David Prosser: The downside of the digital age

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The Independent Online

Outlook The joys of accountability in the modern age. After Nationwide Building Society announced some not altogether popular changes to its current account a few weeks ago, Graham Beale, the mutual's chief executive, found his personal email inbox deluged by messages from complaining customers. The society promptly changed its system, providing a general account for customers to complain to, while Mr Beale got a new personal address that he presumably hoped would be a little less busy.

The flaw in Nationwide's cunning plan was that if one thing was going to make the society's members crosser than the changes planned for their accounts, it was the suggestion that Mr Beale was seeking to avoid their feedback.

Nationwide insists that was never the idea, but the furore that ensued has prompted a change of heart – Mr Beale yesterday published his new address so that customers could once again drop him a message personally.

The episode is a useful reminder that while new technology has presented businesses with all sorts of opportunities, it has also introduced additional responsibilities. All companies wants customers to think they're appreciated and listened to – Nationwide even more than most since it is owned by its customers – but there are now some very immediate yardsticks by which to judge such claims.

Indeed, the pitfalls of technology can be downright nasty. Vodafone had to fire a member of staff earlier this year after he used the company's Twitter account to make a homophobic remark. Emails between staff at Goldman Sachs left the company looking less than pretty when the SEC published them as part of its case against the investment bank in the Abacus affair.

In that context, Mr Beale and his staff have got away lightly, helped by a sensible backtrack made very quickly. Still, you will excuse Nationwide's chief executive for a sentimental glance back to the days when customer complaints arrived in the post and were screened by an efficient secretary.