While some sections of the financial services world are perceived to have done everything possible to deliver top-notch service to advisers and clients despite the upheaval caused by the global pandemic, others have failed to deliver anything much at all.
This was the view of Neil Moles, chief executive of Progeny, who said: "We’ve pulled out all the stops to look after our clients and support them through these challenging and unprecedented times. Unfortunately, we have not received the same level of support from providers."
He acknowledged Covid-19 "took everyone by surprise" but said that, as everyone had to adapt quickly to the new situation, it was important that providers, with the wealth of resources behind them, should try to adapt swiftly.
But this was not the case, he explained. "We had to bring in new tools and ways of working, like using Docusign for signatures and being personally available on whatever platforms our clients want us.
"But we have not seen a flexible, available and forward-looking approach reflected in the working practices of many providers.
“At times like this, we have a joint responsibility to keep servicing our clients to the standards to which they are accustomed."
And Mr Moles warned that poor service, thrust into even greater relief against the backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis, would stick in advisers' memories.
He said: "Just as clients will evaluate their relationship with their adviser on the basis of how well they have been supported throughout the coronavirus crisis, so will firms evaluate their relationships with providers.”
The customer experience for advisers and end investors using these platforms has really suffered in recent weeks. -- David Simpson
One particular area where flexibility of service and processes failed was that of legacy platforms. When lockdown began in earnest in the UK at the end of March, those platforms and investment houses whose systems were outdated soon found themselves outpaced in terms of service delivery to their distribution partners and intermediaries, according to David Simpson, head of EMEA at GBST.
He commented: "Within the platform sector, while some providers have been able to switch seamlessly to remote working to deliver a consistent top-class service, others have not coped so well with the changes required by Covid-19."
Those with cloud-based, digital systems, where the back office integrates into the front-end via a number of APIs that enable staff and clients to access services from anywhere, ensured advisers could "perform all the actions they would normally do in the office".
But as Mr Simpson explained: "Unfortunately, those with less flexible technology and a greater reliance on paper and phone calls have found it harder to adapt.
"Working away from the office has been a major challenge for platforms who rely heavily on manual processes, posted documents, wet signatures and on-premise technology hosting that cannot be accessed remotely.
"The customer experience for advisers and end-investors using these platforms has really suffered in recent weeks and should be a wake-up call for the worst affected platforms to reconsider their operating models.”
As a result, platforms have spent most of April and May playing catch-up to make sure that advisers and the end client did not suffer detriment - especially as the old tax year ended and the new one began.
One area where service to their business partners and clients has been strong has been discretionary fund managers.
Mark Dennison at adviser LightBlue UK said he has been pleased with the "really good service from our discretionary fund managers" during lockdown, including telephone and Zoom meetings.
But he also expressed disappointment at other providers, including platforms. "I think providers could have done a lot of things better whereas DFMs couldn’t have done much better than they did.
"It’s really all to do with personal service, either to the client or the IFA. Providers such up shop early, hid behind emails and made it impossible to progress anything quickly, if at all.
"DFMs, on the other hand - well, it was 'business as usual', with many regular updates and commentaries on a falling market, which helped reassure clients."
Ben Goss, chief executive of Dynamic Planner, said: "When portfolios are under stress and risk is more at the forefront of clients’ minds, the ability to get integrated valuations into adviser systems has been critical for advice firms.
"Valuations need to put it into the context of the client’s agreed risk profile, situation and objectives – data held in firm's systems. Those providers who have invested in this connectivity have provided an important service and helped put clients’ minds at rest during the pandemic.”
Another area where there has been some disappointment is in protection. One adviser, who did not want to be named, said insurance had been a "mixed bag".
The adviser said: "In the first two weeks, some insurers acted well, and kept brokers largely up to date. But some did not prepare properly and had to close phones or their office, or did not update brokers.
"No insurers came forward to offer payment holidays/breaks. They needed the push from the PDG and later the Financial Conduct Authority before offering."
The adviser said some payment holidays had been helpful, and cited LV among those offering this assistance. But they added other companies had been "very poor and are only making things harder for customers in the long run", by doing things such as deferring payments for three to six months and requiring sums be paid back at a later date.
I know advisers who will swear by certain providers because of their excellent service and support. I also know advisers who will swear at the same provider. -- Mike Barrett
The adviser added: "Claims, overall, have been good. Insurers rightly have put this first, and some have paid claims without the normal evidence they would need.
"But underwriting has been dreadful. Most insurers have now restricted their offering so people living with medical conditions or people who have had something like cancer in the past may now struggle to get cover.
"There is little by way of 'individual consideration' and it's a big step back for the industry, especially if it becomes permanent."
Mr Dennison agreed that insurers had been particularly problematic. He said: "It’s been impossible to call them, all communication has been via email and in most cases it’s taken ages to get a response."
April and May certainly revealed glaring holes in the provision of services to advisers and their clients. But as providers worked on improving their propositions and technology, advisers recognised the efforts.
By the end of May, most platforms had started to improve their performance, as research carried out in May to June by Financial Adviser and FTAdviser among readers found out.
The study revealed most respondents felt providers (excluding platforms) had, generally, performed "moderately well", according to 86 out of 179 respondents, and only 23 advisers said providers (excluding platforms) had performed "not well at all".
But glowing praise was still not forthcoming for investment providers and platforms. Only 11 said providers (ex Platforms) had done "very well", and only 14 out of 179 respondents felt platforms had done "very well" to cope with the complexities of Covid-19.
Nearly all agreed that communication from providers was "very important" or "extremely important" at times such as these.
Mike Barrett, consulting director of the Lang Cat, said that while companies may have started off at a complete loss as to how to address the situation, businesses of all shapes and sizes have subsequently improved.
He said: "All things considered, most providers have adapted as well as could realistically be expected over recent months. The scale of change they had to implement at speed was way beyond most business continuity scenarios they had previously planned for, with the almost complete indefinite closure of their physical offices.
"It’s certainly fair to say a number of providers had a few teething issues. Large providers had a huge challenge to get remote systems and telephones running for hundreds of clients, while smaller providers struggled to implement system changes to enable full paperless processing that advisers were demanding.
"But as we approach three months from the start of lockdown these issues have, in the main, been resolved.”
The lending conundrum
Mortgage providers seem, in the main, to have stepped up to the plate, as far as Martin Stewart, founder of London Money, is concerned.
While some criticised lenders at the start of the crisis in March 2020 for putting the brakes on lending, unsure as to the depth or scope of the Covid-19 lockdown, Mr Stewart said it was "totally within their rights to limit lending".
"When the Covid-19 crisis was finally taken seriously here in the UK it was only natural for lenders to take their foot off the pedal. Thankfully, as we now begin to emerge from the lockdown lenders are slowly beginning to ease criteria and warming up to the notion of lending money again."
With lenders "strong-armed in to the mortgage payment holiday situation", Mr Stewart believes this could become "another fiasco" - albeit not of lenders' own making.
"Unfortunately , many people just saw the word ‘holiday’ and decided to treat it as such".
But this did not mean the service levels diminished. He explained: "This had a massive impact on lenders' resources and they had to move a lot of headcount to cover the influx of calls – 70,000 over three days for some lenders. This then had a negative impact on service lenders for new lending departments.
"Finally, the lenders were also put at the forefront of the CBILS and Bounce Back Loans initiative. Once again, they were actively encouraged to put their own money in to a confused market and then criticised by many for not doing so quick enough.
"From our personal experience at LM we have seen nothing but positive things from the lenders. They have tried to support us throughout and where possible."
He praised lenders' business development managers for being available and willing to help out with criteria and cases. "There have been some arbitrary lending decisions, but we are witnesses to that all the time throughout a normal year.
"Yes, valuations have been a concern and getting them undertaken has been difficult but let's not forget, the lockdown was a legal requirement and forced lenders to develop new ways of doing business while keeping the lights on in the market for the benefit of us all.”
Most advisers acknowledge the challenges presented by Covid-19, and have welcomed moves from providers, lenders and platforms to work around these. But the gaps in service levels at some companies and in some sectors have been made all too apparent.
Then again, as the Lang Cat's Mr Barrett added: "The topic of service is always one that has the potential to get advisers hot under the collar, not least since the experience can be so inconsistent.
"I know advisers who will swear by certain providers because of their excellent service and support. I also know advisers who will swear at the same provider."
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Simoney Kyriakou is editor of Financial Adviser