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2020 Vision: Harsh lesson after auto enrolment provider letdown

RECENTLY, my firm was let down by a supplier. We’d been promoting a very low cost auto enrolment service for our small business clients, as we felt that it was yet another burden for our clients, and shouldn’t be a profit centre for us.

Our last communication to our clients regarding this was a letter on Christmas Eve, which likely wouldn’t have been opened until 4 January.

The auto enrolment provider decided to change their business model, going from a free of charge service (with fees only taken from the employees’ deductions) to a chargeable service – with the change announced on 12 January to take place from 15 January.

This change was apparently due to the initial model being unsustainable, and the speed of change is apparently standard practice in their industry…but you can imagine the headaches that this caused our team, who were knee deep in tax returns.

To put this all into context, this was (and is) an offering that we receive no commission, nor explicit benefits, from.

Live and learn

It’s amazing the things that I’ve learned from this frustrating situation, and I’d hope some of these learnings can help readers of these blogs in the future…

I’ve deliberately kept everything anonymous so that I can be as open as possible:

1. You have to sleep at night. Worryingly, some outside the practice suggested that we shouldn’t bother letting our clients know about this change, because of the tight deadlines, and instead just retrospectively tell them about the increase. Thankfully no staff said this to my face – I think that they would have felt an Alex Ferguson style ‘hairdryer’. For me, this would have gone against the grain of all that we stand for.

I couldn’t look a team member in the eye and tell them to keep quiet about something that could help one of their clients – whether or not it caused us more hassle. Nor could I expect, or want, them to do the same. We can now sleep at night knowing that we did the right thing, and that our personal values were aligned with our actions.

2. Sometimes nothing is better than something. Someone who actually was the recipient of a ‘hairdryer’ was the MD of the company concerned, who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) budge from his position.

The three day window we had to convert our clients was a miserable offer.

I understand the need to move quickly, and I understand that the previous offering was unsustainable. But if they had a window at all, and were accepting clients at all on the old model, they could have allowed more time for everyone to act.

Quite honestly, it would have been much easier for both us and them if they had just changed their prices and not given us a window – just as retail shops do day in, day out. Apparently I was the only one who fed that view back to them… but I’m sure if most think about it, and were honest with themselves, they would agree…

3. Sometimes clients expect the earth… Yes, we had (at least) one of ‘those’ clients. Despite us assuring them that it was free of charge, we had done our due diligence, and that you can’t get cheaper than ‘free of charge’; they insisted on needing details of our research to confirm this themselves, before they can decide.

I firstly tried to explain that we were only the messenger of this change, and had no vested interest in who they went with – almost begging them to allow us to get through the ridiculously long list of clients that needed contact. I ended up offering to ‘Google’ the competition for them while they were on the phone…

4. And sometimes clients expect nothing at all… We were also asked several times to negotiate the limited window for their signup. Seriously. Some felt we hadn’t done anything to help them at all. I guess that this is proof that we need to shout from the rooftops about the value that we provide to our clients.

5. Just one client let themself down. I understand that one client was abusive to a staff member about this change. A change completely out of her control, and our control. Abusive clients can never be tolerated in a practice.

We’ve had it before, and the disengagement letters are sent very soon afterwards. It’s not a client that I know personally, but I’m now looking forward to hearing confirmation that the situation can’t and won’t happen again. Staff should never be subject to any kind of abuse.

6. You can never have too much explanation. We tried to be brief in our urgent email about the change, but with hindsight we should have spent a little longer, brainstormed, and created a ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ to answer a lot of the questions raised by clients.

Also, as mentioned earlier, we should have explained the efforts put in to date and what we had done so far for them. On that note, we also found out that we have some training needs, as there were few volunteers to help with the mail merge.

7. We learned lots about our staff. A good handful really upped their game to help. It was noticed, and deeply appreciated.

8. We learned lots about our clients. Despite the circumstances, it was a great chance for the team to speak to pretty much every business client we act for. This whole thing cost us thousands and thousands of pounds if we were to look at the ‘chargeable hours’ model, but client contact is priceless.

We also found out that many didn’t even know about auto enrolment, despite our previous communications, and despite the press about it. It was a great opportunity to educate our clients, and add more value to our relationship with them.

9. Maybe we should start taking commissions in the future. It would certainly make some of the experiences when it doesn’t go right a little more palatable. 

On the plus side, we had lots of good feedback from clients who saw that we went over and above what they had expected. Thankfully, these far outweighed (in number) the learning points discovered and explained above.

I’m sure that some will see what we’ve experienced, and find ways to not repeat some of our mistakes.

Carl Reader is a director of Wiltshire-based firm d&t, which won the 2013 British Accountancy Award for Independent Firm of the Year-Wales and South West England

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