'There has been unbelievably rapid technological change in the way we do business over the past 20 years that has left many people behind.' Photo: Getty Images

While banks are making huge profits, it’s time they recognise the needs of their more vulnerable customers rather than assuming everyone can manage technology.

Opinion: Covid created unbelievable isolation for so many for too long. Globally countries are still grappling with the increased mental health impact. And it’s well researched that there are serious health impacts from loneliness such as increased blood pressure and cardiovascular health risks.

So if we are a village what should business do about it, especially those businesses that rely on people and who make quite eye watering profits – banks and supermarkets for example?

Where is the social accountability?

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There has been unbelievably rapid technological change in the way we do business over the past 20 years that has left many people behind. How is business accommodating those people? Many of these changes are in the name of efficiency (which usually means more revenue), and I haven’t noticed any banks reporting lower earnings.

When I watched an elderly man on his mobility scooter at my local bank branch it made me see that one of the ways that lonely elderly people, who may not yet be in a rest home, get some people contact and conversation is by exchanges where busy people like me often want maximum ‘convenience’. 

I know how to avoid going into the bank and was only there to get a new cashflow card. Watching the exchange I got the impression he popped in most days just to ask the teller to check his balance, and I was so impressed that the teller was wonderful and chatty.

It reminded me of the time I visited the Auckland City Council call centre when I was a councillor. I wanted to see the people who were the face of the council. I wanted to understand the nature of the calls and how we managed them. I heard about the person who rang up every day without fail to ask the time. The call centre understood that while it was quirky and a bit annoying it was also obviously some important social contact for the caller.

I had to exchange old bank notes when I was in England recently after I presented them to a shop and they said it was old money and they couldn’t take it. At the bank there was a bit of a queue and most of the people were elderly. One gentleman had both arms bandaged and he appeared a bit dishevelled.

I thought it was terribly sad that that the bank was so short-staffed it couldn’t assist the man more helpfully. He appeared to have expected a certain amount of money (perhaps his pension) to be in his account. He struggled to hear and understand and in the end shuffled off.

I watched my 84-year-old father struggle because he has been left behind, and not kept up with technology change. It’s made him so vulnerable and helpless, which for an army man must be unsettling.

I felt a pang of desperation: what if that was me in another life, or someone in my family? I thought of how many people may be in a similar boat and that there must be a practical way to give them the support they need. I used to imagine social workers did this – help people manage their life when it was all a bit too hard for them.

And then I thought of all the stories of family members or neighbours who appear to be helping elderly people but are actually defrauding them. I began to think about how this problem might be solved.

What if banks created and shared a database of trusted people and those who maybe aren’t? People who volunteer (like the Citizens Advice Bureau) to help bank customers answer some ‘honesty’ questions, get it sworn by a JP and waive their privacy so all banks can access this database. Banks have ‘risk’ teams, so what about expanding them and creating a specialist team to monitor vulnerable people, or have people skilled in and dedicated to helping those who need and want it?

So many companies are spending fortunes on sustainability, climate change teams, LGBT initiatives (which is great) but what about some ‘social responsibility’ teams? While banks are making huge profits, maybe it’s time they now recognise the needs of their more vulnerable (and probably least profitable) customers rather than assuming everyone can manage technology.

I can see the risk, but we need innovative solutions and banks should be part of this. Perhaps working with the police and agencies such as Baycorp this trusted people database/register could be created so people who can help those who need it could be vetted to provide financial support. We don’t need to worry about those who already have a power of attorney for family members. This is for those to help people with no support network.

Banks could access this data (maybe they pay for it to keep it self-funding). Then the ‘social responsibility’ teams at the bank would know who was safe and legitimate to help their customers with their money.

I’d willingly give up an hour or two a month to help someone with their banking and financial problems. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to operate in today’s world without a phone or a computer. And the amount of cash some elderly need to carry to pay their phone bill, electricity, doctors and so on is dangerous.

I watched my 84-year-old father struggle because he has been left behind, and not kept up with technology change. It’s made him so vulnerable and helpless, which for an army man must be unsettling. I researched simple phones with large dials and very basic applications already installed. I found nothing suitable for him. I think there’s a business opportunity here, otherwise we are stopping so many technology-challenged people stay connected and be safe.

Another way we can keep elderly people connected to their community, and those who are not just old, but lonely, is an idea I read about a Dutch supermarket chain. They’ve put people before profit in all their stores and introduced ‘slow checkouts’ because some people (they’ve discovered) enjoy chatting to tellers and want the social interaction.

It’s helping many people cope with loneliness, especially the elderly. It’s proven so successful that they have installed ‘slow checkouts’ in more than 200 stores.

There’s an idea, New World and Countdown – forget about increasing the self-check-out lanes and bring back more people contact.

What I especially loved about this story was that this insight would not have been found studying numbers.

Where else and how else could business do more to put people first? That might be a great business strategy ahead of efficiency and might generate more revenue. It will certainly improve the quality of life in our community.

A director of Waka Kotahi, Auckland Eye and Ngati Awa Group Holdings, Victoria Carter is an entrepreneur who founded and sold car-sharing company Cityhop. She was an Auckland city councillor, the first...

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