Customers of Irish banks have had to endure waits of up to two hours for telephone support with as many as 50 per cent of one bank's customers simply giving up and ending calls before being able to speak to a human being, according to a review published by the Central Bank on Friday.
While the regulator’s review did not identify the worst offenders when it comes to customer care, it said it would be applying pressure on all the banks over the course of 2022 to ensure that they upped their game ahead of an anticipated surge in need for supports as two major banks prepare to leave the market.
The Central Bank assessed call wait times, call abandonment rates and resourcing levels across the retail banks and painted a dismal picture of the level of customer care on offer.
It found average call wait times on some customer support phone lines “were excessive” with the longest call wait times in some of the retail banks described as “unacceptably high, with customers waiting over two hours in some cases”.
It also found that the number of customers simply hanging up before they could make contact with the bank was high, with one bank recording an abandonment rate of more than 50 per cent.
“We have engaged directly with the retail banks to implement robust action plans to ensure the level of customer service provided on support phone lines is sufficient to manage both normal call volumes and to deal with surge events,” the Central Bank said in a statement.
The banks have also provided details of measures they are taking to address the issues highlighted by its review, including increased capacity and staffing levels, and the Central Bank said it would “expect firms to report to it on the implementation of these measures over the course of the year”.
The review of the level of telephone support offered by retail banks was completed in anticipation of an increase in customer engagement levels following the decision by KBC Bank Ireland and Ulster Bank to withdraw from the market. It is expected that demand for customer services will increase over the coming months, as significant numbers of customers will have to switch banking services.
"Given the importance of banking to our day-to-day lives, when we pick up the phone to a bank we need to get a prompt response and a good service," said the Central Bank's director of consumer protection, Colm Kincaid.
“From our own review and the clear concerns expressed on social and other media, it is clear that banks need to improve their performance in this area, so we have intervened to require this improvement to take place.
“It is the responsibility of banks to ensure that they have sufficient resources in place to help consumers navigate this significant change in our banking market, including meeting demand from both existing and new customers.”
He said the Central Bank’s primary concern now was not the performance of the banks in the past but in the future.
Mr Kincaid went on to say that with a huge volume of interactions expected between KBC and Ulster Bank customers looking to find new banks, the Central Bank was “requiring the banks to take actions now”.
And he called on customers of both those banks to be proactive and make the switch earlier rather than later to avoid potential logjams.
Brian Hayes of the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland blamed the pandemic at least in part for the lengthy wait times faced by bank customers. “Like all companies in all sectors, the pandemic did have an impact on staff and services,” he said.
“Banks experienced absences of up to 25 per cent on certain days, reallocating staff to customer-facing teams and branches to minimise disruption.”
He said the expected surge in customers calling the banks because of the exit of both Ulster Bank and KBC from the Irish market would be an “unprecedented event in the history of Irish banking” and would “require the participation and support of multiple stakeholders across the economy, including the banking industry, regulatory authorities, utility companies, Government departments and agencies, and employers working together”.