Mark Smith of Table19 examines one of the biggest customer service failures in recent memory, and NatWest's response.
The recent NatWest computer disaster continues to spark anger amongst its 7.5 million personal banking customers and one million business customers. For NatWest, which prides itself on providing “another way” to its customers, the backlash from those suffering from payments going awry, wages going missing and holiday and home purchases being interrupted or delayed is potentially crippling. Not only does it undermine the credibility and core values of the largely taxpayer-owned bank, if not managed correctly it is likely to create a powerful emotional driver for customers to desert the bank in droves and to switch to another.
You should not under-estimate the value of positive customer relationships and the impact they can have on a company’s business. If your customers are engaged they are more likely to continue to do business with you and recommend you to others. If you have a pre-existing positive relationship with your customers, they are more likely to be more forgiving when things go wrong. However, when things do go wrong you need have robust measures in place to manage your company’s image, retain customer loyalty and even turn the situation into an opportunity for your business.
For now though, rebuilding and maintaining a strong, meaningful, positive personal relationship with its customers, built on trust, is undeniably of paramount importance to NatWest, as it begins to get services back online.
The true gravity of this incident will no doubt come to light in the weeks ahead, but in the short-term NatWest needs to take drastic action to ensure it can deflate the number of angry customers who remain unable to access their money. Customer retention and satisfaction are therefore crucial to limiting the long-term damage it causes for the bank.
Targeted and effective communication, total transparency of the situation and its implications, a high level of accessibility to bank representatives and speed are all vital. In order to ensure a positive level of engagement and rebuild trust, NatWest needs to establish a robust communication system, putting the customer at the heart of the business and regularly inform and reward them for their continued business. It’s not just about how you communicate with your customers though, you have to ensure that you provide a fully rounded experience, which incorporates every need a customer may have, experience or encounter throughout their relationship with a given company.
NatWest's responses: the wrongs
Given that NatWest prides itself on delivering a high level of customer services and maintains regular contact with its customers, particularly when it comes to alerting them to changes in how their accounts are being managed, it is rather alarming how slow it was to provide them with any real information. It was more than 48 hours after news broke that something was wrong with the banks systems before customers received an apologetic email stating that NatWest appreciated the “unacceptable level of inconvenience” the problem had caused.
You also have to ask why NatWest charged customers for ringing its emergency helpline, by initially only providing an 0845 number instead of a free 0800 number. Admittedly, the bank did later say that it would reimburse the cost of the calls - but why wasn’t the freephone number in place when the problem first became apparent? For a business which is such an integral part of people’s lives and responsible for a high level of sensitive data, it’s unacceptable for customers to be informed about the problems, either through a bad customer experience or via the media.
It’s not just NatWest customers that have been affected either, as many non-customers have been on the receiving end of the technical glitch. Having customers who you have direct contact with dissatisfied is one thing, but having many more which you cannot manage – at least through direct communication – means that any potential switches to you that may have been in the pipeline are likely to be lost.
NatWest's responses: the rights
In the bank’s defence, across the media coverage and its website, there has been a clear, transparent level of communication delivered to consumers explaining the status of the problem and the various stages they are at in resolving it. Yet the fact that certain services are available to some customers and not others has at times rendered this misleading.
Perhaps the most admirable effort seen over the past few days has been NatWest’s commitment to keeping over 1,000 branches open outside of normal operating hours, with Sunday marking the first time in the bank’s history that it opened its doors to customers on the seventh day, to help deal with the ongoing fall-out of the systems failure. Whilst this has gone some way to reduce the level of inconvenience, communication through direct channels away from the media and Twitter has been relatively poor.
Rebuilding customer trust
One of the key ways to improve customer communications is through the creation of the customer journey, which starts at the consideration process even before a customer, becomes a customer, through to the point of purchase and on to the key trigger points that follow. During the customer lifecycle their material and emotional needs will change, and they will go through a range of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ periods in relation to your brand. Developing a ‘customer journey’ that consists of rich, relevant and perfectly timed brand communications, designed to make customers feel looked after and in touch with your brand, is therefore essential for managing, influencing and responding to these changes.
Obviously in the case of NatWest, some instances are hard to predict. Whilst a high level of dissatisfaction is unavoidable and expected in a scenario like this, the sheer level of discontent that has been shown towards the bank over the past few days across message boards, forums, and social media suggests that its relationship with its customers is perhaps not as robust as they would like to think.
Scenarios like this may be rare, but they still need to be incorporated into the customer journey, so they don’t become disengaged or dissatisfied with you when events like these occur. If don’t capture these scenarios properly and fail to create powerful brand engagement and affinity with your customers before there’s a problem, they’ll get frustrated. The relationship between a company or brand and their customers is therefore crucial and contributes to whether a customer will continue to do business with you or switch.
In the case of NatWest there are five key things they need to do rebuild these customer relationships
1. Maintain a high level of communication with your customers and show them that you care
Whilst NatWest executives have publicly apologised to customers and delivered a sincere apology, they did so rather late. Therefore the key thing NatWest must do now demonstrate is that they really care about their customers. They are doing this now, but for some customers it’s a case of too little too late.
The bank is not shy to admit their shortcomings, as they clearly evaluate their progress in their annual charter results, so therefore they need look at measures they can implement quickly to improve customer loyalty and restore trust. The benefits of doing so will ultimately outweigh the initial outlay as costs will likely be offset.
2. Speak to your customers
Empathy is the key here. You need to remember people are involved, you’re not simply dealing with products, dates and orders. Take time to listen and maintain a personal level of contact and deliver this through the channel best suited to the customer you are engaging with.
3. Show understanding
Refunds, discounts, special assistance, extra services all help to deflate customer dissatisfaction in the short term - but you need to act fast. No loyalty is gained from a refund or gesture that takes months to negotiate or authorise.
Conduct real-time surveys with a cross-section of customers to keep track of their changing expectations. This will also enable you to find out what they want you to fix or do better to improve customer loyalty.
4. Show your customers what you are doing
Make sure your customers are aware that you are changing your processes and improving training across your business to avoid the same issues occurring again in the future. This will enable you to demonstrate willing, stability and improvement in your services to your customers.
Make sure that you incorporate these changes into the customer journey and clearly identify to your customers how they can get in contact with you if they have a problem. You also need to reassure your customers constantly that their money and personal details are safe and that events will not be repeated.
5. Look to the future – turn the situation into your advantage
Make sure you turn these scenarios into positives, and to your advantage. Don’t just keep in touch with your customers. Make sure you engage them in a relevant, useful, rewarding and direct way, particularly those who have voiced a high level of negativity towards you.
If you can convert these customers, they may even become your biggest brand advocates and champion your company or brand to others.
Mark Smith is managing partner at Table19.