Apparently, the West Bromwich Building Society is the 9th largest building society in England (according to their website) and they were formed over 150 years ago. I guess that demutualisation by other building societies has lead, in part, to this rise up the building society league tables. Branches of the building society are mainly found in the West Midlands but, with the advent on telephone, postal and internet banking it is now no longer an issue for investors that the nearest branch is some 200 miles away as there is no need to ever go to a branch.
West Brom came onto my radar screen a few years ago as an institution offering some good rates on non-branch based accounts. I cannot comment on their branch based service as I've never set foot in a branch, and, indeed, until they started hitting some of the "best buy" tables in terms of interest rates I think I'd be hard pushed to say I'd even heard of them.
In general I have found the administration of accounts by the bank to be very good. All my dealings with the bank have been by post or telephone and instructions have been carried out in accordance with their terms.
Opening accounts has, in each case, been very straightforward. Each account that I have opened has been opened by post with an application printed off from the internet, completed and then sent to their processing centre. Each account has been opened promptly (within around a week) and this compares favourably to other postal accounts that I have held. I was quite surprised that identification verification was completed electronically (through the use of identifying numbers such as passport/driving licence numbers) and no further checks were required. I was happy with this as I am less than comfortable with enclosing original documents in an application (for fear of them going missing with the Royal Mail) and resent having to pay another bank or a solicitor to make a certified copy of the documents (oh how I miss being at work and having a colleague do it for me!).
The account opening pack that you get in return is quite basic and, if I have a complaint about the West Brom it would probably be that they don't put any information about the account you have opened in this welcome pack. This is not an issue at first but if you want to check terms and conditions later on (other than the banks standard terms) and you find that the account has been withdrawn it can be an issue as there will no longer be any information online about the account. Best advice would be to keep a print out of the terms of the account and any information on how it operates when you open the account.
West Brom seems, like many financial institutions, to respond very quickly to downward rate changes and less quickly to rate rises. You'll often find that the account interest rates vary with great frequency although they are quick to communicate this to members via the post. The rate leaflets that are sent will show the new and the former rates which makes it easy to see what drop (or increase) has been made. I have found this to be good as I don't always know, without looking at my files, what rate accounts have off the top off my head.
From time to time West Brom will offer a rate-beating account and you'll find that the account will be withdrawn to new investors when the building society reaches its investment target. This means that if you see a rate that looks attractive you have to move quickly or risk that rate being withdrawn. Once the account is open it doesn't matter that the offer closes to new investors. You're in.
When accounts such as these are offered the length of time you have to wait to talk to someone on the telephone will naturally increase. This can be a pain, particularly as many accounts are operated by telephone, but, I guess it's understandable. I'd rather wait and know that the person who takes my call will be able to assist me than have the telephone answered more quickly by a temporary member of staff who can't answer my questions.
Talking of the telephone service I have found it to be excellent. Calls are answered by very friendly staff who, I'm guessing, must be based in a West Midlands call center judging by their accents. Without exception I have received personal, friendly service that goes unrivalled in the banking world. Staff are always jolly and understand both simple and complex queries without you having to repeatedly explain yourself. After each call I genuinely feel valued, something that is rare these days.
I have experience of transferring funds between West Brom products (moving money to get a better rate). My instructions were carried out promptly and efficiently, however West Brom did do something rather odd with the interest payment due on closing the account. They paid interest (to a nominated account outside of West Brom) to the end of the month in which I closed the first account and then clawed back the difference between the interest due to the end of the month and the interest due to the date of account closure from my capital. Technically I'm not sure that this is legally correct and, certainly, financially I will have lost out on a little interest (due to the way compounding works). I had to spend quite some time on the telephone to discover why the amount invested in the new account was less than I had expected. It would have been good if, when I received the new investment statement, I had also received a closing statement from the old account showing the transfer of funds. I had to wait until the end of the financial year for that to happen - not so satisfactory.
However, despite this I am pleased overall with the level of service that I have had from the West Brom and, assuming the rates were good, would look to invest again. For me they have offered the most human, friendly service that I have received from a financial institution for a long time!
The West Brom is an unapologetic mutual buidling society of the traditional sort. So, since the society is basically a syndicate of equals, you get a say in how it is run, and obviously, that is good for yourself. It's not about making profits for shareholders, since there aren't any; all the profit they make is used to cancel out that profit - in other words to give it back to its members though higher savings rates and cheaper loans and mortages. Barcalys makes a huge profit, but customers see none of it; whereas every year the West Brom 'gives back' hundreds of millions to its members through better deals. The rates are excellent, the service is good and they remain true to their regional base, as well as being a nice community-minded local business. In summary then, the West Brom is a perfect antidote to the big corporate banks who put shareholders above all else - it's better financially and better in terms of service and friendliness.