Of late, I have been quite fascinated by a TV commercial where a naive guy asks for directions to the nearest ATM and a group of amused youngsters ask him why he doesn’t use his cell phone – obviously a smarter option and even the kids know it. At first go, however, I couldn’t figure out who might be running the ad – the bank, the mobile company or a 3G service provider. And it hardly tells you what the poor fellow should do, in case he is hard up for some hard cash. No cell phone can deliver that yet (I mean the currency notes), right into your wallet.
Not that I have anything against m-banking or Internet banking, for that matter. These are extremely convenient tech tools that save me from travelling, traffic and paperwork. Of course there were times when local or international money transfers via Net banking failed to track the account and went back to the sender’s – causing a lot of hard feelings between the concerned parties. But I would rather take a philosophical view of the same. If we enjoy the benefits of technology, we must be prepared to face the downside as well, that’s how I console myself.
I was in a brown study regarding the banking evolution when my eight-year-old niece, on a vacation to India, rudely shattered my stream of consciousness by pointing out that India now offers drive-through banking as well (just like the fast-food giant McDonald’s does via its drive-in delivery), but that would hardly benefit me as I lack co-ordination and consequently, can’t drive.
Ouch… the truth hurts…
The fact is, I came of banking age in an era when automated teller machines were mostly regarded as tech wonders (in the 90s, our part of North Calcutta had less than five) and banking was anything but a matter of convenience. I still remember the grim expressions writ large on the faces of friends, family and total strangers as they entered the cold, half-lit rooms strewn with papers in order to deal with the human interface – secured by steel bars and apparently extremely busy at the other side of those intimidating counters.
For some unknown reason, banks those days almost always resembled war offices (I realised that when I went to watch Schindler’s List) – the same kind of raw lighting, dusty desks and toppling files – manned by portly figures who disdained to communicate with the lesser humans, standing in long queues or anxiously hovering around those counters. There was a look of intense concentration on all faces (like the one you may found on NASA scientists, about to start a spaceship countdown) as customers intending to withdraw cash handed over their cheques, eagerly snatched at the wooden tokens handed over (i.e., if all was well with the cheque that would have to undergo an intense scrutiny closely resembling a genome analysis) and did their best to hear those numbers being called out. There was always a steady humming that could have drowned any announcement, but once you missed your turn, you could be made to wait for an indefinite period. Depositing cash, especially a large amount, was equally painful as counting was done manually while those sad souls standing behind you silently cursed you from the bottom of their hearts.
Well, that’s the regular thingy. At times, one would be compelled to undergo more intricate tasks (for instance, opening or closing an account). And I shudder to think of the time and efforts it took to get those things done.
For a generation who started banking in that manner at the age of 18, the ATMs and the plastic came as TOTAL liberation – liberation from the gruelling hours (in those days banks would not open before 10 in the morning, would not operate past 2 pm and evening banks were as rare as albino tigers in Indian jungles) and time-consuming human interference. It also gave me enough time and privacy to conduct banking on my own and at my convenience. In fact, Gen Y today rarely has face-to-face contact with a living, breathing banking species. Moreover, if anyone actually longs to meet real people, over the counter or on the phone, to clarify issues or find human solutions to impossible financial snafus, one may have to pay service charges and additional fees. I, therefore, have been quite convinced that from now on, it will always be self-banking via networks, ATMs and other tech tools, and nothing short of a banking fraud or payment default can bring me face to face with a human banker again.
I was obviously wrong. Now that we are truly on our own, people are crying foul and once again seeking human assistance. And they seem to have sound logic on their side. My colleagues often complain that most ATMs in India are one-way tickets – you can only get the money out but can’t deposit it. Of course, a few of them instruct you about how to put your money in envelops and put it in. But people here can’t trust machines so implicitly and actually lose their sleep, wondering again and again whether the money is safe. As for high-value cheques, no one trusts the drop boxes, not even the banks. I have come across warnings aplenty that tell me not to deposit anything over Rs 20,000 (around $500). So, what’s the solution this time?
Once again, it’s elementary and seems to be a copycat of what started in the west nearly 70 years ago. Simply put, it’s a drive-through facility now where services are faster, well, as fast as you find them in petrol pumps and drive-in McDonald’s; hours are comfortable; and you get all the human assistance you want, without even getting off your car. Inspired by the concept widely followed in the USA, the Rajkot Nagarik Sahakari Bank Ltd (RNSBL) has introduced two drive-through facilities in Rajkot and Surat and the authorities feel that it’s a roaring success. In fact, the bank intends to offer similar facilities across the state of Gujarat in the near future.
The service was first introduced at the bank’s demat facility branch in Rajkot where more than 35,000 demat account holders leverage its advantages. Later, RNSBL introduced it in Surat for cash and cheque transactions as well. In Surat, any one can make cash transactions up to Rs 1 lakh through drive-in banking.
For many, that may be the ultimate in banking comfort and an automotive dream come true. Multi-laned, well-covered and well-lit drive-up teller windows, along with expanded hours and friendly assistance, undoubtedly represent the right kind of ‘personal touch’ and ‘convenience’ in techno-age banking. Unless, of course, banks are compelled to close those facilities due to traffic woes. This was precisely what happened in downtown Zurich and in 1983, Credit Suisse, then known as Schweizerische Kreditanstalt (SKA), had to close Switzerland’s first-ever drive-through bank that took off in 1962. The futuristic-looking underground bank featured eight saw-blade-shaped glass pavilions, seven of which were for left-hand-drive cars, and the remaining one was for right-hand-drive automobiles.
Incidentally, the first drive-through bank was opened in Dallas, Texas, in 1938. This new marketing channel came from the Hillcrest State Bank, an institution whose name has long been associated with the history of banking in the USA. But some experts claim that the Exchange National Bank of Chicago had first introduced the concept in 1946. However, unlike Switzerland, the concept has found enough takers and most major banks continue to offer drive-through facilities nationwide.
And that maybe the case with India as well. After all, new roads are being built every day; car consumption is picking up like never before and people look forward to premium banking and value-added services. What’s more, if McDonald’s can re-purpose tech to gel ‘burgering’ with banking (it has joined hands with British Telecom to set up Wireless Fidelity Access Zones in some 500 UK outlets where you can access the full range of Internet banking services while enjoying your meal), Indian banks may soon offer drive-in to ATMs and actual counters, with a Cocoberry outlet on the sideline to keep my cool while I struggle with late payments and bloated credit card debts.