TSB in crisis – where did the humans go?

If you’re a TSB customer like me, you went into the weekend on 20 April thinking that the bank’s planned online downtime was a routine upgrade of their online banking. You certainly didn’t expect to be locked out of your account indefinitely.

But here we are.

There have been some great articles covering the meltdown, which includes long queues in both branches and on the phone. But up until 2 May, twelve days after the downtime began, there had been no direct communications from TSB itself. Sure, they’ve been communicating through Twitter and Facebook, but how many people use either of those platforms to follow a bank? 55% of British people trust banks, but I’d hardly think that means all of those customers want to be bank buddies on social media.

TSB Facebook post

TSB Twitter feed

Where did TSB go wrong?

I’m not referring to the breakdown of course. Someone smarter than me will pick that apart (though I have some theories). I’m referring to TSB’s one and only email and their detached responses on social media.

I understand, mostly. Whoever handles the social media accounts has been flooded with complaints and nasty comments. They probably felt copying and pasting stock-standard responses was the safest option.

But why, oh why, did they choose to sound so robotic?

The language used on Facebook and Twitter is exactly what you’d expect to see from a corporate giant trying to keep itself at arm’s length from its customers.

No one expects a catastrophic failure of their systems, but I didn’t expect TSB to completely lose the voice they’ve established.

Here’s one of their typical charming videos:

This particular video calls out other banks only getting in touch when they have something sell. It creates a promise that TSB knows the value of meaningful and timely communication.

And yet, at the first sign of crisis, this brand promise has been broken.

There is now such a strong disconnect between their branding and their day-to-day customer experience that I don’t see how they can continue to market themselves as the ‘different’, ‘helpful’ bank.

So, back to the email. It doesn’t really say much more than it does on social media, but it does raise one very big question from me.

Open TSB's email from 2 May 2018 in your browser
TSB email – 2 May 2018

Why the delay in communicating during the crisis?

When I didn’t receive an email last week, I thought “Have they lost our email addresses too?”. It’s not a comforting thought, but I can’t say this email has given me extra assurance. The email starts ‘Over the last week’ meaning it was likely written in Week One. There’s only one reason I can think of for waiting this long before sending it out.

It’s an easy bet that every high-paid Tom, Dick and Barty had a say in picking the original message apart until it was safe and neutral. Is there anything more neutral than ‘Some important information for our customers’?

And why do I suspect there was an original message to be picked apart? Because I went for an interview with TSB and I was left with the impression they had a competent communications team (in hindsight, the interviewer mentioning that the applicant should be able to handle a ‘crushing workload’ makes more sense now). Whoever signs off their brand should definitely have an opinion about how to tailor on-brand messaging to customers. If that person has been over-ruled, then it’s very likely there is a culture of distrust in the upper levels of TSB.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they have a clear steer at the top, but I can’t see inside TSB and they aren’t sharing any real news, so how would we know?

I used to work with eBucks, First National Bank’s (FNB) rewards programme. FNB is a relatively swift-moving bank and when they’ve had issues they’ve usually responded within a good time (if not always perfectly). Why? Because FNB had built this into their culture. We knew that the CEO would drop everything to address a crisis. He would be front and centre providing direction for the teams he trusted to get the job done. It wasn’t always easy or pleasant, but we knew what was going on and so did the customers.

[su_quote cite=”Mail & Guardian, Kevin Davie” url=””]Over at FNB, chief executive Michael Jordaan has made masterful use of Twitter to promote his brand, but the risk was always that the ubiquity of the medium could bite badly when a bad news story came along. Sure enough, FNB customers suffered service outages last week—the result of power surges that took out the bank’s core servers. People stocked up with cash at FNB ATMs when they could, just in case the outages returned. But FNB appears to have satisfied its customers by keeping them informed of the problem and its prognosis, and even put out a radio advert explaining what happened and thanking its staff for working long hours to fix it. The crisis passed without FNB and its lead tweeter being crucified for the outages.[/su_quote]

What lessons can we learn from TSB?

1. Have a plan for when it all goes wrong

Breakdowns are not going away. Technology is moving too fast for that. Cyber-criminals are quick to take advantage of any weakness. So make sure you’ve written down a contingency plan for emergencies that everyone on your team can access. And make them clear. I’ve read a contingency plan that was so full of vague, ass-covering management speak that no one else would be able to follow it. Managers, you’re not ‘command and control‘ and everything shouldn’t grind to a halt if you’re not in the office. Your team needs to be able to move forward without you. Empower them to do this. Your plan should let people know who to get in touch with and where to find the information they need. Quickly.

2. Prepare employees for the worst case scenario so that no one gets blind-sided

If TSB was truly taken by surprise, then they are in a worse state than I thought. Big bang adoption of a new system is always risky. Real, meaningful communication during a crisis should be sent out early and often. So, communicate or train your teams to deal with the worst-case scenario before it becomes a reality.

3. Make sure all customer touch-points are speaking the same language

Have a central swipe file with your own effective content examples. Link to it from your intranet. Share your editorial and brand guidelines widely. Don’t leave your messaging to chance. If you want to be seen as the helpful, human bank, then you need to be helpful and human always. Even in a crisis.

4. Be honest and specific

Vague statements and timelines might be okay if you’re discussing the repair of potholes, but when people’s money is at stake, don’t be surprised if the backlash is fierce. Money is not a nice-to-have. It’s an essential need. If people can’t access their money, it’s not a mere ‘inconvenience’ to them. There’s the worrying risk that some people won’t be able to eat or pay their rent. So tell people what you’re actually doing even if you can’t tell them when the problem will be fixed. You’ve invited IBM to help? Great. What are they focusing on? What are you fixing first? How are you going to help people pay their rent and standing orders?

5. Listen

The biggest issue with copying and pasting the same responses, again and again, is that people rightly assume you’re not listening to their concerns. Don’t insist everything is working if this isn’t true for a large portion of your base. Taking it on the chin, admitting your failure, and listening to their feedback will engender a lot more goodwill than pretending everything is fine to save face.

An example of what they could have done differently

I don’t pretend to know the TSB brand intimately, but I think if they’d dropped the impersonal third-person it would have made for a more sincere apology. They also could have tightened up some of that repetition and shortened the email. For example:

We’re sorry Since the failure of our planned upgrade, you have not received the level of service you expect nor deserve from us. We have disappointed you and ourselves. We are deeply sorry for the problems you have experienced, and we are working around the clock to put things right. As we work to fix things, we’ll publish regularly on and our Facebook page to let you know where you stand. No TSB customer will be left out of pocket We know that some of your accounts have gone into overdraft because of our ongoing issues. To address this, we are waiving all overdraft fees, interest charges, and returned item fees during March and April (which are normally charged in May and June). We’ll do this for both personal and business banking accounts. Additionally, to thank you for your patience, we are also increasing the interest rate on our Classic Plus account from 3% to 5%. We promise this won’t be taken away after a year. We will do better We are committed to ensuring that you will not be out of pocket. We will make it a simple process for you to be compensated appropriately, and we will work with you to correct any adverse impacts on your credit files. If you’ve been affected, let us know what happened by filling in the complaint form on, so that we can put things right as soon as possible. If you’re still experiencing difficulties or distress, please call our telephone banking service or visit your nearest branch. Keeping you safe from fraud Fraudsters will try to take advantage of this situation, so please familiarise yourself with our guidance on how to protect yourself by visiting or our Facebook page. We will never ask you for your PIN, username or password. Finally, we would like to thank our customers for the understanding and patience they continue to show. And we will continue to work tirelessly to put things right.

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