In most walks of life and business, perception is everything. I was reminded of this at our recent ‘around the table’ event which brings together various industry experts and existing or potential equity release advice practitioners.
On the day, one of the first points raised was from an adviser who was currently looking to expand into giving equity release advice. The first words uttered were (to paraphrase), “Equity release has a major PR problem”. As you can imagine, this sort of comment in a room full of equity release stakeholders can have something of a debilitating effect.
As I took in those words, and I suspect many of the people present, mentally began rehearsing their arguments about why equity release was in a better PR shape than perhaps it’s ever been, I had to stop myself from communicating those well-worn arguments. Because, when all is said and done, if this adviser – who is very active within financial services and is actually considering the equity release advice route – believes that equity release suffers from ‘bad PR’ then it’s pretty clear that no run-down of the latest initiatives or the very positive, ongoing work that has been done by many equity release stakeholders, will shake that perception.
And if an adviser who is contemplating equity release advice feels that way, then the chances are these will be similar feelings held by a large number of potential clients who might be very suitable for equity release but are put off by this PR perception.
Delving a little deeper into the adviser’s concerns, it became apparent that much of his view on the PR difficulties of the equity release sector were founded on the, shall we say, hard time often given to the sector (and advisers) by the consumer body, Which? Anyone who has been active around our sector for any length of time will know that Which? tends not to be a strong supporter of equity release and has conducted numerous mystery shopping exercises into the advice given, the products recommended and the quality and suitability of both.
Let’s be honest, the results have often been nothing to write home about and Which? has certainly cultivated a perception of equity release advisers and products which is not as positive as it could be. Needless to say, with the reach of such an organisation and its own reputation for impartiality, many people hold it in high regard and listen to its views on such products and services.
So, in that regard, yes Which? has not done the equity release market any favours over the past few years. But, then again, why should it? It is up to our sector to work to the highest standards, and to prove itself, time and time again. It is also up to all stakeholders to keep ensuring those standards are always set at the same high levels and that all those customers who end up with an equity release product are appropriately advised and sold to.
The good news for our market is that the perception of equity release is changing, and although there may be setbacks and sometimes out-of-date attitudes and opinions to overcome, this work has brought about positive results. Growth in equity release product sales is one way of showing the increased confidence in the products, and also since regulation and following the work of the Equity Release Council and providers like ourselves, there is greater certainty about what the products can and can’t do, along with the safety net generated by the SHIP standards and the introduction of FOS and FSCS for consumers to appeal to, should they wish to complain/seek compensation.
Bringing equity release within the regulatory structure has certainly improved the PR outlook, as has the development of consumer education on the sector and the products themselves. However, there are still those who will be unsure or misinformed about equity release, there will be those that still believe it is a ‘rip-off’ or the preserve of greedy advisers and providers – and therefore the PR work has to continue at all levels.
This is not the responsibility of just our trade body, or the providers, or the advisers, or the consumer journalists, or the government, or the regulators – everyone is needed in order to continue with the good work of the last decade or so, and to ensure the message remains positive and continues to hit its target. We all have a role to play and hopefully at some stage in the not so distant future, we will be able to consign any ‘bad PR’ or ‘poor reputation’ related to equity release to the dustbin of financial services history.
Chris Prior is manager for sales and distribution at Bridgewater Equity Release