Chief Compliance Officers (CCOs) have a critical role to play to drive brand and product trust both inside and outside of their organizations with consumers, employees, and regulators; key approaches to building trust include increasing transparency in business practices, and promoting fairness and equitable treatment for consumers and employees. While fairness has always been a factor in an ethics and compliance program, it has increasingly become a top priority across industries, converging with related and rising concerns around equitable treatment and access. In our KPMG 2021 CCO Survey, 34 percent of the nearly 250 participating CCOs from the largest U.S.-based organizations said that consumer protection/fairness was one of their top regulatory and compliance priorities. This represents an 18-percentage point increase in importance over the 2019 CCO Survey findings and is further evidence that CCOs have become more focused on the development of defined approaches to strengthen their organizations’ actions and controls around consumer protection and fairness.
“As urgencies to address health and income disparities continue to become a shared societal concern and priority, Compliance has assumed a central role in the development of business processes, key metrics, and benchmarks to ensure that we are keeping our commitments, staying true to our core values, and accurately reporting on outcomes to key constituents and Board members.”
-Matthew D’Ambrosio, Global Chief Compliance & Ethics Officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance
“Consumer fairness is an imperative as regulators increase attentions and stakeholders demand strong ESG performance. CCOs must quickly question (and address) ‘BAU’ practices, inclusive of the availability, access and affordability of products/services—not of what is legally required but from what is right for the consumer.”
–Amy Matsuo, Principal and Leader, Regulatory Insights and Regulatory & Compliance Transformation, KPMG LLP
Expanding Measures of Consumer Fairness
Consumer fairness concerns overlap with the evolving ESG (environmental, social, governance) movement. The increase in organizational prioritization of consumer fairness can be partly attributed to the newfound public and private awareness and commitment to ESG considerations and, in turn, the heightened scrutiny by regulators, which, notably, is resulting in “gray” areas where regulators may question legally permissible activities when viewed in the context of equitable treatment for individuals and communities. Regulatory emphasis on accurate disclosure and fairness principles along with related compliance expectations, including consumer protection and equity, has taken center stage and is driving the need for investment.
Consumer fairness is a vast concept that can encompass the following cross-industry areas and that requires CCO involvement and risk mitigation efforts:
- Fair and appropriate sales practices: CCOs must assess how to best monitor organizational sales and marketing practices to ensure that consumers are not being misled and that their best interests are top of mind. Policies and expectations must be clearly communicated, and monitoring must be conducted to identify outlier business areas and/or stakeholders through transactional testing.
- Organizational disclosures: Attention must be paid to the public disclosures being made by the organization—whether they be in financial or nonfinancial regulatory reports, marketing materials, or product labels—to ensure the disclosures are accurate, clear, and do not misrepresent organizational positions or activities, potentially impacting consumer trust.
- Privacy and security of consumer data: The focus on safeguarding personal data collected from consumers during organizational engagement has never been higher, and it is increasingly being tied into the scope of consumer protection and fairness. CCOs, along with Information Security and Privacy Officials, must assess the physical, administrative, and technical safeguards in place to collect and manage consumer data. In addition, attention must be paid to the manner in which such data is utilized and shared internally, and the processes organizations maintain to obtain consumer consent (or opt-outs), as appropriate, for such uses.
- Ethical use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning: AI and machine learning have the ability to overcome the subjectivity and prejudice of human decision-making but there is still the potential for algorithms to unknowingly reinforce existing discrimination and biases. CCO’s must ensure that organizations develop principles that support the deployment of AI that is thoughtful, free from bias, and explainable to the individuals that are subject to it.
- Fair access and impact: Organizations must consider the impact of their services on society at large. With daily headlines highlighting the health, financial, and racial inequities across consumer populations, public awareness has been heightened along with stakeholder expectations around the level of organizational commitment to supporting initiatives, including their own as well as programs provided by the government. CCOs have been increasingly involved in assessing these impacts and driving a variety of initiatives aimed at promoting equity, such as (i) assisting with COVID-19 vaccine rollouts across vulnerable patient populations; (ii) establishing mobile health clinics to increase access to medical care; and (iii) raising funds through social bond offerings designed to benefit community business and housing projects, increase access to internet/digital services, and improve climate resilience.
- Third-party oversight: It is no longer enough for organizations to outsource critical functions and related responsibilities to the public. Rather, organizations must view third-party relationships with a critical eye and assess third parties over the relationship cycle, including the pre-contract due diligence phase, ongoing throughout contract execution, and follow-up tracking after termination. CCOs have become increasingly involved in not only vetting their third-party providers (and their vendors, or “fourth parties”) for capabilities and adherence to contractual requirements, but also to ensure that they uphold the same values and standards as the organization, including compliance with laws and regulations, and are a worthy business partner. While vendor management has always been a core component of a strong Compliance Program, it is now being tied to organizational responsibilities to consumers and public trust.
Better Practices for Building Consumer Trust
Every interaction with a consumer, whether direct or indirect, is an opportunity to build or break trust. A single negative experience that the consumer associates with the organization or its brand is capable of jeopardizing the consumer’s trust or the organization’s favorable, hard-won reputation. Consumers generally look for organizations to “do what they say and say what they do,” deliver consistent messaging and experiences, and place the best interest of the consumer at the forefront of the business. Consumer complaints can highlight breakdowns of consumer trust and can often serve as an early indicator of more systemic issues across the organization, in much the same way as employees report internally through the organization’s compliance and ethics hotline.
CCOs must establish ongoing monitoring and proactive data analytics for consumer protection compliance in order to mitigate risks related to fairness and equitable access across their operations. Key steps might include:
- Conducting risk assessments across public-facing internal business and operational areas, as well as third-party vendors, to identify potential impacts to the public and prioritize risks that could impact the organization’s reputational risk profile.
- Engaging in the consumer journey—across marketing, service/product design, and delivery—and embedding fairness principles into each step.
- Analyzing consumer complaint data through technology and data analytics in order to aggregate concerns, identify root causes, and deploy effective and streamlined response efforts to both enhance compliance and business controls and operations. By understanding the voice of the consumer, organizations will be better equipped to also enhance the consumer journey, including through to complaints resolution and customer retention.
- Simplifying public communications and disclosures, as well as internal policies and procedures, so that consumers have a clear understanding of product and service terms, and consumer-facing employees can clearly articulate and apply the organizational standards to build trust and reduce reputational risk.
Taking a proactive approach and developing strong controls around fairness will enable CCOs to meet the heightened regulatory and public bar that is being set. CCOs must continuously challenge and improve their ability to quickly prevent, detect and respond.