Just days after banking application DBS PayLah users faced delays in receiving their cashback for a SG$3 meal subsidy initiative, the service is down once again. DBS users found themselves unable to log onto DBS' digital systems on Wednesday morning after access was disrupted with the bank later saying that access was intermittent. Services were restored by 5.45pm according to an update by the bank at 7.30pm.
However, shortly after, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) released a statement saying that the disruption was "unacceptable" particularly as it was coming a year after a similar incident in November 2021.
"DBS has fallen short of MAS’ expectations to maintain high system availability and ensure its IT systems are recovered expeditiously," the statement read. MAS has also instructed DBS to conduct a thorough investigation to establish the root cause of the disruption and to submit its investigation findings to MAS. "MAS will take the commensurate supervisory actions after gathering the necessary facts," it said.
MAS also said it takes the reliability of banks’ critical IT systems seriously.
In response, DBS CEO, Piyush Gupta issued a statement on behalf of the bank:
We are disappointed that many of our customers were unable to access our digital banking services on 29 March 2023. We hold ourselves to higher standards and it is our utmost priority to review the events of today.
He continued by acknowledging the "gravity" of the situation and said that he appreciates the understanding of customers and "deeply regrets the inconvenience caused."
"While it is all well and good for DBS to manage the incident from a communications perspective, fundamentally, such an outage and extended disruption should not be happening in the first place," said Charu Srivastava, the corporate affairs lead and chief strategy officer at TriOn & Co, a strategic communications consultancy. This is especially so since DBS touts itself as a digital-first bank.
"As MAS has pointed out, this is the second incident in 16 months. While some customers may have forgotten about the November 2021 outage, many also have not and clearly, regulators are keeping tabs as they should," she said before adding that while DBS may have managed its customers, it certainly did not live up to its previous promise of doing better. Srivastava here is referencing a massive outage to DBS's online banking services in November 2021. At the time, DBS Bank's access control servers disrupted its online banking services for about two days, preventing customers from being able to access its services. The disruption was so serious that the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) imposed an additional capital requirement of SG$930 million on DBS due to the outage.
Yesterday's incident though began at around 8.30 am when services to the bank were disrupted. At 10.20am, DBS posted an update to its Facebook page and confirmed that access to its digital services, namely digibank Online and Mobile, PayLah!, was unavailable. It said that it was working to resolve the issue and that it would update users as soon as services were recovered.
At 12.49pm, the bank issued a second update to report that access to its digital services, namely DBS/POSB digibank Online and Mobile, DBS Vickers mTrading and DBS PayLah!, was intermittent and that users may experience some slowness during login. It again assured users that their deposits and monies are safe and secure and apologised for inconveniences caused.
At 4.50pm, DBS once again posted an update saying that it deeply regrets the inconveniences caused but that access to its digital services remained unavailable and that they are doing their best to resolve the situation. It added that it would be extending banking services at its DBS/POSB branches and Treasures Centres today as a result of the outage.
"While we are working to recover digital services, we've extended banking services at all DBS/POSB branches and Treasures Centers by two hours today. Customers can also continue to use their DBS/POSB cards for transactions," it said. The updates garnered a slew of unhappy customers reporting difficulties accessing the app and questioning why it was taking so long for DBS to rectify the situation.
The impact on DBS' trust factor
According to media intelligence company Meltwater, 32.5% of online sentiments were negative while only 9.3% were positive. It added that mentions of the brands spiked from just 35 yesterday to 132 today.
"I think trust in the tech space is currently low, and for products that impact the everyday life so pervasively, this could become a frustration point for users as noted by some netizens," said Weldon Fung, the area director for Southeast Asia at Meltwater. "However as this is only impacting a particular segment of their business, the overall impact to DBS standing is low with some social media users going on to comment that people should be prepared with alternative payment forms at all times.
He added that the key is for DBS to maintain constant and transparent updates on its service disruptions across all their social channels. "As of now, they've only made one proactive post on their Facebook (that was updated throughout the outage). Using that as a formal communication is much better than dealing with individual customer messages, so a crisis management comms plan should have kicked in here for their socials," he said.
Agreeing with Fung, Srivastava noted that timeliness and accuracy in messaging are the most important when it comes to service outage, especially when it comes to a financial institution. "A majority of people in Singapore rely on digital banking so any kind of disruption has a huge impact," Srivastava said before adding that a second outage, so soon after the PayLah blunder last week, is a cause for concern.
In such cases, it is important for the communications team (offline and online) to as quickly as possible allay any concerns through an accurate reporting of the situation. It is best to be honest instead of trying to cover up the incident.
She added that it is important that the response come from combined efforts across communications, legal, IT, operations, customer service and others. "It is then crucial to have a clear flowchart of what to do and what not to do, who leads what action and who is responsible for each step."
A crisis is best managed when it has already been thought through before the incident even happens, she said. It is too late if communications teams start to think of a plan of action after an incident has occurred. Half the battle is won before anything even happens.
Lars Voedisch, principal consultant and managing director of PRecious Communications added that in such a situation there are four key rules:
1. Get it fast - Acknowledge quickly that you are aware of the situation and that you’re working on it.
2. Get it out - Talk about it maybe through an SMS alert; or maybe have a tracker on which branches are more or less crowded. You don’t want customer to waste their time getting stuck with online services and only then check if the services are down. Update about the progress frequently, and always show empathy.
3. Get it right - Fix the issue at hand (which took longer than expected) and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
4. Get it over - Share what really happened and how you fixed it sustainably so that everyone can move on
On point number two, Voedisch added that DBS has gotten the message out but maybe in a manner that is skewed towards corporate and defensive in tone – not a move that is unconventional for “traditional” banks. The main issue at hand right now, he added is the issue of trust. With the damage of 2021, the crash last week and outage this week, any promise the bank makes to fix these issues might not be as easily trusted.
He added, “Last year DBS launched their brand campaign to become more like a startup, more like a techie, more like an eco-warrior, and less like a traditional bank. With all these incidences, maybe customers now rather want a traditional bank where things work and are reliable?”
The need to be more genuine
"There will always be digital and technical issues," agreed Kevin Kan, the CEO of Break Out Consulting Asia. "As resilient humans, we will adapt and may even forget about the outage one month later. However, it boils down to basic customer experience principles. Customers just want to be kept updated as to what is happening during a crisis," he said.
Pragmatically, DBS is Singapore's largest and most awarded bank. As such, there is not going to be an en-mass of customers switching banks. Although slightly inconvenienced, the strong branding will keep customers with the bank as there was no monetary loss, he said, adding:
While traditional communication typically revolves around a “we are fixing as soon as possible” response, it is important to have transparent and genuine communication to give comfort to customers.
The lesson learnt from this, he said, is that crisis communications should be included in any customer experience mapping, and managing customer expectations through communications is key to customer loyalty.
The outage comes just days after DBS Paylah saw some frustrated users emerge as customers faced delays when it came to receiving their cashback last week after a high volume of logins affected a SG$3 meal subsidy that was being offered by the bank under its 5 Million Hawker Meals initiative. As expected, the bank apologised for the inconvenience and replied to a majority of its customers complaints on its Facebook page.
According to The Straits Times, users were initially told through a notice on the PayLah app, that they would have to wait until Monday to receive their cashback amounts that that they should expect delays when it came to logging into the app. As part of the 5 Million Hawker Meals initiative, DBS PayLah users can expect to receive 100% cashback capped at SG$3 for the first 100,000 users who use DBS PayLah to scan and pay for their meals every Friday at any of the 11,600 SGQR-enabled hawker stalls island-wide, according to DBS. The initiative began on 10 February this year and will run until 19 January next year.
The technical issue with DBS comes just months after the bank launched a regional campaign to reflects its belief that, by behaving more like a startup and less like a "traditional bank, it can be a bank for the times – because a post-COVID world demands for a different kind of bank. The brand campaign which comes four years after its “Live more, Bank less” positioning, builds on what DBS wants to stand for and aims to defy the status quo of what being a bank means.
The campaign, which was rolled out across six markets in Asia, namely Singapore, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia and Taiwan, showcased DBS' commitment to becoming more like a forward-looking tech company offering financial services.
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