Like many people, I had been fascinated by the launch of TalkTalk’s “free broadband” proposition. For those of you not in the know, TalkTalk is the landline and broadband arm of Carfone Warehouse.
Its incredible-sounding offer suggested that in return for just £19.99 a month, it might be possible to make free unlimited national and local calls at any time, with free broadband access. Oh, and this included line rental.
So I went online to find out more. Almost immediately, I discovered a few things. Since launch 12 months ago, TalkTalk has signed up 700,000 people to its service. It is also still one of the UK’s cheapest combined landline and broadband suppliers.
The third thing I found out is that the internet is absolutely heaving with websites full of TalkTalk customers who hate their provider with a vengeance. There are scores of pages full of complaints over poor service quality, suddenly disconnected internet connections and the impossibility of talking to the company’s staff. People were still being billed for a service they did not receive.
The real revelation, however, was not so much the complaints, which were certainly enough to put me off. After all, I need a totally reliable service for my work, otherwise I am up the proverbial creek without a paddle. But what really struck me was that a number of websites allowed people to say something about a particular service, such as TalkTalk, and cast a vote about that provider.
On one site I went to, there were five separate criteria for broadband, including cost, reliability, customer service and so on. Each person gave a mark out of 10 for an individual category. Their votes were added together to provide a collective score for that individual and then one covering all those who had bothered to cast their votes. From memory, TalkTalk came out the worst or almost.
A note of warning here. TalkTalk claims that things have improved massively since then.
Maybe you can sense where I am going here. What might happen if we applied the same technique to financial service providers and their products? Of course, I know full well that this kind of survey carries all sorts of risks. Apart from anything else, those taking part are more likely to be disgruntled punters than happy ones. If you are satisfied with your service, you probably will not say so. A few years ago, the old Consumer Association’s found this to be a problem when compiling reviews.
There are two possible answers to this conundrum. One is that an incomplete survey with recognised flaws is generally better than none at all. The other is that it might be possible to recruit individual testers who could form a more representative sample over a period of time. If that were possible, you might get a statistically more relevant solution to the problem.
The potential of this kind of customer review is endless. Think of mortgage lending, income protection, critical illness, life insurance and products where the issue of what happens when you need to claim is absolutely fundamental to how you trust the organisation.
I must confess that, having discussed the idea with a good friend who works in the PR department of a major life insurer, he tells me that one or two providers might not be too enamoured by it although I am stumped as to why that might be the case.
For IFAs themselves, however, it opens up a whole set of possibilities. Genuine customer responses could help inform the product recommendations you give. After all, most advisers I know can generally smell a fishy complaint from a genuine one and reading a few dozen comments on, say, Norwich Union or Legal & General’s XYZ policy might be fun, if nothing else.
The other interesting area of consumer reaction would be that of IFAs themselves creating similar surveys which relate to their own experience of providers, giving them scores out of 10 over a wide range of functions.
If you read that your peers have given the Pru nul points over its poor processing of claims – totally hypothetically, of course – you might decide to take your client’s custom elsewhere. I think this could work. If you cannot trust a fellow IFA’s opinions, whose can you trust?