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Talking Point – Contingency Planning or Unintended Consequences?

On Monday 11 May 2020 the unthinkable happened to tens of thousands of New Zealanders. Many New Zealand Superannuants and government beneficiaries were not paid their fortnightly payments. As bad as this might seem, it gets worse. At supermarket checkouts, service stations, and pretty much anywhere that relied on taking electronic payments, including on-line banking, there was chaos when many customers could not pay for the goods or services they wanted to purchase.

For many of those affected it was a particularly cruel blow – the country was in Level 3 lockdown for Covid-19 and simple things like grocery shopping took an inordinate amount of time. Imagine queuing for an hour or more to get into the supermarket to buy groceries for the next few days, struggling to shop under social-distancing rules where everything seemed to take twice as long, followed by a 45 minute wait to proceed through the checkout, carefully unloading your pile of groceries for scanning and hurriedly packing them in to your own shopping bags so as not to hold up those following, only to get to the end of the transaction and find your EFTPOS debit or credit card was declined, whilst knowing that there were funds available, but they just couldn’t be accessed.

And there was absolutely nothing you could do about it. Unless you had another means of paying.

The first response, after you’ve emptied your bags of groceries back into the trolley and scurried out of the supermarket in shame, is to call your bank to find out what is going on. That’s assuming you can actually reach them.

It transpires that Westpac Bank had suffered a ‘widespread’ systems failure that had affected online banking, card payments and its contact centre. Some customers at other banks, whose banks received government payments via Westpac, were also caught up in the outage.

Westpac’s customers were fuming and Facebook was inundated with posts from angry and frustrated customers. One of the biggest gripes (apart from the massive inconvenience) was the lack of information from Westpac and the use of the ‘Declined’ message, which implies there are no funds in the account, when in reality it was caused by a systems outage.

To make matters worse, if they could get any worse, callers to Westpac’s call centre who were lucky enough to get through, were advised there would be a five-minute wait to speak to a human, only to wait closer to an hour. Westpac’s phone banking wasn’t working, their app wasn’t working and even their website wouldn’t load. The frustration levels must have been off the scale.

It took affected and disgruntled Westpac customers to make suggestions for improvements that should have already been implemented by Westpac. It’s not rocket science what needed to be done. First, change the error message on the EFTPOS terminal to something that would be helpful to the customers and their suppliers, instead of defaulting to “Declined” which made no sense and just upset people more. Second, switch recorded phone messages to advise there’s an outage and be honest – if it isn’t known how long it might take to fix, don’t give people false hope. Third, put a message on your website’s homepage to let people know that you’re working on the problem, and provide updates, preferably showing the time the updates have been added, just so the customers know they’re being kept up to date with the latest developments.

The day after the outage Westpac sent an email to its clients apologising for the inconvenience caused and explaining what had happened, what they had done to fix things, and that they were undertaking a review to understand the causes of the outage to ensure it doesn’t happen again. In fairness to Westpac, they certainly pulled out all the stops to get things working again, with staff working through the night, and given the lockdown situation in place at the time, it can’t have been easy for any of them. Hopefully when they do their review, they’ll take into account the feedback they received from their customers and will change their communications management processes and error messages used.

The big lesson in this is that no-one knows when something will go wrong, and with the whole world consumed with something like Covid-19 and doing everything they could to help keep their customers and staff safe, the timing for a systems outage really couldn’t have been worse for Westpac. It’s unlikely they were expecting an outage to occur in the middle of a pandemic. Who would?

No company that relies on technology to do their business is immune from disasters like this happening, it’s just a fact of life unfortunately, and more and more organisations are dependent on technology, with the level of dependency increasing on an almost daily basis. The big things to consider are how the communications are managed when something goes wrong, the lessons learned from any significant outage, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again, or at least minimising the damage next time; as realistically speaking, nothing is infallible, no matter how hard we try to make it so.

During lockdown many non-essential organisations could have taken advantage of the situation to work ‘on’ their business instead of the usual work ‘in’ the business, and it would have been wise to use this time to review any potential issues and how they would be managed, should they occur.

Contingency planning is a bit like insurance – not thought important until something goes wrong and you need it. It’s not selective and can damage small and large organisations alike, though you’re more likely to hear about the big organisations’ failures, as they affect a mass market.

If you’d like to know more about contingency planning, a Google search will provide plenty of options to check out, but here’s one you might to start with. Expert has had a contingency plan for many years; it’s a ‘given’ in our sector, and touch wood, we haven’t had to roll it out in its entirety, but it’s certainly something we review regularly. If you’d like help with yours, in terms of the technology you use, we’d be happy to discuss this with you.

I’m guessing there will be a few bank customers considering having their own contingency plan in case it should happen again. The most obvious thing would be to open a bank account with a rival provider, as long as it’s fee-free and with no onerous conditions. I thought there might have been campaigns already happening by other banks to tempt Westpac customers. But on reflection, maybe all banks are only too aware that they could experience a similar fate to Westpac, if they haven’t already. It can happen to the best of us.


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