Sunday, October 31, 2010

NatWest Bank - to Bank or not to Bank?

I am going to share the experience we had with NatWest Bank (National Westminister Bank). On the one hand, it all sounds insanely hilarious but on the other hand, it is turning out to be an extremely frustrating nightmare. Most of us back home, especially those who follow cricket remember the Bank as the grand sponsorer of the NatWest series.

But there’s more to it than what meets the eye. In short, it is ......

London School of Economics (LSE) is located right in the heart of London and even the location is extremely strategic, the LSE cannot afford to have the kind of sprawling campus most of the other equally reputed Universities can boast off elsewhere in UK & USA. A number of buildings located in close proximity makes up for what LSE is, located equidistant between the tube station at Holborn and the bus station at Aldwych. And I must say that LSE has made the most of the available space and is in no way less than any other campuses. In short, space has not been a constraint for LSE in attaining the new intellectual heights. And we get the advantage of being in Central London.
LSE, in one of its locations (next to Peacock Theatre) has provided a very strategic office space to NatWest Bank so that banking for students can be easy within the campus. Since we are here on Chevening Gurukul Scholarship of Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), UK, we have to necessarily open our Bank account in NatWest Bank branch located within the LSE campus. And the story starts from here.
We arrived in London on September 25th evening and 26th being Sunday, we had our welcome introductory session on Monday, September the 27th. While are here on fully funded scholarship, we had not been paid anything till we started from India and most of us (there are a total of 12 of us here from India under the Chevening Gurukul Scholarship) and were rather anxious to receive part of the scholarship as soon as possible so that we could get in the business quickly. We were informed and rightly so that we will have to have a Bank account with NatWest branch and that our scholarship amount will be deposited in our Bank account. As the first impulse thus, we wanted to open our account at the earliest but we were informed that any new account has to be opened with the prior appointment with the Bank and that’s when our appreciation of customer retail banking in UK started. Let me describe some of the management and life qualities we are made to imbibe by the Bank in the process:
It’s not like India that one goes to the Bank assuming it would be eager to open your account at the earliest. While we live in the era of privatized retail banking where the competition and the instinct to survive and excel drives these Banks to outsmart each other in attracting new customers and build business, things turned out totally different here. It’s not as if one goes unannounced, fills up the form and gets to open his/her account the same day, as is being done in most of the Indian Banks nowadays, of course by producing all necessary documents as required to prove one’s identity and credentials. I
It’s all done here in the following steps:
1. Firstly, it is mandatory that a student has to open as account with NatWest Bank which is located in LSE campus only. While the students obviously can have other Bank accounts, the dealings with LSE such as fee payment, account settlements, scholarships (for those applicable) etc will be done through NatWest branch only.
2. the account can be opened with prior appointment only -In NatWest Bank, in the first meeting, one has to go in personally, stand in the queue and meets the Bank employee when his/her turn comes and takes an appointment when he/she can come with all necessary documents which could enable them open the account. And believe it or not, the minimum waiting period is about a fortnight! Which effectively means that new students coming from all over the world have no option but to wait without any Bank account for first 15 days of their landing here. Nobody carries cash these days and one looks to have a credit/debit/ATM card as soon as possible. Plus, most of their parents would have wired the money transfer or would be waiting to do so but then all this has to wait for this period. When I went, I could see the look of horror and complete shock on the faces of these new students. Poor thing. As it is, they are bit intimidated with what LSE is and being in London and the thought of being without money initially when they have to buy books, stationary, hostel essentials and so on. We were a bit lucky since we are under Chevening Gurukul programme, an appointment was arranged for all 12 of us as a group so that we could cross this first hurdle of waiting period of 14 days!
3. The process of opening an account – LSE has a total strength of about 9000 students and at any given point of time, there are atleast 4000 students. The fresh students every year is about 2500-3000. And all of them have to open an account in the Bank. Since the semester was opening in September/October, there were atleast 200-300 students everyday in the Bank as per the appointment given to them. If the students feel that they would go at the appointed time and the account is opened, they were in for further shock. There are only three regular counter which cater not only opening of new accounts but also issue of cards and other Banking functions. So, NatWest Bank, in order to cater the peak demand has put two additional staff for opening of new account. Which means a total of 5 counters for 300 students! (effectively, it is three as the other 2 counters are catering to other functions at any given time) implying 100 students per counter and the working duration of 6 hours! It meant dealing with 15 students per hour and given the leisurely manner these guys function, two things happened – firstly, none of the students were attended on time and a minimum waiting time was at least 40minutes to an hour from the appointed time and that too on the condition that one was present on the appointed time. If for some reason, one came late but at a time when his predecessors were still waiting, he would have to take a new date as he has come late!
Secondly, the manner in which the queue moves is even more interesting. There are about 8 chairs. The student coming last will sit on the 8th chair and will shift to 7th chair as the student waiting on the 1st chair is called by any of the 3 counters. The student waiting on 7th chair moves to 6th chair as the next student is called at the counter and so on. The closest thing I can recall something similar is when as a student in 1985 I had been to New Delhi Railway Station’s newly opened computerized reservation counters in Pahargunj when I moved chair by chair to reach the ticket counter!
4. Waiting period of a week before account is operational – the story doesn’t end here. After waiting for a fortnight and having gone through the process of filling up online application form at the counter duly performing the musical chair (am sure you too are wondering why the form, if its online, can’t be filled online?), the student is informed that it will take 5 working days before the account becomes operational and the Debit/ATM card is handed over to the Student. That makes it three weeks from the time one had been successful in getting the appointment.
5. Obtaining the Debit Card and the story of PIN – and so one waits actually counting 5 working days and goes anxiously to the Bank on day 6 to get the Debit Card, all set to settle the pending accounts and go on the festive discounted sale shopping spree. One again is made to exercise on those 8 chairs before being called at the counter. The student ID issued by LSE is not a good enough proof to establish who you are and one has to carry the passport as a precondition to obtain the Debit card. Obviously, the student is mighty pleased once he gets the Debit card finally in his hand. But hold on! The joy is momentary. The student is informed that in order to operate the Debit Card, a PIN is required which will take another 5 working days! And that makes it 5 weeks since the process of opening the Bank account commenced! The student is on the threshold of his patience, as one can make out from the colors and contours of his face ( and I swear, most of them could actually break out in the choicest of abuses in the native language given a chance which they seem to be doing silently in a prayer form sitting there!). However, the Bank executive breaks the pleasant news that online booking such as booking airline tickets (time to leave LSE and go back you natives!) etc ! Well, I used this excellent facility even in the absence of my PIN in my 5th week by booking a ticket to Bristol University and it actually worked.
6. PIN arrival and whether PIN works – and so, at the end of 5th week, the student goes with bated breath to obtain the PIN hoping this might be finally the last hurdle. But wait man, what’s the hurry. In 5 out of 12 cases of ours, wrong PIN was issued. For instance, Sunil Prabhu was given a PIN of Ms S Prabhu …small clerical error shall we say! And guess what, except for one (the lucky mascot of the batch), the PIN issued didn’t work for the rest 11 of us (87% failure!) . I was worried as the ATM machine where I tried operating issued a statement asking me to contact the Bank again. And I was told when contacted that they have send a request to the head office again and it will take about another 4-5 working days and this time, they will send the PIN by post to our Home address. By now, I had given up any hope of availing festival discounts and have learnt to live frugally on the very limited cash I was carrying from India.
7. The PIN finally arrived by post 3 days back and I am finally able to operate my Debit/ATM card. The interesting thing is that the revised PIN is same as the original PIN which was issued a week before. Isn’t this really ingenious? Nobody would imagine and guess and it makes things so easy for the Bank in the process. It took almost 6 weeks before we could open our account and use the Debit/ATM card of the NatWest Bank.
8. I would also like to mention another innovative feature, NatWest has. I had a visa interview to obtain Schengen visa yesterday and needed the Account Statement from the Bank as one of the documents. NatWest Bank refused to issue my account statement to me saying that I have to do it online myself (at a time when it took 5 weeks to open my account and nobody informed us about the online facilities)! Thankfully, the Visa officer didn’t ask for the Bank statement otherwise my Schengen visa also would have got stuck.
9. And yes, I almost forgot. The Bank charges a user fee of 7 UK Pounds per month for the service it extends to us. It means I have to pay 7 Pounds for the first 4 weeks when I was struggling to open my account. Amazing!

My experience with NatWest Bank has been a discovery in its commitment to teach students the values of (i) patience, (ii) ‘never be in a hurry- things will happen’ principle; (iii) importance of ‘savings and thrift’ so what if its imposed; (iv) ‘never trust anybody’ principle – otherwise why shouldn’t the PIN work in the first go or why the Bank insists on a passport only as your identity proof and not the ID card issued by LSE which incidentally has your picture also; (v) importance of ‘physical exercising and being fit’ – remember the musical chair everytime we go there; (vi) importance of ‘camaraderie’ – the 12 of us depended on each other during our difficult times of first 5 weeks and used to lend money to each other, however little, during crises. It has brought all of us very close and the friendship is cemented lifelong thanks to NatWest Bank. We couldn’t have become so close otherwise.
So guys, close your eyes and think about NatWest Bank and the excruciating 5 weeks involved before you decide to open a new account in UK. We in India have a habit of being absolutely intolerable and criticizing everything remotely Indian. But this experience has taught the importance and efficiency of Indian Banking and how far ahead they are in terms of their customer care. Well, NatWest Bank or the branch we dealt with in particular may not be the representative of all Banks in UK but that’s unfortunately the experience we have.
Having gone through the experience we had, it is extremely hilarious to go through the customer charter of NatWest Bank. I think they realize what’s happening and wish to achieve what they aren’t. It’s like a MDG goal of halfing poverty by 2010 or eliminating gender discrimination or achieving 100% literacy etc.


  1. This is Hilarious, Mr. Arvind, but truly a very elaborate account of your exposure to the banking in UK.

  2. Yep, I used to work for Natwest and yes that is exactly what they're like....good luck with the rest of your time there!