Westpac tracking vulnerable customers to escalate service level

As part of its complaints handling overhaul, the bank is making use of data such as a customer's postcode and if they're in receipt of Centrelink assistance to find customers that need more 'care'.

Westpac nine months ago began the process of overhauling its complaints handling practice, standing up a new Customer and Corporate Relations team comprised of staff from Westpac, St George, Bank SA, and Bank of Melbourne, RAMS, and all of its wealth brands to focus on fixing the weak links within the organisation.

As detailed by Westpac GM of customer resolution Lisa Pogonoski, there was no central location for complaints to be handled, and staff were working across nine different systems and nine different platforms.

The organisation decided to break the complaints handling service up into four parts: Culture and customer connection, service excellence, priority support, and root and cause complaint prevention.

In parallel to its overhaul was the Banking Royal Commission, which among many things found a lot of Australians were treated poorly by financial institutions.

"There's nothing like your CEO being on the stand at the Royal Commission to get the organisation to lean in on these sort of things," Pogonoski told Forrester's CX Sydney 2019 event on Thursday.

While the desired outcome of its new complaints handling project is to fix the process under the priority support banner, Westpac is using data to profile its customers, categorising some as "vulnerable" through using information such as their address.

"That probably came out of the Royal Commission for us because there was a really big understanding of customers who were caught in the tail and if you think of an issue you have with an organisation, it's annoying and it's challenging if something goes wrong, but imagine being in highly vulnerable circumstances and having to deal with the organisation to deal through that issue," Pogonoski said.

"Getting impacted by a AU$50 fee, a AU$50 fee could be the difference between eating and not eating for a vulnerable customer, so we've really had to lean in and make sure we were looking after our most vulnerable customers."

Westpac created a Priority Assist team, which Pogonoski said was a way for customers to get directly through to the care they needed. In addition, the bank created a Vulnerable Customer Tracker.

"The Vulnerable Customer Tracker, which effectively was a number of attributes that we could see through our data that told us that a customer was more likely to be in vulnerable circumstances," she continued.

"It might be around postcodes, receiving Centrelink payments, a recent bereavement, or a victim of crime and so we could see this in our data."

According to Pogonoski, customers isolated through the tracker weren't "tagged or flagged", they were instead given "some extra care" as they went through their respective complaints process, such as being referred to the bank's Priority Care team.

"What we found is that when you have a complaint with an organisation, particularly your bank, which is -- money is highly emotional to people, people tend to tell us their story -- the amount of customers who were pouring out their life circumstances in a cry for help for the bank to help them, made us really realise that this extra support for vulnerable customers was something that we had to really think about," she said.

"Now as we move through the new Banking Code of Practice it is actually going to be an obligation for us that we need to provide."

See also: Should big data be used to discourage poor students from university?

Another element of the complaints process overhaul, under the root and cause complaint prevention banner, is the use of artificial intelligence to find the real issue within a complaint.

"What we do is we categorise all complaints when they come in, sadly we actually allocate two [full-time employees] to reading every complaint and making sure they are categorised correctly ... when you've finished handling a complaint, often what the customer complained about isn't the real issue, you've actually gone through the layers and find that the root cause was something else," Pogonoski said.

"So we've invested to make sure we're doing that, but we're investing in technology at the same time to read the verbatims and try and learn, to say, 'Here's how our customers phrase things, here's what the real issue is' to then be able to align that.

"We receive 40,000 complaints across the Westpac group every year, so analysing the verbatims around all of those really rich pieces of data, you put that together with two million phone calls that we might receive at all of our contact centres and interactions across the business, you've really got rich data."

MORE FROM WESTPAC