10 ways to improve communications with pension scheme members

First Actuarial’s administration team has carried out a root and branch review of the information it provides for scheme members. Robert Wakefield, Head of Pensions Administration, takes us through the changes the team has made to improve its communications.

Member experience is a huge talking point in the pensions industry right now. Of course it’s always been critical to what we do; a pension scheme exists primarily for its members, after all. But since 2015 – when new pension freedoms had the unintended consequence of making pensions more complex and confusing – it’s never been more important.

So why is the pensions industry still sending information to scheme members that is at best off-putting and at worst baffling? Why do so many pensions documents get filed or even binned without ever being read by the person they were written for?

And I’m not just talking about documents. If someone’s first experience of a member website isn’t a positive one, it will be hard, if not impossible, to get them back.

That’s why we decided to focus on the member experience when we updated our administration strategy recently. It couldn’t be more important to produce information that members are happy with, and more broadly to engage with people in the right way.

At First Actuarial, we take pride in our member-first approach. We have no performance targets in place on our administration team. So if a member calls with a query, we might have to spend up to an hour talking them through it. We’re happy to do so. We don’t want targets to get in the way of giving individual members all the help they need.

And yet, we found that much of the information we sent out to members was nowhere near as digestible as it could be. So we asked ourselves – how can we improve it? Over the past year, we’ve been making all our communications as clear and concise as possible, delivering information in ways that best suit the needs of our members.

Here are 10 ways we’ve improved our member communications.

We’ve moved from Plain English to understandable English

Many organisations seem to obsess over Plain English guidelines But ticking the Plain English compliance box isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. Plain English, as it’s currently framed, may work well for highly-educated people, but we think understandable English should be our aim.

We got in touch with Quietroom, a consultancy well known in the finance industry for promoting clearer communications. We showed them examples of pension statements we send out to members. They picked out a few words we often use, and told us when those words were in most popular use. One word had peaked way back in 1911! So it was quite humbling.

We worked with Quietroom to rewrite communications such as retirement packs and transfer value statements. By using familiar phrases like “Your benefits in a nutshell” we aimed to make it easier for members to understand information about their pensions.

We signpost key information in complex documents

Pensions bring members face to face with some of the most important decisions they’ll ever have to make, so it’s important to get the communications absolutely right. Administrators are there to help people make choices. We do this by providing information, so it’s crucial that members understand it.

Quietroom didn’t just help us with language; they also introduced broader communication approaches. As a result, we now highlight particularly important information in lengthy documents with signposting and colour-coding. We outline the contents upfront, to make pension statements less bewildering. We may then ask – what do you want to do next? That’s where the colour-coding and signposts come in. We give them a manageable number of choices, each of which will direct them to a specific section or page and colour code.

This approach is particularly useful with legal information. Member communications are governed by a lot of legislation, which many people find confusing. So we signpost members to the parts they definitely need to read. And we direct them to a section where they’ll find the legal information they need.

We create videos to make information clearer

We’ve started making videos as another way of making information more digestible for members. We will be publishing a series of videos over this year. Our standard retirement pack, for example, will include a link to a short video that will talk members through the contents of the pack. For example, it asks the member whether they’ve received a pack in the last few days and suggests their first step is to check that their personal details are correct.

We are dementia-aware

There seems to be an overall increase in the number of people diagnosed with different forms of dementia so we decided to link up with the charity Alzheimer’s UK. We told them we wanted our administrators to become more aware, to help them deal with dementia sufferers in the best way. 12 of our administrators have now had online training provided by Alzheimers UK. This has given them a good understanding of the issues facing people with dementia.

We’re now considering how to make best use of that training. We aim to put in place specialists in each office who can be responsible for having conversations with members who have dementia.

We actively consider how to handle a range of member needs

Our work with Alzheimer’s UK has led us to consider how to communicate with people with a range of needs. If they can’t understand what we’re telling them, for example, there may be relatives we can speak to. We may also need to allow for powers of attorney. We’re thinking about large-font documentation for the partially sighted. And videos may be more suitable than text for some groups of people. We’re reviewing all our processes with different needs in mind.

We want to deal with death as sensitively as possible

Dealing with deaths is an inevitable part of administration work, and it can make for some very difficult phone calls. In a similar way that we engaged with Alzheimer’s UK, we are planning to engage with Samaritans to see if they can help us. It’s important to provide the best possible support at every stage of life. And for the bereaved, it’s particularly important to make things as straightforward as possible.

We do all we can to combat pension scams

Pension scams have become more prevalent during lockdown. Our administration team has seen a 25% increase in member requests for transfer values and early retirement quotes. That tells us how insecure many people are feeling about money. This is fertile terrain for pension scammers, who prey on financial worries.

We responded positively when The Pensions Regulator (TPR) launched its pledge to combat scams in autumn 2020. We’ve signed up to the pledge, and we’re finding that more and more trustees are asking whether we comply with it.

We’re sending our statement of support to all our clients, reassuring them that we have measures in place to combat scams. Our transfer value packs now contain prominent information about scams, including warning signs and useful websites. And a QR code takes members to a television advert produced by TPR and the Financial Conduct Authority.

Over the past year we’ve received more and more calls from claims management companies asking for all the details of an individual’s transfer values, supposedly under GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). This scenario is not covered under GDPR legislation, however. To make sure that we are handling these enquiries in the right way, we contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office. As a result, we go straight to members and notify them that we’ve received the enquiry. We also look up the company on Companies House.

We have an online facility with Experian to verify identity

Submitting birth certificates to prove member identity has always been problematic, particularly for members with more than one pension, and has become even more so in lockdown. For that reason, we now use an online facility provided by Experian to verify people’s name, age and correct address. This means we can verify 90-95% of members without needing additional evidence of their identity. Again, this is about making processes as straightforward as we can for members.

We engage with industry bodies to foster best practice

We work very closely with PASA (Pensions Administration Standards Association) as part of our commitment to raising standards in pensions administration. PASA provides a good forum for sharing ideas on how best to help members. We’re also working with two working groups to keep member information secure within the Pensions Dashboard currently in development.

Member experience is something we discuss with The Pensions Regulator and other third-party administrators every quarter. Combatting pension scams is very much part of these conversations. Together we identify trends and discuss the best way to manage them.

We channel member feedback into continuous improvement of our services

We’ve always been keen for members to give feedback, and we’ve acted on ad hoc comments received on phone calls and emails in the course of our work. However, we realised that we had no mechanism in place to make it easy for members provide feedback whenever they wanted to.

To formalise member feedback, we started with our at-retirement processes. When a member has retired, we send them a letter to confirm their payments. We’re now adding a QR code, for smartphone users, and a link for all devices. If they click on either of these, they can answer three questions:

  1. Are you satisfied with the way we’ve dealt with your retirement?
  2. Has First Actuarial kept you informed throughout the process?
  3. Did we keep you informed of the timescales involved?

These simple questions are designed to encourage as many members as possible to respond. There’s also a free-text field for further comments.

If this proves popular, we’re likely to extend it to other areas of admin work, starting with transfers.

The litmus test of our service and communication improvements isn’t what we think, but what our members think. Are they happy with everything we’ve done? If not, what have we done wrong? And is there anything we could do to make it even better?

Engaging with members in this way is key to continuous improvement of our services, and the way we help them understand their benefits. It’s how we meet members’ needs in a constantly changing world.

Any questions or comments about this article?

Get in touch with the author, Robert Wakefield.

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