Banking Mobile & Online UX

What the Number26 PR fail teaches us about transparency and empathy

What the Number26 PR fail teaches us about transparency and empathy. Photo: wk1003mike,
Written by Jessica Ellerm

Jessica Ellerm uses the Number26 PR fail as an example of how starting from a place of transparency and empathy can reap dividends.

In financial services and fintech, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And while ‘free’ can be an effective marketing phrase for the purposes of boosting customer acquisition, you’d better mean it, or else. Because thanks to social media, if you promise and don’t deliver, then the whole world is going to know about it in a heartbeat. And with more choice at consumers’ fingertips, they can be relatively unforgiving.

Fledgling digital banking startup Number26 found this out the hard way last month after terminating a number of its free customer accounts with no explanation. Irate customers quickly took to Twitter and the company’s live chat looking for answers. After initially refusing to disclose the reasons behind the closures, the growing momentum of the story forced a rethink. On 5 June, the company made an official statement explaining that customers who’d had their accounts closed had made too many ATM withdrawals.

Under the original account plan, Number26 had been covering the €1.50-2.00 ATM withdrawal fee from German ATMs. As we can now see from its new Fair Use Policy, it was probably factoring in covering roughly five withdrawals a month. What prompted the account closures was that data showed some customers were making 15 withdrawals or more. It was these customers, Number26 indicated, who were the targets of the closures. But instead of educating customers or asking them to modify their behaviour, it simply decided to close the account, sending out a blanket termination email.

PR parody

Now Number26 is a fantastic concept. Making cross-border commerce and banking easier and more straightforward is a no-brainer. But what also makes Number26 appealing to those people signing up to the service is the fact it isn’t a traditional bank; that decisions for design, use and customer interaction are driven by what the customer wants and how they behave, rather than by how Number26 (the bank) wants the customer to behave. Co-founder and CEO Valentin Stalf spoke to these principles well in a presentation he gave at a Wired UK event last year.

So you can imagine the disappointment multiple Number26 customers must have felt when they were relegated to the reject bin, especially considering customers referring other customers onto the Number26 platform is the main acquisition channel for the business. To compound matters, a number of angry customers have now set up a separate Facebook page parodying the company’s PR handling of the matter.

Since the account termination saga unfolded, full credit to Number26 for creating the Fair Use Policy and communicating this to its users. Yet, there are several lessons here that other fintech/banking startups would do well to heed.

Being transparent means being transparent about the good and the bad

Fintech startups such as Number26 use the word ‘transparent’ like it’s going out of fashion. Why? Because it resonates with customers, who for so long have banged their heads against the opaqueness of the banking system. But being transparent means also being honest, as much as you possibly can be, about the hard, uncomfortable stuff as well – like your free account being not so free after all.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with changing your business model to stay in business. You just have to educate and take your customers on the journey of change. It’s a little more investment in time and energy upfront, but as Number26 is no doubt learning, saves you a wealth of heartache after the fact.

Start from a place of empathy

As the old saying goes, sometimes it’s not what you’re saying but how you’re saying it that makes all the difference. I’m sure if Number26 retros this incident, it will wonder why it didn’t just explain to the heavy users that they would have to cap their withdrawal fees because it wasn’t commercially viable for them to offer this, and support all the other elements of the product users loved.

Stepping someone through your reasons behind doing something says a lot about your esteem of them. Ultimately, every single customer – big or small – wants to feel valued by the financial institution they entrust their money to. While one customer’s deposit may be a drop in the Number26 ocean, that same deposit is the whole ocean to the customer. I think banks forget this … a lot.

If a fintech startup doesn’t demonstrate transparency and empathy in its dealings with customers, then what bar “better technology” will make them any different from the same old legalese-enshrouded banking institutions they seek to disrupt? Banks will catch up on the technology front, meaning the battle for the customer will ultimately be won by the company that shows they actually care. Transparency and empathy are excellent topics to talk about, but putting into practice and walking the walk? Well, that’s another kettle of fish entirely.

READ NEXT: How empathy can be just as disruptive to banks as technology

– This article is reproduced with kind permission. Some minor changes have been made to reflect BankNXT style considerations. Read more here. Photo: wk1003mike,

About the author

Jessica Ellerm

Jessica Ellerm is CEO and co-founder at Australian fintech startup Zuper Superannuation. She's also a fintech commentator, blogging at her own website ( and guest posting for BankNXT. In addition, she writes for the fintech blog Daily Fintech Advisers, specialising in small business banking. Prior to Zuper, Jessica spent 6+ years at payments company and small business startup bank Tyro. Jessica is a contributor to Brett King's Breaking Banks, and has freelanced as a finance news journalist for Australia's leading online markets channel Finance News Network.

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