"Would you like a credit card with that?"

It used to be an in-joke that walking into a bank was not too different from ordering at McDonald's.

Instead of the usual "would you like fries with that?", it was whatever product the bank was pushing that week.

But pressure on the banks amid scrutiny from regulators and media could mean those days are nearing an end.

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Earlier this month, ANZ - the country's largest bank - said it would stop setting sales targets for all frontline staff from October.

Other banks look set to follow, with ASB removing individual sales targets for branch staff last month and reviewing other parts of its business. Westpac says it has already made changes to incentives for frontline staff and further changes are planned. Meanwhile, BNZ and Kiwibank say they are undertaking reviews.

The ANZ bank is to drop its sales targets for front-line staff from October. Photo/File.
The ANZ bank is to drop its sales targets for front-line staff from October. Photo/File.

The moves come as New Zealand's banking watchdogs - the Financial Markets Authority and the Reserve Bank - undertake a review of bank culture and conduct, prompted by Australia's inquiry into its financial sector, which has seen revelations about poor behaviour.

The initial report from Australia's Royal Commission is due at the end of next month, with New Zealand regulators to release their findings at the end of October.

Antonia Watson, ANZ's head of business and retail banking, says its decision to stop sales targets was based on the changing environment for banks.

"The environment is clearly changing and the feedback we're getting and what we're seeing in Australia suggests this is the right approach, regardless of how direct or indirect our sales targets were or how minimal."

Watson also points to social media, and the way in which a tweet can be picked up and amplified by media so quickly these days.

"When something goes wrong, it is very visible now."

This has prompted a shift by the bank to move more towards what the consumer wants, says Watson. "That is not a banking thing, that is a worldwide thing."

Sales targets have long been criticised by the bank workers' union, First Union, which says they put staff under undue pressure and also mean the customer is at risk of being sold something that is not appropriate.

Last month a Westpac staffer told the Herald pressure on staff to sell products meant loans were being given to people who couldn't service them.

Westpac strongly rejected that claim and says it has strong credit systems in place to ensure this doesn't happen, and that the focus for all its employees is to put customers' needs first at all times.

But the woman's story prompted other bank workers to come forward with concerns about lending and the selling of life insurance products.

Watson says she can't comment on other banks but the ANZ monitors its complaints and there is no evidence that kind of thing is happening.

But she says the move away from sales targets will remove any question from a customer's mind that they are being offered a product only because the staff member has an incentive to sell it.

"We trust our staff to do the right thing by our customers and we know they consider customers' genuine needs when they talk with them.

"Removing sales targets altogether will give our customers total confidence that we're focused on doing the right thing by them."

Stephen Parry, banking spokesman for First Union, has welcomed the move, calling it a "really huge step".

"It has the potential to lead to significant change."

But he is also wary of the move.

"If all these things come to pass, my expectation is there will be a real change. But I am still wary given how deeply embedded this model has been and for how long.

"Our concern is this pressure might emerge in a different form through proxy targets.

"That is the risk I guess."

Unsurprisingly, Parry is keen for all the banks to drop sales targets for staff.

That view is backed up by Jessica Wilson, head of research at Consumer New Zealand.

She says it is impossible for a bank to meet its responsible lending obligations while having sales incentives.

"You can't combine a legal obligation to lend responsibly with targets for bank workers," argues Wilson.

She points to research which found people are still being approached by bank staff to take up unsuitable products despite the Responsible Lending Code having been in place for some years.

Consumer's research found 27 per cent of people surveyed had been approached by bank staff for unsolicited products and half of those believed the products were unsuitable for them.

Wilson said it was particularly concerned about anecdotal evidence of 25-year-olds being sold life insurance and students being offered credit cards despite having no income.

"Our concern is around the types of products sold to young people who may get into financial difficulty."

That could have life-damaging effects if it harms their credit history and stops their ability to borrow in the future, she says.

In most cases, consumers have turned down the products because they noticed they were inappropriate.

But Wilson points to New Zealand's high credit card debt and the outstanding balances for those who don't pay off their cards in full every month.

New Zealanders have about $4 billion in credit card debt and interest is being paid on two-thirds of it.

"There is a big issue around consumer indebtedness."

Wilson believes the banks' sales culture has grown over the past 20 to 30 years as they have expanded their product ranges.

Traditionally, a bank's role was to provide a safe place to store money, and somewhere to borrow from.

But now they offer everything from credit cards, to life insurance, to home insurance, to KiwiSaver funds.

Antony Buick-Constable of the New Zealand Bankers' Association is keen to rebut concerns that consumers are being sold or pushed into products they don't want or can't afford.
Antony Buick-Constable of the New Zealand Bankers' Association is keen to rebut concerns that consumers are being sold or pushed into products they don't want or can't afford.

New Zealand Bankers' Association acting chief executive Antony Buick-Constable says banks are still very much focused on providing customers with service.

"That includes helping people in their first homes, and assisting them to start up or expand their business.

"It would be irresponsible not to talk to people about insurance when they're getting a mortgage, or discussing KiwiSaver options to help them provide for a more financially secure retirement.

"We're proud that nearly three million people are in KiwiSaver. Our banks have had a big part to play in that."

Buick-Constable is also keen to rebut concerns that pressure on staff to sell has resulted in consumers being sold or pushed into products they don't want or can't afford.

"Our banks work in a well-regulated environment. In providing credit and investment products banks comply strictly with the Responsible Lending Code and other consumer law."

"The New Zealand banking industry is highly competitive, and it's in each bank's interest to look after and retain their customers.

"That includes asking customers about their individual circumstances to see what products and services might suit them best."

David Tripe, a banking expert at Massey University, says a bank is arguably a retail business and retail businesses are there to sell products.

He says selling those products helps prop up the branch network, and transaction banking alone would not be enough to do that.

But that also comes with provisos about the culture of how sales are managed from the top.

Tripe says pressure to sell products is not a new thing from the banks.

"I remember 35 years ago, working in a bank branch we were encouraged to sell products."

What has probably changed a lot is the technology and the ability to measure performance over the past 20 years, he says.

But he doubts the sales culture is as aggressive here as it is in Australia.

"I don't think the culture is too bad."

One of the reasons for that, he says, is that New Zealand banks offer a much smaller range of products than their Australian counterparts.

He points to particular problems in Australia with superannuation, and banks' wealth management products.

And literally, New Zealanders just don't have as much wealth as Australians.

Tripe says he hasn't seen any evidence of systemic issues in New Zealand but says there have been incidences of mis-selling in the past, including two investment funds sold via the ANZ which resulted in payouts in the late 2000s.

"They know that sales can be a problem."

Some of the Australian banks have moved to sell their insurance and wealth management businesses, but in New Zealand the banks have a firm grip on KiwiSaver.

According to researcher Morningstar, the four big banks - ANZ, ASB, BNZ and Westpac -manage nearly two-thirds of the $50b invested in KiwiSaver.

Tripe says the Financial Markets Authority's report could recommend that banks sell their KiwiSaver businesses.

"That would not be an untenable suggestion for the FMA to make."

Wilson expects the New Zealand report to identify, at minimum, areas the regulators need to pay close attention to.

"We really haven't had enough scrutiny."

Wilson says we would be naive to think the issues that are happening in other countries don't happen here.

"In a way, the fact we don't have a good handle on it is more an indication that more needs to be done. The ground work hasn't been done. We are not collecting stats in particular areas."

Wilson debunks the idea that because there aren't many complaints, there aren't any systemic issues with the banks.

She says consumers may not have complained because they might not have known they were sold an inappropriate product.

"I don't think we can rely on a lack of complaints.

"I think our market needs more scrutiny - we need a closer look at whether the banks are meeting their responsible lending obligations."

That brings in the Commerce Commission, which has previously told the Herald it is closely watching the Australian Royal Commission.

Lately, the Commerce Commission's focus has been more on mobile traders and third tier lenders, but Wilson believes the banks also need a closer look.

"We need to have a better grasp on what is happening in the market and are the laws we have effective?"

ANZ's Watson doesn't believe there are systemic issues in the New Zealand banking sector.

"I would be very surprised if they find something.

"That being said, I am sure [the regulators] will have some recommendations."

Inside the banks

Joint teams from the Reserve Bank and the Financial Markets Authority have been working onsite at banks to validate their responses to a request for proof that they were not caught up in the same issues exposed in Australia's Royal Commission.

The FMA and RBNZ called for written responses from the banks in May after damning revelations about behaviour by the banks and other financial institutions were revealed through the Australian inquiry.

New Zealand's major banks - ANZ, Westpac, ASB and BNZ - are all owned by Australian banks which have featured heavily in the inquiry.

An FMA spokesman said its initial letter to the New Zealand banks identified that some financial institutions had a proactive response to conduct risk, while others had not yet begun to fully embed conduct risk, governance or oversight into their operations.

As well as speaking to frontline staff in branches and call centres, the spokesman said regulators had been talking to mid-level or branch managers as well as boards of directors.

"We have also talked to unions, industry bodies and consumer groups."

The spokesman said the goal of the review was to understand whether there were widespread conduct and culture issues in New Zealand banks and life insurers.

"The report relating to banks will focus on four key themes: conduct and culture governance; conduct and culture risk management; customer-focused implementation and remediation practices."

The spokesman said while it continued to monitor developments across the Tasman, its work was focused on the conduct and culture of institutions in New Zealand.

"The report into banks is currently due to be published by the end of October, with a report into life insurers to follow by the end of the year."

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