Opinion: Leader - Big banks must smash the cliches

Do you like your bank? If you are a customer of one of the established high-street brands, probably not. If you have an account with one of the newer wave of telephone or online brands - Smile, First Direct, etc - this is much more likely.

But does it actually matter? Well as long as they don't actually lose our money, most of us seem unwilling to go through the hassle of defecting.

Despite our supposed culture of 'customer choice', the old cliche that we're more likely to change our partners than our bank account still rings true.

Nevertheless there is an unerring flow of customers away from the 'big four', which could well accelerate as Tesco, one of the UK's most respected companies, renews its assault of the financial services market.

This week we had yet another reputation disaster when it emerged that 40 per cent of UK cash machines charge customers for withdrawals - and that this makes the banks hundreds of millions of pounds a year. At a time when most of the banking groups' annual profits are set to increase again, this is a bitter pill to swallow.

Even the casual observer would think that giving people easy access to their cash, on which the banks are making huge sums of interest, would have been a pretty basic part of their service.

And from a PR point of view it's a disaster because once again the banks are perceived as sneaky, introducing charges via the back door.

Indeed, the Financial Times ran a skit this week in which retail bank chief executives, up in front of the Treasury Select Committee again, were insisting on a standard £1.50 handling charge for answering each question. The age-old caricature of the greedy banker is of course difficult to throw off, but employing talented communicators in senior strategic roles would be a good start.

It emerges this week that HBOS has a new public affairs strategy to become a 'consumer champion'. But it is only by seizing the initiative, through genuine innovation, that most of us will be convinced.

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