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My year as a ‘customer advocate’

07:00am February 01 2018

As Westpac's independent customer advocate, Adrian Ahern says he's in a position to help customers with disputes and improve processes so they don’t happen again. (Getty)

Travelling in the US in September 2016, I was approached with an unexpected opportunity to be the customer advocate at Westpac.

While having practised law in financial services for years, I initially expressed limited interest – my mind was a world away as I traversed the US by car with my wife while on long service leave.

However, nagging curiosity got the better of me and once I had the opportunity to review the scope of the role I became very enthusiastic and threw my hat in the ring, holding my first two interviews by Skype from the road. I’d been looking for a new challenge in the corporate world and also to do more for the community, and this role uniquely ticked both boxes.

Of course, I knew some of what I was getting into: like many Australians sitting outside the banking sector, I’d watched from the sidelines as the “trust gap” widened between customers and their bank.

But a little more than a year into the role, I can say my understanding of how this occurred was actually pretty limited.

I’ve seen how products and procedures can go stale and not be updated on a timely basis. Poorly designed human resources appraisals can also skew behaviour away from customers being at the heart of what banks do.

Positive cultural change appears to be resisted at some levels – described by some industry commentators as a layer of “permafrost”. Communication to customers can be wanting. Sometimes there can be a bit too much group-think. And sometimes people just make a poor judgement call - a human failing we all suffer.

Personally, I had always been pretty happy with the service I got from the bank I used to deal with before joining Westpac. But it had not been perfect. Some financial planning advice I received was not as it should have been and I had been annoyed when I found out about interest rate changes through the media, rather than the bank.

So the role of customer advocate appealed as it puts me in a position to help retail, small business and BT customers with disputes, and also try to improve processes so they don’t happen again. First, my team and I conduct an objective and independent review to ensure the outcome of any dispute with the bank was fair and balanced, and if not, put them back in the position they should have been in.

Adrian Ahern says at the heart of his role is ensuring customers don’t feel it is a “David versus Goliath” fight if they feel wronged. (Emma Foster)

In the past year my office has made recommendations going to improvements in areas such as complaint resolution processes, customer communications, support for vulnerable customers, data quality and credit outcomes/processes across a range of areas, from mortgage brokers to insurance and superannuation, and unsecured loans and credit cards.

For example, the bank has updated its approach in relation to the Financial Ombudsman Service to ensure customers are aware of determinations in their favour, after my team reviewed a case involving an elderly customer for whom English was a second language and did not fully understand the FOS process.

Also, my team was recently able to help a customer who lived alone with no immediate family who had physical and mental health disabilities, thus being particularly vulnerable. He’d stopped making payments on a loan and over time had become unresponsive to communication. But after getting his permission, we played a role in engaging with his brother, and other community and government agencies to assist.

Getting out and meeting customers, and liaising with external stakeholders such as consumer and small business groups and ombudsmen to receive feedback on what banks generally, and we specifically at Westpac, can be doing better, is probably the most interesting and challenging part of my role. So late last year we established a “Vulnerable Customer Council” made up of representatives of consumer support organisations, which meets with senior bank executives to discuss how we can better assist our more vulnerable customers and those close to becoming vulnerable. A similar Customer Council representing small business customers will launch in March.

Beyond what I do in my role, a common question is how could I possibly be regarded as independent given I sit inside and am paid by Westpac? Well, I don’t report to any business unit but rather to the group executive responsible for human resources and corporate affairs, and I regularly meet with Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer. However, Westpac is bound by my decisions, and my remuneration is fixed for the whole time I am with the bank so, no matter how well or poorly I do in the eyes of the bank, I get paid the same amount month-in-month-out.

At the heart of my role is ensuring customers don’t feel it is a “David versus Goliath” fight if they feel wronged by the bank, and making sure people are properly prepared to put their best foot forward when dealing with the bank. Access to justice is an issue that concerns me greatly and all service organisations need to do better at helping customers articulating their issues and for them not to feel the need to “lawyer-up”.

But despite negative headlines about banks, my continuing observation of Westpac is that the employees are passionate about seeking to ensure customers are at the centre of all what they do, and Westpac and the industry more broadly are actually seeking to make a real difference, including through the creation of roles like mine.

Of course, I’ve seen enough in the past year to know there are many challenges, including when customers still feel wronged even after I and my team have reviewed their cases. But my view has also firmed that customer advocates in banks can make a difference as long as we are vigilant, listen hard, are fair in our decisions, call out behaviour where customers are not at the centre of what banks do and recommend timely systemic changes.

Adrian was appointed the inaugural Customer Advocate for the Westpac Group in November 2016.  Adrian represents customers and is independent of Westpac Group’s business units. Adrian recommends changes to policies and procedures to ensure the best outcomes for customers and provides advice and guidance to our complaints team on how best to resolve a customer complaint. Prior to joining the Westpac Group Adrian was a lawyer for more than 30 years, most recently as a partner at international law firm, Norton Rose Fulbright, where he held various roles including Global Chairman.

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