Customer service and an excellent branch experience are what set Metro Bank apart, unfortunately its mobile offering left us wanting more.
Two weeks ago I joined Britain’s newest bank. Apparently it’s the UK’s first new bank for 150 years, or so they claim.
No, it’s not a mobile bank like Mondo or even a branchless bank like First Direct. Metro Bank is a high street bank.
It might seem weird to be building a high street bank in 2015, but that’s exactly what Metro Bank has been doing since it arrived on UK shores just five years ago. The bank now counts 36 high street branches, mainly dotted around London.
But that’s really where the similarities between Metro Bank and the other high street titans like Natwest or Halifax end.
Metro Bank’s slogan is “Love your bank at last”. Love is a high bar, but this is what I loved, and didn’t love, about my new bank.
I walked into Metro Bank, Cheapside in London on a Friday and was immediately greeted by an young employee, Sam Hamlett, who was at a guess maybe 20 years old.
In fact, the first thing I noticed about Metro Bank, is that its employees are the complete opposite of regular bank staff.
Forget the middle aged, weary tellers you’ve grown to expect. I didn’t spot a single employee at Metro Bank who wasn’t still in their 20s (including Hamlett, who turned out to be this branch’s deputy manager).
The staff are also super-keen and Metro Bank-crazy, in an Apple Store kind of way.
For a while I thought there might be some sort of Metro Bank cult that I was unaware of, but no, apparently they just have staff who are incredibly enthused about the value of their fixed-rate cash ISAs and overdraft facilities.
With this in mind, Metro Banks gains two ticks for its helpful and genuinely thoughtful, enthusiastic staff.
Now the not so good.
The bank is decidedly modern, Americanised (“our branches are branded with blue, red and white, to symbolise the US flag”) and certainly not to everyone’s taste.
Branches are also laid out differently to other banks. The tellers at the counters aren’t behind a wall of glass using microphones to talk to you, they’re literally just standing behind a hotel reception-esque bar, which is really nice.
But most of the business of banking, like the opening of a new accounts, is done at one of a dozen large desks dotted around the large spacious lobby (again decked with blue, red and white branding) which feels a little lacking in privacy when discussing things like your salary or overheads.
Ignoring its garish decor and odd layout, the Metro Bank branch was also proudly part of the capital.
Hanging above the desk while I signed up was a huge stunning colourised Francis Frith photograph of Cheapside and Mansion House from 1915.
You might dismiss this as a corporate ruse to inspire the idea that Metro Bank is proudly London (maybe I fell for it?), but I felt like I was sitting in an art gallery instead of a bank, and there’s no other public bank in the square mile that feels quite like that.
Full disclosure, I never intended to switch to Metro Bank. Instead I was lured in by a simple feature of their current account, free transactions in Europe.
That means that with the account you can withdraw cash or pay by card anywhere in Europe without being charged a fee.
Now you might say: “well my bank has a no-fee policy on debit/credit card transactions abroad”. While that may be true, often the exchange rate on these transactions isn’t great.
Metro Bank is the only bank that uses MasterCard’s market conversion rate, a better rate than any currency exchange bureau in the country and the rate that banks themselves trade at.
But to get back to service, as a bog standard bank Metro Bank is pretty good.
It took about half an hour to open an account (not the 1o minutes advertised), but I left the branch with a contactless debit card and mobile banking app both set up and ready to go.
Since then I’ve made payments in stores and online without any issues.
Another Metro Bank feature to point out is its ‘Magic Money Machine’.
While some HSBC branches have coin counting machines that allow you to add loose change to your account, Metro Bank has a Magic Money Machine in every branch for both account holders and non-account holders alike.
These can not only be used to pay in change, but to turn coins into notes (non-account holders are limited to £100 though).
I’ve used this a few times and while it’s not very user-friendly (the interface is totally non-intuitive), a staff member has always been there to basically do all the work for me.
On the negative end of the spectrum, Metro Bank is clearly a pre-mobile bank.
It’s disappointing that a bank founded in 2010 didn’t foresee what a force to be reckoned with mobile has become. Metro Bank now finds itself building a new ‘traditional’ bank in a world that’s rapidly moving beyond traditional banks.
This shortsightedness can be seen most clearly with Metro’s mobile app.
Forget smart data features that analyse your regular bills and point out spending patterns. There’s no helpful app that will detect if you travel abroad and not block your card (all of these are features of Mondo’s upcoming mobile bank).
The Metro Bank app is spartan, with only basic features like viewing your account and making payments.
Although more updates are due “later in 2015”, it doesn’t yet support PayM (the ability to send payments to a mobile number associated with a bank account), and new payees cannot be added from the mobile app, a feature of Lloyds, Halifax and Bank of Scotland (see our 2015 Great British Mobile Banking Review).
In 12 months time there will be native mobile banks that combine high-tech mobile apps that, with data analysis, promise to change the way we manage our money. At present Metro Bank looks like it won’t be ready to take advantage of these developments, because of its focus on high street branches.
Joining and trying out Metro Bank was a pleasure. The staff, branch experience and perks (no-fee travel money and Magic Money Machine) are excellent, some of the best on the high street today.
Unfortunately, for now, Metro Bank is simply a better traditional bank. And although in 2010 being a better high street bank would have been enough, the banking world is about to undergo a mobile revolution.
So if you’re actually thinking of switching banks today you’ll need to have a long, hard think if you just want a better traditional bank, or if the arrival of mobile banks like Mondo and Starling in 2016 will tempt you to wait for the promise of something better.