Platforms have started to rip up their rulebooks in a bid to meet advisers’ remote-working requirements, but poor or patchy service has become a growing source of frustration for many of their users.
The burgeoning coronavirus crisis sent the UK into lockdown on March 23 - effectively ending face-to-face meetings between advisers and clients for the foreseeable future.
That presented an issue for an industry that still relied heavily on the use of wet signatures. Platforms have moved relatively quickly to update these requirements - but some solutions are seen as stopgap measures little better than the processes they replaced.
On top of this, platforms contending with the need to social distance customer-facing employees from one another, and to work remotely where possible, have struggled to maintain service levels.
Matthew Aitchison, managing director of Clear Vision Financial Planning, said the crisis had exposed providers’ weaknesses – even when tech difficulties themselves are set aside.
“[It’s] not just in terms of their ability to service client and adviser requests, but also in their willingness to engage and solve problems that the existing systems may cause,” he said.
He was not alone in his criticism. “Some of the niggles and frustrations that advisers have with platforms have become massive challenges as we adapt to working from home,” NextWealth founder Heather Hopkins wrote in a newsletter to clients last week.
The crisis has affected different platforms in different ways. Those with large client service teams have been presented with different logistical issues to those with a smaller number of customer service roles.
With teams now working from home, the likes of Aviva and Aegon are not currently accepting inbound calls.
Bit it is not just large platforms that have turned to online-only communications – James Hay has also temporarily suspended its contact centre, for example. Equally, some of the largest providers, like Royal London, have impressed advisers with the way they have maintained service levels.
Terry Huddart, head of proposition at the Lang Cat consultancy, said: “For the smaller platforms, it would in theory seem easier for them to adapt because they have a much smaller operation. However, larger firms will have much bigger IT departments.
“Ultimately it may come down not to size but to the skill of the operational response. But it is still early days.”
When it comes to the demands they make of advisers, platforms’ early moves have focused on eliminating pen and paper processes where possible. For most, however, the shift has not been from wet signatures to e-signatures. Instead, a temporary alternative – accepting scanned copies of documents – has been the favoured method.
Unlike wet signatures, scanned documents still require clients to sign the forms themselves, and often also involve a degree of back-and-forth between client and adviser. E-signatures, whose legal validity was confirmed by the Law Commission last September, involve a more seamless process.
However, some providers still have concerns about the risk of fraud. Nucleus said it was “exploring options” to accommodate e-signatures, but “will only do so once we fully understand the operational and security implications”.