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Sales letter missed the point

As any journalist who covers the financial services industry will tell you, there is a lot of turgid writing about. By that, I am not, of course, referring to any of my colleagues, whose limpid prose graces the pages of this paper and many other personal finance sections, magazines and websites.

No, what I am referring to is the never-ending reports and other research papers, all of them laying claim to our valuable time, forcing us to plough through every last word in order to distil a few precious drops of useful information. So when I read something lively, interesting and provocative, regardless of whether I agree with its arguments, part of me raises a silent cheer.

Last week, my moment of pleasure came in a letter to Money Marketing by Neil Liversidge, managing director of West Riding Personal Financial Solutions in West Yorkshire, in which he explained why he is proud to be “a salesman”.

Neil’s letter flowed beautifully, from its clever opening: “I am a wicked salesman,” to its impassioned ending: “It is utterly wrong for anyone to sell inappropriate products through ignorance or greed but it is totally inexcusable for an adviser to fail to sell his client on a product he does need and can afford.”

“Good on you,” was my initial response, one almost certainly shared by many IFAs who will have read the letter and felt that here was someone who articulated precisely how they felt about their work. However, at the risk of sounding churlish, once you start to strip down Neil’s comments into their component parts, they make less and less sense.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud Neil’s generous “pro bono” help to a local resident dying of naso-pharyngeal cancer as well as the fact that thanks to him, a couple in the next village, whose husband also has cancer, have been able to pay off their mortgage and get an income until he dies. I am sure that over the course of Neil’s long career, there are plenty of similar cases.

The problem comes when he attempts to distinguish between the concept of financial planning and “advice” and “selling”.

Let’s be clear. All of us at one stage or another in our lives have tried to persuade someone that a certain tactic or strategy is the correct one. Inevitably, that act involves some “selling”. When I contact a personal finance editor and offer him or her a story, part of the process involves me telling them why it would make a great piece for their paper.

But there is a massive difference between that largely innocuous process or even of being very clear with your clients why you believe a particular product is the answer to a need, perhaps one they had not previously considered, and trying to ram a product down someone’s throat.

It is precisely because so much attempted “selling” is blatant, clumsy and inappropriate – and takes no account of individual aversion to being strong-armed or moralised at – that there is so much cynicism on the part of consumers about it.

If it were just a case of a duff sales pitch, that would not be so much of a problem. After all, I don’t mind sparing a couple of minutes for someone to try to sell me something I am not really keen on. Who knows, he might even succeed.

What is of far greater concern to me is that the historical experience of financial product sales is far removed from the happy picture that Neil paints of himself as Castleford’s answer to Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life.

Endowments were a product “sold” with a vengeance. If they had not been, it is fair to say that no one would have beaten a path to an adviser’s door to buy one.

Two of my own mortgage-linked endowment policies matured last summer. In both cases, they paid significantly over the amount needed to pay off the sum assured. But I know from experience that my case is highly unusual, not only because most policies maturing last year suffered significant shortfalls in their payouts but also because for the vast majority of people who took them out, these were totally unsuitable products.

I have since checked and of all my friends who took out an endowment in the early 1980s, mine was the only policy still in force 25 years later. Everyone else surrendered theirs, usually within a few years. As a result, millions of savers poured hundreds of millions of pounds into products that gave them back less than they had paid in.

The reality is there are many people who are far more convinced by a dispassionate explanation of why they need something, especially if they know the adviser stands to gain nothing from that “sale” than they are by someone who they suspect is trying to make a fast buck out of them. To proclaim, by contrast, that you are proud of being “a salesman” is to miss the point.

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

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