There have been many victims of the NatWest/RBS computer glitch – the young girl in South America waiting for funds to clear for an emergency operation and the man remanded in prison because his bail money was not transferred. House moves have foundered, small businesses have suffered and holidays have been cancelled.

At this relatively early stage in what is likely to be a long, drawn out and messy process – the Financial Ombudsman Service is already suggesting complete resolution is weeks away – there circulates much doubt and uncertainty. How many of the bank’s 15 million customer accounts have been affected? Where does the fault for the issue lie – in simple sloppy coding, the downsizing of the bank’s IT function or off-shoring in the direction of India?

That sinking feeling

However, one key audience affected as much as any are the battered and beleaguered employees of NatWest. Engagement levels from their obvious low point of 2008 have quietly been on the mend, notwithstanding the public’s continued banker bashing and annual witch hunts around CEO Stephen Hester’s bonus.

And it’s the frontline NatWest people trying to deliver great customer service we instinctively feel sorry for. It’s a tough enough job as it is – with customers never more cynical about financial institutions and their motives – and the constant internal pressure to sell as much as to service.

Computer says no – to employee engagement

However, all the hard work, energy and customer empathy of these people meant little in the face of a computer glitch which meant punters could not access money, transfer finances, check balances and many more services they would normally take for granted. It’s hard to over-estimate the sense of frustration and ultimate dis-engagement NatWest employees, either based in call centres or in branches, will have felt. Having spent the last four years building bridges, trust and credibility, all this has now been taken rapidly out of their hands.

If that wasn’t unfortunate enough, NatWest, full of good intentions, managed to exacerbate the situation by extending branch opening hours – including opening on a Sunday for the first time in the bank’s history – in order to deal with mounting customer issues. However, employees were made to feel even more impotent, face-to-face with customers, when the system continued to prevent anyone from gaining any sort of accurate picture of their account.

The cost to reputation

And what of the fallout? The City is putting a finger in the air and suggesting the problem could cost NatWest between £50m and £100m. There is clear reputational damage on top of this. It is inconceivable that many, many of the bank’s customers will not vote with their feet.

But what of employee engagement and the employer brand of NatWest/RBS? Great customer service people aim to deliver exactly that, great customer service. If the employer they work for is preventing this from happening, through potential cost cutting or off-shoring decisions, in which direction is employee engagement likely to topple? And what of external audiences? If they have been contemplating joining the bank, in either a customer service or even IT capacity, might they very likely be re-considering such a decision?

Many observers felt that Hester was right to publically apologise and to assume ultimate responsibility for fixing the problem. However, what role is he playing in fixing the internal problem?

The effect on employees?

The estimates surrounding the loss NatWest/RBS is likely to incur are very unlikely to touch on damaged engagement or employer branding. But they should.

Are NatWest’s customer service professionals likely to put in the same discretionary passion and effort tomorrow as they were doing before the systems malfunction? Very unlikely. Are they however likely to consider that alternative employers might offer a more rewarding and less bruising arena for their customer service skills? Much more likely.

NatWest has spent the last three/four years positioning itself as the helpful bank – it probably doesn’t feel like that right now to both customers or disengaged customer service professionals.

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Written by Neil Harrison, head of employer branding & insight, TMP Worldwide

Heading up TMP’s employer branding practice, I have lead major branding projects for organisations such as Unilever, Santander, Telefonica, Pizza Express, HSBC, the MoD, Bank of America and EON. Employer branding is now established as a core offering within TMP and an integral part of our corporate vision. I am also responsible for the delivery of both best practice research-based discovery within employer branding but also new industry initiatives – this includes a major presentation of some bespoke employer branding research earlier this year.

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