Where to go when you don't trust your bank manager

Advice for SMEs.

Whether that business is large, small or part of the squeezed middle, there is little doubt that the fight to find and keep customers - and indeed to make money from them - is harder than it has been for a long time. One area where this is very evident is in the continuing struggle to access funds. Many owners of small and medium-sized businesses are still finding it difficult to get the funding they need from their bank.

The banks counter this criticism with a valid argument that the demand simply isn’t there and many would-be borrowers simply don’t want to take on more risk at a time of great uncertainty. Nevertheless, figures reporting the number of loan applications turned down suggest that the banks are still busy taking risk off their balance sheets and as a result are either refusing to lend at all or setting very high prices on their lending.

While it is clear that the banks are in a difficult position — castigated for being both too reckless and now for being too conservative — there are some very serious long-term implications from the apparent breakdown in relations between small business owners and the banks.

It wasn’t all that long ago when bank managers were the most valued and trusted advisors for those running small businesses. 

But as a recent survey (organised by Hitachi Capital Invoice Finance, which admittedly competes directly against banks to provide an alternative means of finance) shows, trust in bank managers is currently low. Only 21 per cent of SME owners questioned said they would trust advice from their bank manager. While it’s easy to dismiss the report’s findings as a PR exercise, they tally with other polls measuring the general public’s opinion of bankers (notably the Edelman’s Trust Barometer).

Put a group of business owners together in a room to talk about finance and it won’t be long before one or more bemoans the loss of personal banking relationships and the switch to centralised, call-centre style customer service. The days of a local branch manager having a close relationship with local businesses and being able to make appropriate lending decisions (possibly over a round of golf or a G&T) are gone. For some the more strategic overview of a regional risk committee makes more sense in the modern age. But while we all welcome that added professionalism, it’s difficult not to feel that something has been lost in translation. Many business owners would welcome a move back to a more responsive and locally aware banking system.

If business has lost trust in banks, what about other advisors? In his inaugural address in June ICAEW president Mark Spofforth made it clear that rebuilding trust in the accountancy profession was a major objective for his year in office.

“It worries me deeply that the profession I joined isn’t held in the same esteem that it was when I started out as a trainee”, he said, before adding that these concerns are shared by other qualified professionals.

On the evidence of this survey, things are already improving. Hitachi found that 43 per cent of respondents trust the advice they were given by accountants, a far higher score than for any other type of advisor. This is excellent news for a profession that has experienced considerable self-doubt in the wake of the financial crisis.

There is a long way to go, but the importance of such a key customer group being happy with the advice they get from accountants is underlined by further research from the technology company Portal. This piece of research was into the importance consumers place on service. It found that 52 per cent reported they would change supplier as a result of poor service. See a name and shame graphic listing some of the worst offenders.

If trust in the accountancy profession is to be built, then chartered accountants in firms of all size and shape will have to continue to provide excellent standards of service and to provide insightful and meaningful advice, especially to business clients. As Spofforth rightly pointed out in his inauguration address: “Trust has to be earned – and once lost it can take years to rebuild. It is fundamental to a well-run economy and to a properly functioning society. And it is a concern, a worry that only we as a profession can address.

"We need to show that we deserve people’s trust and we need to work hard to earn it.”

This article first appeared in economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.