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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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