Disabled bank customers slam ‘abysmal’ services

14th June 2023

More than half (52%) of disabled bank customers say that bank branch closures have had a negative impact on their ability to access vital banking services, amid widespread closures by high street firms, a Which? survey has found. 

The consumer champion surveyed over 2,700 bank customers with disabilities and found some face major obstacles when trying to manage their money – despite financial firms having a legal obligation under the Equality Act 2010 to remove barriers for them and ensure they are not excluded. 

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) also sets out guidelines for financial firms to follow when dealing with vulnerable customers, which means they should experience outcomes as good as other consumers. 

The consumer champion’s survey asked respondents to rank banks on five criteria – online banking, mobile banking, telephone banking, branch banking and communications preferences – with respondents’ likelihood to recommend and how satisfied they were with the service producing a Which? Customer Score.

First Direct came top of the consumer champion’s survey, with a Customer Score of 82 per cent. The firm scored a full five stars for its online banking services, yet most of the positive comments offered by respondents praised their telephone service. One customer who has ME that affects their vision said the ‘helpful and friendly’ telephone advisers are the ‘main reason’ they have stayed with First Direct. 

Nationwide scored highest for branch banking and was the only firm to receive four stars. The building society posted a Customer Score of 75% and also received five stars for its online banking. 

Halifax, Santander and Lloyds finished third, fourth and fifth in the rankings, respectively. Halifax scored a solid four stars for its online and mobile banking services, while Santander and Lloyds both posted impressive five-star ratings for online banking. Lloyds did, however, score a lowly two stars for its communications preferences – judged on how well they respect a customer’s preferred means of communication. 

However, other high street firms did not fare so well. Barclays and TSB finished bottom, with Customer Scores of 48% and 47% respectively. Their automated phone systems were singled out as particularly poor. 

One Barclays customer described the firm’s telephone service as ‘nothing short of abysmal’. Other survey respondents criticised the way TSB call handlers deal with Relay UK calls (a text-to-voice service for people with hearing and speech difficulties).

The survey results come as high street banks continue to close bank branches at rapid rates. Barclays recently became the first bank to pass 1,000 closures since the start of January 2015, while TSB has closed over 420 in the same period, only adding to concerns that disabled customers of those firms will be cut further adrift. 

As well as the negative impact of branch closures, one in 10 respondents also mentioned wheelchair access (13%) hearing loops (10%) and accessible debit card (12%) issues in the past 12 months. 

The survey also found that alternatives put in place to plug gaps left by physical branches closing are not always up to scratch. Over a third (35%) of respondents said they find it fairly or very difficult to speak to their bank over the phone, while more than one in five (21%) struggle with security features such as card readers or remembering passwords. 

New security checks for online card payments, known as strong customer authentication, have also proved problematic for just under two in five (39%) respondents. One in six (17%) respondents said this was down to running out of time, while one in seven (14%) said they were not able to receive security codes due to poor mobile signal. 

Concerningly, when the consumer champion approached banks, many admitted they have not tested the latest versions of their websites and apps with disabled people. They include AIB (UK), Danske Bank, Revolut, Starling, The Co-operative Bank and Virgin Money – although Starling said vulnerable consumer research is in progress.

The FCA’s new Consumer Duty, which will be introduced from the end of next month, will require firms to support staff to identify signs of vulnerability and set up systems that enable customers to disclose their needs if they choose. 

Which? believes that new rules must lead to better outcomes for disabled bank customers, and the regulator must be ready to take tough enforcement action against firms that do not comply. 

Sam Richardson, Deputy Editor of Which? Money, said “Bank branch closures can have significant impacts on local communities and in particular those living with disabilities, who are among the most likely people in society to rely on both cash and in-person banking services.”

“Which? believes that banks must consider the impact on disabled customers’ ability to access vital face-to-face banking services before they shut physical branches, as our research shows alternative services often aren’t up to scratch. With new Consumer Duty rules less than two months away, the regulator must not hesitate to take tough enforcement action against firms who fail to meet the required standards of customer care.”

Anna Roughley, Head of Insight at the Lending Standards Board said “Our own research evidences inclusive design before a product or service has even taken shape, is critical. The move to digital provides opportunities for customers, but for some, they simply aren’t suitable. For example, there is an increased push for customers to interact through mobile phone banking apps, yet disabled people have been found to have lower smartphone ownership than the non-disabled. Ensuring a diverse range of viewpoints are engaged in the design and sign-off process, is the only way to properly assess the risks and opportunities and ensure no one is left behind.”