How can digital technology enable organisations to access overlooked markets and better serve diverse customers?  Westpac Group’s recent pilot program enabled customers who are Deaf or hard of hearing to access  Auslan sign language interpreters when meeting professional financial planners.

In 2016, Westpac launched a pilot program in New South Wales to improve accessibility to their financial planning services. The pilot allowed customers who are deaf or hard of hearing to request access to an Auslan (Australian Sign Language) interpreter when they visit a local St.George or Westpac branch to meet with a qualified financial planner.

What’s new and different about that?

Financial planning services are a common offering in most banks in Australia, including the Top Four (NAB, Commonwealth Bank, ANZ, and Westpac). Customers seeking a better understanding of their financial situation and qualified guidance around important decisions regarding matters their wealth are able to schedule meetings to have a discussion with a financial advisor via their bank.

Challenge

The challenge is not all customers are able to make use of these financial services. Due to the in-depth nature of financial planning discussions, customers who are deaf or hard of hearing may require an interpreter to be present when they meet with a financial planner. Previously, the onus was on the customer to organise the services of an interpreter. This additional difficulty meant that in some cases customers missed out on valuable financial guidance, ultimately placing these customers at a disadvantage and leading to gaps in their overall customer experience.

Complication

An extra complication lay in that, while one logical solution would be for the banks to offer customers the services of an Auslan interpreter, it’s logistically difficult to arrange for interpreters to constantly travel between branches, particularly those that are rural or remote, or alternatively; for customers to travel to specific branches over long distances.

Connecting the business

During 2016, a new video-conferencing system was rolled out to the Westpac Group network in Australia, to connect customers with specialists who were not available in all local branches. The project team identified an opportunity to use the high-speed video-conferencing platform to give customers access to Auslan interpreters.

So how does it work?

A customer who is deaf or hard of hearing can visit any branch in the designated pilot geographical area and make an appointment with a financial planner, specifying Auslan as their preferred language. In the meeting itself, the customer and financial planner are able to have organic, free-flowing conversations, while the interpreter translates over the video-conference technology from their own workplace.

This program was made possible by the close partnership between Westpac’s Inclusion and Diversity team, Westpac Group’s ABLE (Assisting Better Lives for Everyone) Employee Action Group, as well as internal stakeholders such as GroupTech and the NSW Deaf Society. They identified financial planning services as one vital area where customers who are Deaf or hard of hearing regularly face challenges of access, especially if they live in remote or rural locations.

Internally, the Westpac Group prepared their professional financial planners for the initiative by providing them with guidelines around practicing empathetic communication, as well as basic introductory training in Auslan, to help in fostering a more natural and relaxed style of conversation.

After the launch, the initiative was marketed through social media channels and word-of-mouth, utilising the social networks of the close-knit Deaf community. The announcement of the pilot on the Westpac and St.George Facebook accounts garnered more than 18,000 likes, one of its most successful social media announcements.

The success of the pilot is now under review with consideration to how all of the Westpac Group brands are included, and what other services could be provided to the Deaf or hard of hearing community through this initiative.

This initiative is just one of many commitments the Westpac Group has made to embed accessibility in business, as part of its Accessibility Action Plan. The most recent plan launched in December 2016 (www.westpac.com.au/accessibility) is focused on creating an environment where customers, community and people feel safe and comfortable sharing information about their individual requirements

Implications

The pilot program led to several key learnings:

  • Diversity & Inclusion initiatives do not need to be complex in order to make an impact.
    The primary outcome of this program was connecting customers to employees who can provide them with a helpful service (i.e. financial planners and Auslan interpreters) using technology that was already being implemented for a different use.
  • New technologies present opportunities to address old issues.
    The concept of providing Auslan interpreters to customers had been under consideration for some time, but wide implementation was not feasible until the video-conferencing platform became accessible. Leveraging new technologies smartly can make logistical hurdles less challenging.
  • A diverse workforce that is representative of a diverse customer base can lead to insights around how to better connect.
    One of the early drivers of this pilot was an in-house interpreter for internal staff, whose involvement with the Diversity & Inclusion team, together with the ABLE Employee Action Group, has been key in guiding the business on ways to apply an inclusive lens to the business strategy and in linking inclusiveness to the broader business vision.
  • Fostering good relationships with the wider community can lead to better brand perception and more resources, as communities want to help their members
    Westpac Group leveraged existing relationships within their staff networks as well as in the wider community to deliver the pilot.
  • Collaboration between internal and external groups enhances understanding of customer behaviours; enabling business to tailor offerings for optimal effect.
    Westpac Group worked closely with the NSW Deaf Society to better understand the needs of the Deaf community and identify suitable pilot branches. Members of the community tend to cluster together geographically, in order to establish proximal support networks for one another and to take advantage of shared resources, such as a local interpreter. Discussions with the society, enhanced by analysis of publicly available data from ABS (the Australian Bureau of Statistics), resulted in the choice of Penrith, NSW for the pilot in both the Westpac and St. George branches.

Conclusion

Westpac Group’s work with Auslan demonstrates that uplifting existing services in order to make them available to all members of a diverse customer base does not need to involve complex or resource-intensive business changes. Furthermore, diversity in the workplace can not only improve understanding of customer needs, but also enable a business to leverage existing internal services to better connect with a diverse customer base, especially those customers who require adjustments to access products and services.

For more information, contact Mars Dela Pena (madelapena@deloitte.com.au)