Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid grapples with pensions communication


I’ve not seen Big Bad Boss so cross since the management team golf day was cancelled. Words have been exchanged with two of the Higher Beings, our executive management team, and Big Bad Boss emerges red-faced. It is not a good sign.

It seems a misleading communication went out to all the members of one of our pension schemes. I am mystified; I haven’t sent anything. I scan through all my emails looking for a clue. Nothing. I phone Oily Oliver, our contact at Smarmy Consulting. Nope.

Communicating change

When I get home, I find a mail-out from the pension provider, Boring Life. It’s all about fund choices. Certain obscure funds are being replaced with other obscure funds. I don’t see what the fuss is about. They are comparable in terms of risk and if you don’t like the new default you can always select another. However, reading on, I see they are also changing the default lifestyle profile, which applies to nearly all our members. Oh. Surely Smarmy Consultants, who recently helped set the plan up for us, should have known about this change?

I hope that I understand something about pension plans, but I’ll admit this document is quite confusing. They describe two new lifestyle profiles in place of the old one – one for those planning to buy an annuity and one for those planning to drawdown. The drawdown plan takes less conservative approach in the last few years of retirement, on the basis that the funds will have more time to recover in the event of a downturn. Fine, but what is not clear is what will happen to existing plans. It seems likely funds would remain in the annuity profile, but it doesn’t say so explicitly and it doesn’t tell us if we need to do anything. The whole document is bewildering. On Monday, I’ll be phoning the pension provider, and Smarmy, with some frank opinions about it. In the meantime, I’m acting for myself. I call the Boring Life helpline. While I am listening to the holding music, they ask me to key in my scheme number and various identifying data. Eventually, I get a recorded message that says the phone lines are open Monday to Friday. So why bother to ask me endless security questions before telling me that? It goes on to say I can find out lots of information online. Oh good.

Online access

Logging on to their website is like trying to hack into MI5. I have my scheme details and password to hand, but they also want know completely unnecessary information about my first pet and favourite film. They insist on calling me back with a security code and I realise, too late, that I had originally given them a landline number and miss the call. I go through it all again, this time with the landline phone to hand. A recorded message gives a security number in the most sexy telephone voice I have ever heard in pensions. Seriously, this woman must have started her career on certain premium rate calls the way she says the code in a deep breathy tone. And again, she purrs, repeating it.

Finally, I log in and am rewarded with a summary of paltry pension contributions from my employer alongside my own. There is nothing to tell me about the lifestyle profile change, or indeed if a lifestyle profile applies to my plan, although I know that one does. I realise, horrified, it is pretty difficult to see what I am invested in at all. Smarmy sold the Boring Life plan to us on the basis it would be easy for our employees to review and change their fund selections online or through their app. They lied.

A helping hand

A screen pops up asking me if there is anything I would like help with and if I would like to chat. Actually, yes. I write out the problem. Little dots hop up and down to show I am being connected to Gary. He asks how I am today. Now I know I said I wanted to chat, but not about my wellbeing. Once again, I explain that I need to know what lifestyle profile I am in and how it is affected by recent changes made by Boring Life. The dots wobble again, for an age. Gary is typing. He asks how I am today and says he will need to do some security checks. This makes me grit my teeth. I’ve already provided so much information that Boring Life knows more about me than my parents. I’ve no choice but to comply. The dots wobble again. How am I today? My day was just going fine until I contacted Boring Life. I write out the problem yet again. Gary’s dots wobble and eventually he says he will endeavour to help me with that. Good. Gary is typing. It must be with one finger. All my plan details can be found on the plan detail tab from my home screen, he says. Candid is typing. Rather angrily. I have found the plan details but there is no information about the lifestyle profile. From the dropdown list of choices, I have to select from multiple lifestyle profiles and plan categories, and it isn’t clear which to select. Gary is typing. Can I tell him my plan category? No I can’t; it is not on any of my documentation and this is not how I want to live.

Back in the office, I call Smarmy with a rage worthy of Big Bad Boss. Oily Oliver checks with their contacts at Boring Life. It seems we were informed about the communication: the email went to Big Bad Boss. He didn’t reply, so they assumed we were happy with it. I’m off the hook, but I still have a bunch of confused employees to deal with. Sigh.

Next time… Candid looks at LinkedIn.