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Why and how is BNZ giving a special focus to the wellbeing of its customers?

Martin King: People’s lives are dynamic, not standard and linear. In everybody's life there are times we have lower levels of resilience. The core idea is to look after all of our customers all of the time.

For example, we have customers who were bolting along absolutely fine before covid came along. Their resilience was tested financially, physically and socially. 

There are other circumstances that are less transient – people with serious illnesses, or who experience domestic violence. These are not one-offs and they also don't manifest in a single, predictable way. But when they do, we want to be able to recognise them and provide the necessary support to our customers.

How does something like domestic violence affect your relationship with a customer? Why is it any of the bank’s business? 

Martin King: It’s not our business to pry, but it is our role to support. To be really clear, we’re not going out on the streets and asking people to tell us what’s going on in their lives. But when something is going on in your life, you should be able to turn to your bank for support.

The coercion and control in an abusive relationship often includes economic abuse: someone is controlling every dollar you spend; someone is stopping you taking a job; someone is forcing you to take on debt.

A lot of that involves the bank. It’s tough for the bank to stop those things happening, but when someone says, “I need help,” we are more skilled at understanding what the scenario is and what we can do to help. That could be opening bank accounts for someone that has left a relationship or helping them to unwind debt that was coerced over a long period of time.

How does the bank become aware of those sorts of issues? 

Martin King: We work with organisations like Good Shepherd, Women's Refuge, Shine and Habitat for Humanity, and are developing a number of innovative programmes with them.

Those groups have our contact details to pass on. Sometimes our frontline teams recognise that something isn’t right for a customer, or the customer discloses what their issue is – some people just tell us.

How do you train your staff to recognise these issues? And what do your staff do when they get that bad feeling?

Martin King: We teach a “spot and refer” model – recognising what is not standard behaviour and, very importantly, providing conversation guides. “Are you okay? Are you safe? We can help here. Let me refer you.”

Then we have a specially trained team that helps with such cases. Sometimes our role will be to refer the person, with kindness and compassion, to one of the not-for-profits or a government agency and we don’t go too much further. But if financial issues or banking are involved, we are developing a deeper understanding of how to help that customer.

What’s the history of this support team? 

Martin King: We set up the support team in the middle part of 2020 to address economic abuse. This has evolved to address a wide range of difficult circumstances.

Those needs can result from family violence, elder abuse, or gambling and other sorts of addiction. We’re also alert for difficulties like English-language skills or customers who live in poor housing. When bad things are happening for people and that impacts their banking, the support team knows how and where to refer people. 

The support team started as one person and has grown, and we're looking at expanding further.

Why is it a centralised team rather than having people in each branch with this role and knowledge?

Martin King: When we’re serving people in this really bespoke manner, we need to concentrate the expertise. We support the frontline teams in branches and the call centre to spot things and give them the skills and confidence to refer in the right way.

Some people might be surprised that you give so much attention to customers who may only do a small amount of business with the bank.

Martin King: Your level of vulnerability is not determined by your financial status. For example, covid has had an impact on everyone - from individuals who were already under pressure, through to the more affluent and successful businesses. Should we walk away from anyone who is struggling today, when two weeks ago they were thriving? Of course not. Our priority is to help.

We bankers have a unique and wonderful role, with relationships that might last 30 or 40 or 50 years. No-one is in a permanent state over such long periods, and our products have to allow for flex. We’re not thinking about it properly if we consider today’s vulnerability to be a permanent state.

Let’s also remember that the role of a bank in society is very different to what it was, say, 30 years ago. People without a banking relationship have a really limited ability to operate in society today. 

Banks have become a de facto social utility. We have bigger responsibilities in that environment.

The BNZ chairs the NZ Bankers’ Association’s Customer Vulnerability Working Group. In what respect are these industry-wide issues that go beyond a single bank?

Martin King: We’ve worked with the Bankers’ Association to create a group looking at how we can raise standards as a banking industry. We’re aiming to raise standards overall, for every customer, without stifling competition and innovation.

We’re also engaging with the Financial Markets Authority, who say this is very important for them, and also the Commerce Commission, MBIE and MSD.

All of us are asking how we can do better. We think it would be a pity if the outcome for a customer is predetermined by having chosen to be with the wrong bank.

There must be limits around privacy and what the role of a bank is. How do you know where to draw the line?

Martin King:  We are encouraging customers to share their lives with us more. Obviously, that comes with another level of responsibility on us. We don't take more data than we need. We don't use the data in a way that is not beneficial to the customer. 

The benefits of this approach often last for years.  We still get customers who say things like, “You helped me back in 1982 and I'll be your customer forever.” I encourage all businesses to consider how they turn up when things go wrong, rather than only being there when things are glorious.

Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of Martin King and do not necessarily represent the views of BNZ, or its related entities.

This article is solely for information purposes and is not intended to be financial advice. If you need help, please contact BNZ or your financial adviser. Neither BNZ nor any person involved in this article accepts any liability for any direct or indirect loss or damage arising out of the use of, or reliance on, all or any part of this article. BNZ accepts no responsibility for the availability or content of third-party websites referenced in this article.

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