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Ghosts In The Machine


The neutron bomb was a designed to kill humans but leave buildings standing. Lynn Hawthorne wonders whether the banks have got hold of this secret weapon.

My bank has just had a make-over. There is definitely a ‘wow!' factor when you walk in now: laminate floors, strong corporate colours creating image and identity, lots of space…but where are the people?

The counter used to be at the forefront of operations, with staff that you knew by name and who knew you by name. Now, the counter is tucked away around a corner at the back and even further away are the booths for private consultations.

During the first week of opening after the facelift, the bank floor was littered with ‘happy to help you' greeters who steered you towards the two flanks of machines on either side of the room. They showed you how to pay bills, get balances, check statements and pay in cash and cheques. They actively discouraged you from approaching the counter where the people were.

By the second week, these greeters had gone and customers had to fend for themselves. Some, particularly the older or business client, drifted back to the counter. I joined them and was tutted at. I explained that I was conducting a number of different transactions and didn't want to queue at several machines. Another tut. I also explained that I was paying something on behalf of a very elderly person, one who would not trust a machine. “But you get a better receipt out of a machine,” the teller muttered.

Sorry to disappoint him, but that bill, to the tune of £1300, got lost in the system between the bank and the council, incurring a debting letter. The fact that my copy of the bill carried the bank's stamp and the initials of their employee was enough to convince the council to look harder and they found the money, much to my relief. Would a printed receipt from a machine be so convincing?

In pondering the sweeping changes to my bank and this desperate drive to automate as many processes as possible, I began to wonder where human contact comes into this. You can bank online or by machine; you can pay utility bills by push button ‘phone; you can pay for petrol without leaving the pump; you can even do-it-yourself in the supermarket by scanning goods and running your credit card through a machine.

All of these transactions can take place without having to deal with a human being at all. Is it only me who is concerned about this? I'm no Luddite, but I do think technology is sometimes used for the sake of it. Chatting to people in shops or in queues can be a pleasure and I've made some very good friends that way by being a ‘regular' in their shops. For elderly people, these might be the only people they see for days. Verbal communication is the way that communities bond and develop and make up an important element in the fabric of society. We should fight to keep it.

So next time you're in your bank and you get steered towards a machine, refuse and head for the person behind the counter. After all, someone knowing whom you are is surely the biggest security procedure you can have?

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