Ring if you need financial help, says bank boss

time:2023-06-02 14:21:46 source:CNN (Cable News Network)

Ringing a bank when facing financial problems as prices soar will make things better, not worse, according to the boss of Santander.

Mike Regnier, UK chief executive of the bank, said early notice of difficulties can save further pain and may not affect a customer's credit rating.

The BBC visited Santander's support centre as staff took calls from people struggling to afford nappies and milk.

Staff say some cases can leave them in tears.

"Sometimes it does bring a tear or two to your eye. People do go through difficult times," said Maxx Townend, one of the helpline operators working in Bradford.

"But you've got to be that strong point for them. If there's two people breaking down on the phone it's going to be a bit of a jumble. But if you're being that strong person, they are going to feel strong as well."

The rising cost of living has meant calls to the helpline are up 14% since last year, while the number of people accessing the support pages of its website is up nearly 50%.

Mr Townend, 23, has been with the company for seven months, having been inspired to join after he sought help from his bank during the pandemic.

"I've been in their shoes and I thought, I want to do it," he said.

His colleague, Keri Machen, has worked at Santander for 15 years.

"We need to show that we are human at the end of the phone," she said. "There are some stories which are incredibly difficult for them to explain, for us to hear and to know the right thing to say. But I think that as long as we take the time to really understand what they are telling us we can work together and find a way out."

During the BBC's visit, some customers were looking for basic advice on how to reduce their spending, but many were calling in to get funds released to pay for everyday essentials.

"We know the challenges, that this is real life that people are dealing with day in, day out," Mr Regnier said.

The team is proactively contacting customers who they assess as being at risk of not being able to cover their monthly outgoings.

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Research and transaction data from elsewhere in the sector has suggested that many people have avoided debt by using savings and cutting back on non-essential spending.

Two broad camps have emerged among consumers as prices and bills have soared over the winter, although everyone's financial situation is different.

Banks say that millions of people had built up a savings buffer during Covid lockdowns and have kept their jobs, which had helped to accommodate the rising cost of living. They have also cut back on various elements of spending to help their situation.

The second group do not have that luxury and, although they may be working, could have already been in financial difficulty.

Mr Regnier, from Santander, said that he had not seen a big increase in the number of customers that are falling behind on the debts nor a big increase in the amount that people are borrowing.

For instance with mortgage payments, there are still fewer customers in arrears than there were before the pandemic.

Around 60 customers a month are referred to PayPlan, the free debt advice group funded by all the banks and the credit industry.

Among those who has received help is Zack Wilson, from Sheffield.

After losing his partner to cancer, he found his money problems spiralled. He lost freelance work, had to move house and had unexpected bills to pay.

Soaring energy and food bills were the final straw, leading to what he describes as a "sheer fear of thinking, what will happen? I've not got enough money to last".

"I didn't realise how precarious life could be," he said.

Last year he went through an Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA), a form of insolvency proceedings, He found that being able to communicate online and on WhatsApp with advisers made a huge difference.

"I'm not the kind of person who finds it easy to ask for help but I'd urge anyone to do it, don't shy away from it - bite the bullet," he said.

He is now a union rep alongside working at Sheffield City Council. He is still struggling with the money he has to live on but he can see light at the end of the tunnel.

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