Stephen McPhillips: Why communication is a two-way street

Stephen McPhillips looks back at the communication challenges faced by advisers and providers during the pandemic and argues efficiency and effectiveness are key

The year 2020 will be remembered for many different reasons, the most obvious of which goes without saying.

From a business perspective, the lessons learned may prove to be very valuable; what went well and what didn’t go so well in a highly challenging environment, and what can be used to best effect in future years?

While some sectors and businesses benefitted from the crisis during 2020, many others struggled for well-documented reasons. One only has to think about hospitality and certain parts of the retail sector to see the devastating effects of various forms of lockdown.

The UK financial services industry, although not immune to the challenges, fared better than perhaps could have been expected, relatively speaking. That’s not to say that the effects of the crisis went unfelt and unnoticed in many quarters. There is no doubting that service standards could easily have been impacted by furloughing of staff, the need for self-isolation, shielding and so on.

However, it’s the way in which businesses reacted to, learned from and adapted to the challenges that may stand them in good stead for the future; whatever the post-crisis world actually looks like, and whenever that might come along.

The self-invested personal pension (SIPP) industry is a competitive and still quite crowded marketplace. Advisers and their support staff may have exposure to a number of different providers across their client banks.

The service they have received from providers during 2020 has varied widely, based on anecdotal feedback I receive when speaking to advisers, paraplanners and so on.

Sadly, there have been reports that some providers have made it more difficult to contact them, rather than trying to make communication easier during the crisis.

That’s unfortunate, of course, because client needs did not disappear overnight, and it has still been necessary for advice firms to deal with clients’ retirement and death benefit situations.

Naturally, a provider’s input to these is crucial and it can be a source of severe frustration if lines of communication are cut-off or severely restricted by providers.

Ultimately, the impact of this might well be felt by the adviser’s client, or the beneficiaries of the client in the case of death benefit payments.

Use of technology may have gone some way to alleviate some of the consequences of the crisis. Indeed, some providers very quickly and effectively adapted to the new environment by initiating web-based delivery of training and support to advice firms.

One of the lessons learned here, perhaps, is that such use of technology to provide focused support is an efficient and effective means of communication and something to be embraced for the future.

Technology may also have been used to good effect to streamline the application processes for providers taking-on new clients – digital data capture and digital signatures being examples of this.

However, technology in isolation may not deliver what’s required of a provider by an advice firm. I’m thinking of some further feedback I’ve heard recently that involved a 45-minute wait on a provider’s call-centre line, only to have the call ended abruptly by the telephony system. The adviser did not get to speak to a human as a result. That’s use of technology, but it’s not the sort of technology use that many of us want to experience.

Perhaps a key learning point for providers is that there needs to be a careful and balanced approach to service delivery; both personal service and technology-based solutions.

It’s an old adage that people like dealing with people, and that appears to be particularly true in our industry and at this time more than ever.

Being able to communicate efficiently and effectively with a provider during times of crisis could well be a yardstick by which advice firms measure a provider’s ability to meet its needs and the needs of its clients – both now and into the future?

Stephen McPhillips is technical sales director at Dentons Pension Management