Andy Harrison CEO of Whitbread has called on the pensions industry to become more customer and consumer-centric, in order to drive better take-up of pensions.

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Andy Harrison CEO of Whitbread has called on the pensions industry to become more customer and consumer-centric, in order to drive better take-up of pensions.

Speaking at the National Association of Pension Funds annual conference, Harrison delivered some straight talking to the audience of pensions professionals. “The pensions industry seems to spend a lot of time speaking to each other and nowhere near enough speaking to the consumer.”

Harrison’s own consumer focus is clear. As CEO of Whitbread – owners of Premier Inn, Costa Coffee and a host of other hospitality brands – he leads 45,000 staff with a common set of values, based around a “simple, powerful and emotional” customer ‘heartbeat’.

Measures of success, and the incentives that go with them, are the same across the entire organisation, from coffee baristas to Harrison himself, and are measured against a ‘Wincard’ that focuses on simple, powerful and emotional values. The reason behind the customer heartbeat and Wincard is to ensure that all of the organisation remains customer-centric. “Big organisations can lose focus on their customer – that’s why we have this initiative. Understanding and keeping up with the customer is difficult –and in a recovery where people have more money, they also have more choice. We all get distracted but have to keep the customer and winning team.”

Harrison explained that similar measures can equally be applied to pensions – but that delivering them is made challenging by the complexity of the topic matter and the amount of recent legislative change.

“To have a successful, vibrant pensions industry, there must be a focus on the consumer,“  he said. “You are asking people to pay up front for an uncertain benefit – and it is complicated.”

Harrison also highlighted public lack of trust in pensions as another barrier that must be overcome. “It is incredibly difficult to understand – and there have been a fair share of snake oil salesmen.” 

He also outlined other challenges facing the pensions industry, pointing to a shift in consumer behaviour, away from long-term savings towards a culture of immediacy and debt. However, he praised auto-enrolment and highlighted the low 0.5% opt-out rate that Whitbread has experienced as part of its own auto-enrolment process. Much of that success, he believes, has been down to the communications given to staff. “We simplified the messages - we had to convince staff to stay in.  We wanted to treat them like a consumer.”

Harrison’s overall message for the conference was the need to address pension from a customer and consumer-centered perspective – something that he believes the pensions industry can improve on significantly.

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