PEOPLE are becoming > increasingly frustrated with the poor working of automatic teller machines, which mars their spending plans, particularly on important festive occasions like Eid.

Newspapers print stories about, and TV channels show images of how people suffer each year on Eid when they fail to get cash from banks because of a breakdown of ATM services. This Eid was no exception.

But an encouraging development is that people have now become more vocal about the quality of banking services, including that of ATMs, and at least some of them are not hesitating in seeking redressal of their complaints from the office of the Banking Ombudsman.

In 2013, the office of the Banking Ombudsman received 12pc more complaints about the poor working of ATMs, `and this year too, complaints` traffic seems heavier than before, says an official, relying on the monthly average number of complaints for the first half of 2014.

`The core problem lies not in the specifics of the ATMs` functioning, but in the fact that the service culture has been missing from the banking business for quite some time.` But he hopes that things are eventually going to fall in place in a few years.

Stricter monitoring by the SBP andprompt handling of cases by the Banking Ombudsman have led many banks to improve the quality of their services, `and others would eventually fall in line,` he adds.

While this optimism might be rooted in official evidence, a common bank account holder is not equally optimistic since everyday experiences point towards the opposite direction. Not only ATMs going dry have become a common phenomenon, but disputes over terms of loans and deposits are also common. These disputes revolve around the wrong calculation of chargeable interest rates, excessive assessment of an overdue loan, inadequate information about deposit schemes and concealing of key information from borrowers and depositors, among others.

`In fact, this is the third largest complaint category for us,` says an official close to the Banking Ombudsman. The first and second categories are respectively about consumer products and about inefficient service by bank staff or delays in the delivery of some services.

Complaints about inefficient banking services are broadly categorised into formal and informal ones.

Complaints filed following the procedure laid down in the Banking Companies Ordinance are treated asformal, and their disposal involves legally defined levels of interactions between the complainant, representatives of the bank and the Banking Ombudsman staff.

In 2013, formal grievances against ATMs almost doubled to 250 from 130 in 2012. The total number of complaints against ATMs including both formal and informal ones rose to 660 from 589 in 2012.

This means that informal complaints regarding ATMs declined, and here lies the catch. A jump in formal complaints proves that people have grown so frustrated with ATM services that they take the trouble of lodging the formal complaints, which considerably taxes their time and energy.

Senior bankers admit that the quality of banking services has gradually deteriorated despite the central bank`s efforts to provide a conductive regulatory framework. `What we don`t openly admit is that banking today has become more executivecentric than staff-oriented,` remarks the head of compliance department of one of the top five banks.

Most branch-level officers are dissatisfied with their pay scale and keep fuming over the wide gap between their pay and that of their superiors in regional or zonal offices, or at the banks` headquarters. Suchpeople thus focus more on maneuvering for promotion and switching over to high-paying employers rather than trying to satisfy their customers, junior bankers say.

`We once carried out a study of our pay structure, and it showed that the total amount spent on pay and perks of executives of our banks (from assistant vice presidents to the president) was six times more than the amount spent on compensation of all other employees,` a young officer at a local bank told Dawn. `How can one expect delivery of the best services by us under such circumstances?` Central bankers say one big reason for the deterioration in banking services is that most banks don`t invest enough in training their staff.

`The Institute of Bankers Pakistan and the National Institute of Banking and Finance are capable of imparting first class training in every area of their operations, but sadly banks don`t send their young officers for training in large numbers,` said a well placed source at NIBAF.

`Various sets of SBP regulations generally require banks to ensure bankers` training but these are not being implemented fully. One solution of this issue lies in introducing some easily measurable quantitative performance criteria.

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