Confessions of a benefits manager: Groundhog day

Candid appears to be caught in a time loop of complaints about pension errors, and the explanations have a familiar ring, too

Everyone makes mistakes, I don’t deny it, I make enough myself. But the mistakes coming to my attention are starting to get on my nerves. I mean, to err is human, but to really mess things up takes a pensions administrator.

Smarmy Consultants’ outsourcing folks look after what is left of our defined benefit pension. It seems a simple enough job to me. You keep a database of members and another one of pensioners. You provide statements and retirement quotations to one list and pension payments to the other. How difficult can it be? And yet, every day I look in my emails, there is another complaint about how they have got something wrong.

Naturally, I complain too. The head of administration is rolled in to talk to me. What he says is reassuring: they have investigated how the latest error came about, examined and automated their processes and, just in case that doesn’t satisfy me, they have built in a separate checking process. Phew. Sounds like I dare open my email again.

Barely a week later, I get another complaint. Worse, it is exactly the same kind of error as the last one. How can this happen, I wonder? The head of administration is called in to explain himself. He tells me, rather bizarrely, that they have investigated how the latest error came about, examined and automated their processes and, just in case that doesn’t satisfy me, they have built in a separate checking process. Isn’t that exactly what they said last time? He admits it was, but the usual staff were off sick and someone had made a typo on the letter which the supervisor didn’t pick up. Let’s hope that’s the end of it, then.

Same kind of error

Well it isn’t. Ten days later, I get another complaint. It is, yes, you guessed it, exactly the same kind of error. I schedule a call to investigate and yes, the head of administration comes on the line and tells me about their automated procedures and checking process. I am beginning to wonder if he is one of those dolls with a button on its tummy which you press to hear a recorded voice. His tummy does rather stick out in the middle. I can’t keep quiet any longer. They have been telling me the same thing over and over, but they are still getting it wrong. What do we have to do to get this sorted? I am close to shouting and I can feel my face getting a bit red.

The head of administration carries on. It seems there was something special about this calculation which meant it had to be done manually, and the supervisor who does the checking had just resigned, so they don’t know why he didn’t check it. Am I supposed to be OK with that?

The good news is, it’s time to renew our contract. I float the idea, not for the first time, of penalties for poor administration and failure to meet service level agreements. Smarmy’s head of administration agrees to go away and work on a proposal. Perhaps that will bring some focus.

Actually, no. The proposal, when it finally comes, it is this: we pay our normal administration fee, but if they, by some miracle, manage to meet their accuracy targets and service levels, we pay a bonus. Bonus? A bonus for decent service? I can barely contain my disbelief and frustration. The idea of paying our administrators a bonus is worse than paying one to a bailed-out banker. Before they can come back with another proposal, yet another complaint arrives. My heart sinks. I may not have that many better things to do in a working day, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life having some sort of Groundhog Day on pension errors.

Calculation messed up

It is yet another retirement calculation messed up. So what was the problem this time, I wonder? Was there an ‘R’ in the month? Did the clerk have a bad cold, and they had no alternative but to pass the work to the cleaning lady?

Was the supervisor feeling a little demotivated that day? The head of administration is wheeled in again to explain. It was, he reassures me, a non-standard calculation, which meant the automated procedure could not be used. What sort of non-standard calculation? Well, there were additional voluntary contributions (AVCs) involved. Don’t 60% of our members have AVCs? He consults his files and agrees. So, er, the automated processes only work for 40% of the cases, and only then when there isn’t an ‘R’ in the month, and no one in the entire Smarmy organisation is off sick or leaving? The head of administration, who never seems to tire of saying it, tells me they will investigate, review their automated procedures and ensure that adequate checking processes are in place.

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The following day, I get a call from Smarmy. It seems we are over two months late in paying their invoice. I am quick to explain. Well, you see, it was a non-standard invoice and therefore couldn’t be covered by our automated payment processes, and the person who signs it off, ie me, was seriously demotivated that day because of the total lack of progress on the issue of administration accuracy. However, I assure them, I will, when I am sufficiently motivated, investigate and review our payment procedures and ensure we have an invoice payment checking process in place. Ha.

Next time…Candid talks to the trade union.