Confessions of a benefits manager: Seeking pensions answers

Big Bad Boss wants me to get some special market data for UK defined contribution (DC) pensions. There are 10 specific data points he needs. Some are quite straightforward, such as typical employer contributions, but other questions are not so readily available.

Well, that’s no big deal because we have Smarmy Consulting for that sort of thing. Except Big Bad Boss doesn’t want me to ask them. Erm, why not? As our pension-gurus-in-residence, they are the only ones likely to give me that kind of information for free.

Big Bad Boss avoids the question, but makes it clear I am forbidden from speaking to them about it. Oh, and there is no budget to buy data, either.

This feels like some sort of weird charity challenge. I am tempted to send a sponsorship form round, asking people to pay me £1 per data point found.

I start by taking a look around the top consultants’ websites to see if they have any free downloadable reports. There are hundreds of free downloadable reports, but they are mostly waffle about ‘strategic imperatives’ and ‘global shifts’; not one has any actual, tangible, useful data. Sigh.

Big Bad Boss wants to know when I will have the data back to him. I don’t even know if it is feasible to get any. I figure that if I can’t find someone to help me in a few days, I never will, so I tell him a week. At least that gets him off my back.

Consulting firms

Then, with the help of Google, I phone one of the smaller consulting firms. The receptionist has no idea what I am talking about, but she transfers me to another number. A lovely man answers, but he is the payroll clerk and doesn’t understand why I have been put through to him. I don’t, either. He puts me back to reception. They promptly cut me off altogether. Hm. I can see why it has remained a small firm.

I try another organisation, which proves to be much more switched on. They talk to me for about half an hour, going through each question carefully. They will email something over by the afternoon. I am so relieved.

The email arrives, confirming my data requirements in meticulous detail, and telling me the fee will be £2,500 to provide it. Ouch.

Larger consultancies

I wonder if I would be better talking to a larger firm. A quick look through old emails reminds me of the name to ask for at Hugely Expensive Consultants, which we used to use before we moved to Smarmy. Sadly, my contact, Jason, has left the company. I consult LinkedIn to track him down. Unfortunately, he has moved to Smarmy. Small world.

Undeterred, I call Hugely Expensive again and ask to speak to someone who can help me with pensions. I am put through to Boris, who sounds very charming in an Eton old boy kind of way. I imagine him with a tuft of untidy blond hair and a crooked tie.

Explaining the problem, I let Boris think we are not happy with Smarmy, and that we have regrets about moving away from Hugely Expensive. This is not exactly a lie, but I still feel guilty pretending this could lead to more work. One bad consultant is much like another, and we are hardly likely to move back.

I say Smarmy have provided us with some iffy data, and we’d like another opinion. A bare-faced lie, of course, but by now I am driven to it. Boris wants me to meet him at his office so he can go through the figures with me. Big Bad Boss won’t like it, but this is his crazy project, so off I go.

Exact requirements

Boris, disappointingly, is bald and rather short. Still, I am not here to get a date, just to get data. I expect him to have figures waiting for me. Oh, no. He just wants to establish our exact requirements.

Actually, I told him very clearly what we wanted on the phone, so I guess what he really wants is to figure out if I am for real before he gives away any freebies. He asks a lot of questions about our UK pension scheme. I suppose I should know what our deficit is off the top of my head, but frankly, I have better things to think about. I don’t want to look stupid, so I make something up and hope it sounds realistic.

Next time I do something like this, I must remember to at least glance at our pension report before I go. Still, I must have sounded convincing because Boris promises to send some data over by the end of the week. Mission accomplished.

Or is it? The end of the week comes and goes, and there is still no word from Boris. I can hardly chase him very hard, when actually he is doing me a favour. I wait.

Questioning answers

Finally, halfway through the following week, an email arrives. It answers nine of the 10 questions in full. The tenth has been answered, but doesn’t look right. I send off an email to query it. I feel so ashamed. Here I am blagging free data and then questioning its accuracy. Call me cheeky.

Boris must have thought so too, because he doesn’t reply. There is nothing I can do but pass on the data to Big Bad Boss, as is. I point out the bit that looks a bit dodgy. He frowns and asks me to delete it. So what exactly is all this for? He doesn’t answer. Aaagh.

It isn’t until Friday that I get a clue. Big Bad Boss is off playing golf and I answer his phone. The caller asks to speak to Big Bad Boss of Big Bad Boss Consulting. Is my manager moonlighting and getting me to do the work?

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And I thought I was cheeky. 

Next time…Candid reviews the website.