After a sudden, steep and inadequately notified increase in Bank of Scotland's fees for direct business banking several years ago, we decided to try Santander Business Banking—the only UK business banking supplier that offers FREE service for all accounts regardless of transaction volume, business turnover or the length of time elapsed since the account was opened.
On the whole, we have been impressed, although a few of Santander's policies have left us somewhat dissatisfied and liable to consider moving to another supplier:
- It is not possible to predict or control whether a payment will be sent via the “faster payments” service (for immediate clearance) or as an ordinary bank transfer (taking four days to clear). Santander flatly refuses to explain their policy and we cannot discover it via transaction history (there appears to be no absolute correlation with transaction value, frequency or destination), and when pressed for information, call centre staff initially suggested they were forbidden by management from explaining Santander's policy or thresholds for deciding.
- It is not possible to export .ofx formatted bank statements from Santander's online banking system. Other formats are available (such as .qif), but these are configured inconveniently in Santander's case (inadequately batched up or annotated), so that we cannot have enough confidence in automatic reconciliation processes based on downloaded statements, and therefore we resorted to re-keying and reconciling transactions manually into our bespoke accounting software. Santander's call centre refused to give us any information about what plans Santander might have for implementing .ofx in the future (even though we explained that our reason for asking was because .ofx is pragmatically superior for reconciliation purposes, and is a more modern XML-based standard, therefore more generally convenient for bespoke software like ours).
In general, no matter how we asked our questions, it was impossible for us to negotiate our way past the front line of Santander's call centre staff, who often appeared recalcitrant to refer a customer to their manager (if line-managers even existed, so far as we remember we never found out). Just occasionally, we were lucky in having our phone-calls put through in the first instance to someone who knew what they were talking about.
We’ve been enquiring with HSBC and find them more transparent and forthcoming about their policies than Santander. HSBC banking costs most businesses a little more in fees than Santander (i.e., it costs more for cash-handling businesses with a large turnover or high transaction volume), but this additional expense (if applicable) should be balanced against an improvement in manageability from HSBC's more transparent and predictable policies (specifically, improvements in the predictability of transfer clearance schedules), improvements in the range of available data and notification services, and the improvements in reputation and good-will likely to result from these other benefits.
It’s also reassuring to know that HSBC managed their clients' money well during the 2008–2011 financial crisis, and took on very little exposure to risky financial instruments, unlike Santander, who somehow survived as a large bank despite billions of dollars in exposure.
HSBC planning to support .ofx
Friendly local bank managers at HSBC have periodically forwarded our enquiry about .ofx to HSBC's technical people, who have responded promptly, truthfully and respectfully to our enquiry on each occasion. The latest correspondence on their plans for .ofx statement exports:
I have had a response that .ofx is still on the agenda but not a priority at the moment. No timescales could be given.
HSBC Business Direct accounts offer quarterly statements in .qif or .csv formats (like Santander), however, in contrast to Santander's offering, HSBC claims to offer clients some control over statement start and end dates (so that transactions can be batched up periodically into statements, and quarterly statement start and end dates can be aligned as desired to meaningful business periods).
Update, July 2011: Santander has now explained that their funds transfer infrastructure is still being tested with “faster payments”, i.e., clearance mechanisms for this relatively new scheme are still being validated at Santander, and the bank themselves does not presently know in advance when a transfer transation can be completed as a “faster payment”; and will not be able to predict such details until this system validation process is completed.
CONCLUSION: Santander's fee structure can't be beaten, but they're not exactly at the cutting edge when it comes to technology or data presentation, and they leave a lot to be desired in transparency about their policies, and in respect of financial control.
Update, 2012/2013: Santander no longer provides a free business banking service!
Update, June 2013: HSBC no longer provides a free business internet banking service! They notified me today by mail that they will start charging £5.50 GBP per calendar month for account maintenance (quite reasonable, if the bank doesn’t start charging me via hidden fees/commission/rate-arbitration every time I convert between GBP and EUR). Perhaps nothing is truly “free”, and Free Internet Banking is a F.I.B.!