JEFF PRESTRIDGE: Robots, it appears, have taken over the NatWest asylum

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May the force be with you: NatWest is the banking equivalent of R2-D2 on steroids


JEFF PRESTRIDGE: Robots, it appears, have taken over the NatWest asylum – it’s the banking equivalent of R2-D2 on steroids

Royal Bank of Scotland – owner of NatWest – may have won some plaudits in recent days for leading the dribble of bank lending to small businesses under the Government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme. 

But let’s not get too carried away with all the praise. After all, this is a bank that based on all the evidence I see is becoming increasingly impersonal, much to the frustration of some customers. Robots, it appears, have taken over the NatWest asylum. 

Helpful staff employed in the ever-shrinking branch network are being rapidly replaced by automated ‘contact’ – usually in the form of texts. 

May the force be with you: NatWest is the banking equivalent of R2-D2 on steroids

This is fine in theory – it’s the way all personal banking is going – but not if the robots do not know their left hands from their right. NatWest is no Starling Bank or First Direct, that’s for sure – banks that pride themselves on mobile or online banking par excellence. It’s more the banking equivalent of R2-D2 on steroids. 

Carole Landau, from North London, has recently been subjected to NatWest’s insensitive robots – and the experience has left her angry, frustrated and occasionally in tears. 

Carole’s banking troubles began in the wake of the death of her husband Lawrence in mid-February. Lawrence, a former managing director of a shipping insurance firm and honorary counsel in the UK for the West African country of Benin, died aged 90 from multiple organ failure. 

Having a joint NatWest bank account with Lawrence, the 81-year-old has experienced nothing but problems since his death in sorting out the account. She has repeatedly been locked out of it – without rhyme or reason – and left on the phone for hours trying to get through to customer services to unfreeze it and make urgent payments. 

Bizarrely, she’s also been asked by the robots via text for details of her change of address – que? Note to NatWest: ‘Carole has no desire whatsoever to move home.’ 

To rub salt into open wounds, she’s received two new credit cards with spending limits generous enough to put down a deposit on a new home if she were so inclined (note to NatWest: ‘Carole has no desire to move home’). A new debit card – a greater priority than a credit card – has yet to arrive although she’s banking on receiving at least two.   

‘It’s been a nightmare from beginning to end,’ said Carole, although given NatWest’s behaviour to date, ‘end’ is probably not the right word. In NatWest’s defence, it has investigated Carole’s complaint – after intervention from The Mail on Sunday – and sent her a hamper by way of an apology. It has accepted that Carole ‘wasted’ too much time in trying to contact it – and has also agreed to look at whether its condolence letter sent to all bereaved customers could be made more ‘sympathetic and understandable’. 

As for the texts about changes of address, it said these were explained in the letter – and ‘part of our process’. Separately, it told me that Carole’s payments had been blocked because of ‘unusual’ account activity. 

Of course, Carole will not change banks because at her time of life it’s a question of ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’. But she deserves so much better from robot NatWest. Bring back the personal.

One final observation on NatWest. In recent months, I have received a steady trickle of correspondence from customers who out of the blue have been told their NatWest account is being closed – together with any savings accounts. No explanation for the closures is given. 

At the drop of a hat – or the command of a NatWest robot – they are left bankless. Financially excluded. The latest victim of such account closures tells me that without the support of his mother, he would have been left without access to money at a time of national crisis. 

Despite sending the bank his payslips as proof of where his income comes from – and spending hours on the phone waiting for someone to talk to – he is none the wiser as to whether he will soon be ex-communicated. 

Whenever I approach NatWest about these closures it refuses to comment – presumably because it believes money is being laundered. Maybe, maybe. But I’m not convinced. The robots have taken over the asylum. 

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