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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)

  • Bemused - you've made me think of a few of the 'characters' I've dealt with over the years. In no particular order, I present to you...

    The Adviser who would hang up if his call was answered by a female member of staff and would keep calling back until a male member of staff answered. He would then complain about the amount of time it had taken him to 'get through'.

    The Adviser who, upon his call being answered, would bark, "John Smith from Smith FS, Bond Quote, 100k, Mr. A. Smith, 01/01/1945, usual terms." and then hang up before the call handler had even had a chance to respond.

    The Adviser whose wife was his PA. She would phone up for a quote and we would prepare it exactly as per her instructions. The FA would phone a few days later apoplectic, swearing and screaming at our rank stupidity and incompetence when it came to quote production.He would demand to speak to a senior manager and lambast our failure to get a simple quote right. Investigation would always show that we had provided exactly what his wife had asked for. When this was pointed out to him and he was invited to listen to the call recording, he would simply hang up.

    I could tell you dozens more like this, but in the interests of fairness, I should point out that this still represents a minority of Advisers.

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  • What is required for less abuse is the ability to hang up the phone. I used to work for an entrepreneurial compliance company and if anyone tried to give you any s***t then the corporate view was to hang the phone up without warning. If the idiot then rang back generally he would get a business owner on the phone telling him not to abuse the staff he employed. Guess what, hardly any idiots, as they knew exactly what the deal was and that they could not behave as if they were in the playground.

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  • Anonymous 3.34p.m.

    1. QED, why don't you front up and quote your name? Do you work in a call centre for a closed life office, maybe even designing processes and I've touched a nerve? There is however an immense irony in that you cite data protection whilst not quoting in your own name. Pah!

    2. The puerile questions asked are about as effective at protecting client data as a dead fish. Before you respond with another inane and anonymous diatribe, just think it through for a second.

    3. Of course the Indian lady couldn't pass our i/d checks because she was ringing us! How were we supposed to know who she was but she and her employers [a closed life company again somewhat ironically] chose to ignore this bit of DATA PROTECTION and just expect us to take them at their word. Doh!

    4. Amused and superior; no more like bemused and long suffering. Why do you think you can treat people this way?

    Please feel free to contact me directly to discuss at You will however at the very least need to state your name to pass the 'data protection' tests that we insist on to protect OUR CLIENTS!

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  • As somebody who works in the technical area of a life office, I deal every day with queries escalated from our call centre. I also review a number of calls dealt with solely by the callcentre.Yes, there are decent and polite IFAs who call, and those who are pleasant and understanding and grateful. And also those that are forceful but restrained when expressing their disappointment at our shortcomings. All of which is perfectly fine. But there are also rude and arrogant callers, and often they also have a woeful ignorance. Rarely a week goes by without me having to refer an IFA to something in RPSM, or to a piece of legislation, or maybe even to point out the fact that the information they are claiming that we have failed to send is in fact in the paperwork they have received - even occasionally printed prominently in large bold typeface in the documentation. Several times a year I will either review a call or take one myself from an IFA being so outrageously rude that were he to spout such abuse face to face to people, a significant number of the general public would probably slap him.

    Much as not all IFAs are the same, I would also say that not all closed-book offices are the same; I have various plans with both closed-book and open-book companies, and whilst I'll concede that some closed-book operations are challenging to deal with, some seem to have cottoned on to the fact the only income they have comes from their existing customers and they're not getting any more of them, so they had better provide them with some decent customer service to retain them. By contrast I have a policy with a major open-book provider, and every dealing with them is as pleasant as undergoing root canal dentistry.

    By and large callcentre work is not glmaourous, not fun, not well paid and not easy. Certainly sometimes systrems and training (or having to deal with such a wide portfolio of products) limits how much the callcentre staff can help. But another of the things that makes it unpleasant is the attitude of a significant minority of callers. I know a number of our more able and competent callcentre staff have moved on to other positions in the business, at least in part because of the endless cycle of giving people as good a service as you can, only to be met with sarcasm, snide remarks or just plain rudeness saps the morale after a while. Of course, the less able staff are less able to move out, so when callers are rude to call centre staff, they're just encouraging the good ones to leave and decrease the average competence of that callcentre next time they deal with them. Yes, I know we're far from perfect, but we do monitor calls and pull up staff when they don't meet our standards. Alas we can't do the same with callers...

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  • Its disappointing to note that there is so much arguement and debate about a story which is basically a request to show each other a bit of respect and show professionalism.

    Its not much to ask!!

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  • Pensions man has it pretty accurately.

    This article was about treating people with respect, whether you do actually respect them, yet in places it has descended into the exact behaviour being criticised.

    It's also a slight surprise to see so many "stupidly busy" people responding during the working day?Unless, of course, they are responding whilst on leave (as per Matt) or from their hospital beds (as per this respondent) in which case perhaps staying away from work may help you calm your nerves.

    Oh well, back to my day time TV and codeine...

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  • I'm quite liking the irony that this young educated self-motivated articulate and professional young man who is clearly on a career path could be a client of one of you advisers one day, perhaps even tomorrow when he wants some advice about what to do about the company pension and how to invest his surplus income??
    So could any of the people reading this stream.
    It is wrong to assume that some of the less articulate commentators in this stream don't talk to their clients in the same way - it might just be normal for them. However I'm thinking that it was wise for the less respectful views to be anonymous - if we knew who you were, us mere clients might be wondering if that's how you talk about us behind our backs too ...

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  • @Anonymous | 15 Feb 2012 3:50 pm

    You are a horrible person! how dare you slate people just because they may not have had the same start in life as you, or chances.
    How dare you judge people just because you think you are all high and mighty.
    I have worked for 2 pension companies and I have taken abuse from people - becasue they dont think I know what i am talking about, however most 'call staff' know more that you do.
    I think you need to take a step back and have a look in the mirror,
    I challenge you to spend on day in a call centre and see how much work actually goes on, and you will then see that people like you do not get the 'service' you wish because people like you do not get anywhere in life! you make a few quid more than the rest but it does NOT give you the right to act the way you do!

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  • Being rude to people generally does not achieve anything for either party. We make a point of being polite to everybody we have to deal with as a firm, but moving to an hourly based fee charging proposition has helped greatly. It is difficult to become stressed listening to Vivaldi on a loop when the clock is ticking and I can catch up on the news at the same time. Good old RDR.

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  • Has anyone ever managed to get through by telephone to Bright Grey's call centre , I would be suprised to know if anyone has !

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  • Keith Thomson: If you truly believe that a set of rules imposed from above by a group of people who have over the last 10 years or more demonstrated that they are monumentally out of touch with reality is a driving force for professionalism then you are in for a massive disappointment in the coming years.
    The bigger picture of what the FSA are trying to achieve is to create an industry flow process that can be more easily regulated, because they cannot cope with the current model. The outcome for consumers is the excuse, but not the driving force. As well as doing your finance exams you would do well to read books on sociology, social psychology and probability theory and you will start to question the conceptual basis of the FSA's RDR.
    Embedding a culture rarely, if ever, succeeds when win driven from the top. It may for a while gain word of mouth acceptance, but it does not leave a lasting legacy on which to grow a dynamic culture. Professionalism is not part of RDR. Professionalism is part of your own make up and attitude to work. Professionalism will grow if it becomes an integral part of the working culture and you buy into that culture RDR can survive even without people buying into professionalism because it is a set of rules. Whether RDR will work is a debate that may take another 5 years to settle. I would guess that some new "idea" will come along to superseded it. Professional should be something that is fundamental and quite independent of RDR. RDR does not create it; you do.
    Which is the same about ethics. Go into any University Library and you will see rows of books on Ethics, which means just one thing - there is an amazing lack of unanimity on what it means. You do not write tomes on what is already fully understood. Moreover I would suggest that if you do not have an ingrained understanding what is ethical in Western Commerce, no amount of exams are going to tell you. The FSA as regulator should be there to cover grey areas, which the main function of the accountancy and legal regulators. They do not tell accountants and solicitors how to act, accountants ask solicitors do that themselves by dint of their own cultural history. The regulator codifies what already occurs.
    TCF should be a descriptive title, in the same way as Book of Fairy Tales is descriptive of what is inside a book. The FSA instead have turned it into a mystical approach to finance justifying a non-specific statement of philosophy, that is turned into rules after the event. In my opinion this is actually the antipathy of professionalism.
    RDR is in the main a bunch of poorly constructed and badly explained rules, that will in the end cause as much damage as good, because they are based on a fundamental interpretation of financial mediation that will only be found in a committee room, has little external foundation, and is undermined by virtually every piece of available research. There is an old cliche that if you say something long enough and loud enough people will start to believe it, no matter how absurd the idea may be. That is RDR, transformed from being review into a caste in stone pattern of behaviour without any quality research or dialogue. That tends to happen when the people in charge realise they are on weak ground but have given themselves little room to manoeuvre.
    So that is why I believe that people who waive RDR as the great savour of finance and changer of behavioural patterns need a tirade. Any meaningful change must come from YOU and your colleagues and a belief that what you do and the way you act is professional. Stop dumping the responsibility for your own behaviour on a flawed set of rules. If enough IFAs had thought along those lines decades ago we may not have needed RDR. I say may not because I do not believe that advisers are actually the main culprits in the current debacle. Insurance companies long ago (1976 to be precise) had the opportunity of moving towards a more professional industry, but eschewed the opportunity in favour of more profits. I'm not sure that decision turned out to be as profitable as they hoped, though the people in charge at the time are now long into a prosperous retirement.

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  • To Anonymous 15/2 15.50
    I work in a call centre and I have to say that 95% of the time I get to deal with professional, articulate and educated IFAs. Unfortunately I also have to deal with rude, belligerent and downright stupid IFAs like yourself. I note that you class yourself as a hardworking person who needs to protect their client's money, obviously you are not that hard working as you manage to find time on a Wednesday afternoon to browse through the internet and produce a ridiculous and quite frankly an obsurd rant online. If you have such a strong opinions about call centre staff, why do you feel the need to hide behind anonymous, why do you not give out your name? Me and my fellow call centre colleagues are most intrigued to know who you are but I suspect that you are just too much of a coward to release your name unlike me. I will continue to do my job, which does not involve me slumped in my chair and clock watching but trying to help people with any queries that they have. I am sure that you will continue with "protecting client's money" although I wouldn't entrust someone like you to manage my copper collection

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  • @ Duncan Carter. Duncan, remember that clients and potential clients have a handy search engine called 'Google' (look it up if you have not heard if it). With this magic 'google' they can do research on you. If I was a potential client I could read your rantings in this thread., Why not read them yourself, but try and imagine yourself in a client's shoes. Do you sound like a professional adviser, or just some embarrassing jumped up bully?

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  • Some of the comments on here bring back memories from my time on the other side of the fence. In my DBS days one of my younger colleagues in the Research Dept faxed (pre email!) an out of date information sheet to a member who shortly rang back, quite apoplectic. I apologised profusely and faxed the correct sheet through while I was apologising; the machine was next to my desk. But he was still bending my ear. I pointed out that I had apologised for my colleague and had faxed the right sheet through, and I asked "What more would you lime me to do?"

    He then told me I wasn't showing adequate remorse.

    So I offered to go out on the car park and flog myself with barbed wire ...

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  • Why don't you all direct your ire at the owners of these zombie companies - they are the real villains - as everyone knows.

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  • Judging by the response Matt has hit a few nerves and should be pleased to have done so.

    Mea culpa, I have been guilty of showing frustration when dealing with call centres. Like many respondants I have tempered this by telling the person on the other end of the 'phone thay my frustration was not aimed at them, but at their executive. Waiting time costs, money, cock-ups cost time, 0845 call cost more money and robots referring to themselves in the first person are infuriating. Self-employed IFAs' who have little or no staff count costs very carefully and hate wasting time stuck on the 'phone to call centres. We should understand each others points of view and show respect and politeness to one and other in an ideal world. I shall try to modify my behaviour still further at times of great stress and hope that large companies will show us some respect in their dealings with us.

    If ever I have inavertantly offended you Matt, then I apologise unreservedly and to other call centres, with the exception of Lloyds TSB Indian call center pest who have 'phoned me on Sunday evenings and bank holidays even because I have been late with credit card payments on occassions since the credit crunch. Four calls in one week to chase an accidental underpayment of £18. I do not have any patience with that sort of harassment, although some will say that they are only doing their job.

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  • Interesting to see how many long comments there are in this string by those complaining about wasting time on the telephone! Surely there is something more important to do!

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  • Speaking as an IFA who in the past managed several call centres of varying sizes (and at one stage had the final say over adviser remuneration for a well known Life office's direct sales force) I have heard a number of these tantrums and it still makes me cringe.

    It is fair to say that the vast majority of IFAs that I know that have or will be getting their level 4 qualifications are the ones that understand the benefits of being courteous to everyone and the dinosaurs that I know who won't be sticking around fit Matt's description to a tee.

    It's a real shame that one idiot every now and then can label an entire professional body negatively. Well said Matt and welcome to the courteous IFA club.

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  • Dear Anonymous, 15/12/2012 at 3.50pm.....
    I am not semi-literate, I am not slumped in my chair, I am not clock watching without a care in the world. I have two children, a mortgage and financial commitments like everbody else. I actually do care about my performance at work because I have bills to pay! And I like to think I am a considerate person. Incase you were wondering, I work in a "contact centre", a rather pretty word for a call centre.

    And as for IFA's trying to protect the clients money... I have had the pleasure of speaking to a lot of IFA's who are receiving renewal commission and additional adviser fees AND want us to pay additional commission to them for switches of funds (an essential task required in order to protect the clients money and one we like to think we pay ongoing commission for)!

    Lets stop with the insults please. I have dealt with some wonderful IFA's over the years and I have also dealt with terrible call centre staff with banks and other organisations. This is why I actually give a toss when I am at work, as do my wonderful colleagues. The bottom line is, as with any other job or profession, some are great at it and some not so great. Keep the insults to yourself, your toys in your pram and I hope something nice happens to you one day to make you a better person inside.

    PS If IFA’s actually kept and stored client information that providers send them on a regular basis, they may not have the need to contact call centres half as much as they do!

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  • It not just call centre staff that get abuse from IFA bullies.

    Many para-planners and administrators I know have their lives made a misery buy these rude, unprofessional and frankly unpleasant people.

    These types of people are also quick to denigrate anyone earning a salary. I suspect it’s a combination of jealousy that they have a secure income, and a paranoid feeling that everyone has it in for them.

    Bullying is what it is, and has no place in any type of professional organisation. Providers have a responsibility to their staff too, and its provider’s lack of action which is half of the problem. As all calls are recorded, any abusive calls should be notified to the IFA’s employer and to the FSA.

    There is too much of tolerance of bad behaviour in the industry; as long as you bring in new business you can treat any and everyone like sh*t.

    Once RDR comes in they will also be able to be reported to their professional body. This should be a good litmus test to the professional bodies. As people who rant and rave down the phone are clearly not professional and deserve to be booted out of the (new) profession.

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