Business

Pressure mounts on banks to resume full services post-COVID-19

STRESS

Many bank customers are experiencing difficult times as some bank branches remain shut

 

 

As normal economic activities across the country begin following Federal Government’s phased lifting of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic restrictions, there is growing pressure on banks to resume full services.

 

New Telegraph’s findings, especially in big cities such as Lagos and Abuja, show that banks’ continued closure of some branches as part of coronavirus restriction measures, has attracted the wrath of customers, who are bitterly complaining of having to spend hours waiting to gain entry into banking halls for somewhat minor issues like replacing an expired debit card or reporting a failed electronic payment transaction.

 

In the wake of the spread of the virus to these parts in late February, the banks began to announce measures to protect staff and customers. Specifically, citing the need to adopt safety measures, particularly the social distancing campaign, which medical experts say would help to prevent the spread of COVID-19, lenders sent emails to their customers, announcing the temporary closure of some of their branches and advised customers affected by such closures to use their e-payment channels.

 

For instance, an email that FCMB sent to its customers in March read in part: “In view of the increased spread of coronavirus and the need to encourage social distancing, we are modifying our operations in a few ways to ensure we can serve you better:

 

Suspension of Saturday Banking – we will no longer offer Saturday Banking at any of our branches until further notice; temporary closure of a few branches – in locations where we have multiple branches in close proximity, we will be temporarily closing a few of them.”

 

Stating that the changes took immediate effect, the Tier 2 lender reminded customers that its self-service channels were available 24/7. However, its over five months since May 4 when the Federal Government commenced the first phase of gradual lifting of the restrictions and despite the uptick in economic activities, occasioned by resumption of domestic (July 8) and international (September 5) flights, some banks are yet to resume full service.

 

New Telegraph gathered that while the need to ensure that they continue to comply with COVID-19 protocols, maintaining the two meter physical distancing, as well as avoiding mass gathering of not more than 20 people outside of a workplace, stipulated by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and other health authorities, may have a role to play in some lenders’ decision not to restore full services yet as some of them seem to have permanently shut down some of the branches they closed in March.

 

As Mr. Charles Okolo, a Lagos-based trader, who banks with a Tier I lender, pointed out in a chat with this newspaper, the bank’s branch closet to his residence at the Ago-Okota area of Isolo has remained shut since March, leaving him with no option, whenever he has a transaction to carry out, but to visit the lender’s other branch in the community, which, according to him, is always crowded.

 

He said: “In March when the bank announced that it had temporarily closed the branch that is closest to my house due to COVID, I was not that bothered because we all assumed that it would be reopened as soon as the restrictions were lifted.

 

But most of the restrictions have been lifted since July and there is no indication that the branch would be reopened.”

 

According to him, although he tried to stick to electronic payment transactions in order to avoid having any reason to visit the lender’s other branch because of the large number of customers that are always there, his debit card expired in September and he had to enter the banking hall to collect a new one. Narrating his experience, he said: “It took me two days before I succeeded.

 

On    the first day, it took me three hours before I was allowed in even though I arrived before 8.a.m. Then the most annoying thing was that the customer service staff said she could not attend to me because their network was down. I came back two days later and spent about three hours again before I entered the banking hall.”

 

He said that he discovered that a lotof thecustomers, whospendhours waiting in the tents set up by many of thebanksduringthispandemic, were either only trying to report failed epayment transactions or want to have their debit cards replaced. Several customers, who also spoke with New Telegraph on the issue, echoed Mr. Okolo’s sentiments.

 

They argued that banks that are yet to reopen all their branches are not helping the authorities’ campaign to discourage large gatherings in order to avoid the spread of the virus.

 

As one of the customers pointed out, “it is usually not easy for banks’ security personnel to compel customers to maintain physical distancing especially on Mondays and Fridays, when banking halls are crowded.”

 

 

Indeed, during one of its recent press briefings, the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 appealed to banks to reopen more of their branches to avoid overcrowding and the risk of further spread of the virus.

 

A top official of a Tier 2 bank, who didnotwanttonamed, confirmedthat some DMBs may have seized the opportunityprovidedbythecoronavirus lockdown measures to permanently close some branches and save costs. The official said: “Even before the pandemic, banks were already embarking on aggressive cost cutting measures to remain profitable amid the tough business environment.

 

So, having to close some branches due to covid will enable them to significantly cut, diesel, power, stationery and other costs.” The official also admitted that the Tier 2 lender was looking at ways of ensuring that customers who want to report failed e-payment transactions do not have to enter the banking hall.

 

“Many of the issues that bring manyof thecustomerstobankscould have been handled if such customers, for instance, use mobile banking applicationsandknowthe rightcodes.

 

Although, e-payment is growing rapidly in Nigeria, we are still not where we shouldbegivenourhugepopulation,” the official said.

 

According to data obtained from the Nigeria Interbank Settlement System (NIBSS), banks facilitated electronic payments valued at N10.89 trillion in January 2020, a 29 per cent increase in transactions as against N8.41trillion recorded in January 2019.

The data also shows that the volume of electronic payments rose to 160.18 million, recording 58 per cent increase from the 2019 figure, which was 101.38 million.

 

Interestingly, during one of the virtual events hosted by FirstBank of Nigeria Ltd, during the lockdown, the lender’s CEO, Dr. Adesola Adeduntan, had said: “COVID-19 is giving business leaders an opportunity to rethink on an established wisdom.

 

It is a major crisis that we need to deal with and we must change it from a bad to good crisis. It offers an opportunity to reinvent our business. We have to think without the box.”

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