A couple of days ago I was withdrawing money from an ATM in the San Blas neighborhood, in Alicante, when a man approached me. He told me that he was 89 years old and that his wife had sent him for the money for the week. It was the second time in his life that he faced the machine, sometimes useful, but many times also perverse, especially for our elders. We owe them everything, but unfairly and even miserably, it seems that we want to push them away because it seems that they get in the way and we already have too many. The man introduced himself as Luis, he must have seen me as anything but a robber and asked if I could lend him a hand. Of course, I told him. He took out a notebook with the intention of taking notes. I urged him to put it away, not to worry because it was simpler than it seemed. It’s not that I happen to be a digital genius, but I have enough to move around with ease in the bank ATM, unless I inadvertently hit the symbol and the instructions are put in German . Luis was nervous, he couldn’t read the digital messages and press the key to enter his password at the same time, and between his lack of skill (second visit to the ATM in his life, don’t forget it) and, why hide it, certain nerves of mine , we ended up getting the money, yes, but not without first having activated even the system for the care of blind people.
“Don’t worry, next time I’m sure everything will be better.” And so I left this client of the bank branch, mine, on his way home via Pintor Gisbert with the money in his pocket and even with a printed account statement to show it to his wife, a little younger than him according to me. He said that he wanted to see what they had left until they received their pension. I felt comfortable, but also touched. How many thousands of older people can be in Spain and, of course, in the province of Alicante paying the plates of the bank sangria?
According to the complaint of a doctor, urologist, retired, from Valencia, at least 350,000 Spaniards. Those are the signatures that have been collected to urge the Government to force banks (the savings bank where I opened my first account no longer exists) to humanize dealings with customers and that they are not the ones who pay for the replacement of banking employees by robots or electronic voices that make us feel forgotten, despised and even a little ashamed. Above all, our grandparents for not knowing how to make a transfer on the computer or navigate with ease through those applications invented to prevent us from setting foot in the offices, unless we have an astronomical row of zeros in our checking account.
There was a time when the priest, the head of the Civil Guard post, the doctor and the director of the bank branch were the living forces, along with the mayor, of any town in Spain and in Alicante we were no exception. Today, the race to save costs and the advancement of new and sometimes cruel technologies has been killing almost everything. The bank branches, those that used to be on any corner and where they helped us with our paperwork, are gradually becoming more inaccessible with the excuse of making an appointment and many are closing being relieved by greengrocers. Branches in which in recent times the employees have to be more dedicated in the sale of insurance or television than in customer service due to pressure from above, and even confronted with the customers themselves who seem to be left over.
In many banks, it has gone from counting the money from Mrs. Margarita’s pension to deposit it later in the account (I have lived it, they have not told me) to that Margarita, simply, becomes a kind of sick person with the right to deal solely and exclusively with the ATM, because the further away it is from the branch, the better. Well, no, that should not be the path that the narrowing of the banking sector takes us, and the first to recognize it are the employees who are at the cash desk and are also greatly affected by the system.
More than 4,000 Spanish municipalities do not have a bank branch. The progressive cutback of the network, together with the commitment to online banking, have left a good part of the so-called Spain emptied, and not emptied, without a branch to go to in order to manage their finances in person. According to data from the Bank of Spain, of the 8,131 municipalities in Spain, 4,443 did not have an office at the end of last year, 54%.
This was seen to come, of course, but the covid pandemic has accelerated the cuts that financial institutions have been applying to their networks uninterruptedly since the previous economic crisis broke out in 2008, the year after which even money ceased to have value. The progress of digitization, but, above all, the need to adjust costs after years of interest rates at historical lows have led the entire sector to rethink its customer service strategy, since it is increasingly necessary to walk further to find an open branch, in which, in addition, almost always, an appointment is needed to be attended. Online appointment, of course, which increases the degree of complication for the same as always.
Between September 2020 and the same month of 2021, and also at the beginning of 2022, not a day goes by that a bank does not close in Alicante. In the last quarter of last year, financial institutions closed 88 branches in the province according to the Bank of Spain, which represents the highest rate of closures since 2013. By that date, only 692 branches of the 1,770 that came to exist in the province were already operational. 2008, the year of maximum expansion of the network, for which 61% of them have already disappeared. But the reality is even worse, since to these figures we must add the closures after the last ERE. Be that as it may, the data for September 2021 already represented the lowest number of branches opened in Alicante since March 1977, 44 years ago. And the more it will go down.
The Spanish Banking Association recalls that the cutback of physical offices is a global phenomenon, which is linked to changes in consumer habits and the advance of digitization, which the difficulties caused by the pandemic have accelerated. The banks assure that the adjustments are necessary so that the entities can continue providing services to families and companies. In other words, to guarantee its viability and competitiveness. I buy it, but it also entails neglecting customer service or the government’s duty to guarantee accessibility to an essential service in a similar way to forcing hotels and restaurants to have accessible facilities for functional diversity. I tell you my case. Since I opened my notebook, the two banks where I kept my money, collected my payroll and paid the mortgage have already disappeared. For a few months I have a new bank and a new application on my mobile. I refuse to be an expert Telecommunications engineer to make a Bizum, because changes are not always for the better. My father, may he rest in peace, would have it raw. And like him, the thousands of elderly people from Alicante who are disconcerted by the new situation. All artificial intelligence, but kindness and respect are above. Vice President Nadia Calviño has angered the banks and the Ombudsman, Ángel Gabilondo, has asked for measures. Let’s hope for a positive reaction from those who decide the strategies.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.