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Think out of the tick-box

IFAs must genuinely embrace TCF rather than be pushed into it by regulation

Treating customers fairly. What’s that all about, then? Is it really something we have to be instructed to do by a regulator which does not adhere to any such standards itself? Or is it not something we do anyway because it makes good business sense to do so? Why does it only apply to financial services? What about the rest of the economy? And what is the definition of fair? Fair to who?

I do know when I have been treated unfairly. Last month, I ordered a computer monitor online with PC World. The order was cancelled but I was not told until I called to chase delivery. I was given no reason and no one responded to my letter of complaint.

A week later, I repeated the order, it was cancelled and, again, no one bothered to contact me and my letter of complaint was ignored.

Another week on, I repeated the order, it was cancelled and, again, no one bothered to contact me and my letter of complaint was ignored.

No, that is not a mistype, that is the same incident three times. Each time, my letter of complaint went higher up, all the way to chief executive, and still no reply.

I know what you are thinking. I should have given up by now and, of all people, I should know that you get what you pay for. I use this argument to justify my level of fees. But the price was good, I was in no rush and this was turning into an experiment to see how bad a company’s service could be.

A very embarrassed supervisor eventually took personal charge of the problem and, I must admit, compensated me handsomely but still no response to my three letters of complaint.

This episode got me thinking that maybe, just maybe, the FSA has actually got something right.

You see, if an organisation the size of PC World cannot offer even satisfactory service, what chance has any IFA practice got?

On the other hand, it means that most firms only have to change a little to appear extraordinary to the public. If the TCF initiative stimulates this, then great.

But what the TCF campaign completely fails to appreciate is that market forces will create improvement anyway.

As more IFAs begin to appreciate the value and profitability of long-term relationships, one of the main differentiators between firms will be their unique service proposition and the transparency and clarity of it.

As I tour the regions speaking at Personal Finance Society meetings, this is one of the themes that I explore further, as I ask advisers to define their personal brand. It is amazing how few have considered this, let alone articulated it. In this context, the problem with TCF is that it assumes we are all flogging products rather than establishing relationships. Personally, I find that quite offensive.

My concern with commoditising the TCF process is that advisers will take a tick-box attitude to fulfilling the FSA’s requirements rather than embracing change and improvement.

Have you sent a questionnaire to your clients? Yes. Tick. Have you surveyed your staff to consider your internal processes and standards? Yes. Tick.

Hard to believe (maybe I had had a little too much to drink) but I recently volunteered for a visit by the FSA to my office. I have got nothing to be concerned about and thought it would be a good opportunity for me to raise a few issues. So when the subject of TCF came on the agenda, I suggested that this was rapidly turning into nothing more than a tick-box approach. The FSA officer explained and defended the FSA stance and then, without any hint of irony, proceeded to tick the box to show that he had covered the issue.

I am minded to send a TCF questionnaire to PC World but it would not respond. Maybe the FSA should pay it a visit instead.

Bhupinder Anand is managing director at Anand Associates

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