A last hurrah for cheques? Perhaps.

Cashless in the Country

Cashless vents on banks’ reluctance to support legacy channels

Ask someone how they like to pay, and you’ll get enthusiastic stories about Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, contactless, tap ‘n go and all sorts of stuff. People recount their first time with a digital wallet with the same kind of giddy excitement that is normally associated with tales of first kisses. But ask them how much they know about payments and most likely you’ll just get a blank look followed by ‘How do you mean?’

The fact is, for the all the excitement that possesses the payments industry – and believe me there’s a lot – most people don’t get that excited about payment channels: what they are interested in is the thing they are buying, not how they are buying it. Use any of the new channels a few times and the stardust fades and you’re back to taking it for granted, just like you do with the universally accepted (not any more), immediate transfer of value that is the good old bank note.

Frictionless exchange – that’s what the payments industry calls it by the way, ‘frictionless’ – is the big thing about all of these new payment channels and technologies. Look at any conventional channel and there’s friction. Cash: friction – you have to physically go and get it or bank it; it’s slow and cumbersome at the point of sale; it’s not very secure; once you’ve got it it’s hard to change it back into digital for, say, an online transaction; it leaves you with annoying change to carry, and; it’s not traceable, hence its importance in the black economy. Cheques: severe friction (see below). Direct Debit: friction– Direct Debits take time to set up; they take time to clear, and; by definition they put a lot of the control in the transaction in the hands of the payee (seller) who can vary the amount without reference to the payer. Other kinds of payments, mostly B2B transactions, encounter all sorts of obstacles and slowdowns caused by systems conflicts and reconciliation issues where the money and the data that identifies the payment run on different rails (for now). All these instances of friction in the payments system create delay and frustration and, and while they may not cause chaffing or a rash, they do prevent people and businesses from accessing their money and … well … doing what they want with it.

The drive for cheque scanning

Chaffing aside, my most recent experience of friction was having to pay in some cheques. I know, don’t bother saying it: ‘Cheques?’ That’s so last century!’ And you’re right, cheque use is falling rapidly, with just 401 million payments made by cheque in the UK in 2018, compared with more than 1.3 billion in 2008. Like many cheques these days, these were gifts for the most part and they do lend weight to the old adage that it’s better to give than receive, especially if receiving means a 45-minute round trip to pay them in (thanks Nana). And, while my daughter’s mutual building society, Nationwide, allows you to pay in cheques simply by inserting your card followed by each cheque, First Direct, which used to be the big noise in banking innovation back when it was a teenager, requires you to fill out a paying-in slip – an actual piece of paper using an actual pen (if you can find one). Seriously? Hardly the stuff of digital disruption is it?

And don’t even think about paying in your jar of small change – you know, the one in the kitchen where you deposit your annoying pocketfuls and which is raided for extra pocket money by your kids who think you don’t know – until you can face taking them to a bank and brazening out the ill-concealed contempt of the teller and all the other customers as you clog up the counter for days with your incorrectly bagged change and your pathetic, self-loathing small talk.

To be fair, the staff in both branches were very smiley and pleasant, helpfully explaining to me that mobile cheque scanning (paying in cheques via a mobile phone) is definitely something that they are considering thinking about, in the future. HSBC, First Direct’s parent, along with some other big banks does offer this but its once-cool internet and phone-based subsidiary seems to think that no-one has elderly relatives anymore – or maybe they think we should all be too embarrassed to accept cheques?

I might add that the other transaction on that trip, paying 30p for parking, had been accomplished digitally in the time it took me to step around the dog excrement on the pavement – and that included my registering a different car on the payment app.

Paradoxically, it’s not just the First Direct that is dragging its heels with digital cheque scanning. Monzo, perhaps the biggest name among the pack of challenger banks, has announced that it has abandoned its plan to join the UK’s cheque image clearing system (ICS), saying that less than 0.1% of its achingly hip customer base have ever deposited a cheque. Instead it plans to focus on its business banking offer. Fine, it’s not like the established banks are exactly over-delivering to small and micro businesses.

Gateway drug

But I wonder whether both cool new banks and the more established brands are missing a trick by not supporting digital cheque scanning. While millennials and gen Z’s may struggle to get their heads round the concept of a cheque – though heaven knows why when they have embraced vinyl, cut-throat razors and pot noodle so enthusiastically – there are plenty of gen X and even baby boomers still to be brought into digital banking. Cheque scanning, like ‘weed’, could serve as a gateway to more hardcore, addicting and profitable aspects of the digital offer. It could actually help to accelerate adoption among the older, harder to reach demographic that watches Countdown and remembers an older, gentler time, when things seemed less hurried and people still covered their mouths when they yawned. It’s just a thought.

For me, writing a cheque has one singular quality: it’s the only time, save Christmas and important family birthdays, when I know for certain what the date is. Because, in this era of digital payments the date is always now, the time is always now and banks are always open. Unless you want to deposit a cheque.

Cashless pub? Not round ‘yer mate.

Cashless in the country

The finer points of country living challenge my drive for cashlessness

The world of payments is evolving fast. You may not know it, or care, but it is and the ‘payments industry’ – if you can believe there is such a thing – is all abuzz. Several new payment platforms have been launched in the UK since the beginning of the year and the competition is hotting up for the biggest share of your ‘spend’. Or at least, it is if you live in a big city. Out here in the sticks, in what the industry now refers to as ‘cashpoint deserts’, it’s a different story.

Surviving without cash ought to be easy you’d think. Everyone does everything on their phones now don’t they? In fact, just this week I discovered that my bank (HSBC) has launched a digital cheque scanning facility on its app that means you can now pay in cheques from your phone without having to visit a bank or Post Office. That’s just as well given that, in mine and all of the surrounding villages for a 10-mile radius, the banks have all gone and only a few Post Offices remain, serving up their inspiring blend of tasteful greetings cards, jiffy bags and 1950s bureaucracy.

‘Pay in cheques by phone?’ I imagine you thinking (by which I’m assuming you exist at all), ‘Who knew?’ Well, unless you’re in the payments industry – and let’s face it, outside of London, who’s going to admit to that? – pretty much no-one. To say digital cheque scanning has had a soft launch is something of an understatement. Apparently the system was launched in October 2017 and all major banks were scheduled to have a working interface by summer 2018. Again, ‘who knew?’ First Direct still hasn’t launched the service for its app, though it did have something cool on its web site called ‘Reality cheque’ about something entirely unrelated.

So whaaaat, you could be forgiven for sighing. Who still uses cheques anyway? Well, I can help there: anyone with elderly relatives for a start. And of course, the elderly relatives themselves. Plus, anyone who has clients who want to appear to be paying you, but who don’t actually want you to have the money for at least another week – and I still have one of those. In fact, mentioning no names Terry (not real name), I still have a client whose MD signs a load of blank cheques before he goes on holiday so that invoices can be paid while he’s away – no fraud risks there at all. Perversely, the same individual monitors the company’s account on his phone while he’s away.

The fact is that cheque-use has declined dramatically. In 1990, around 4 billion cheques were cashed in the UK. By 2016 it was just 477 million and falling, fast. And that’s just how the banks like it: processing and clearing cheques is so last century. Even with digital clearing, cheques are the dinosaurs of the payments world, so banks don’t really want to breathe new life into them by giving their scanning facilities a huge fanfare launch. They fear a ‘dead-cat bounce’ – as should we all since it sounds so gross. A revival of cheques would be like Jurassic Park (dinosaurs – keep up) all over again, only with hipster millennials with beards and trousers that only reach their calves opening up pop-up stores and bars that only accept payment by cheque, throwing evolution into reverse and heralding a new age where Access (‘Shut up fat wallet!’) and Barclaycard are regarded as edgy and retro, like scratched vinyl. BTW (yoof), cheques are still massive in America, just like the cars.

Takeaway trials

Anyway, going cashless, while not impossible, is proving to be quite a challenge. I said last time out that Deliveroo might not reach this far out and I was right. But our village curry house does deliver – even to ‘the other side of the hill’ where we live. And very nice it was too: I can recommend the daal masala, but the onion bhajis are too big – like a savoury fried cricket ball (pointless distinction – would a sweet one be any better?).

So, we had an ‘it’s-Friday-I-can’t-face-cooking’ night with my teen daughter and her friend. I called, they took my order and that was it, until one of my daughter’s other friends sheepishly turned up in our driveway with a bag of food.

‘Sorry, but it’s cash-only on delivery. Didn’t they say?’ No, actually they didn’t.

But, once the girls had come out from under the table where they were hiding in embarrassment while I was speaking – actually speaking! – to someone they knew from school, we scraped together the necessary readies from various bags and pockets. Annoying though; card readers are 10-a-penny these days and, frankly, there’s more chance of a delivery driver turning up without a car or a moped than of them arriving without a phone to connect it to.

I’m not the egg man

Pivot. Do you love eggs? Yeah, me too. In fact, we all do. Nature’s protein blast and, living as I do out in the country, there are loads of chickens and loads of places that sell fresh, free range, happy-chicken eggs. They’re just one of the ways we offset the carbon we emit as we drive around in our 4x4s (necessary honestly) to find a bank, post office or roadside egg stall. Guess what though – honesty boxes don’t take cards let alone Apple Pay. Cash only. Bloody bumpkins! They don’t even take cheques, though with the introduction of digital cheque scanning that may change. Perhaps that’s why the banks have introduced it, for egg sellers and other honesty-box-retailers selling courgettes (marrows really, come on, be honest), damsons or dog-eared Wilbur Smith novels.

When we still lived in London, we would always drop by the egg stall near my mum’s before returning so that we could stock up on proper fresh eggs – you know, really fresh, odd-sized and with feathers and excrement on them. My sister still does this, even though she lives in Surrey, land of the Egg-loo garden chicken shed. In fact, my daughter’s friend (the one under the table) has a weekend job picking the eggs at that very farm. So, in the country at least, if you want a proper, authentic egg, then you’d better rock up with some genuine jack in your jeans (or chinos if it’s the weekend). And don’t worry about the wall-eyed farm dog: he’s very friendly really.

Cash on tap

Finally in this sweep of the rural economy, while The Boot, in Freston near Ipswich, may have gone cashless last year and received huge media attention – almost as if someone was doing a PR job on it, a more cynical person might think – the best pub in the world doesn’t even take cards, never mind contactless or (you what mate?) ApplePay. The Crown at Churchill is hard to find, squirrelled away up a narrow lane, but well worth it. The furniture is all old, mismatched and wonky, like the floor, but the welcome is warm, the food good and the drinkers an eclectic mix of locals, townies in the know and teenagers. There’s no TV, no fruit machine and the toilets are outside in a freezing-cold, dark shed. There’s a choice of real ales, drawn from the cask by hand not pump, and five or six ciders – none of which are served with ice you philistine. But, there’s just one way to pay: good old cash.

So, while AliPay may be launching across the nation to compete with Apple, Samsung and the rest, there is a tiny corner of Somerset that is holding out against the tide – and it remains the best-possible reason for keeping a few quid in your pocket, next to your phone and cards. Cheers.

Cashless in the country

Cash is dead, long live cash!

First few days see me with more cash not less

We are living in tap-and-go times. Or at least we are if you are a trendy millennial or Gen X or Z in Shoreditch or Dalston. But how easy is it to get by without using cash when you live in the countryside, beyond the reach of Uber and Deliveroo? As a rural dweller, I decided to find out how close we country folk are to the much-trumpeted cashless economy.

I’ve been writing about what the financial sector calls the ‘emerging payments landscape’ for several years now. I explore some of the very latest developments in ‘fintech’ and the way people’s behaviours shape and are shaped by them. But I live in small, rather down at heel village in Somerset, far away from the glass towers and trading floors of my clients in London. Don’t get me wrong, I chose to move here and I love it. Fresh air, good schools, decent beer blah, blah, blah.

But when I’m discussing developments in payments with clients (and that does happen, honestly), I often find myself thinking, ‘That sounds brilliant, but how will it fly where I live?’ – where broadband speeds are, in the words of my teenage kids, ‘shit’; where 4G signals are patchy at best, and; where coffee bars are more likely to be packed with pensioners than bloggers and techies. How far do the products and services that I discuss in my day job reach into everyday life outside the UK’s big cities and towns? In particular, as banks and businesses increasingly refer to a cashless economy, how easy is it to get by without using cash in the countryside?

The experiment started well as I spent the entire first day working at home – I do this a lot as I’m self-employed – and I didn’t spend anything, except topping up the kids’ lunch money on ParentPay. I dialled in using my stored username and password and seconds later I’d put £25 on my credit card for bad pizzas at the local school. The ‘food’ is terrible, I’m reliably informed by my kids and all of their friends, but since I’m only a parent and school governor there I have little influence over the saturated fat and salt that is served up. For the kids it’s easy. The school went cashless a couple of years ago – no more bullies stealing kids’ lunch money (nostalgia) – and, so long as I remember to put money on their accounts, my teenage lovelies can buy what they want and verify their identify using their fingerprints. I can also check up on what they’ve been eating by logging on and reviewing their purchase history, which is how I know that pizzas, lattes and muffins are now school staples. Whatever happened to liver and bacon, and brick wall and custard?

But even without leaving the house, I still didn’t manage to go completely cashless. I sold an old rocking chair on Gumtree and my buyer turned up with cash (duh, what else?). It was a repro from John Lewis 20 years ago when my wife was first breastfeeding and it had seemed like a good idea at the time. Like lots of first-time parents we imagined this would be soothing for mother and child and also a bit cool in a hokey, old-time kind of a way. It wasn’t. Two decades later and it’s been sat in about five times, each time resulting in the statement, ‘It doesn’t rock very well does it’. So, on to Gumtree it went and just a few days later it was collected by a soon-to-be-dad for his wife to sit in while she breastfed their imminent baby. It’s the circle of life you know. All very sweet but he paid in good old, reliable cash and didn’t have time to hear about the benefits of PayM.

What’s that I hear you ask? PayM? Well, PayM is a service that lets you use your mobile phone as a proxy for your bank account so that people, once registered, can make person-to-person (P2P) payments from their phones without ever having to remember or share bank details. You just bring up your mobile banking app, select their phone number or name – your address book will be linked to your banking app – and then send payment. And it all happens in real time – instantaneously – so you can see the money leave or arrive in your account. Of all the innovations I’ve learned about in payments in the last few years it’s probably my favourite. It works across banks and it’s free so what’s not to like? But, sadly no one seems to know about it. For some reason the banks have done little to promote PayM and it remains the payments sector’s best kept secret. But don’t take my word, try it – I guarantee you’ll love it.

The following day I sold a wardrobe on Gumtree and landed another small wad of cash, so two days into my experiment and not only have I not needed to spend any cash, but I’ve actually gained enough to see me through a regular week.

I have, however, encountered one of the challenges of living in the country: part-time services. With all of the banks in the surrounding villages now closed – although there are two cashpoints within a three-mile radius – accessing banking services is difficult. ‘The Post Office provides cheque paying-in services’ you cry. But, in my village the Post Office, which was located in a newly relaunched coffee shop and was only open two hours a week, has closed. Can’t think why. Fortunately, I have a car and am able to drive to the next village – but what if I had needed to get the bus? Where would my cashless life be then – and how many days would I have to wait for a bus to come?

Decluttering and free-cycling may be in vogue, especially at this time of year, but I bet the lifestyle gurus that recommend it all live within a WiFi’s reach of a Pret, or a hipster independent coffee bar.

The odyssey towards cashlessness continues…

 

Hyperventilating on a hyphen

screen shot 2019-01-08 at 23.28.18NHS Long Term Plan? A medical response to the crippling fatigue suffered by the nation’s under-appreciated teachers? Is that what they wanted to announce? As someone who is married to a teacher, I recognise that this makes sense and is long overdue. But it’s not what Theresa May and her team wanted to launch.

Ok, I accept that no one died and a missing hyphen (not to mention the accompanying rogue capital letter) is not the biggest deal in the world. But it’s also not nothing. The government, the NHS, the prime minister, a major policy announcement, the nation’s press attention – everyone focusing, if only briefly, on something that isn’t Brexit. And they got the name wrong. It isn’t the NHS Long Term Plan, it’s the NHS Long-term Plan. Only it’s not is it? It says so clearly on the lectern, on the wall behind and, in case anyone thought to change it after the event, on the NHS website (and still does).

Fine, everyone understood – we knew what they meant, so what’s the problem?

The problem is that grammar matters and it matters that our leaders get it right. Everyone slips up occasionally but to put something so obviously wrong in such a prominent position at such an important moment suggests either that the people who wrote and produced the ‘logo’ – note that it is designed with two colours and features twice in the same shot, so it’s not a one-off error – either didn’t know that it was wrong or didn’t care.

I want my government and my prime minister to be setting the standard to which others should aspire, not slapping up whatever they can get away with. Many of the pupils at my wife’s primary school would recognise ‘long-term’ as a compound adjective describing the the ‘plan’: two words, in this case an adjective and a noun, combined to create a new, single adjective that explains the noun to which it is attached. Funny thing is, someone knew how to get it right back in September 2018 when the plans were first proposed and the difference is clear. Hyphens do matter. They are our friends.

screen shot 2019-01-08 at 23.32.52

The Freelancer’s Conundrum

It’s Monday morning and you’re already chasing your tail to hit the successive deadlines that are lining up to control your week. Out of the blue a company you’ve been trying to romance for months calls to say, ‘Hi, heard great things about you. Wondered if you could help us out? I know it’s short notice but we’re pitching next week and wondered if you had time to …’

You know the rest. We all do.

You’re so busy that bathroom breaks are an indulgence and your family can’t remember what you look like. There’s no way you can possibly take on any additional work, especially on a tight turnaround – not when you have good and lucrative work already occupying your diary, and clients who you’d hate to let down.

But it’s new business, new business that you have actually gone after. They’ve remembered you. That email you sent, the call you made – it’s landed, they want you!

Of course, the truth is slightly different. The person they usually use is busy (probably), or this is a piece of work that they don’t really know how to handle themselves and they think you might (ego-trip but possible), or they think you are someone else (hum…). Either way, you want to help because a). new business is always good, right? And b). because if you don’t help, you know they may (will) never ask again – however charming you are on the phone as you writhe in agony over the dilemma.

Are they about to become the prize-winning fish that got away because you were too busy to land them?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel desperately uncomfortable and be as engaging as possible while you try to sound them out about the ‘movability’ of the deadline – and when it’s clear there’s no wiggle room, you’ll front up and say that, however much you want to help, you’d hate to take the work on and then let down both them and your existing clients by doing a substandard job. That’s the right thing to do, right? Of course. Even if it feels awful.

But then comes the follow up, and the real purpose of this stream of semi-consciousness. They say, and we’ve all heard this, ‘Oh, that’s a shame because we were looking forward to working with you… (wait for it) do you know anyone else who could help us?’

Arrgghh!

The question of doom – if you can’t help, can you tell me someone else who I can give my business to? The business that came about thanks to your brilliant (annoying but timely) email or call, or your reputation for being ‘a genius in making the complex simple’, or whatever.

‘Can you recommend anyone else?’ How do you answer? How should you respond to that?

‘Yes, I do know someone who’s really good – almost as good as me in fact (better actually) – let me get you their number…’ knowing full well that if they are really as good as you say, the client will love them, build a relationship and forget you ever existed. After all, what are the chances that next time they’ll say, ‘Who was it that recommended that brilliant freelance who did such a great job for us? Let’s go to them next time, as a recognition of how much we appreciate their recommendation, and not go to the person they recommended who actually did such a great job and who we now know and like?’ Is it about zero?

Or do you say:

‘Well, I do know someone. I’m not sure they’re quite right for this (they aren’t) but I’ll get you their number…’ knowing that when they let the client down and do a substandard job, you will get a portion of the blame for recommending them, and not get the return business when you’re not so busy.

Or, do you say:

‘No, I don’t know anyone. I work alone. I like I that way.’ In which case, you’ve answered a call about a bank heist and, unless you actually are a safe cracker, you should call the police.

In a business in which relationships and trust play such an important role, what’s the right answer, and is it fair for companies to ask freelancers to recommend their competitors – let’s not forget that that is exactly what we are talking about here? As someone who’s worked in creative service-based businesses for more than 20 years, I still don’t really know how to respond. Is it better to give a competitor a quality lead? Or is it better to fib, and say you don’t know anyone good enough or with the right skill set and let the would-be client down?

Is it better, knowing that you can’t help the prospective client, to do them a favour and gift the business to a worthy competitor who will help them, than to evade the issue and, effectively, pass by on the other side of the road, leaving them with their problem even though you could have helped?

Truth is, I don’t know and right now I’m too busy to even write this blog, let alone think about the answer. Do you know anyone who could help?