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For Brendan, trust is all about the dynamic of power, specifically the benevolent use of power

Dr. Brendan French is a consumer affairs and dispute-resolution expert who has spent the past few years making sure that Australia’s Commonwealth Bank carefully listens, assesses and smoothly responds to customer and community feedback. As the former Executive General Manager, Customer and Community Advocacy of Australia’s biggest bank, he championed complaint handling, systemic issues investigation, remediation, product and process improvement, accessibility and more.

Trust is the faith that you will use your power over me benevolently and that I will use my power over you benevolently

Such a thought-provoking insight comes from a leader who has thought deeply about how best to define and articulate the role of trust throughout his various roles. Brendan’s career is as impressive as it is expansive –working as an academic, a consultant, a regulator and now a banker.

But his beliefs on power began even earlier, as a young boy.

“I grew up in a small country town called Temora. There were invariably three men of power: the priest, the police sergeant and the bank manager. They controlled council, community relationships, social formation - in effect the entire power hierarchy. In just one generation each of those institutions had decades and even centuries of power eroded due to the misuse and abuse of asymmetrical influence.”

These formative years etched a deep understanding of power. One that has evolved through his experience managing the aftershocks of the Storm Financial collapse, and watching the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority’s inquiry and the Royal Commission into financial services. Yet despite all this – or possibly because of it – Brendan’s thinking has remained anchored to a radically simple insight on fairness and mutual benefit.

Temora is badged as the ‘friendliest town’ in NSW.

Today, he applies this ‘power dynamic’ lens across all aspects of work, from organisational structure to decision making protocols, and even while formulating and executing business plans.

“If a company tries to create a ‘well of trust’ it usually fails because it’s focusing on the magnetism and not the magnet. Secondary or tertiary elements like marketing spend or sponsorship may play a role, however in isolation they will not build meaningful trust. That’s because trust is an artefact, an output not an input. It is futile to think of trust as some sort of abstract end in itself. Instead, we should dispassionately examine the dynamics of power and commit to concrete and definable actions to rebalance in a sustainable way.”

Rather than trying to find the answer to creating a more trusted organisation, Brendan believes it must begin by asking the right questions: like who makes decisions in your organisation? What is the exchange of value between all the parties? Who gets what from this decision? How diverse are our decision-making structures? How transparent are they? What are the people like who we are attracting and promoting? And then critically, what is the standing of the customer in decision making?

Asking these questions shifts the focus from the elusive or ephemeral to the actionable. And nowhere is this more important than with customers and communities.

Empower your customer

Most companies have a flood of data on their customers which often leads to multiple customer programs. Brendan recounts programs from previous roles that involved role play or fold out banners preaching customer centric slogans like “be your customer’s friend”. In his view, there is a better approach and that’s about ensuring true representation. Rather than pretending to be a customer in an offsite workshop, bring customers into the organisation to influence decision making.

I’m happy to admit, I don’t know everything there is to know about the needs of customers and the communities they live and work in. That’s why I have recruited 30 top community organisations in Australia to meet every couple of months. They review, contribute and edit my business plan.

Brendan has also established a customer advocate, like an internal ombudsman. This person is truly independent and able to make financial decisions in regard to favouring customers. He has also appointed senior executives and teams to protect vulnerable customers and actively improve their situation.

“Unless you have these people, there’s a tendency over time for the power to settle to the advantage of the product provider.”

This kind of inclusive thinking engenders a more trusting relationship with customers and reinforces the importance of understanding and measuring what value a customer receives versus the organisation.

“I am someone who believes categorically that doing the right thing is virtually always the right thing to do. This creates a sustainable and successful business proposition.

Sometimes, the right thing doesn’t happen.

Fix on the one hand. Prevent on the other

For some years, Brendan has identified and managed areas where customer trust has been damaged, resulting in customer losses. No doubt a common challenge in all large customer-facing organisations. However, his solutions are less than common.

I see it as book ends. On one side is the complaint, on the other the intelligence that arises from it. Intelligence that can be injected back into the organisation with the game-changing benefits of AI. This is the only meaningful way to inoculate against future failure. Any organisation that doesn’t actively interrogate every failure is indulging its own power, which more often than not will later blow up.

Don’t look for intent. Look for a solution

When a complaint does arrive, there is often a question around motive. Is the complaint real? Are they looking for compensation?

“What's a concern, what's an inquiry, what's a complaint, what's feedback, what's a dispute? In the end, the simple fact of you trying to apply your value set over the customer’s intent shows that you've got it wrong.

Brendan reminds us that in a socially connected age, where people have different mechanisms for getting their story out, a failed complaint or a hundred failed complaints can result in enormous losses to an organisation. He makes the memorable point that every one of the devastating cases in the recent Royal Commission started as a failed response to a complaint, often from a customer in vulnerable circumstances.

According to Brendan, the most common complaint resolution approach for some companies is to start with a defensive posture. Accordingly, anybody can say no to a customer but only a select few have a financial delegation to say yes. Reversing this response and ensuring permission is required not to say yes radically changes this dynamic for the better.

“Trust that is literally engineered through a mechanism that is good for everybody … It's the definition of a sustainable business.”

What’s next for trust?

A Chief Trust Officer role is inevitable, according to Brendan. An independent advocate who can raise issues directly to the CEO and board, and whose task is to uncover the otherwise invisible power structures that foster or dissolve trust. This may become even more important with the aftershocks of COVID-19 and the amplification of pre-existing vulnerabilities in society which, not surprisingly, brings us right back to Brendan’s initial definition of trust.

Let’s hope the benevolence he has shown us in sharing such great insights is front of mind for the future leaders of trust.

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