The problem of a negative perception is that it often sticks

HeadacheTwenty-four million account holders of the Royal Bank of Scotland, NatWest and Ulster Bank (RBS) who tried to complete everyday transactions like paying for groceries at the check-out got a nasty surprise in the UK earlier this week.

Their credit and debit cards were rejected as a result of a technology glitch.

The error is understood to have occurred after a software update froze part of the banks’ computer systems and although this had been fixed, it created a backlog of more than 100 million transactions that were not paid in or out of bank accounts as they should’ve been. As a result of a clerical error these items were “cleared” that resulted in erasing all the scheduling that should have taken place.

Predictably, customers went on Twitter to vent their frustration tinged with anger, embarrassment and disillusionment with RBS.

The banking group responded with a damage limitation exercise on its Twitter handle @RBS_Help over the next 48 hours:

“We’re aware of some technical issues and are working hard to fix them. Sorry and thanks for your patience.”

“We are very sorry for the issues that have affected customers tonight.”

“Our customers are reporting that services are coming back on line. We will confirm when all systems have returned to normal service.”

“If customers are left out of pocket as a result of these problems, we will put this right.”

“If any customer is unable to resolve an issue they should contact us by phone or in branch in the morning where we will be ready to help.”

“The systems issues that affected our customers last night have now been resolved and all of our services are now back working normally.”

“We would like to apologize to our customers. if anyone has been left out of pocket as a result of these problems, we will put this right.”

“Any customers experiencing issues this morning should get in touch with our call centres or branches where our staff will be ready to help.”

“Customers can contact us free phone on 0800 151 0405 or 03457 242 242.”

Unfortunately, the glitch came 18 months after another episode where millions of RBS customers were unable to access their accounts, again following a software update.

Customers were compensated and Stephen Hester, then RBS chief executive, said that he was deeply sorry and waived his annual bonus to demonstrate his contrition and regret.

RBS acted in a highly responsible and professional way when it discovered the latest problem and its impact.

But from a public relations perspective how should RBS recover from this recent set-back?

“Perception is the act of recognition or comprehension by the observer,” observes David Pearson who’s been at the helm of mega brands such as Speedo, Sony, Proctor & Gamble, Mars and Pillsbury in a career that stretches over 40 years on both sides of the Atlantic.

“It may come through the senses or the mind. It may not be correct but it is what matters. How a customer perceives a product or service they are being invited to buy is all important. The good marketer understands that it’s not the message but what’s received that counts.”

The perception that RBS is “accident prone” doesn’t look like evaporating as quickly as the steps taken to resolve the issue.

By making its customer service process more robust RBS will have remedied the situation where such incidents are less likely to occur again in the future.

However, in the meantime RBS will need to live with the fact that the problem of a negative perception is that it can often stick despite all of its best efforts to remedy an issue that could’ve easily happened to any other bank or financial services brand.

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