Given the level of scrutiny advisers are constantly under from a professional and regulatory point of view, the importance of qualifications and accreditations cannot be over-stated especially when it comes to engendering client, and the wider public’s, confidence in the advice profession and process.
This is why it is incredibly disappointing to see that some advisory firms have been making false qualification and accreditation statements within their profiles on some of the most widely-used adviser directories.
In particular, and of great interest to those of us active in the retirement and later life sector, a number of firms who claimed they had been accredited by the Society of Later Life Advisers (SOLLA) were – after a small amount of research – found not to have been awarded this accreditation at all.
The directories in the spotlight were Unbiased, VouchedFor and the Money Advice Service. Given that you would think most members of the public seeking advice would probably go to one of these, we should be concerned that firms can both inflate the qualifications of their advisers and make up their level of expertise and accreditation, effectively duping the public into using their services.
One might suspect there will be plenty of work going on behind the scenes at these directories to ascertain how such abuse of profiles can occur, and what they can do to firm up their systems and processes to stop firms doing this.
But perhaps of most interest to us is the impact this will have on client confidence – especially when we are potentially dealing with older customers, some of whom may well be seen as vulnerable.
If there is a perception that some firms are going out of their way to over-egg their qualification and professional standing, this does call into question every single other firm which has a profile on these directories.
The client cannot be 100% confident that the advisory firm they might have gone to see, or wanted to see, is SOLLA-accredited as they purported to be.
So what happens to those clients and what about the advice that others might have received in the past?
This is an interesting point because, as a client, if you were absolutely adamant that you only wanted advice from a SOLLA firm, went to one thinking that was the case, received your advice, only to find later that the accreditation was completely false, how might you feel about the advice and service you had received?
How would you know you’d received the most appropriate advice and recommendation for your needs and circumstances?
Might you not feel you had been duped right from the start and therefore look to complain and secure redress based on this?
At a time when the mortgage market might well be a natural target for claims management companies, those firms concerned have done themselves, their clients, and other advisers with genuine qualifications and accreditations no favours at all.
Indeed, let’s apply the mum and dad test to such a situation – would you be happy if your parents, for example, had received advice from a firm that had flagrantly lied about their status?
Might you not question whether they’d lied or mis-led your parents about anything else? One can potentially see a number of complaints forming around this, and again, at a time when the later life market has begun to form a much more positive reputation among consumers, this could be a step back.
Clearly, there is a responsibility on the firms concerned here, but there is also a responsibility on the directories to ensure false claims such as this are not made, and if they are, that the firm is dealt with accordingly.
As an industry, we can be damning about other firms in other sectors pushing false advertising or misleading clients – it’s up to us to be just as damning of those within our own.
Vouched For has since questioned the results of the Which? investigation that provided these results. It has also overhauled its verification process.