Despite careful planning, TD Bank fumbles online banking upgrade

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It’s been more than a week since TD Bank first revealed that its long-planned update to its online and mobile banking systems had run into technical difficulties, and many customer are still unable to access their accounts.

A bank spokesman said Tuesday that while the company is making progress on fixing the glitch, he acknowledged that a number of its customers are still unable to use mobile or online platforms to check their accounts, transfer funds or pay bills.

“Team members worked through the weekend and around the clock to address these issues, and we believe that the challenges are either resolved or will be addressed shortly,” said the spokesman, Matthew J. Doherty. “Once the upgrade is complete, we hope customers will enjoy our enhanced online and mobile experience, which includes more intuitive navigation, helpful tools and additional security features. We are sorry for any inconvenience to our customers during this conversion and continue to address their questions and concerns."

TD, which has $309 billion of assets and more than 1,200 branches stretching from Maine to Florida, has not disclosed what caused the outage, saying only that it experienced “technical challenges” during the conversion that began on Feb. 10 and was scheduled to be completed by Monday, Feb. 12.

Whatever the cause, industry experts say that given the number of glitches of late, banks may need to reach a consensus on how long platforms or services should be tested before they are released for public consumption.

Not surprisingly, customers have taken to social media to complain about being locked out of their accounts for days and to voice their displeasure with the bank’s response to the outage. TD did post an apology on social media on Feb. 17, but many customers viewed it as inadequate given the seriousness of the problem.

One customer posted a screenshot demonstrating how he had waited over an hour on hold waiting to speak to a customer service representative.

“This debacle of a website rollout rivals that of the Affordable Care Act,” wrote another customer, Al Raymond. “A third-rate savings and loan institution would not have fared this pathetically.”

Courtney Carra, a web designer, joined the thread in an effort to help fellow bank customers, suggesting that they try to clear their cache and cookies and log in again. It worked for one customer, who suggested TD Bank put her on the payroll.

Thanking customers for their patience is a line that marketing and communications experts agree won’t calm customers angered by online glitches.

“They are apologizing for inconvenience but they are offering no way around it,” said Stessa Cohen, research director at Gartner. “Saying things are going to be fixed is not really an update.”

TD is at least the third major bank to experience technical issues in a very public fashion this year. In January, a glitch at Capital One caused many customers to be charged multiple times for the same debit card transaction. Wells Fargo customers were also double-billed in January because of an "internal processing error."

TD first notified customers in November that an update was coming, and in late January they received an email alerting them to schedule bill payments they’d normally pay over the weekend by 11 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 9. “You won't be able to log in to schedule new payments during the outage,” the note helpfully reminded.

Online and mobile banking would be up and running by the morning of Feb. 12, the note added.

Before such updates occur, banks need to brainstorm on how to react if a glitch throws service, and plan ahead to handle a potential rush of concerned consumers — such as bolstering available call service support, Cohen added.

People expect information,” she said. “Everyone is familiar with a public relations tweet. It’s not really impressing anyone. Don’t sound like a bot or stilted. Think like a customer.”

What most customers don’t know is the task of converting an online platform sounds deceptively simple, when in fact there are numerous layers of technology that must communicate and work together seamlessly, said Ed O’Brien, the director of market analysis and strategy at Boston equipment leasing provider TimePayment Corp.

“The more and more systems are tied together, the more layers there are of potential issues that can occur,” O’Brien said. “You have to bang on those systems and see where the gremlins come out.”

Sorry for the inconvenience: Bank tech snafus of the past year
Capital One became the latest bank to feel customers' online wrath last week after reports that some customers were being charged twice for debit card activity. But it was hardly alone.

Any website rollout or update involves multiple systems beyond transactional banking, including data or business connectors to security authentication, content management, origination and payments, said Sam Kilmer, senior director at Cornerstone Advisors.

“The bigger the bank, usually the more systems. And unlike back-office systems, where some connector faults can be seamed over with throwing people at the problem, any straight-through processing, customer-facing system, when it’s down, it’s down. Period.”

When digital upgrades and conversions aren't part of a merger or core conversion, the risk assessment tends to slacken, Kilmer noted. “But, as digital has become the primary channel, it’s important that the diligence be the same or more for front-office system changes," he said. "Reputational risk has to be treated with the same urgency as, say, credit risk or fraud risk."

Given the problems they have had rolling out new digital services, banks should devote more time to beta testing before making platforms live, O’Brien said.

“Everyone is trying to rush to market. It’s a highly competitive environment. So is three months of testing long enough? Maybe five months? The industry as a whole needs to identify best practices to find potential issues in upgrades and new releases. This does happen far too often across the board.”

Mary Wisniewski and Bryan Yurcan contributed to this article.

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