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Nic Cicutti: The flaw in VouchedFor

It was interesting to see its chief executive criticise the regulator when there is still such room for improvement at his own company

How do you find a good adviser? I found myself asking this last week, after reading an article in Money Marketing about VouchedFor chief executive Adam Price, who criticised a proposed FCA directory that aims to help consumers check the status and history of people working in financial services firms.

Price made the point that the FCA’s directory “contains advisers of varying quality – from brilliant to inconsistent to completely rogue”, including those responsible for trying to con thousands of British Steel workers out of their pensions.

New FCA directory to make advisers’ histories searchable

His view was that if the regulator cannot guarantee an adviser is reliable it should share that responsibility with businesses that perform a similar role in the private sector – companies like VouchedFor, by astonishing coincidence.

Let’s go back to basics. For many years, I have been a massive fan of many different service comparison sites out there. I have used them to find plumbers, plasterers, electricians, floor and wall tilers. I have priced delivery quotes for furniture, hired taxis and airport parking, rented hotel rooms and even bought flowers through them.

What the best sites do extremely effectively is offer a mechanism whereby satisfied (or unsatisfied) customers can share their experience of that particular service and recommend others to use it, or not.

Significantly, price is not the key determinant for choosing one trader over another. I am personally far more influenced by satisfaction ratings in respect of service than those which compete solely on costs.

Let me also say I admire the intention of sites like VouchedFor, which attempt to replicate a similar approach towards consumers seeking to find an adviser. I reviewed VouchedFor in Money Marketing around seven years ago* and said some complementary things about it at the time.

MAS adviser directory passes 7,000 users

So what has changed at VouchedFor since 2011? Well, for one thing, the website is much slicker. Searching for the right adviser can be done via a greater number of filters, including not just the location of the adviser and the service you are seeking, but also on the basis of a review count and a so-called “best match” in respect of the specific advice area interested in.

All very interesting – except the algorithm used by VouchedFor also threw up some anomalies. For example, when I asked for the 10 advisers within a 20-mile radius of my postcode by number of reviews, and specified investment and savings as the area of advice I was interested in, I needed to untick a box which wanted to show me “only advisers who were verified and available” before I was matched with one 19 miles away.

Even when I unticked the box for advisers willing to travel to see me and indicated that my total assets were above £150,000, I was still presented with a list of advisers between 58 and 73 miles away, as well as one who would provide me with a phone based service as there were “not many advisers in my area who serve clients with less than £50,000 savings, investment and pensions”.

Bear in mind that my postcode places me within 15 miles of both Southampton and Bournemouth, not to mention smaller market towns within a 20-mile radius, fertile territory for many IFAs. Other search websites will happily locate scores of advisers in that same catchment area.

Nic Cicutti: Why can’t advisers get it right with millennials?

What this suggests is that either the software behind the algorithm was having an off day or my search skills are rubbish. Or, perhaps, the level of monthly fees paid by advisers subscribing to VouchedFor helps determine where they appear in the course of a search.

Intriguingly, given how strongly Price feels about the FCA’s own weaknesses, when I looked to see what “stringent criteria” VouchedFor uses to weed out advisers who might scam their customers, I was told it checks them against the FCA Register, including their qualifications and “fees” (presumably if they are independent or restricted).

So, not much more than the FCA directory then.

The difference, it would seem, is the fact VouchedFor also offers customer reviews. Except that, as I pointed out back in 2011: “What VouchedFor asks us to assume is that the opinion of a reviewer, potentially uninformed about what level of service he or she should expect from their IFA, is as valid as someone who knows exactly what they ought to be paying for.

“The worry is that a few fawning comments will be used as substitutes for a more in-depth analysis of what makes a good IFA.”

Based on this, VouchedFor could also include in its own list advisers whose stunningly good reviews include scores of happy former British Steel workers who subsequently discover they were scammed.

Do not get me wrong. I am not criticising VouchedFor per se. It tries to do a job and, for the most part, does it fairly well. But it ill behoves Price to have a pop at the regulator when there is still massive room for improvement at his own website.

*This article has been amended to clarify the correct date

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk

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Comments

There are 15 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Good article Nic !

    It is, as its always been….. “Personal Recommendation”
    Even professional connections has its flaws, (who is bunging who here ?)

    Glossy adverts, a 5ft long list of qualifications, and a myriad of promises and free gifts, do not constitute quality or a top job.

    Only by talking to existing clients on how good or indeed bad an adviser is do you even start to make an informed choice… then of course one should always check the FCA register to confirm an individuals and companies status (this should be information the consumer should be able to rely on)

  2. If you want a Directory do it properly. If you want to put your children into a school, you know that it has been inspected and assessed against a standard. Also, the staff too. If you went to hospital you know in advance that it is inspected and staff assessed by independent bodies. There are professional bodies responsible for discipline. Likewise, with care homes, restaurants, etc. Similarly pharmaceuticals, food and chemical industries have standards and these firms are assessed against them. There are firm and adviser standards, yet no-one even feels that they are important and that is asinine. Stupid. Arrogant. Most good firms meet these standards and it only requires tinkering to formalise annual compliance reports to do this. The bad firms don’t.
    One concern about the current system is that you can pass all the exams in the world, do CPD far in excess of what is required and still be incompetent. Verify output and use that to control the input. Another concern is with review websites is that it takes yonks before poor advice to becomes known to the client – hence the lack of a long stop. They do not know for sure that they have received good advice – just that they have a warm and cuddly feeling through their relationship with the adviser. 5 stars – for what?
    We have standards and if they are essential for cost conscious industries and professions why don’t we? We advise on a lifetime of savings and what do we have? VouchedFor and FCA Register. It is bonkers. A directory of verified firms and advisers meeting professional standards should be mandatory. Not the trash we have now.

  3. Nic hits nail on head re Vouched For, just get mates and family to write reviews

    Qualifications – no guarantee of quality

    Awards- meaningless -no guarantee of quality only awrded to those firms that have time/money to enter.

    At least things like ISO2222 (as recognised by Which) are externally audited to make sure you are doing what you say you are.

  4. I only accept referrals from existing clients, and one who had read my comments on DB transfers in MM, leading to two further referrals because he liked the service.

    I am fortunate that I do not have to find new clients, and having grown up in the school of hard knocks I know it is not easy, but anything that reduces the numbers game and applies a quality filter has to be of benefit, but not for me.

  5. we were not that impressed by the quality of leads and were put off by the price…..not for me!

    word of mouth and personal recommendation is all you need.

    • Thanks for your comment George.

      On the word of mouth point (which Geoff, above, also raises) – it’s worth flagging that many advisers on VouchedFor use the platform to drive word of mouth e.g. use the independently verified reviews, rating badges, certificates etc. to encourage more referrals from clients and other professionals and increase the intent of those being referred.

      Worth a look at Phil bray’s blog on the subject – https://theyardstickagency.co.uk/blog/using-vouchedfor-to-wow-your-potential-clients-3239/

      Re price. Not sure which you were on George, but our most popular membership is Verified, it’s £45 a month and includes access to all the reputation tools and the ability to receive a capped number of enquiries.

      Totally understand if we are still not for you though.

  6. Hi Nic,

    I work at VouchedFor and want to address some of your points.

    Firstly, Adam’s article (here it is – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-fca-must-challenge-vouchedfor-unbiased-adam-price/) is not having a pop at the FCA for the sake of it or asserting that our offering is infallible (in fact it regularly states that we have more to do!).

    The article encourages the FCA and all other bodies (private and not for profit) that can play a part to challenge each other and collaborate effectively to improve outcomes for those seeking advice.

    To this end, we welcome and take seriously all constructive criticism of our efforts. However we will (as you would expect) refute any that we find misleading or factually incorrect.

    So, to your other points –

    1. Just for your records, you reference an original article you did on VouchedFor 12 years ago in 2006 but we were only launched in 2011.

    2. I don’t know exactly where you live but replicated the search that you did as best I could by picking a village, Burley, that is equidistant between Southampton and Basingstoke.

    The results are clear for all to see here – https://www.vouchedfor.co.uk/financial-advisor-ifa/bh24%204az – though people will need to slide the wealth bar to £150k to replicate your filters.

    Key points –
    i) The top 3 advisers are as follows –
    > 4 miles away, rated 4.8 out of 5 based on 43 verified reviews
    > 11 miles away, rated 4.9 out of 5 stars based on 47 verified reviews
    > 6 miles away, rated 4.8 out of 5 stars based on 18 verified reviews
    ii) The 1st and 3rd advisers are Verified members, meaning they pay us less than Unlimited members. Whether advisers are on our Verified or our, more expensive, Unlimited membership (where you pay for each enquiry) has NO bearing on our search listings I can assure you.
    iii) When you move the wealth level to £150k the telephony option disappears, it is only at the top of the listings when there is not an adviser able to help someone with the wealth level in question.

    3. You reference our checks and how they compare with the FCAs. I must stress – there is more to do here – but our checks go far beyond what you suggest. Here’s a full list –
    i) We check each adviser is FCA regulated
    ii) We check their independent status, service by service
    iii) We check adviser’s location and contact details
    iv) We require advisers to upload certificates for their qualifications
    v) We check advisers’ client reviews are genuine
    vi) We ask everyone who submits an enquiry to an adviser on VouchedFor to leave a first
    impression review of their experience
    vii) We encourage advisers to publish their fees
    viii) We monitor complaints and news outlets
    ix) We monitor client outcomes, e.g. how many are happy and get the help they need, currently 60% give us feedback.

    4. You question reviews and the worth of other clients’ opinions. We collect first impression and client reviews (the latter containing reviews from newer and more established clients), enabling us to gauge satisfaction at each stage of the client journey. Reviews in isolation are not enough which is why we are constantly building on the checks that we do. We removed 5 advice firms from VouchedFor early in the British Steel saga (firms that were still listed on the register and other directories at the point we removed them).

    • I’m impressed that Nic managed to quote an excerpt from an article he wrote about VouchedFor in 2006, in double quotation marks, which he couldn’t possibly have written because VouchedFor didn’t exist at the time.

      Did he actually copy and paste one of his old articles from 2006, and inexplicably insert VouchedFor into the quote, or did he make the entire quote up as he was writing this article?

      Shades of Johann Hari. Should we assume that anything else Cicutti puts in quotation marks is actually made up by Cicutti, or is it only when he’s quoting himself?

      • The more charitable explanation of course is that it’s a typo and the article was actually from 2016. But if that’s the case, I’m surprised Google can’t find it. A search for the exact phrase Nic is quoting reveals only this article.

        I think it would be prudent to quote the excerpt I am talking about as it stands now, in case the article gets edited later. Here it is, with quotation marks as per the original:

        —-

        The difference, it would seem, is the fact VouchedFor also offers customer reviews. Except that, as I pointed out back in 2006: “What VouchedFor asks us to assume is that the opinion of a reviewer, potentially uninformed about what level of service he or she should expect from their IFA, is as valid as someone who knows exactly what they ought to be paying for.

        “The worry is that a few fawning comments will be used as substitutes for a more in-depth analysis of what makes a good IFA.”

        —-

  7. Christopher Brown 2nd August 2018 at 1:41 pm

    I agree that VouchedFor has some things to work on but having read the CEO’s article, I don’t think it’s typical of the race-to-the bottom, mud-slinging that Nic’s article implies or that is so common when the industry talks about the routes into advice.

    We need a sensible, candid analysis of what’s working and what’s not across the industry, then we need to get on with improving things.

    Will the FCA’s proposed directory deliver the silver bullet on its own? I highly doubt it.

  8. I got the date wrong on the VouchedFor review I wrote. The original write-up I did about VouchedFor was in June 2011 not 2006.
    The column I had in my personal files was dated wrongly and I didn’t check the “date modified” bar. That’s an error in my part and I apologise for this error on my part.
    Ironically, anyone searching for it in MM ‘s own online records will find it quite easily, so I’m surprised Sascha Klauss didn’t look there. But then, we all know he’s more interested in having a pop than actually bothering about evidence one way or the other.
    As for the other issues:
    2) I reported on a search for an adviser I carried out which was repeated on five occasions over several days, using slightly different parameters each time, including the investment amount I had. The parameters I described in my column produced the search results I stated in my column. I can’t comment on Alex Whitson’s search, only on mine.
    3) A number of the details of advisers provided by VouchedFor mirror the FCA’s. I randomly checked fee levels of 5 advisers on my list of recommended advisers. Not one of them reported their fees.
    4) I congratulate VouchedFor on its rapid removal of five firms involved in the British Steel pension scheme scandal from its list. Almost certainly they would have included firms named in the media and in various blogs. And given that more than 12,000 members of the scheme applied to transfer out, there would have been scores of firms involved. But all this tells us is that the FCA and VouchedFor fulfil different roles and have different responsibilities.
    Finally, I stand by my comments about the opinions of reviewers who don’t know what they should be expecting from financial advisers they see. I’ve met and written about consumers who thought for years their adviser was the bee’s knees – until they discovered they’d been mis-sold a financial product and lost tens of thousands of pounds in the process.

    • Thanks for your reply and for the correction Nic.

      Your search results are a mystery. The only feasible way that you would be served results of advisers so far away is if a huge number of advisers either a) had hit their Verified membership enquiry quota or b) had put their out of office on (though if you unticked ‘only show advisers available for contact’ you would still have seen people in category b)).

      We’ve looked into whether either a) or b) was true over the last month for any of the top 3 advisers listed here – https://www.vouchedfor.co.uk/financial-advisor-ifa/bh24%204az – and it is not.

      I welcome anyone reading this to trial some searches in the Southampton/Bournemouth area and let us know at customer_support@vouchedfor.co.uk if they can replicate Nic’s issues.

      On the fees point, at the moment (as stated in my original reply) we only encourage advisers to add them, it is not mandatory. This said 40% of our fully verified members have chosen to add them.

      Finally, on the value of client reviews. I don’t doubt that you’ve encountered clients who thought their adviser was great, only to find out they weren’t. But, based on the 85,000+ reviews from clients of all stages that we have collected in the 7 years we’ve been operating and the various checks we do (e.g. monitoring complaints), such people represent a tiny minority. Plus, advisers to such individuals struggle to build up the critical mass of positive client reviews and pass the checks necessary to succeed on VouchedFor.

      Happy to engage further on any of the above. Have a good weekend.

      • I have now tried twice more, each time with 5 randomly chosen advisers, to find a single one who provides an hourly fee structure. One that provides an hourly fee structure with some worked examples of potential costs involved in a piece of work for a client would be even better. I have been unsuccessful in my search.

        Your additional comments which attempt to cast doubt on a search I carried out for an adviser in my area using VouchedFor indicate that rather than trying to “engage” you are trying to have the last word.

  9. Nic, in your article you didn’t mention that you were searching for advisers who display their hourly rate on VouchedFor. Adding fees is a new feature which is not mandatory currently (as mentioned above) so this will have shrunk the adviser pool considerably. However, it should still have left several advisers nearby who charge an hourly rate (but just haven’t added it to the site).

    At any rate, I do sincerely want to engage, to explain how our algorithm works, get to the bottom of the issues you mention and discuss your suggestions on making fees more accessible.

    I’ve sent you a LinkedIn message and hope that we can pursue a constructive conversation from there.

    Best wishes,

    Alex

  10. I’ve recently registered with Vouched For on the principle that it cannot harm my profile. If I was looking for an adviser I would not reply on one point of reference. I give my FCA registration number on my website and social media profiles. The register has been devalued with advisers in large companies showing as “inactive” There must be a better way of showing adviser History and keeping updates, particularly if there have been issues ie British Steel.

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