Frustrated Northern Rock customers are being badly let down by the company’s website, which is being put under considerable pressure following one of the worst PR disasters in recent times.

The company sent out an unfortunate message to its customers last week after turning to the Bank of England for an emergency loan. It has since been ‘besieged by savers’ who have swarmed to its branches to withdraw their savings.

Those customers unwilling or unable to visit a branch are turning to Northern Rock’s website, or to its call centres. Presumably the call centres are inundated. But the website has really suffered over the last few days, and problems have continued this morning.

Northern Rock’s web team is dealing with the crisis, but it’s a mixture of thumbs up and down… and their hands may be tied by technology.

On the plus side, the company added a message to its homepage from its contrite CEO, Adam Applegarth, which has led to its Google listing being updated. Customers searching for ‘Northern Rock’ in Google will see following: “May I begin by offering you my sincere apologies for any inconvenience you have suffered in dealing with Northern Rock during the last few days…”.

The message itself notes that web users have been especially affected:

“Customer service is of paramount importance to us and due to the circumstances that surround us, you have been let down. Thank you so much for your patience, particularly when using our website which has been running very slowly due to the number of people working online.”

This homepage ‘takeover’ is a good start, but when we hit the ‘Proceed’ button to visit the website it took about four minutes to load the next page! Ouch!

The company delivered another message once the page loaded: “We are currently experiencing high levels of activity on the site, which is intermittently affecting normal operation. We are working on a solution to address this. Please try again later.”

None of this is going to reassure its customers, particularly since many are already planning on withdrawing their savings.

Having persevered we can see another prominent message: “For information on Current Trading conditions please click here.” And hey, that directs us to a two-page PDF that is full of reassuring statements. Only Northern Rock will know why it needed a PDF for this! Bizarre.

The company’s ‘Contact Us‘ page has not yet been updated to reflect the crisis.

What could Northern Rock have done?

Well, it could be that it simply needs a more scaleable hosting set-up, one that can accommodate such a surge in demand. But a much more robust hosting solution might not solve the problem.

When looking at the amount of concurrent users a website can support there are various things that can go wrong. The company’s underlying software might not have been designed to cater for this sort of demand. If, for example, Northern Rock’s database can only deal with 100 concurrent query requests then no amount of extra bandwidth will help it if it has 100,000 people trying to access their details at the same time. The website is only as strong as its weakest part, be it the hosting, database, web server, etc.

Yet any talk of this being an ‘unprecedented’ situation can only be linked to its Bank of England loan, rather than the website. Other websites have experienced similar traffic surges, for whatever reason. For example, there is the recent Mattel toy recall, which led to hundreds of thousands of parents rushing towards the company website for information. Judging by Google Trends the impact on Mattel’s website was more severe than that we’re seeing at Northern Rock (although that could change…).

It is also worth checking out the effects of this recall on Mattel’s Google listings to get an idea of what Northern Rock can expect to see happen on the search engines in the coming weeks.

Maybe there’s a gap in the market for a technical SWAT team for crisis management? After all, the big PR firms all have crisis management services but what use is massaging your PR if the website continues to fail customers at such a crucial time?