Confessions of a benefits manager: Quality control

The pensions consultancy wants feedback on its performance, but Candid fears her catalogue of complaints will not be heeded

The first email from Smarmy Consulting is ignored, and the second one too. Then it starts to get nasty. “We notice you have not replied to our questionnaire,” it writes. “This information is very important to us for our continuous improvement programme.” Sounds like it is going to send in the heavies if I don’t reply. However, I have an urgent report to do, so I still don’t get to it.

Then I get a call from some guy in Smarmy’s marketing department. Have I seen the questionnaire it sent through? Yes. Is there any reason I didn’t respond? Yes. And why was that? Because I am busy, I want to shout. I am beginning to feel like one of its employees rather than the customer. I tell him I will look at it later.

I wouldn’t mind if I could expect the questionnaire to achieve anything. The trouble is, it asks me all the wrong questions. It asks if our Smarmy consultants are qualified and able to answer our questions. It doesn’t ask if they consistently overcharge and under-deliver. It asks if they respond to our questions. It doesn’t ask if they are efficient in getting to the answer.

The questionnaire simply doesn’t identify the issues we are having. At the end there is a blank space to add any comments, and my keyboard starts to smoke as I give my proper feedback. Should I be satisfied with a firm that consistently misses the service levels it proposed for itself? Should I be satisfied with a catalogue of employee complaints? Should I be happy with a series of calculation errors? It made a mistake on my statement regarding pensionable earnings, even though the data we provided was correct. It messed up the leaving documents for a member-nominated trustee, and to top if off, it got the early-retirement quote of the chairman of the pension trustee board wrong.

And all this after we had highlighted pensions administration as a serious issue in last year’s review, and threatened to move the admin to another firm. I mean really, if I were running a pensions admin service, I think I would have the sense to double and triple check anything relating to the people involved in the scheme.

Unfortunately, the comments box only accepts 200 characters, so I am not as liberal with my feedback as I would like.

Not satisfied with the service

Still, given the tone of my response, it would have been nice if our account manager had called, or even one of the consultants we work with day to day. But no, it is the marketing guy who follows up on the questionnaire. He asks: would I say I am satisfied with the service overall? No, I would not say that. Am I happy with the service from the team? No. He just keeps trying to get a positive answer out of me, but I will not relent. They asked for my opinion. In fact, they practically bullied me into giving it, so they can jolly well take it like a man now. He asks me if I have anything else to add. I say I really don’t appreciate being hassled to complete a questionnaire. He rings off.

By coincidence, we have a trustee meeting to discuss the performance of the scheme advisers. As part of our trustee annual plan, we have a checklist to fill in so we can show our members we are keeping a close eye on things. It highlights all the issues we have had with the administration team, plus one or two problems we have had with the actuarial and investment teams.

Administration has been a big issue from the beginning and it is hard for me not to tell the other trustees ‘I told you so’. I never wanted to move administrators in the first place; we never had so many issues with the other guys.
We get Smarmy in to discuss our review. Its consultants wriggle and make excuses. They blame the ‘bad data’ they inherited from the other guys. They tell us, once again, that they have automated processes and put in additional checks. Well, I say, that was what they said last year and they still got the chairman’s quote wrong. They are embarrassed, but they know they have us trapped. Moving administration was such a huge expense and nightmare last time that we don’t want to have to do it again.

Later, Big Bad Boss asks me about the issue with errors on the pension scheme. I explain. It must have been one of the Higher Beings who mentioned it to him, because normally he takes no interest in the pension scheme. Now he wants a full report of every error and what has been done to correct it. My heart sinks. We have been through this every couple of months as a trustee board, so I have these lists but they are in each trustee meeting pack and I don’t feel like wading through six binders to compile a summary. I hate doing work that is just repeating something done already. But Big Bad Boss needs to show the Higher Beings he is on the case. It is all spin, really.

So I ask Smarmy to prepare a report on the errors reported this year and for the last two, so as to show that things are getting better. However, no matter what the trend tells us, I know all it will get is a slap on the wrist. And we will be charged for the all additional reporting work. In the world of consulting, it really can pay to make mistakes.

Next time… Candid offers financial advice.

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