NS&I How did service design go so wrong?

NS&I Call Us screen with distraught emoji

Here in the UK we have National Savings and Investments branded as NS&I which provide popular savings products to the public. NS&I raise revenue for the UK Government and in 2020 delivered £11.6 billion of Net Financing.

So you would think customer service is top on the director’s agenda to ensure smooth running and secure the income stream from its 25m customers. We’re just one of the customers that have become disillusioned with service and if TrustPilot’s NS&I reviews are representative we’re not alone.

What’s gone wrong at NS&I?

Simply, it’s very difficult to speak to an NS&I service advisor anymore. Previously customers picked up the phone or walked into post office to buy Premium Bonds, cash ISAs and Index Linked savings products. As business moved online NS&I moved more of their account opening and management online via their website.

Poorly designed UX

Like many organisations that have built businesses using efficient call centres, NS&I decided automation is the way forward. When you try to call NS&I now you are greeted with a voice from a virtual assistant that sounds like a real person. Unfortunately they don’t say they are virtual so the unsuspecting customer may be lead down a series of rabbit holes as they think they are speaking to a human.

Of course generation Z would likely get they are talking with a virtual assistant immediately as they’d seen the website – but granny or grandpa or generation X may take a little longer to twig. When you do manage to convince the bot they are not up to the task and you need to speak to a real human it all goes wrong. You are told they are experiencing a very high call volume and that the wait time is over 60 minutes. Yes, you heard right, not sixteen, sixty. Do you have over an hour to waste?

Who ever signed off the IVR contract must have been crazy. We can imagine the meeting. “Okay, so with this new IVR we just spent zillions on we can reduce the call centre staff FTE count by 90% right? And we can do that before the end of Q2 just as we roll out the MVP right? So every one agrees, right.

Wrong. They failed to think through the service design and volumetrics for the key user journeys. And I bet they failed to consider non-functional requirements, security risk assessment and so on. Here’s why.

Simple fact – over 25m customers are rich pickings for fraudsters. Not all customers will have or want to use online services no matter how much you want them to. NS&I’s loyal customers got used to picking up the phone and talking to helpful call centre staff. When existing customers call they are told how many of their needs can be handled much faster by visiting the website.

With call wait times over an hour there’s clearly too few staff to service customers. So why do customers call? In our case we’d tried to register for online or phone service and got an error message about a temporary password that had expired and to call the NS&I help desk.

So you can see the chicken and egg user journey the fine service designers have set up at NS&I. For clarity, here are some scenarios.


Scenario A: Existing customer has no online account and calls NS&I and is persuaded to try online

Customer calls and IVR tells them it’s much faster online. Customer goes online googles NS&I and follows signage to register. Customer starts registration entering account number and is told their temporary password has expired and to call the help desk. Customer is confused as they don’t remember ever having a temporary password. That’s because either someone else has entered their account number or they tried to register some years ago and gave up. Customer calls and IVR asks why they are calling. Customer says they are having trouble with a temporary password. IVR tells them it’s much faster to reset their password online using the forgotten password option. Customer goes online and clicks the forgotten password option. Customer enters their account number and surname and are shown an error telling them to call the technical help desk on the same number they had called earlier. Customer calls and IVR asks them why they called. Customer says they want the help desk and are told its much faster online. Customer getting angry says they want to speak to help desk IVR says okay, what do you want to speak about. Customer just says put me through to help desk and are told they will be put through. IVR tells them the call wait time is 60 minutes and plays musak.

And so it goes. It’s woeful customer experience.

Clearly the user journeys don’t fit the user’s needs. Forgotten passwords must be high on the probability and need an automated solution. The call centre queues are being flooded by requests that don’t need human intervention.

The problem appears to be a dire inability to design user journeys that work. I bet they only considered true customers. How about this one?

Scenario B: Fraudster steals letter from NS&I to customer about premium bond win.

Fraudster steals post, opens letter and finds customer’s name, NS&I account number and details of their premium bond winnings and holder’s number. Lucky fraudster. Fraudster goes to NS&I website and clicks Register online. Fraudster enters account number, name and address from letter and is told to expect a temporary password in the post.

We could go on but leave the scenario to play out in the reader’s imagination – no point in making it any easier for fraudsters.

One key underlying problem here is how to authenticate customers given there’s no human interaction. NS&I are not alone in introducing two factor authentication as the traditional username and password is too insecure. NS&I still insist on giving customers a user number that few will every remember so have to write it down somewhere. Why not allow users to choose their own user ID such as a user name they can remember? Why not use OAuth? There are many better ways.