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The angry view from a closed-life call centre

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Matt Worthington, a former call centre worker for a closed-life company, has a few things to get off his chest.

The CII has been throwing a lot of weight behind the concept of “professionalism” lately; both internally and externally. Last week’s Money Marketing article is just one example of their current lobbying for “a requirement for firms to demonstrate professionalism”.

I would like to add my own voice to the call for (delete as applicable) IFAs/financial planners/asset managers/wealth managers/money gurus/wealth creation consultants to demonstrate a greater degree of professionalism.

Now, I am not writing to you as a regulator, or a trade body, or a client, or even as a fellow IFA, but as a call centre operator for a large, closed-book life and pension provider. Every day I deal with an average of 70 calls; from clients, IFAs, solicitors, accountants, bank managers, tax inspectors, HR consultants, funeral directors, welfare benefits officers…the list goes on and on. And each caller will come on the line with a differing degree of financial awareness, and a differing degree of professionalism.

As you would imagine (and hope!) IFAs tend to score top in the financial awareness field. But consistently, and disappointingly, my colleagues and I find IFAs to be the least professional people we deal with.

Basic courtesy and politeness is a given from most callers, but all too often lacking from IFAs. And I’ve never been shouted at by a solicitor, but again, it is a common occurrence from IFAs. Same story for being sworn at or personally insulted. We would never expect an accountant or a bank manager to hurl abuse down the line like a drunk at a football match, but sadly we tend to anticipate it from IFAs.

I understand your frustrations, definitely. You’re kept on hold for ages (with some pretty dire hold music, I admit). You have to go through the same repetitive data protection routine over and over again. Then sometimes we can’t give you the information you need. Or we give you the wrong information. Or we tell you it’ll have to be sent in writing, which takes a few weeks. Plus postage.

As a company we’re not perfect, but what company is? And as call centre operators we’re obviously not going to have the same breadth and depth of experience and knowledge as you are. Otherwise we wouldn’t be call centre operators; we’d be IFAs. I know we are “the face of the company”, but please, show some respect to people trying to do their job as best they can.

Contrary to popular belief, we call centre operators aren’t actually responsible for setting HMRC’s trivial commutation rules. Nor do we have much say in when Royal Mail decide to deliver the quotes we posted to you. And surprising as it may be, if you decide to transfer your clients substantial funds to the far reaches of the globe, we don’t have the authority to “bypass that ridiculous anti-money laundering malarkey and chuck the cash over sharpish”.

Shouting and swearing at a minimum wage call centre operator because you feel that the “f***ing company is stealing my clients money”  will never get you a result.  On the other hand, “I’d like to discuss my concerns over the charging structure of your product” sounds much better, doesn’t it? And far more likely to get a half-decent factual response.

I’m pleased to say that I’m putting this behind me now. I am leaving the call centre for a small asset management firm, having (like most of my colleagues) studied for my first qualifications (PFS Diploma in Regulated Financial Planning, PFS Certificate in Financial Planning, CII Award in Financial Administration, and IMA Certificate in Money Advice Practice).

Anyway, rant over. Sincere apologies to the polite and professional IFAs out there - I have enjoyed speaking with you and dealing with your queries. No doubts I’ll share your call centre frustrations in the near future, but whatever I encounter, I wholly intend to maintain a polite and professional manner in all of my communications; not just those with fee-paying or prospective clients.

Matt Worthington


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Readers' comments (64)

  • No argument with any of your points Matt - It's compulsory for our staff to be polite to all providers because we want results and we find that's the best way to get them. From the other side of the fence though, will the FSA please explain why it has not forced closed companies (and some that are not closed!) to abandon practices such as sending everything by second class mail and never ever making out going phone calls regardless of time criticality? Other favourite ploys beloved of the likes of Halifax Life are refusing to take heed of a clear letter of request to surrender and instead insisting on having a form filled in, which is only sent out at the second or third request. Absolutley the call centre workers don't deserve abuse, but a lot of their bosses certainly do. Ultimately it's all to the clients' detriment so why allow them to do it? Surely it's not TCF?

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  • Long live the professional, non-swearing, but constructively abusive IFA. Who says you cant be abusive, upleasant and also professional's an art form. We have a god given right and mandate from the client to get things done. Why should we put up with slap dash administration and unhelpful call centres and daylight robbery of client funds. As IFAs we know how the system works and use our skill and knowledge to stand up for joe public to cut through life office corporate culture and the massaging of information. Unfortunately Matt you were on the front line and therefore as the fall guy had to take the initial flak. I've no desire to upset anybody persoanally...but I'm fed up of being polite and getting no results, when I say jump, the call centre operator should respond "Yes Sir, how high...I'll get those details immediately". Business isn't always a pleasant place to be when you're standing up for the little guy against the Big money. If you cant stand the heat...

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  • To Anonymous a 3.50pm

    Given that you didn't have the minerals to give your name, I think we can all safely ignore your rantings.

    You quite clearly receive the service you deserve. I would hate to be one of your clients.

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  • Now, anonymous, why doesn't it surprise me that you hide behind anonymity to make your point. Professionals know that Matt's article was spot on. If you haven't got the balls to publish over your name...... then shut up... Coward and bully are two labels that spring to mind. Matt, good luck in the future.

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  • Here is a shock to the system!!! this fantasy of IFA's being supreme is over, due to the fact that some were totally unqualified, most are ageing and are not willing to requalify (as it is hassle) and the rest are in a panic beause they want to churn as much business as they can in prior to the inception of RDR 31 DECEMBER 2012. Furthermore to remain trading as an IFA they have to be as the name suggest "Independent" as they can no longer survive on which provider or company gives them the fat commission. In essence it's game over for the COWBOY IFA's!!!

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  • There's never any excuse for rudeness when speaking to people at product providers. I agree with the author that this is an issue of professionalism (or lack of it).

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  • Matt - I admire your courage and your articulation. Its basic relationship/stakeholder management - we all invest in the client relationship - but often neglect those who can help us deliver for clients. And abusing/bullying is as naïve in a business sense as it is inexcuseable in a basic human sense.

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  • To Glen McKeown : You forget that RDR is both a conceptual and practical means to improve the professionalism of the industry to the level of, if not beyond, that attributed to solicitors and accountants. It is driven by a desire to improve the professional education and business behaviours of advisers in how they interact with their clients and providers alike. This combines with the TCF initiative to embed this culture into a firms culture and that of its staff. Part of the qualification process is to understand financial ethics ( RO1 in case you missed that exam) so perhaps you should consider the bigger picture in what the FSA is trying achieve. Granted there will always be individuals who will abuse call centre staff, and perhaps their own staff, but there are legal mechanisms to deal with that.

    What disappoints me is that you can launch a personal vicious tirade against someone, accusing them of being unprofessional, on a public forum, who was simply expressing an opinion on the subject. How professional is that ?

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  • Well, I'm suprised how many of you have taken the time to read and comment on this, and really pleased to see so many fellow professionals in agreement on the whole "polite and professional" issue.

    Just briefly I'd like to address a few of the negative points raised in the comments;

    - Anonymous @ 3:16pm, I think you've missed the whole point of the article. Not entirely sure what more I can add on this, other than to urge you to re-read it!

    - David @ 3:33pm, unfortunately you're correct there. Nothing cuts through corporate red tape, "average service levels" and bureacracy quite like a good complaint. If it's factual and objective then it will receive attention and "jump the queue". Sad really, because that's not TCF at all, but it's the way many large companies work.

    Anonymous @ 3:50pm, I think your stereotype is very inaccurate. If you think that call centre operators can be "Slumped in their chairs, clock watching, idling the day away without a care in the world" then that just shows you've never been to one or worked in one. Call centre operaters are overworked and there are never enough staff to meet demand (as you must surely know, from long waiting times, hold times, arranged call backs, etc). As soon as one call ends, you have seconds to take the next before a manager is chasing you up! If you don't think call centre operaters are hardworking, I hope you will at least agree they are very pressured, and whilst salaried, rest assured it's not a shade of what any FA would expect!

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  • I have dealt with financial salesmen who call themselves 'advisers' for a number of years. Rude, abusive, unprofessional. Just a bunch of jumped up second hand car salesmen. RDR will sort them out.

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  • No one likes delays or poor service. IFAs are often reliant on providers to give information to them in order to provide this to their clients.

    If there are delays or mistakes, the IFAs have to then deal with concerned or angry clients, who start to think something terrible may have happened to their money if they don't get an instant answer.

    On the other hand, it is perfectly okay for an IFA to be angry about poor service, but there is no excuse for being rude. I don't think any call centre operator would take issue with an IFA who makes it clear that he is not happy with the service, but does so in a professional manager. That operator is then, as is the way with human nature, going to be more inclined to assist to solve the problem.

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  • Funny IFA - if you honestly believe that abuse and unpleasantries are reasonable strategies to employ when you're not getting your way, then I pity your lack of social skills. I understand that poor service can be frustrating and I see the nobility of standing up for Joe Public (not platitudes, I do actually mean every word of that). But being rude and abusive is truly more reflective of the abuser than the recipient.

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  • Matt I do sympathise and it must be particularly galling as you are (or were) at least an ONSHORE call centre. Not that there is any excuse for bad manners, but perhaps you also need to see the other side of the coin.
    Unlike the other ‘professionals’ with whom you came into contact IFAs have to suffer most from hopeless offshore call centres and appalling life office service - the worst of which comes from closed life offices who really don’t give a toss as all they want are the assets and advisers and clients just get in the way of the profit and asset stripping.
    You need to work in an IFA office for a week or two to experience the frustration, annoyance and waste of time engendered. Admittedly it isn’t the fault of call centre staff, they do get the messy end of the stick and your employers know that only too well. They are cosseted and protected behind you and will rarely step up to the plate.
    Life offices might be bad, but those still offering a proposition do sometimes try. Closed offices are the bête noir of the industry and when it comes to being unprofessional they are the Gold Medal winners – not us.
    I hope that puts matters a little in perspective. And I do feel sympathy for the people on the front line. You are the ones to carry the can and are abused by both sides and undervalued and underpaid by your employer. No wonder really that firms go offshore – they probably can’t get people in the UK to be Aunt Sally’s

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  • excellent piece of factual advice on how to be nice to ordinary people.

    it's a pity the FSA were not more forth right in dealing with the clients that Matt describes (fred the shred)

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  • Some of the anonymous comments here are pretty preposterous and frankly I don't get why they are allowed - rant over!

    I think it is absolutely fair for any of us to expect to be dealt with, with respect and tolerance and in this respect I can endorse Matt's comments without hesitation.

    On the other hand providers who arm themselves with staff that are trained to only basic levels and support them with poor systems are kidding themselves if they think their clients are going to put up with shoddy service.

    I rarely bother phoning call centres any more because the responses are generally not worth the time and effort employed. I'm bored with listening to Vivaldi or Greensleeves, then going through the energy sapping i/d verification process only to be told that I can't be given the information I'm calling about.

    This failure to provide the required help is then usually compounded by the ever so cheerful call centre operative, repeatedly asking me if there's anything else they can 'help' me with today. Now given that they usually haven't actually helped me with anything in the first place tends to drive the frustration a bit further.

    So as mentioned I cannot in any way excuse bad manners, abusive or intolerant language and behaviour but do undertand how it happens. The answer is simple - don't bother with call centres!

    Whilst on the subject of such however, is it me or does anyone else become at least mildly irked when a call centre operative calls your firm and then attempts to go through the i/d verification process when they have called you.

    On one occasion going all ironic, I attempted to turn the tables and asked a charming Indian sounding lady for her date of birth, mother's maiden name, first school she attended, favourite holiday destination, name of current pet etc but unfortunately she just didn't get it.

    On a more serious note though, why do closed life offices realistically expect to retain client assets when they deliver such tosh?

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  • Many years ago I worked for insurers. During that time I was amazed at the number of so-called professionals (Insurance Brokers and IFAs) who would resort to bullying instead of negotiation to get what they thought they wanted. I was also amazed at the number of times it worked, except at one company. The branch manager would cancel the agency of anyone who abused his staff and he ran one of the most successful branches in that company.

    I am sorry (but not entirely surprised) to read that times haven't changed the deplorable practice of abuse. Those guilty of it would do well to remember that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

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  • Throughout the comments, I can see that a majority of IFA's and employees of providers agree on 2 things. Firstly, that providers do sometimes give less than stellar service. Secondly, that the most professional and productive thing for an IFA to do when experiencing this type of service is to be polite yet firm in expressing their displeasure.

    Then, in the minority, we have the IFA's who believe that perceived poor service is an absolute justification for abuse, anger and unpleasantries.

    To the first group, my apologies that we haven't lived up to your expectations and I will try my best to resolve things as quickly as possible when our paths cross.

    To the second group, I still apologise and will still try to resolve your issues as professionally as I can, but please be aware that you actually make it more difficult and protracted for me to do so. Finally, for the second group, please read the following quote from John Lennon...

    “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

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  • Duncan Carter, the 'energy sapping id verification process' is called Data Protection and is what stands in the way of YOUR CLIENTS becoming a victim of Fraud.

    If a company has to call you back to discuss something about YOUR CLIENTS, then of course the same protection is offered; I for one am glad that my data isn't given out without verification to anyone pushy enough.

    Presumably the 'Indian sounding lady' didn't get your attempt at irony because the information that you asked her for isn't information that you would hold, so could not be used to verify the company. Hopefully you felt adequately amused and superior though.

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  • @anonymous 3.34pm. To provide classified information to anyone who calls you purporting to be acting on behalf of a company with whom you do business is rather naive to say the least.

    Fine if you call them, but not if they call you!

    Data protection is an important process and on this I am sure that we all agree, but sometimes the provision of such information needs to be viewed from both sides of the street. How do I know that the person who calls me is actually who they say they are?

    The problem with some call-centres is that many of their processes are ill thought out and not user-friendly and it is this aspect which adds fuel to any fire.

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  • I’ve been on the receiving end of a 35 minute, highly unpleasant rant from an IFA who regularly posts in here. He was seeking £5,000 damages from the insurance company I worked for, to recompense him for his time. What time did he waste? He chose to refuse to complete a form confirm that he had verified the identity of his customer. It was a simple form, with four clear instructions on the front.

    I’m not a call centre worker (though like many, it’s where I started my career,). I am a highly skilled compliance professional with a deep understanding of UK and European anti money laundering legislation. I offered to speak to him when a query was escalated from the sales team, to explain, in laymans terms, why an insurance company would require someone submitting a large single premium for an insurance to confirm that had checked the customers identity.

    His response was that not only did he have no idea what his legal requirements were in terms of money launder, he had no intention to find out, because as an IFA, why should he. He also maintained that no IFA knew, but I think that says more about the company he keeps.

    Whilst the above speaks volumes, what really got me is he didn’t show any interest in whether the delay in transferring fund had either a beneficial or detrimental impact on the number of units purchased in the investment bond he was transferring over to. Even when I offered to find out, so he could explain this to his customer given it seemed likely the delay had been to the customers benefit, he told me not to bother, he just wanted £5,000.

    Most IFAs provide a really valuable service to their client and to the financial services industry as a whole. There is a small minority that give the rest a bad name. If the IFA sector gets its act together and can unite behind a single industry body, one of the first tasks of that body must be root out the rotten wood.

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