I’ve been reading a couple of books by Helen Dewdney, consultant at The Complaining Cow, about how consumers can complain effectively. We’d been chatting over email about the need for better financial education in the UK and she was saying how people can also lose money because they don’t know how to complain effectively about faulty goods or poor service.
“Many just shout into the wind, many get fobbed off and many just give up,” she told me. “While the majority of companies do try and do the right thing, many don’t. It often takes a lot of work and being assertive and knowing your rights to get anywhere.”
It’s at that point my ears pricked up. Poor service from product providers is a bugbear of many advisers and very topical, so I wondered if the insight Dewdney with consumers in her books could be shares useful to advisers.
As a ‘consumer champion’, much of what Dewdney writes about in her books isn’t directly relevant to advisers in their professional capacity. But there were a few things in her book ‘How to complain’ that stuck out for me. In one chapter, Dewdney summarises the reasons why people complain and don’t get redress – or don’t even make a complaint in the first place.
First on that list is having low expectations, which she illustrates using the example of getting another bad meal at a restaurant. In short, people just get used to bad service and apathy sets in as they come to expect it. “If you had a bad meal there last time, you should have complained and maybe things would have improved!” she writes. I get that – if you don’t tell a service provider that something is unacceptable, you can’t blame them if they take your silence as everything being okay.
The time and effort it takes to complain effectively can also be an obstacle for some people. As Dewdney points out, if someone thinks it’s too much of an effort to make or escalate a complaint up the chain – possibly all the way up to the chief executive level – it is easy for companies to fob them off. Sometimes, you have to dig your heels in and be prepared to put some work in to get taken seriously.
I wonder if all this partly explains why it is the same providers that constantly crop up when advisers discuss poor service standards. You know a certain company takes forever to do what you’ve asked or get back to you, so you end up factoring that in when you deal with them and getting on with it as best you can. What else can you do, aside from venting to others in the community who share your frustration? If you complain, what difference will it make?
Or you start to complain but the process becomes so drawn-out and draining that you just can’t be bothered with it anymore. They ask you to send this piece of paper, they ask you to clarify that piece of information and leave you hanging on the phone for an hour when you chase them up. Life’s too short and a million other things need your attention, not least your clients.
I’ve been there myself, having bought things online that have arrived damaged or been mistakenly substituted for something that is completely useless to me.
A lack of protective packaging on fragile items irritates me the most. It doesn’t need Columbo to work out that without it, a glass vase is likely to get smashed in transit. It’s just common sense and it seems such a waste to have these beautiful, easily broken items left unprotected and destined to be damaged. But, it seems, these retailers are okay forgoing the bubble wrap to cut corners and limit costs.
When I’ve phoned these retailers to say skimping on the bubble wrap isn’t a great business move, they don’t want to talk about that. It’s always an isolated incident, apparently, and they just want you off the line.
So they ask for a photo of the damage by email, which you send immediately. But you have to chase them over the phone again for a response because they just don’t seem to be getting your emails.
After all this to-ing and fro-ing by phone and email, I’ve even been asked if I’d like to keep the damaged item as it is for a 50% discount. It took a while for my wanting a perfect item at full price to register with customer services, which it did, eventually and I got my refund. By then I was so drained that I felt like I’d run a marathon. Twice.
Relating this back to financial services, it’s not as if the community advisor doesn’t know which providers consistently provide poor service. Advisers love to talk, it goes with the territory. They do it at networking events, they do it on internet forums for the community advisor and on the comment sections of Money Marketing online.
We have been writing about firms with consistently bad service for years – a quick search of today’s worst offenders reveals that the same problems have persisted for well over a decade in some of them. Isn’t that a clear signal to avoid them like the plague?
Until I wrote a story about poor service standards for Money Marketing Last year, I never really understood how firms get away with it for years and continue to get business. If everyone knows what they’re like, why don’t they vote with their feet and go elsewhere?
But I suppose that argument is too simplistic to cover every situation where provider service falls short. Even applying it to myself, I admit, I still shop with online retailers that make frequent mistakes with my orders. Only last week, I shopped with the company that sent me an ugly oversized cushion instead of the polo shirt I bought my step-dad for Christmas.
I’ve often said ‘never again’ will I go to certain companies and meant it. But then I’ve found I can’t get a particular product anywhere else because its exclusive to that retailer. Or I can’t get the products I want anywhere else at a price I’m prepared to pay.
Grudgingly, I shop with these retailers time and time again, bracing myself for whatever damage or error will potentially occur this time. So I imagine it’s not always that simple for advisers to just pull business from service providers whose service is not up to scratch.
Moving from one provider to another has to be in the client’s best interests, not the adviser’s, so I expect that can also throw up all sorts of issues when we’re talking about transferring to a different pension provider and so forth. And who would you go to instead? Are they any better or are you swapping one set of problems for a different set?
But when enough is enough, people do go elsewhere. In April, our editor Katey Pigden reported that many advisers are moving assets off the Embark platform due to poor service standards, so it does happen.
In response, Embark Platform chief executive Peter Docherty talked about how the platform is ‘investing in technology, in people and in our service capability generally’ because it wants ‘the best for our existing and future relationships.’
Maybe it’s because I’m a Libra – the star sign represented by the scales – that I also have sympathy for the providers. I don’t believe any legitimate company delivers poor service deliberately; It happens because of the stresses and strains businesses and the individuals who work for them are under.
But at the same time, businesses are business and poor service standards need to dealt with because they ultimately affect paying clients and advisers’ livelihoods. I’ve heard stories from some advisers how they’ve even lost clients because of constant errors and delays from providers.
However, when I was writing about poor service standards from providers, few advisers I spoke to wanted to go on record and be named alongside the providers they were complaining about.
Some were happy to wax lyrical about their experiences within the relative safety of LinkedIn – which is, ironically, where I found them in the first place. But they balked at the idea of going public in Money Marketing. “I just want a quiet life,” one of them told me. “You absolutely cannot mention my name,” said another.
One adviser was happy to go the record and tell me exactly which company had messed up without proper redress. “Why would I not want my name printed? I’ve done nothing wrong,” that adviser told me. How refreshing.
There were concrete details, dates and documents. Whoopee, I thought. Only at the end, their network kicked up a fuss and advised them not to go on the record, so their comments – as illuminating as they were – remained anonymous.
I needed to protect my source, who needed to protect their relationship with their network, who presumably needed to protect their relationship with the product provider.
And therein lies the problem – business is all about chains of relationships. To do our jobs properly, we need other people, so it often makes commercial sense to choose our battles carefully rather than loudly from our soapbox every time someone messes up or inconveniences us. We’re all human, we all make mistakes and what an awful world it would be everyone crucified everyone else for every single error or delay.
So although many advisers will draw attention to what’s going on with certain providers at a remove and swap stories about them with their peers online, that’s as far as they’re prepared to go. It’s understandable, but anonymous comments are easier for providers to bat away with generic statements that don’t reveal much than people standing up to be counted.
Of course, some advisers are prepared do publicly call out companies for bad service. From what I’ve seen, that’s what draws out the real explanations from companies as to what’s causing those problems and what they’re doing about it, as it leaves them nowhere to hide.
It was interesting to read Praemium UK & International managing director Mark Sanderson’s recent piece in Money Marketing about the forthcoming Consumer Duty. Sanderson says ‘advisers should see some improvement in the quality of the support they receive from providers’. Whether this will be enough remains to be seen, but it’s always good to be optimism.