Last week I spent a frustrating morning trying to open a business bank account. I assumed banks would make it as easy as possible and so I was surprised how frustrating it was. I’m easily put off by small but easily-avoidable annoyances and I found plenty of those.
I had no idea how to choose a bank and bank account. I don’t have any obscure requirements: let people pay me; let me transfer money; a debit/ATM card; online banking. Charges for business current accounts vary, but not enough to make a wild difference. I had few good reasons to choose one bank over another.
A couple of friends recommended Barclays, mainly because it can integrate with FreeAgent without going through a third-party service. It sounded pretty broken — one friend registered for both online and mobile banking, and with “data services”, but still needed to separately request a “phone banking PIN” to enable a feed into FreeAgent. But, once that was navigated, it apparently worked well.
I wasn’t wild about Barclays. I don’t like their shade of blue, I don’t like their now insipid eagle/shield logo, and I still associate them with closing my first ever bank account in the 1980s over their support of apartheid in South Africa. But these days it’s just another bank, I guess.
You can start an application online but, for a limited company, you will subsequently have to book an appointment in a branch anyway. So, given the website said this:
at 9am I was in my local branch, Moorgate. “If they can’t open business accounts in the City of London, there’s no hope!” I thought to myself. They can’t, there wasn’t.
A polite man insisted that I would have to call a central Barclays phone number to book an appointment at the branch in which I was standing. I couldn’t speak to anyone at the branch, not even to arrange when to come in later. But it says “visit your nearest branch”! Why does it say that?! I was amazed and annoyed and walked out.
I still don’t understand. Even if I could have made an appointment in the branch, to see someone in that same branch later, why tell me to visit the branch to do so? Only tell me to visit the branch to apply for an account if I can apply for an account when I get there!
In the 1980s, when I closed my Barclays account, I walked up the high street into NatWest and opened one there. So I’m slightly more fond of it than most anonymous international banking corporations. Plus, out of all the banks, I like their logo the most:
Despite their current credit card advertising campaign which emphasises simplicity, fairness and transparency, finding their business banking charges wasn’t simple or transparent, being buried in a PDF and not listed in any navigation. But still, two years’ free banking was at least fair.
(Incidentally, that URL for NatWest’s “Start-up package” is 780 characters long. Which is an improvement on the 1,126 it had when I looked last week.)
If I read this correctly, applying online means waiting five working days for a further discussion. Or I could call them or visit a branch. Having been bitten by Barclay’s branch-visiting, I called the number helpfully displayed on the right.
But, ha ha, despite being displayed in a box headed “Apply now” on a business banking page, that number is not the number to call if you want to apply for a business bank account. The woman who answered gave me the number to call (she couldn’t transfer me).
I pressed on, and called the new number. Before we could get started on the application process, the next woman had to read some standard stuff out to me in the “I am reading this” voice. The first of these was that in 2016 my account would move to a new bank, Williams & Glyn. Oh. I’ve just made the arbitrary decision to bank with NatWest and now you’re telling me I can’t. Hmm.
Unable to make snap decisions on the phone, I thanked her and hung up. Next!
A couple of friends said they’d walked into branches of Metro Bank and opened up accounts on the spot. This sounded good and in line with Metro Bank’s aims of shaking up the system, gently.
I routed round an initial hiccup — the link Google displayed for Metro’s business banking was a 404 — and checked that I should be able to open a business account by walking into a branch. Yes! “Please visit your local store to apply for this account.”
I walked to the Cheapside branch around 10am and entered their small, quiet replica of a Reno casino. Unfortunately, a helpful woman told me that the “CSR” was busy at the moment and I’d have to wait for 90 minutes. Oh. This is the downside of inviting people to just walk in: you need the capacity to handle them. There seemed to be more staff than customers but they must have been the wrong kind of “CSR”s. So I left.
The day was far too hot already and I was getting nowhere, with something I thought would be simple. I couldn’t believe it was so difficult.
A couple of friends said they were with the Cater Allen private bank, but their business bank account page didn’t really encourage me to simply open an account. A lot of text, talk of “an Application Pack for your client”, a lot of documents to download, and a ten day processing time.
I moved on. I really wanted a bank to sell itself to me, simply, and make it as easy as possible for me to become their customer.
Someone suggested Triodos, who I’d forgotten all about, despite having had a savings account with them for a while. They’re an ethical bank, who do good things, and have a business current account. You don’t get a credit or debit card but I was past caring, and figured I could get a credit card elsewhere.
To apply for an account you have to call to make sure your business is suitable, which is fair enough. I called, had a chat (“Well, I’m not planning on making websites for arms dealers, ha ha!”) and was emailed a link to the application form.
For some reason this link, at the end of a long email, wasn’t clickable. But, undeterred, I worked out how to get to the form. This is, however, as far as I got. The form wanted to know “the main activities of your Organisation” and “your main sources of income”. The first field needed at least 50 words (or, as the error message put it, 200 characters), and the second needed at least 25 words (or 150 characters). It’s just not that complicated. I design and make websites, people pay me money to do so. At this point, and given the limitations of the account, I was beyond making up nonsense to please a form’s validation algorithms and closed the tab.
Belatedly, I remembered another friend saying Santander had been quick to set up their business account. So, despite disliking their stagey, awkward adverts featuring sports people, and their renaming of the combined Abbey National and Bradford & Bingley, I just wanted a bank account.
Ignoring the forest of stock photography showing industrious white people, I quickly found their current account for new businesses, for which I could apply online, with a nice clear list of requirements. The form was simple, with a minimum of onerous questions, and it was soon completed.
Within 24 hours I received an email telling me my new account was open! Easy! The email said:
We’re pleased to let you know that we’ve opened a Santander Business Bank Account for you and you can start using your account straightaway.
Your account is now open and ready for use…
Except there was no account number or sort code, and the details for accessing online, mobile and telephone banking would be sent in two letters within 7 to 10 days.
So the account is only “open and ready for use” in the sense that it exists as an entry in a database somewhere. And I can only “start using your account” in the sense of… I don’t know. That just doesn’t make any sense.
Still, it’s done. Or soon will be.
A lot of the above is going to seem petty. And, yes, it is. I could easily have ignored many of these little difficulties and applied for an account a few hours sooner than I did. But no one should have to encounter these difficulties.
They’re mostly easy things to get right if you want to make it easy for people to use your service. Putting the correct phone number on the page. Giving people the correct instructions. Making it easy to find information and fill in forms. It’s not just making good websites, it’s about making the whole company and service work how someone would expect.
Banks seem to be like electricity suppliers or mobile phone companies. They’re desperate to seem special but for many customers they’re simply interchangeable utilities. But we have to use at least one of them. There’s a huge barrier to new companies entering the market and doing things in new ways. Consequently we have to put up with the above petty silliness, clunky online banking, Verified By Visa, and everything else that could be done so much better if only the services focused on the people who use them. Or want to use them.
- 5 August 2014: Jon Worth wrote about choosing a business bank account with emphasis on the Eurozone.
- 12 August 2014: Aden Davies on the complications of banking over multiple channels (phone, online, in branch, etc).