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Why is communication important?

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In this interview with Roger Hattam, CEO of AHC, he explains why he feels tailored communications in a complex industry is vital.

How did you get into pensions communications?
I’ve always worked in industries like financial services and energy, where the provision of the products and services are full of complexity. I’ve often observed industry professionals becoming so caught up in that complexity, the customer gets lost and impacted negatively.   I’ve always been passionate about the potential of excellent communications to bridge the gap. I find AHC’s mission to use communications to make a difference to the lives people lead motivating.
What have you learnt over the last 6 months, and what has surprised you most?
It’s not particularly a surprise, but I have found some great and committed people, working hard to deliver conscientiously.    But I think it’s that there are two opposite trends occurring at the same time.  One trend is towards treating members in an increasingly targeted, segmented and personalised way which is which is engaging, motivating, targeted and measured. In parallel, along with the growth in master trusts, there appears to be a trend which treats the member in an increasingly one-size-fits-all and generic way.   Whilst I think the latter “ticks the boxes”, I feel in an increasingly personalised world, we need to seek ways to reach members in a way which effects change.  AHC is a good example. Our own DC pensions providers communication was regular, digital and compliant. But over the last four months through applying some simple targeted comms at our own people, 50% of colleagues increased their contributions.
What can pensions learn from other industries that you have been involved in?
Get in the end customer or members’ mind. It’s the only one that matters.
I worked in the energy sector for five years, which feels similarly opaque and confusing to the general public. In 2012 Ofgem, following its retail market review, the regulator imposed a new single customer statement (sound familiar?).  It was highly prescriptive about what information had to be contained and the layout.  They insisted that, for example, the cheapest available tariff had to be prominently displayed. They were convinced that this would mean customers would act to save money or switch, and this would increase competition and stop customers paying too much. Five years later, and after a lengthy CMA investigation, the government lost patience and regulated to impose a price-cap on energy bills (bad for both industry and in the long run for the consumer in my view).
So what?  The single statement lost the point. It was well intended and had some strong elements, but It focussed on imposing standardisation of information and treated all customers the same – therefore it didn’t ever properly understand what it was that would make the customer engaged and act differently.   I think the same risks exist in our industry, if we don’t get inside our members mind and figure out what will motivate them to act differently. 
And what about if we look further afield, AHC is a global brand, so what learnings can we take from foreign pension systems?
We work extensively in the US and Australia, and I think I see two key trends; 
Firstly, Despite the obvious benefits of 30 plus years of Australia compulsory enrolment, there’s still a lot of work to do.  In Australia, the employer gets virtually no benefit from the fact that they make a 9.5% contribution.  Employees see it as a commodity rather like they would national insurance payments here and don’t see it in anyway as a differentiated part of the employee value proposition (EVP).  Moreover, Super Funds have taken a huge hit as a result of poor practice exposed by a Royal Commission investigation.   I’d suggest that as auto-enrolment and master trusts in the UK gather pace, employers need to think carefully about how they maintain and build on the role of pensions in their wider EVPs.
Secondly, the growth in the whole area of wellness is huge and global.  If I am honest, I feel the word has become a bit overused and I have yet to see many compelling examples of genuinely holistic wellness programmes.  But it cannot be doubted that employers are waking up to the need to provide much better levels of support to their employees.  For our part, AHC are working on a number of ground-breaking projects in this area which I blend the technology and emotional elements required to make a genuine difference.
Why is it important for trustees to consider comms in a strategic way?
I think three things:
-       All members are different, and they need trustee support more than ever.   The shift towards DC schemes means members need MORE help than the old DB world, not less.  This requires a better understanding of different member segments and different strategies.
-       People must be clear about the destination.   We tend to think of communications as an event, but for members it’s part of a journey.  Trustees need to have a strategy which maximises the outcomes for all their members. This means thinking longer term and setting clear communication objectives, building member journey paths and setting desired outcomes. We encourage all our clients to build a long-term strategy and shape the comms agenda around its objectives
-       It’s important Trustees know whether or not communications are actually achieving the desired outcome. Measurement is therefore key, so people should be much more demanding in measuring success
What does the future hold for pensions communications, and what can trustees and schemes do to make that better member engagement a reality, sooner? 
It seems clear to me that the future of pensions comms is going to have several features. Firstly, it will be more personalised, targeted and data-driven. Secondly it will be less about “pensions” as an isolated subject, and more about wider financial wellbeing and outcomes. Finally, it will be much more interactive and emotionally engaging. 
I think the trustees that win, work more broadly across the people function in their employer to incorporate pensions more widely into the wellness agenda, and make longer term, insight driven communication strategies. 
Roger Hattam, CEO at AHC