What to do when the wheels come off

heath robinson

I can’t avoid it. I’ve got to say ‘Well done’ to RBS. They had a problem recently, on Cyber Monday, with their customers being unable to access their funds or pay their bills. This was caused by RBS’s systems collapsing. The bank had the honesty to admit fault, and promised to make good any losses.

This looks good at first sight, but I’m not confident that everyone will be reimbursed. Banks are very good at avoiding liability. I think it might be too ingrained a habit for any of them to break.

Apart from financial loss, customers had other problems. What do you do when you’ve filled your car’s tank with fuel, and then your card is rejected? What can the bank do to make up for the stress that you’ve suffered?

Bravely, the bank blamed the problem on its antiquated and inadequate IT systems. It went further, and suggested that most UK banks were in the same lamentable state. This is no surprise to me, but it might be to all those, banks and customers alike, who hold up these systems as a sort of gold standard.

You may be surprised that I said ‘customers’ in this respect. You may think that most of us agree that it’s the banks’ responsibility to make their systems fit for purpose, and that they’ve failed in this. Not so.

I was reading an online forum the other day. It was set up so that people with financial problems could get advice and support. Someone posted a plea for help, saying that they had made a one-digit error when transferring a five-figure sum from their account. The money had gone astray, and they had been unable to recover it.

The advice offered? Paraphrased, ‘It’s your own fault for being so stupid’. The distressed questioner was told that they should have made a small transfer first, to test the safety of the transaction. I’m not sure how this would render the next transaction error-free.

So a person setting out to advise on these matters suggests that it is the customer’s responsibility to make up for the dangerous deficiencies in online banking systems. No wonder the banks can get away with almost anything.

I have only quoted one example, but I have seen many more where people are chided for not keeping up with IT advances. The joke here is that such comments are made to justify the banks’ steam-driven technology.

Perhaps some good will come of RBS’s meltdown. It’s perfectly possible to design software that will do everything that human counter-staff would normally do. Up to now, of course, online banking systems haven’t come near this modest target, because the banks couldn’t be bothered to design them properly. This shambles might spur them into making some attempt to do so.

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