Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Production Incentives: Protecting the Consumer

Managing Director
Lenders Compliance Group

Production incentives have been around since the dawn of modern capitalism. They are not going anywhere. Incentives have been called sales incentives, sales bonuses, compensation bonuses, and take into account any additional remuneration that tends to be transactionally based. All such incentives can be grouped into business objectives where a transaction may be tied to certain benchmarks, met by employees or service providers, the achievement of which leads to an increase in wage or reward for the party achieving the stated goal. For the sake of discussion, let’s call forms of such economic inducement, collectively, as “incentives.”

Typical incentives include cross-selling, where sales or referrals of new products or services are pitched to existing consumers; sales of products or services to new customers; sales at higher prices where pricing discretion exists; quotas for customer calls completed; and collections benchmarks.

Some of these incentives are very complex in the way they are achieved and applied, whether optionally or required. The incentive challenge is one of the usual conundrums arising when money and capital formation meet: the opportunity for harm to the consumer. Obviously, incentives offer a way to further enhance revenue for the seller of services and products. Indeed, in our market economy, an incentive can reveal the economic interest of market participants in a particular service or product, which is extrapolated from consumers’ responses to the offerings. Like so much in finance, incentives are not inherently good or bad, but how they are applied makes them so!

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“Bureau”) has decided to weigh in with guidance on production incentives. I am going to provide my reading of the Bureau’s most recent bulletin on this topic, entitled “Detecting and Preventing Consumer Harm from Production Incentives” (Bulletin 2016-03, November 28, 2016, hereinafter “Bulletin”). It is an interesting read, because it endeavors not only to compile guidance that the Bureau had provided in other contexts but also draws attention to the Bureau’s supervisory and enforcement experience in which incentives contributed to substantial consumer harm. Importantly, the Bulletin offers some actions that supervised entities should take to mitigate risks posed by incentives.


The most obvious risk of incentives to the consumer is a sales program that includes an enhanced economic motivation for employees or service providers to pursue overly aggressive marketing, sales, servicing, or collections tactics. These kinds of incentives are and always have been features of sales tactics that do not meet regulatory scrutiny. Consequently, it is the case that the Bureau has taken enforcement action against financial institutions that have expected or required employees to open accounts or enroll consumers in services without consent or where employees or service providers have misled consumers into purchasing products the consumers did not want, were unaware would harm them financially, or came with an unexpected ongoing periodic fee.