Banks say SMEs get good service – not so say firms who feel abandoned

Picking up the phone to a familiar voice in your bank used to be standard - not anymore

“It’s a difficult road you have to travel with the bank; it just feels like they don’t support you very well, they are not interested” – so said one small-business owner who, after 10 years with the same bank, has had enough.

“They are not efficient [and] they are under-resourced a lot of the time as well. In our attempt to buy forward, we deal a lot in sterling. They would just drag their heels on it so long it cost us a load of money.”

Conversations over poor service in the banks are becoming commonplace among small and medium enterprises (SMEs). They’re increasingly frustrated trying to get satisfactory business care from banks and are no longer buying into glossy advertisements portraying excellent support.

Caroline Williams, of management consultancy CFO Lean, deals with Irish financial institutions on behalf of clients and has noticed a difference in the client care she receives in comparison to the UK,

“I have found that dealing with the banks in Ireland can be quite a different experience to dealing with the banks in the UK,” she says. “It’s not been unusual to have as many as four changes of manager in less than three years. These changes, more often than not, can happen without any prior communication to us the client.

“In one instance, I became aware that the current manager had moved on by virtue of his social media updates. In that situation, I would have expected the bank to make contact long before the outgoing manager actually left and to handle the situation with the degree of professionalism you would expect to be shown in any commercial client/supplier relationship.”


“Apart from the need to better communicate, the banks should surely understand that when a new manager gets involved, without a handover and without the knowledge of what’s gone before, clients end up spending a lot of unnecessary time building a whole new relationship.

“All of the goodwill built up previously can get lost, especially where you end up with an incoming account manager who has little or no specific knowledge of your industry. This is counterintuitive to good business management and something the banks urgently need to address in a bid to assist rather than obstruct their client’s growth path.”

Tipperary business owner James O’Donoghue is equally frustrated and says he would consider using other lending outlets that might charge a half or even one percentage point more if it meant a consistent business client service. He has no designated business manager he can contact and finds the automated phone service increasingly wearing.

“It comes down basically to this. If I can pick up a phone and ring a person rather than a computerised automation system and have a chat with them and tell them what I want, that’s easy for me to do. If they can’t supply that service, well I’m going to go to someone who can.”

In former times, the bank manager was the person who’d help fill out loan applications and suggest financial opportunities for your business. Now, with bank services becoming increasingly automated, that service is largely absent in the major banks.

Shopping around

It isn’t uncommon for small businesses to look elsewhere for a better service at a premium rate, according to the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME).

"What is fairly consistently coming across is that people don't perceive [they have] a good relationship with them [the banks] and this is an issue in particular with the pillar banks," says ISME chief executive Neil McDonnell, referring to AIB and Bank of Ireland.

“Small businesses are much more inclined to go to the smaller or the boutique or specialist credit providers who can turn around a decision and a loan much quicker. But the issue with that is it is coming at a premium to what is available to small businesses in other jurisdictions.”

If the general view in business is that the problem is common across all the major banks in Ireland, that’s very much at odds with the view from within those banks. For their part, lenders don’t agree there is a high turnover of staff in manager’s positions. And they maintain it is simple to get in touch with someone via phone or in branch.

“The bank doesn’t experience a high turnover of branch managers; however the way in which our customers are interacting with branches is changing,” Bank of Ireland said in a statement.

“Our combination of digital channels, phone channels and local presence means we can be more responsive and flexible to meet our customer needs.

“Customers can apply for a range of products online or by getting in touch with experts in our contact centres. For our SME customers, their business lending needs can be met by picking up the phone or, if customers prefer to meet someone face-to-face, we can arrange to travel to them or meet them in their local branch.”

AIB’s response was a report delivered to the Oireachtas committee last November where it says the bank is reorganising its banking model to work closer with our customers – retail, business and corporate.

“The new structure provides customers with a one-stop-shop form of service and brings more local autonomy when it comes to decision-making, including lending. It is designed to be more tailored to each customer’s needs; it will allow far more agility of service; it will enable us to move working capital faster and more efficiently.

“We are aware that we must maintain the right balance between providing our customers with trusted personal, one-to-one service and an accessible and reliable digital or mobile service.”

It is certainly a matter of perception. Banks argue that customers are changing the way they work with their banks, moving increasingly online; customers say they have little choice as branch closures and reduced staffing in pursuit of lower costs mean they are effectively forced online.

The longer-term concern for both banks and SMEs is that while financial institutions feel they are on top of their customers’ needs, the view on the ground suggest otherwise.