Are we ‘in business to make a profit’, or do we ‘make a profit to stay in business’? It’s the CEO and Corporate Affairs ethics-juggle.

The banks have had a tin ear on this for years; it hardly took the banking royal commission or the recent Deloitte Trust in Banking survey to tell us that bank-side, ‘greed’ trumps ‘good’. It’s been like that for decades; there were periods, when I was a journalist, when our highest rating stories were on banks short-changing customers.

According to the Deloitte survey, only 21% of Australian customers believe banks have their “interests at heart” and only 20% think they do what is “good, right and fair”.

Putting ‘Greed’ before ‘Good’ is the exception amongst leaders; no-one in the group of CEO’s I regularly meet with has that attitude.

There are numerous sectors in which giant companies have transitioned to be more customer-centric, for example: Amazon and a host of other online companies; many in the Australian clothing sector; Woolworths and Bunnings are both responsive to my family; Microsoft Support has transformed how it responds to our small company’s software issues (declaration: none are clients). It doesn’t mean they are perfect, but as far as I can see they don’t have the banks’ uncaring reputation.

Optus is attempting to make a transition to being more customer centric, with the CEO, Allen Lew, reportedly crudely telling staff they’ll be “sacked” if they upset customers, and to “dob in” under-performing colleagues (not a recommended approach for better staff engagement, but get the point.)

It’s a cultural transition; not a technical one. We’ve worked with one large company to transition to zero-tolerance for complaints. It was surprisingly simple once the decision was made at the top, and the internal culture change took a few months. First we had to be friendly and respectful; then promptly fix customers’ problems (some customers couldn’t be satisfied and remained ‘haters’). I’m not sure the staff cared more for their customers – they just showed it. Based on that, and watching the other giant companies listed above, it doesn’t seem such a big deal for the banks to make the change.

The difficulty banks will have, I think, will be the time it will take. The misbehaviour has gone on for so long, the cultural change has to be with us customers too – we are so used to banks not caring, compounded by advertisements that don’t match reality, that it will take time to change our attitudes.

The aged care sector is also yet to realise the potential for targeting zero-tolerance for complaints. Some carers argue they have residents whose families are serial whingers. Again, respectful conversations and nimble problem solving fixes most issues.

And if the banking and aged care sectors don’t make the transition, we can expect it will be done for them. Politicians have learnt the risks of resisting royal commissions, and the mood is for tougher regulation.

And where change is required, nothing need be off the table. US Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill in August, radical for the US, that would, if implemented here, certainly create change from ‘greed’ to ‘good’. The Accountable Capitalism Act, “would require that employees elect 40% of a board of directors of any corporation with over $1 billion in tax receipts…. The Act contains a “constituency statute” that would give directors a duty of “creating a general public benefit” with regard to a corporation’s stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, and the environment, and the interests of the enterprise in the long-term.”

It’s apparently similar, in parts, to a system for worker participation in Germany.

Central to all of this is Australians’ wish that companies can be trusted to ‘do what is right’. As the Deloitte survey into banks divined, some of what customers want involves fundamental commitments – that a bank will:

  • Do what it says
  • Have our best interests at heart
  • Own up to mistakes quickly
  • Take time to explain what matters most
  • Be open and honest
  • Treat us with respect

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