Whatever we need from financial services just now, it seems we’re not getting it.

Impressively early in the coronavirus drama, even if I say so myself, I wrote a notably grumpy blog on the subject of “peace of mind.”  A huge proportion of financial advisers claim to offer it, I said, but in reality, remarkably few of their clients really enjoy it – especially at times when our world is becoming dramatically pear-shaped.   For most of us, I said, peace of mind is conspicuous by its absence.

Ever since, I’ve been hunting around the echo-chamber of stuff that will confirm and reinforce my views for evidence that I’m right about this, and some highly confirmatory consumer research has just come my way.

Blue Marble, the innovative and insightful research firm run by my old friend Emma Partridge, has set up its own programme, combining qual and quant, to look at post-coronavirus consumer behaviour in different parts of their lives.  The last round, just a few days ago, looked at financial behaviour.

Two questions – or rather, two answers – jumped out at me from the quant.  Among a nice big nationally-representative sample of 2000 adults, over half said they felt “more uncertain about their future” than before the outbreak (rising to over 60% among under-35s), and 39% said they were “more worried about money” (rising to over 50% among under-35s). 

These figures are high – certainly high enough to cast doubt over that “peace of mind” nonsense – but if anything I was surprised they weren’t higher.  Who are these 40% of under-35s who aren’t more uncertain about their future?

The clue to this, I think, is in the qual.  What this is telling us, in short, is that for the time being we’re too worried about the present to have the head-space to worry about the future as well.  I should say that there are some who are working from home, getting paid as usual and actually taking some pleasure from the enforced saving of a locked-down lifestyle. But the majority – whether students unable to find holiday jobs, pensioners with savings “in tatters,” furloughed workers, or self-employed people worried about whether their customers will pay their bills – have real anxieties in the here and now.    Combine that with the lack of any clear sense of where we’re going with all this, and whether (and when) something approaching normality may return, and it’s no big surprise that for some, the time to start worrying about tomorrow hasn’t quite arrived yet.

I think we all know that this will change, though, and when it does the role of financial services providers will be important.  At the moment, it doesn’t seem that it’s very important at all:  the second main theme I took out of the research is to do with another absence.  The fact is that so far in this crisis, the role and the actions of the entire financial services industry haven’t made much of an impression on Blue Marble’s respondents.  While just under half of the quant respondents say that supermarkets have responded to the crisis “very well”  (those loo roll shortages obviously fading from memory), only 9% say the same of banks and building societies.  In the qual, there are a few shoutouts for “good communications” – Nationwide, M&S and John Lewis picking up the odd positive mention – but on the whole it’s a case of the curious incident of the dog in the night time.[1]  Of the respondents with a financial adviser, for example, only one claimed to have received any communication (although I think in fact others must have received 10%-drop letters), and the one solitary strong positive across the whole study was a comment from a delighted motor insurance customer offered a partial refund to reflect reduced car usage.

There’s nothing terrible or scandalous here.  Very few respondents had anything seriously critical to say:  the most widespread grumble was to do with the perceived “hypocrisy” of lenders maintaining unjustifiably high rates while claiming to act in the national interest.  But equally, beyond that small handful of scattered positives, there’s nothing impressive or admirable either.  No institution, and no sector, seems to have seized the opportunity to capture positive attention by doing something – anything – to stand out and capture customers’ imagination.  Heaven knows plenty of financial institutions – actually almost all of them – claim a “focus on the customer,” or to be “truly customer-centric,” or to “put their customers first.”  But given a great big rather scary opportunity to prove the truth of claims like these, Blue Marble’s  research tells us that rather like that empty promise to give us “peace of mind,” fine words like these are mainly delivered from safely below the parapet.

[1] “But Holmes, the dog did nothing in the night-time!”  “That, Watson, was the curious incident.”

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