How long is a piece of string? How many monkeys does it take to change a light bulb? Who knows, but what we do know is how long it takes to be served in a Chinese bank – one hour and fifty minutes.

Last week a member of the dragondata team in Beijing found out how far retail banking in China has come – the answer is not very far at all.

With the big five (now six with China Post being granted full banking status) – ICBC, Bank of China, Bank of Communications, China Construction Bank and Agricultural Bank of China – focused more on the big profits to made from corporate banking and financing the break speed facelift of the country and its infrastructure, mere retail customers are left scratching their heads in frustration.

A few banks, China Minsheng Bank for instance, do have a strong customer focus, yet the larger institutions rely on their huge distribution branch networks and the fact the market in China isn’t mature enough yet for the industry to go to war on customer acquisition.

The problem for retail banking customers is that many of them have to conduct their basic transactions through a bank branch, such as paying gas, electricity and water – not to mention in many cases, the millions and millions of small business people that also use the same tellers.

Most banks do offer a VIP service, however this is for people who have in the region of 100,000 RMB (US$12,500) in deposits, which isn’t many people given the pace everybody is investing in the stock and property markets and the fact the banks offer abysmal rates of interest.

People talk about competition in the Chinese banking sector, but for the vast majority of people this doesn’t mean a thing as the foreign banks entering the market are looking to focus on the high end of the market.

Anyway back to the trials and tribulations of our dragondata staffer.

After entering a branch of the Bank of China and taking a ticket at 1:58pm on Thursday, he went out to get a drink after noting the ticket was numbered 1295 and the current customer being served was 1205.

Previous experience led him to guess he’d have about an hour to wait before one of the three teller staff on duty would get to him.

After returning an hour later the ticket number had only jumped to 1245 – meaning another forty minutes or so to wait – lucky he wasn’t in a rush.

So after thumbing through one or two books at a local store, he returned around 3.45pm – yes, a quarter to bleeding four!

Shortly after, the clock was stopped at 3.53pm – a staggering one hour and fifty five minutes later and two hours of his life he won’t get back.

The lack of personal service at the large banks will see some customers move, in areas where they can, to some of the other options available.

However, the fact a lot of people simply bank at the institution where their employer deposits their salary and also that some banks have an oligopoly on certain utility transactions means bad service is something people will be forced to stomach for some time yet.

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