisely match yours. Plus more heavy doors that could be entered if the place hadn't just closed five minutes ago when you got off work, as the armed guard makes clear from inside by pointing to the gold letters on the glass door detailing business hours.

ATMs were supposed to help save customers time and banks salaries, though we don't recall the protest movement against humans actually talking to humans. ATMs also would be open at any hour with smaller lines of people trying to remember their secret code number without saying it out loud. But then a number of incidents caused people to suspect that ATMs were really places where innocent volunteers gathered to be followed and robbed.

Online Web banking was supposed to help customers bank from home at any hour, to efficiently punch in account numbers, money transfers and bill payments and accomplish so very much so very quickly with the mere tap of an "enter" key. And then, after a brief moment of satisfaction come hours of stark panic, wondering if maybe perhaps they had misplaced the decimal or added a digit and just donated $122,390 to the electric company. But there's no one alive to ask because it's a machine. So customers can go to bed and not sleep until morning when they phone and can't reach a sentient being without pushing several dozen buttons and hearing familiar music they didn't like the first time around.

So now banks are adding more branches like crazy, almost 30% more of them in a decade, to nearly 90,000. They have re-realized that they can make money from retail services and that virtually all new clients walk into a branch. New customers who don't arrive in private jets? It's so crazy it just might work. You often hear people say, "I want to go to the bookstore" or "I want to go to the movies." Think about it. Have you ever heard, "I want to go to the bank"? Maybe banks should ponder sprucing up customer service first -- for instance, assigning tellers for customer convenience, not teller preferences -- before constructing thousands more impatience-intensification parlors.

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