So, Lockdown 2 in England is now underway, while by the time you read this, the circuit breaker lockdown in Wales will be finished, Scotland has introduced its own wider tier measures, and Northern Ireland also has its own heightened restrictions.
It is certainly not the national lockdown of March through May but it is clearly a different level of measures that we have seen since then. With quite a notable difference for our marketplace, in that the housing and mortgage markets are still open for business, and that, quite frankly, is a crucial change from what was introduced in the Spring.
Indeed, I think from the equity release/later life sector perspective we are in a quite different place to where we were in mid-March. This has not been an easy period for anyone involved in our sector, but what has struck me throughout 2020 is the ability of advisers, distributors and providers to maintain quality service levels and to keep on providing customers with much-needed access to the finance they need.
Let’s be honest, we know our lending activity is at much lower levels that the mainstream mortgage, for example, but there has been none of the same pushback and criticism levelled at some mainstream lenders about their service performance, in our sector.
In fact, according to our recently-launched ‘Air Temperature Check’ which asked advisers for their views on key provider service areas, it’s been quite the opposite. Our analysis covered the first half of the year, when you might have expected – given the lockdown and the changes providers were having to introduce – that service might have been on its knees.
Again, that wasn’t the feedback from advisers at all, with some providers posting very positive service scores, even when we know that staff were working at home, the normal process of turning applications into completions was incredibly difficult, and, you might have expected, communication levels to have dropped off.
Even now, within the mainstream space, I hear a lot of advisers bemoaning what they are having to put up with when it comes to trying to secure their mainstream clients a mortgage. Of course, activity levels have shot up and there has been an increase in demand from such measures as the stamp duty holiday, but some lenders are still taking weeks to even look at documents, and trying to get answers about cases can involve hours waiting for phone calls that are never answered.
Again, we have to appreciate the seismic changes that the pandemic introduced, but what has perhaps been most pleasing in the later life space, is the quickness of the response, and the ability to keep working to a ‘business as usual’ timetable even when offices were forced to close, systems and processes were disrupted, and staff had to reinvent themselves for the most part as homeworkers.
Our ‘Temperature Check’ highlights those providers who performed incredibly well over that first six months of the year, and even with demand increasing in H2 2020, I fully expect to see an improvement in service scores when we carry out this review again at the start of 2021.
Of course, the big question is whether this can be maintained, especially at a time of growing demand, and given what we are seeing in some key areas, perhaps most notably for first-time buyers, the increased calls upon the Bank of Mum & Dad, etc. Our sector is going to need to ensure it can sustain and improve its client care and service standards, while covering off everything we need to in terms of client understanding, potential client vulnerability, attempts at pressuring clients to release equity, and all other manner of issues that our clients are potentially having to deal with.
It is a complex situation for many clients, and it may come at a time when they are perhaps even more uncertain about their future, and that of the economy, and what it means for them. At this point, training and competence becomes especially important for advisers, as does the ability to use those soft skills, while at the same time meeting all the regulatory and compliance rules that must be adhered to.
What we do have as a sector here is a great deal of unity. Advisers, distributors, providers, trainers, compliance officers, have shown how they can work together, and, just as Air Group, we are able to offer a vast array of support and resources to maintain the very highest of standards right across the board.
I think we can all be immensely proud of the way the later life/equity release sector reacted to the pandemic and what it has done since the first lockdown. We must not be complacent however and must remain committed to raising those standards, because it’s absolutely true that not all stakeholders operate at the same level. By doing this, we can certainly benefit from growing demand and we can position our sector as one that is doing everything it can to support its clients and one that should be worthy of more interest from both advisers and customers.
Stuart Wilson is CEO at Air Group