Ifsmall businesses are the lifeblood of the UK economy, then the small benefits consultancies and advisers that serve them are helping them stay healthy and productive.
For Wingate Benefit Solutions, winner of the Corporate Adviser Best Small Adviser 2021 award, listening to clients is the starting point for a healthy consultancy relationship.
One of the features of Wingate’s proposition that swayed judges in bestowing the award was its approach of taking time out with clients to talk big picture stuff.
“It is important to step away and say, ‘OK, forget product, forget services, forget insurance. Let’s just hear about the business,” says Wingate Benefit Solutions strategic employee benefit consultant Richard Grover.
“What are your plans? Are you looking to expand, have you got leases coming up, what are your recruitment plans’. It’s a case of digging deeper. You’re not trying to sell something. I think advisers and general insurance brokers can be guilty of trying to sell something when it’s more helpful to go in with a blank piece of paper and have a conversation.”
The Federation of Small Businesses estimates there were 5.5 million small businesses – with under 50 employees – accounting for 16 million employees and half the nation’s turnover. Wingate’s clients go up to 1,000 employees in size – the firm has 200 corporate clients, with around 20,000 employees.
Its head office function links it up with Wingate Financial Planning, the advisory arm of the business. Grover says rather than receiving employer clients from high net worth individual clients who own businesses, typically exchanges between the financial planning and the benefits solutions arms are in the other direction.
“So if we’ve got a high net worth individual where we’re delivering pension services to the employer and someone’s looking for some retirement advice and it’s more complex then we’ll make an introduction across to financial planning. It does come back the other way too. We’re not targeted to do so, there’s no pressure to do so. It’s what’s right for the client.”
Wingate Benefit Solutions does deliver pensions advice however – investment advice in terms of being in the right fund, and pension transfer advice.
The consultancy has big ideas for expanding its pension engagement business. It is working on a new-to-market engagement software proposition called Wingate Engage, which is under wraps until the New Year. “It does quite a few things that no other software in the market does. We’re confident that this will help drive engagement.”
Advice or guidance
While we wait to see what role Wingate Engage plays in the pensions engagement space, the border between advice and guidance looks set to be a key area of debate in the coming year. TISA’s proposal that workplace scheme providers should be able to deliver some form of personalised guidance and simplified advice is designed to support the millions of people who cannot or will not pay for advice, but who face increasingly complex decisions, particularly in relation to decumulation.
Grover is not confident this approach is going to succeed.“It’s a tough one because when we listen to calls, where it’s very scripted, people turn off. But it has to be scripted because you can’t be seen to be giving advice. So there’s that fine line between am I giving guidance or am I giving advice? That’s why the insurers are a little bit nervous about getting involved, because if you go off script, there’s a risk.
“And if they do start to get involved, that’s going to blow the adviser community out of the water. As an adviser, you’re not going to place business with an insurer that can give advice because you’re cutting your nose to spite your face. It’s human nature. So it’s a really fine line to navigate through. I think I think it will evolve, though it is uncertain how.”
Grover explains his perspective of that turf war between provider and adviser when it comes to clients.
“From our side of the fence, it’s the providers that want to engage with our employees. So if we’ve got a corporate client with 500 lives, the provider and whatever product it is, whether it’s pension risk, healthcare, they want to get in front of them to deliver that message. And we’ve always been a little bit, ‘OK, we can deliver that message’. That’s where we believe we can deliver our expertise.
“Even if providers absolutely caveat it off that they are just focusing on pension, and not looking at all an individual’s assets, they’re going to open themselves up because someone may say ‘did I not mention that my wife’s terminally ill?’.
Connecting with staff
Grover feels today’s SME employers are looking to do more to connect with their staff than they were pre-pandemic because the employer/employee relationship has fundamentally shifted and they need to keep the Great Resignation at bay.
“Employers are looking to spend because they know they’ve got a retention and recruitment policy issue. And with the working from home situation,” he says.
Based in Coulsdon, just beyond the edge of the London conurbation, Grover senses the seismic shift in attitudes.
“We’re 45 minutes from London, but people don’t need to go into London. So the retention of staff is harder because people are pushing their worth. They know they can work at home and need something to make them stay with an employer because the person down the road is going to give them a bit more flexibility. ‘They’re not going to ask me to come in the office three days a week like you are’.”
“As well as retention, the other massive issue is burnout,” says Grover. “The dial has been turned up. The world’s moving again and people have gone from, not through their own fault, not doing a lot – they may have been on furlough or just keeping things ticking over – and now they’re flat out. People have home issues with family, elder relatives, and the whole pandemic issue At what point do people say, ‘That’s it, I’m gone. I’ve just had enough. I haven’t had a holiday. I can’t get away. I’ve had enough.’
For Grover, this is why wellbeing services and support will grow in importance. “You’ve got your three pillars of wellbeing – financial, physical and mental. Most companies have probably got a handle on the mental now, either whether it’s whether there’s a something embedded within a product. For physical we’re seeing a big step up in terms of medical health assessments.
Pension falls into financial wellbeing. If I can understand that what I’m doing now will get me towards a target, that’s one less thing I’ve got to worry about. The PLSA research is brilliant here because it puts meat on the bones of what a pension actually gives you,” says Grover.
Wingate corporate clients who sign up for a three-year contract receive free financial wellbeing support for employees.
When choosing a pension provider, Grover’s approach is to cover around six different factors, including the investment knowledge of the workforce, whether the employer has a view over active or passive funds and approach to ESG.
Access to funds from 55 is also key. “This is where a lot of the providers have let money go out the back door because they haven’t had any scheme drawdown. That’s changing now,” he says.
Engagement software is also key. “Decent online systems, mobile phones apps. Scottish Widows are going to the next level in terms of their ESG app that shows ‘you’ve saved X amount of CO2 emissions just by using our default fund’.”
Engaging different staff
Grover points to the influence of the profile of workforce in provider selection. “If you’ve got a hospice on the south coast, where the average age of staff is fifty five, people coming out of the NHS but wanting to still work in that industry, their needs in terms of the way they want to access information will be very different to the needs of a design company in Covent Garden,” he says.
YuLife is one company singled out for praise – for the Covent Garden design company rather than the hospice. “You know they don’t want that business. They want the media company’s business and it works. It gets engagement. It’s the same story with Vitality’s engagement program. It’s absolutely brilliant. But it’s not right for everyone.”
Grover’s consultancy approach is about understanding the needs of the workforce first. “It’s about understanding the things that keep them awake at night, the things that worry them.”
For a substantial minority of some workforces, caring for elderly relatives is a factor that is soaring in importance, he argues.
“You’ve got people now retiring early, not because they want to or can, but because they’re looking after parents. This is a massive sea change. Legal & General’s group risk proposition has got a care concierge offering help on this, which is really powerful,” he says.
A big new drive for Wingate is its ‘Infinite Purpose’ initiative, which sees its own staff supporting local community organisations and environmental causes.
“The point of Infinite Purpose is to positively impact people’s lives through caring, education and environmental responsibility. This isn’t a marketing ploy – it’s taking part in caring, educational, environmental issue that gives you that warm feeling inside,” says Grover.
“Whether that’s us giving up time to do some work at the local old people’s home, or for every client we win or every product that we place, we plant a number of trees. Can we help local schools with financial education free of charge?”
With ESG, impact and responsible investment becoming bigger priorities for organisations of all sizes, this could be a feelgood feature for all concerned.