Westpac Customer Advocate, Adrian Ahern
11 March 2019
Westpac’s customer advocate, Adrian Ahern, provides Westpac’s retail, small business and wealth customers with an independent avenue for dispute resolution. Adrian’s role complements the further changes Westpac has made during 2018, with the establishment of the Customer & Corporate Relations division.
In the past, customers who were not satisfied with the handling of complaints often avoided taking on the banks, worried about the cost, the likelihood of a fair hearing or the prospect of how they would fare noting the resources of a large company.
And so, in late 2016 as part of the Australian Banking Association’s six point plan initiative, Westpac appointed Adrian Ahern as its Customer Advocate – shifting the balance in the management of complaints back to customers. Adrian has set up a team of ten case managers, offering customers a second opportunity to have their complaint reviewed.
“We start with a clean slate and carry out a thorough review of every matter that comes to us. We listen to customers and encourage them to be open and frank. This helps us uncover all aspects of the matter and at times reveals a vulnerability or circumstance that should have been understood by the bank earlier,” says Adrian.
Adrian has broad discretion to make decisions that are binding on the Group, not on the customer. Over the last year, the team dealt with 450 cases. Of these, approximately one third of the Group’s prior decisions were substituted; one third remain unchanged; and for the remaining third, the Customer Advocate agreed with the Group’s decision but took further action to ensure a fair outcome was delivered. This was often because further information became available during the review process. In addition, Adrian provides feedback to help Westpac improve its policies and processes, including those relating to how it deals with complaints.
Offering an independent view
Independence is fundamental to the role of Customer Advocate and while Adrian is employed by Westpac, his role is structured to support this.
“I don’t report to any business unit, but rather to the Group Executive responsible for human resources. That said, I meet regularly with Westpac’s CEO and Chairman, the agendas are always open and they usually start by asking me what I am seeing and how they can help,” says Adrian.
“My remuneration is fixed and I’m not entitled to any short-term incentives. And most importantly, I have no hesitation in putting noses out of joint when putting things right for customers.”
As part of his role as Customer Advocate, Adrian also acts as mediator between the Group and customers in a range of disputes across the Group, provides support to customers experiencing vulnerability and liaises with external stakeholders such as consumer and small business groups and the Ombudsmen to receive feedback on what Westpac can do better.
“Working with my team is the greatest aspect of my role. Each member brings a particular skill and perspective. And they have been through life experiences that help them approach matters with suitable robustness and also great empathy,” says Adrian.
Against the background of the Royal Commission this year, customer complaints into Adrian’s team have increased fourfold and range from issues involving responsible lending, elder and domestic financial abuse to incomplete wealth advice.
“Since the Royal Commission commenced, customer confidence in putting complaints to Westpac has increased, which is a very good thing because we get to fix what has gone wrong and put in place changes to ensure it doesn’t happen again. At the same time, because of all that is happening in the external environment, we’re seeing a lot of frustration directed towards the bank and that can be challenging.”
Changing for the better
“Over the last two years I have seen a genuine openness and commitment to change within the bank,” says Adrian.
“Westpac employees are passionate about customers and the Group is making changes which demonstrate a real shift in the way complaints are approached and managed. There’s still work to do, but by listening more closely and understanding customers and their circumstances more fully, the Group is better placed to get it right in the first instance.”