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Starling – A bird in the hand?

There was a reason Alin Cristescu, director of Fin Wood, a flooring contractor based in London’s Ludgate Hill, joined Starling Bank back in March 2020. Here’s his story…

ALIN Cristescu, director of Fin Wood, a flooring contractor based in London’s Ludgate Hill, joined Starling Bank back in March 2020 by opening a business account… in just 15 minutes. And, judging by what he told CFJ’s Adam Bernstein, the high street banks only have themselves to blame for his departure to one of the ‘challenger’ banks – the new, often internet-only, banks that are disrupting the marketplace.

Driven out
It’s fair to say the banks of old have a major problem – they’re having to cope with large and cumbersome systems that seem held together with sticking plasters, as well as the cost of extensive property portfolios and thousands of employees. This, as Alin has found, means high street banks are often ‘slow, bureaucratic and unhelpful.’

And he illustrates why he says this: ‘If I had issues, I would call and be kept waiting on the phone for a long time and passed around to different teams. On rare occasions I also found myself wasting time in branches that were just as slow and inefficient.’ For him, and no doubt others in the same position, time is precious and being in this situation can be extremely frustrating.

He was keen to find an alternative.

After much research Alin says that he couldn’t find any other banks at the time, apart from Starling, that offered the type of business account he needed.

Says Alin: ‘I am on-the-go all the time rather than sat at a computer. And compared to Starling, I found their [the previous bank’s] applications quite clunky – notifications were not in real time (unlike now where I receive updates from Starling on account activity on my phone), and their apps didn’t have many features.’

It sounds a little like an advertorial, but Alin is very clear when he says that Starling is ‘so much more forward thinking.’ On top of that, he points to a recent Which? report that ‘independently said that Starling was the most secure online bank… and that makes me feel happy as my money is safe – especially with the increase in fraud at the moment.’

The features in detail
In Alin’s eyes, ‘Starling is doing a great job.’ His reasoning is based on a view that ‘it’s a forward-thinking bank which seems to match my business… and because it can keep up with the pace.’

He details the main features of his Starling account that he uses and would recommend to others.
First off, there are the notifications from the app which means he knows what’s happening with his account – directly. As he says, ‘I don’t have to wait 24 hours for transactions to be reported in an app – it’s instant. This means I can react quickly if there’s ever an issue with a transaction and can choose when I do my banking.’

Next, he says he’s found he doesn’t need to have various savings accounts to cater for his day-to-day needs; he just uses Starling’s Spaces as a form of budgeting tool. ‘Spaces,’ he says, ‘is where I can round up day-to-day transactions to the nearest pound and put the spare change in a Goals saving pot.’ Think of it like a digital change jar where money can be transferred back to the main account if money is needed quickly.

And then there’s cheque imaging ‘which,’ says Alin, ‘means I can process cheques from my phone without the hassle of going into a branch or to a post-box’.

As many have found, good customer service from suppliers is essential when running a business and banking is no different. In Alin’s own words, ‘Starling’s service is prompt and helpful; everything I need to do is quick and easy on my phone… at any time of the day or night which I might be when working.’

And for those that use the QuickBooks accounting application, there’s the integration that Starling can provide to their bank account. Alin finds this especially ‘wonderful’ as it enables him to ‘collect, analyse and organise his business transactions so they can be filed for tax self-assessment quickly and easily. I can also create and send invoices and gain insights into my cash flow – everything is in one place.’

Room for improvement
While Alin considers Starling to be good, it’s not perfect and could do a little more to help him. In explaining what he means, he says the bank presently lacks the ability for him to set up multiple payments so that he can create a number of payments at once and then confirm them all in one bulk payment – that, he says, would speed up the payment process. But as he notes, ‘I’m told this is coming, so I look forward to this new feature.’

In addition to this, Starling, being a new bank, has had a few teething problems. This came to the fore when a card payment to a supplier didn’t go through. However, he contacted Starling through its messenger app and ‘the bank was very prompt and helpful in looking into the matter quickly.’ He adds that it turned out it wasn’t a problem at Starling’s end but was resolved soon enough. Even so, and this is the point, he was glad for the quick response.

Lessons for the high street
The challenger banks are adept at making changes and responding to what the market wants. In comparison, the more traditional bank is like a ship in that it’s slow to make mid-course corrections.
Alin, understandably, thinks that the main high street banks could learn from Starling. He says:

‘Despite their size they should always keep in mind that they have to help customers and learn to quickly adapt their products and services to meet demand. The coronavirus pandemic was totally unexpected and business owners were unprepared for the changes. Banks, like Starling, quickly moved to stay relevant and have supported entrepreneurs like myself who often can feel very alone as we have small teams, and owing to the nature of the virus, can feel isolated as we stay home.’

On this, it’s of note that Starling says it has lent over £1.3bn to more than 45,000 businesses in need in the form of Bounce Back Loans. Alin finds it ‘reassuring to have a bank that can help small businesses such as mine in this way.’

As an aside, he believes that the UK government has done well to help businesses during the pandemic: ‘Of course, businesses are in different positions depending on how their sector has been affected, but overall, I think the government has been generous considering the challenges so many firms have faced.’

But back to the lessons for the high street. Alin talks about how Starling can offer a number of services to help customers. He gives an example – the Connected Card, a free second debit card for an account with its own PIN which has a set spending cap. ‘The card,’ he explains, ‘can be given by someone self-isolating to another so that that person can pay for essentials for the individual stuck at home.’

To finish
In rounding up, prior to becoming a Staring customer Alin says he felt banks on the high street ‘were sluggish’ and ‘did not help me to ‘get things done’.’

Charitably, he ends by saying: ‘I hope they catch up with Starling and innovate in the way that Starling has done… from the beginning.’

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