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The Times Are A Changin’ and we must too

05:03pm July 27 2017

Mike Chesworth, who retires today after almost 40 years with Westpac. (Emma Foster)

As a massive Bob Dylan fan, one of my favourite films is the 1967 classic Dont Look Back.

Despite that being exactly what the film does, it provides one of the best insights into the singer/songwriter and got me thinking about the changes I’ve seen in almost 40 years in the banking industry and the impact on our customers, including the way we deal with “stuff”, which is not always perfect.

I joined the Bank of New South Wales on February 5, 1979 when we weren’t allowed to have a calculator in a teller box, but it was OK to have a gun in the drawer and an ashtray on the counter. Yes, things have changed.

Petrie Plaza branch had 120 staff. We did everything in the branch from proof (if you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about it) and updating passbooks, to mortgages typed on a manual typewriter. Customers needed to come to “their” branch that only opened from 10am to 3pm to transact. If you wanted to transact somewhere else, or God forbid go on holidays, you needed to make arrangements ahead. The bank was in control and the bank manager was king – or queen if you were in Rockhampton when Helen Lynch became our first bank manager in 1978 (the sole female we had in that role in those days).  

Today, we have a bank in our pocket and our kids have never – and will never – even write a cheque! Our customers' expectations are different, and rightly so. We’ve made massive improvements in the way our customers interact with us. Almost 100 per cent of the time it’s smooth, effortless, efficient and – to some extent – impersonal. Sure, with major transactions like buying a home or planning for their retirement, a number of our customers still like the personal interaction, but with the rate of change we might even see that shift in the next few years.

It’s when things go wrong that people – the human interaction – is still crucial.

Having worked across Westpac’s retail and business bank, human resources, strategy, marketing and – most recently – in BT, I’ve seen many instances where we have stumbled and then recovered extremely well, building an even stronger customer relationship. I saw this a lot in BT Advice. In instances where we got it wrong, we proactively went to the customer to inform them and fix it. We then had a customer for life and we should be proud of that.

For the last nine months with the bank working in the Office of Customer Advocate – a new unit to enhance our complaint resolution process – I’ve seen the other side where things have gone wrong and we at times didn’t play our best customer card getting things back on track. It’s “nobody’s fault, but it’s everyone’s problem”.

But today, as we interact with customers through various channels and things go pear shaped, we have to move from the thought “it’s nobody’s fault, but it’s everyone’s problem” to be more action orientated. To be a world class service organisation, we need everyone to believe “it might not be my fault, but it is my problem” because when we don’t get onto issues quickly enough they can escalate faster now than in the past.

If 40,000 people thought just that, imagine improvements for customers and the ensuing change in perception of the bank. The “trust gap” Westpac has spoken of would narrow and we could then create a gap between us and others.

That’s something we can do today, if we want to.

In fact, we have to, because as Bob says, The Times They Are A Changin’. We are seeing newer and more sensitive changes and challenges for our customers, as well as with our family members, friends and colleagues. I see three key themes emerging we need to address:

•    The rise in mental illness. It’s not always caused by a change in someone’s financial circumstances, but this often exacerbates the problem. It’s extremely worrying. It was probably always there and we either didn’t see it or may have turned a blind eye. But by the time a matter gets to the Customer Advocate, often the issue has intensified. Early conciliation meetings with business unit leaders may help with this growing issue.

•    The growth in scams, particularly with our older customers. From developments online to email scammers, we need to think about our processes and systems and how to best protect our customers, just like if it were our own mum or dad…because it probably is.

•    Sadly, elderly abuse – incredibly – within families. Ensuring our systems are tight around the “purpose” of a transaction or loan will be even more paramount going forward.

Bob Dylan’s Dont Look Back came from a quote by a guy called Satchel Paige, the oldest major league baseball rookie at 42 who in 1948 pitched for the Cleveland Indians. Paige said: “Don’t look back. Someone might be gaining on you.”

I take two things from that quote. First, that we need to keep moving forward, keep adapting, keep the customer at the centre – and where the customer isn’t, put them there. That might hurt the bottom line on some products, but we’re not going to have long term success with just profitable products. We saw that in the last decade and we’ve now changed things such as some of our fees.  Long term success is through satisfied, profitable customers.

Second, if Satchel can be a rookie in the majors at 42, it might be time to have a rethink about some of our people. Grey hair doesn’t mean they can’t contribute!

The last 40 years have been a roller coaster but such a thrill and I’d do it all again. I’m confident the business will address these new issues at the same time as more headwinds pop up. But if everyone has an “it’s not my fault but my problem” mindset with customers, the brand is in safe hands.

Mike joined Westpac in February 1979, back when we were called the Bank of New South Wales. He has worked across the business bank, retail bank and wealth business BT where he lead the financial planning force, prior to taking on the director’s role in the office of the Customer Advocate. He is married with three kids in their twenties, is very involved in local community, a keen cyclist and avid photographer.

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