As I write, deaths from Covid-19 are averaging just under 200 per day in the UK. That doesn’t sound a lot, but it equates to 73,000 per year, enough to decimate the population of a town the size of Harrogate, East Kilbride, Lisburn or Chatham. Then there is also the effects on the people who survive the disease but have to endure the effects of Long Covid, for months or perhaps years.
At present, despite optimistic noises from both government and scientists that these statistics will improve, it is generally recognised that Covid-19 will continue to be a health factor until well into 2022. Also, as we approach the autumn and winter months, not only Covid-19, but other respiratory diseases like flu, will take their toll and all of this may well make a number of clients very nervous.
There will therefore be a continued need for advisers and T&C supervisors, to continue to deal with client meetings electronically, potentially via videoconferences. Although, for those without access to such facilities, or who lack the desire to deal with technology, they may simply take place via the telephone, rather taking the risks posed by face to face meetings.
how confident are you that the T&C forms, records and documents you have, accurately reflect the efforts made to provide compliant advice, with adequate supervision during the pandemic
With the reasonably good weather over the summer, and the lifting of restrictions, some advisers have managed to undertake suitably socially distanced meetings with clients in gardens, or other spaces and may not relish the idea of going back to using technology. T&C supervisors, on the other hand, may prefer videoconferencing, as they can still attend meetings but after the introductions have been made, can turn their video off and take a useful and important part in the session, without being as obtrusive as they would be if they were on site.
Where face to face client meetings do continue though, there is the potential for transmission of Covid-19 and measures must be in place to ensure that advisers and clients are put at as little risk as possible. These could include the use of lateral flow tests by advisers before they meet with clients to be able to reassure them that they are Covid free. Where these tests do take place, should they be documented and kept in client files, and/or on a spreadsheet? If so, consideration should be given as to which business area is responsible for maintaining this information and who is responsible for auditing such records, to ensure compliance with internal rules?
In addition, whilst long-term health issues and potential deaths still pose risks, there is a greater need for advisers to focus on certain areas of a client’s potential needs than they would have done previously. These include areas such as Estate Planning, Wills, Powers of Attorney and Funeral Planning, as well as ensuring that beneficiary forms are up to date, in relation to any pensions that clients may hold.
It is also important to ensure, through investment planning, pension planning, or via insurance, that measures are in place to channel sufficient income to a client’s bank account to meet bills and expenses each month, if they are incapacitated for a period of time. This is even more important when, as is often the case, one partner deals with household finances, more than another.
Apart from that, there is the question of whether clients might want to consider the option of private medical treatment, possibly via insurance, to offset the delays the NHS is expected to continue to suffer. This may be especially important for those who have been made redundant and have lost such benefits in the transition and especially for those who may have a continuation option from their previous group scheme.
These considerations should therefore provide a focus for T&C Supervisors in observations and in any reviews of reports and recommendations. Even if there is no direction provided by the business-writing arm of a firm, T&C Supervisors should be ensuring that appropriate advice in relation to factors affected by the pandemic, is being provided to each and every client and that efforts are being made to mitigate any potential personal and financial risks.
Also, I have noticed that quite a few firms and businesses generally have Covid-19 guidance on their websites that differs from what is actually happening on site. This also applies to the documentation used, where forms that pre-date Covid-19 and can lead to potential confusion for customers. The same also applies in financial services generally and for some firms, in relation to supervision records specifically.
One of the main questions that the FCA will ask themselves if they undertake an audit of a firms’ T&C, is can that firm prove that it continued to treat customers fairly during the pandemic and did those customers receive appropriate advice? If the supervisory observation form hasn’t been amended to show a change in approach for Covid-19, or evidence isn’t provided of what additional measures or focus has been implemented by the business, searching questions could follow.
Being faced with the standard “Did the adviser prepare adequately for the meeting”, in a pre-Covid scenario, might have meant “Did the adviser shove the final report into their briefcase just as they left for the meeting, so that they could blag their way through it?” However, in the Covid environment, more planning is required and this means understanding whether clients would prefer to meet remotely, rather than face to face? If so, reports needs to reach them before such a meeting, so that even if a videoconference can’t proceed for technical reasons, a telephone meeting still could, as they will have a physical copy of the report available.
There is also the issue of where the adviser will be based for a videoconference, as people can have blind spots about their environment. Even if they don’t see that the edge of the ironing mountain is visible to the camera in the room that they have commandeered at home, their client’s will. The use of corporate or other backgrounds can be very useful therefore to hide such faux pas, but some have the disconcerting effect of the background merging into the adviser’s body when they move about, which some clients can find distracting.
These elements wouldn’t have been an issue in a pre-Covid world, nor would the section on an observation form that asks whether the adviser maintained adequate eye contact. However, not only is this irrelevant in a telephone environment, it is difficult to assess on a videoconference depending on where the cameras at each end are placed. Having said that, an assessment as to whether an adviser asked appropriate questions, have increased validity, as there is much less opportunity for an assessment to be made of all of the elements of a client’s body language if all that can be seen is their head and shoulders, so ensuring clarity is essential.
The gist of my concerns therefore is that it is all too easy with the pressures we have had in the past 18 months, to miss what under other circumstances would be obvious. Based upon the FCA maxim that “if it isn’t documented it didn’t happen”, how confident are you that the T&C forms, records and documents you have, accurately reflect the efforts made to provide compliant advice, with adequate supervision during the pandemic and if not, what can you do to improve that?