Another week, another time the public dragged yet another bank to the stockcades for a technical glitch.

This time it was Wells Fargo, for a double-billing gaffe online that it said was caused by an “internal processing error.” Though the issue was corrected overnight, it wasn’t fast enough to stop a social media pelting from angry customers swearing they were done banking with Wells — a fresh heap on top of the pile of bad news the bank has dealt with since the fallout of its fake-accounts scandal.

Wells’ experience was just the latest in a string of technical snafus that angered clients and managed to garner widespread attention. Earlier this month, glitches at Capital One caused many customers to be charged multiple times for the same debit card transactions. And last year ATMs, debit cards, apps and online accounts were in error at several banks, resulting in national coverage.

Slideshow
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.

Putting aside the technical issues at the root of these service hiccups, the quick bursts of public outrage that follow should give banks reason to rethink how they are communicating in these incidents, particularly on social media, industry observers said.

“Money is one of the most emotional things that people have. It’s a very charged-up issue, and when customers reach out and get a canned response, it’s like, 'Thanks a lot,' " said Joe Sullivan, CEO and president of Market Insights, a Chicago-based bank marketing consultancy. “People crave authenticity, people crave to be heard. You have to make it human. When we tap into that, we can defuse a lot of these situations.”

The banking industry is still grappling with how to communicate on social media in the way that the public expects, said Sam Kilmer, senior director of the industry research and consultancy Cornerstone Advisors.

“Digital channels and social media in particular are not mediums that do well with formal language, and banking in the scheme of things can be quite legal and formal due to regulations,” he said. “But there’s certain language that goes along with banking that can be very corporate when it doesn’t have to be.”

What’s been holding back banks is figuring out the fine line between calming a social media backlash and potentially opening an institution up to liabilities, said Tim Pannell, president and CEO of Financial Marketing Solutions in Franklin, Tenn.

“One of the primary responsibilities of bank leadership is mitigating risk, and social media creates a lot of risk,” Pannell said. “Too much transparency and you run the risk of providing information and ammunition to be held against you another time. You admitted you used the wrong systems, and now there’s a class action lawsuit being filed against you.”

Wells Fargo sign
Bloomberg News

The confluence of change brought about by the increased use of instant, always available banking apps, combined with regular account breaches and an intense political climate, has made customers hypersensitive, Sullivan said. “There’s a lot of anger being misplaced,” he said.

But they aren’t mad without reason. Consolidation in the banking industry has resulted in an increase of glitches caused by systems transfers, said John Hargrave, managing principal, bank performance and risk management at DD&F Consulting Group in Little Rock, Ark.

“When one bank buys another, and they transition from one tech platform to another, changing a core provider, that’s having the most impact on the customers,” Hargrave said. “Particularly in conversion of data from one service provider to another — you have bill pay on your current bank, and if your bank is bought by another, you may lose your information on the bills loaded in other system, and you’ll have to go in and reload your bill pay.”

With glitches a reality of the increasingly digital banking system, experts agree the best strategy to respond in these situations is with more humanity and less canned language like "Sorry for the inconvenience."

“Our department is down, the connection between us and the vendor is down — the explanation of the situation doesn’t always sound brief, personalized and accountable,” Kilmer said. “With digital and social media, the main way people consume whatever you’re saying, especially when things are down, people don’t distinguish between functions. It’s just the bank. What they are looking for is an informal, brief, knowledgeable response about the situation that is accountable and leans toward action.”

Sullivan says the strategy should be geared toward placating with facts and personal service outreach. “If it’s an individual, deal directly with them, not in the public Twitter space,” he said. “If it’s a broader issue, stick to the facts. Whenever we can acknowledge each other, that’s best. We want to avoid Twitter wars. That’s not helpful.”

How banks handle even the angriest tweets is also important, Pannell said.

“There are venters and there are watchers. You’re never going to satisfy the angriest, but people will be watching how you handle it, because it tells them about your brand.”

One other suggestion: Quit the self-congratulatory explanations after the incident.

Pannell said despite a bank’s best intention behind touting how quickly it solved a technical glitch, it can be a bad look. “If a bank isn’t careful, it comes across like when you’re at a party, and one person just keeps talking about themselves,” he said. “We can authentically show how we care about serving people without talking about ourselves too much.”

Again, it’s not a situation tilted in a bank’s favor, he acknowledged. “You would like customers to see how responsible you’ve been: ‘Look at what we’ve done. We fixed it in two hours.’ The problem is, the public will say, ‘You shouldn’t have even needed two hours. It never should have happened at all.’ That’s unreasonable, but that is what the customer expects now.”

Suleman Din

Suleman Din

Suleman Din is technology editor of American Banker and Financial Planning. Follow him on Twitter at @sulemandn.