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Dashed expectations

Last week’s Money Marketing front-page lead story on the astonishingly high level of consumer complaints faced by the Sesame network was fascinating in many ways.

First, the scale of the issue – 1,000 complaints a month is massive, as is the cost of investigating them – a whopping 4m. It is not clear to me whether these are costs related to those who complain directly to Sesame rather than the Financial Ombudsman.

If this is the case, then presumably the amount forked out by the network is even higher, although one wonders how much of these costs are passed on by the network to the firms that are being complained about.

No wonder the stockmarket has continually looked askance at Sesame’s parent Misys, with the company’s share price yo-yoing up and down over the past two years.

The other striking thing is the way in which a relatively small number of 200 firms, out of the 8,000 or so members of the network, face such a massive hit on their on their annual turnover. Inevitably, even if some of those complaints are unfounded, a disproportionate part of Sesame’s resources are being diverted into playing fireman on behalf of a small minority of members.

The third point that sticks out in the story is the comment from Sesame’s chief executive Patrick Gale, who told MM: “We can only anticipate a rougher year as time-barred red letters fully kick in. This represents the toughest environment that many advisers have seen for years.”

What he clearly means by that is that although a combination of rising stock-markets and time-barring may eventually bring an end to the number of endowment-related complaints against IFAs. It is likely that just before this happens, many more Sesame members’ clients will be inspired to fire off stroppy letters to their adviser. Things will get much worse before they get better.

Equally interesting is his comment to the effect that “although many cases relate to endowments, consumers’ propensity to complain is increasing in all categories”. In many ways, this is one of the most intriguing observations in the entire story.

Let us be clear – we are not talking about the old chestnut of compensation culture here. Some people may be after the financial services equivalent of a “broken paving stone windfall” but the majority of complainers are worried people who believe they were poorly advised in relation to a fundamental aspect of their lives, namely the purchase of their homes.

If true, it suggests that the endowment debacle, coupled with falling stockmarkets in the past five or six years, have fundamentally affected the relationship between many IFAs and their clients.

Doubtless, there will be Sesame members reading this who will email me to the effect that they have an exceptionally good relationship with their clients or that if one or two have made a complaint, this in no way reflects the views of the overwhelming majority.

All of which may be true. Except that, as we all know, for every client who complains, there will be at least three others who probably feel the same way but cannot stir themselves to do anything about it. Plus another three who have such a pathological fear of financial issues that they are hiding their heads in the sand – they will only discover what has happened to them when their policies mature.

Even if you – the punter – know, deep down, that there are no real grounds for complaining against your IFA, that does not stop a distance developing between you and him or her. After all, it may be no one’s fault that it happened but the bottom line is that the last time you listened to an adviser you dropped a pile of money.

Don’t think that I am happy about this state of affairs. If anything, what worries me slightly about the new complaint culture, as opposed to compensation culture, is that while it may reflect a sense of new-found empowerment on the part of IFAs’ clients, it does not necessarily mean more knowledge.

Clients end up complaining because their IFAs have not met their expec-tations – yet there was never any serious discussion at the outset as to what those expectations might be, whether they were realistic and how they could reasonably be met.

In that sense, the chickens have come home to roost for many IFAs. Their failure to really engage and educate their clients, offering high-quality standards of service they had a right to expect, whether fully appreciated or not, is part of what is fuelling the complaints that Patrick Gale is talking about.

It will take a long time, much longer than the remaining time that most endowments have left to run, before many clients’ feelings of betrayal are forgotten.

On a completely separate topic, I read the recent news of Origen’s Gareth Marr semi-retirement with some sadness. I have known Gareth for almost 15 years, back when he was a suave and thrusting Fimbra council man. He has achieved some amazing things in and for the industry and acted as a point of reference for many advisers.

I hope he will not be staying totally out of the limelight. I don’t think he would like that very much – and neither would we.

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