Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia)

At Barclays, tellers must get the camera angle right

As branches dwindle, Barclays bets on video tellers “Look into that tiny little pinhole of a webcam and be engaging”

- HSBC

Over the course of her 31-year career at the U.K. bank Barclays, Jayne Newton went from being a cashier in a branch to making home visits to wealthy clients in the heady days before the financial crisis. She still works with customers face-to-face today—sort of. She’s one of the bank’s 60 video tellers, spending her days in front of a webcam in a noise-resistant pod at an office in Liverpool.

Newton says she likes working on camera, but it’s demanding. “Before I do every video, I always make sure I brush my hair and put my lipstick on,” she says. “You make sure you keep your facial expression­s in control.”

Jackie Brambles, a former TV show host, helped Barclays employees get comfortabl­e on camera. “It’s a real

juggling act,” she says. “They have to be able to look into that tiny little pinhole of a webcam and be engaging and informativ­e and lovely and polite, but at the same time have that surreptiti­ous little glance to make sure: ‘Am I being understood? Is this person getting it? Are they happy?’”

After piloting video for select customers for about a year, Barclays started expanding it in April and plans to have 110 video bankers by yearend. They’ll be reachable 24 hours a day by tapping a button in the bank’s mobile app or clicking a link on its website.

Although the bank continues to eliminate branches—from 2,000 in the U.K. a decade ago to 1,362 in 2015—managers insist video banking isn’t driven by cost cuts. “This isn’t about forcing people to change the way they talk to us,” says Steven Cooper, head of personal banking at Barclays. “It’s about giving customers choice.” Barclays is looking for ways to connect with its customers and, more important, hang on to them in the face of competitio­n from financial-technology startups promising to let people manage their money from a smartphone.

Cooper echoes the gospel of digitalban­king consultant­s, who argue the service should be used to make customers feel personally valued. Video tellers can act as a human support system for consumers opening an account, transferri­ng money, or researchin­g a loan.

Barclays has tried to simulate the branch experience. The bankers, three-quarters of whom are women, wear turquoise and navy uniforms and sit in front of a matching screen embossed with the company’s logo. For the initial training, Brambles had a makeup artist give tips to men and women alike on how to enhance one’s appearance for the camera.

A video service doesn’t necessaril­y make branches redundant: offers video banking for mortgage queries via kiosks in 39 of its U.K. locations. It plans to expand the service later this year, says Nigel Hinshelwoo­d, head of the bank’s U.K. business.

Some financial companies have tried video and found the investment in training and technology not worth the trouble. Citigroup and American

Express have piloted services— American Express had agents available via an iPad app—which they nixed.

The technology only recently became reliable and cheap enough for mass adoption by banks, says Alyson Clarke, an analyst with Forrester Research. “It’s hard to connect with a customer unless you’ve got a highqualit­y image on screen,” she says. “I don’t want to have a video conversati­on with my bank and feel like I’m talking to my grandma on Skype.” Gabrielle Coppola and Stephen Morris

The bottom line Cheaper tech makes video banking possible, but making it personal still takes work. Barclays hired a media consultant to help.

don’t introduce new instrument­s and then withdraw them.” He said the government was nonetheles­s moving to extend maturities by changing the mix of bonds it issues. The average lifespan of its debt is about 69 months, up from 49 in December 2008.

Most countries selling ultra-long debt don’t do it on any regular schedule. France has issued 50-year bonds only three times since 2005, and the 50-year security Belgium sold in April was its first of that maturity. Spain’s sale was its second foray into the ultralong market. In contrast, even Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities—the leastfrequ­ently auctioned U.S. debt—are offered at least three times a year. And the government is slow to add products. After the creation of TIPS in 1997, its next addition didn’t come until 2014, when it introduced floating-rate notes.

The Treasury has also gotten pushback against ultra-long bonds from the Wall Street banks that act as dealers, stepping into the market to make sure there’s always a buyer or a seller. The list of investors who’d want a bond that doesn’t mature for 40 or 50 years is relatively short, says Jason Sable, a trader at Mizuho Securities USA. The likely primary buyers—pensions and insurers—tend to prefer higheryiel­ding corporate debt. Other investors may deem ultra-long bonds as perilous, because their value on the secondary market could fall sharply if interest rates subsequent­ly rose.

If eager buyers dried up, dealers could potentiall­y get stuck with unsold bonds on their books, Sable says. The Treasury’s Borrowing Advisory Committee, which includes some dealers, voiced that concern in 2011, the last time the department asked it to consider ultra-long bonds.

“The Treasury likes to see large, liquid markets,” says James Moore, head of investment solutions at

Pacific Investment Management,

one of the world’s biggest bond managers. “And something like a 50-year bond is not going to be particular­ly liquid.” Eliza Ronalds-Hannon and Liz Capo McCormick

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