Walking the talk

By Mairi Spiby, Casework Manager at The Pensions Ombudsman.

Talking to complainants

At The Pensions Ombudsman we have changed our communications approach from mainly issuing written correspondence and we now pick up the telephone to talk to people.  We explain what we can do and cannot do, manage people’s expectations and listen to their stories.

Talking to people requires a different skill set from our traditional technical analytical strengths.  We have to gain trust and establish credibility before any kind of meaningful discussion about a complaint can happen. Training by the mental health charity Mind and in the use of “Plain English” has been very helpful in acquiring the necessary skills.

We have found this approach incredibly rewarding and get positive feedback even when we do not uphold complaints:

  • “This is the first time anyone’s spoken to me”
  • “I now understand things much better”
  • “I’m not happy with the outcome but now I understand”.

It has required a cultural shift to value verbal communication as much as the comfort zone of a well-written tome. Talking to people and resolving complaints is time consuming and there are often several telephone calls, backed up by emails and letters.

Talking to people works. It isn’t always easy but we are seeing it improves the customer journey and it is resolving significantly more complaints.


Talking to stakeholders

This January we launched a stakeholder engagement project, with the objective of working more closely with: private pension providers, public sector pension schemes and pension administrators.  We want to strengthen signposting to our services, increase customer satisfaction and improve communication.

We issued our first newsletter in March to approximately 1000 people working on the front line of handling pension complaints. The newsletter aims to improve communication and drive up good practice.

Twenty stakeholder managers recruited from our team of experienced adjudicators are now working directly with a number of our key stakeholders. We want to identify and share emerging issues more quickly, and work with our stakeholders to reduce and avoid complaints.

We are planning to establish a Legal Forum this year. This will improve communication with our stakeholders’ legal teams so we can discuss how changes in legislation and significant rulings impact upon all of our work.

The very positive feedback we have received shows we are on the right track. Some of our stakeholder managers recently visited a couple of the large schemes we deal with – the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS) and the Armed Forces Pension Scheme.

TPS were very open to working with us to share intelligence, resolve complaints informally and in less time. They provided us with up to date contact information so our adjudicators could talk to their Policy & Technical Team based in Darlington.

Veterans UK, part of the Ministry of Defence in Scotland, is responsible for the assessment, award, payment, and maintenance of all pensions relating to the armed forces. There are around 600,000 individual serving and former service personnel and dependents that make up the Veterans UK customer base. We received a warm welcome and the full day of meetings, presentations and introductions to complaint handling staff cemented a burgeoning relationship and has led to a number of positive and ongoing initiatives.

Through those new relationships we are beginning to improve communication, share good practice and improve access to our services ultimately improving the customer journey.


Encouraging informal resolution

Through our new Stakeholder Project, we have established effective and evolving relationships with the biggest public pension schemes. The Local Government Pension Scheme is the 5th largest pension scheme in the UK, and the 7th in Europe. Given its size, and the complexity of its rules and regulations, it’s interesting that we generally receive a very low number of complaints about this scheme.  So we have been doing work to find out why, share good practice, reduce those numbers further and encourage an increase in informal resolutions.

Our stakeholder work is proving exciting and interesting and is expanding rapidly. We are seeing a genuine interest by schemes, providers and pension administrators to work with us sharing ideas and intelligence and support our corporate objectives to resolve more complaints at source, improve the customer journey and increase customer satisfaction.