JEFF PRESTRIDGE: How I've been putting the 'personal' back into personal finance

20 February 2020

Getting out to hear about the money experiences of the public can be invigorating for a personal finance journalist

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Nothing energises me more as a personal finance journalist than escaping from the office and listening to the money experiences of the public. Not a whiff of social media in the air, just face-to-face conversation.

It puts the ‘personal’ firmly back into personal finance and invariably I come away from such experiences enthused and raring to go (not a pretty sight, I hasten to add). Either ready to report on exciting new money issues or comforted by the fact that some of the things that matter most to me and Moneywise are of great importance to the public. In other words, we are hitting the nail squarely on the head.

Recently, I had the good fortune to do a proverbial Escape From Colditz twice within the space of 24 hours.

First stop was a tiny theatre in London’s Chelsea where I was asked to join a post-show panel debate on customer service standards. I was chosen, I imagine, because of Moneywise’s commitment via its annual Customer Service Awards to highlighting those companies in the financial services arena that go the extra mile to deliver service par excellence – while shining a brilliant light on other providers who consistently fail to step up to the mark.

The debate was triggered by a play (Scrounger), written (and performed) by Athena Stevens about her woeful experience at the hands of British Airways and London City Airport in late 2015. Athena’s wheelchair (she has athetoid cerebral palsy) would not fit in the plane’s hold;  the flight was delayed; and she was unceremoniously bundled off the plane. To heap yet more misery on misery, her wheelchair was left badly damaged.

What then followed was a battle royal as Athena attempted to get compensation for the damage to her wheelchair, an expensive piece of equipment that no travel insurer had been prepared to cover. Despite mounting a quite brilliant media campaign, she was met with a wall of indifference from British Airways and London City Airport. Although she settled in the end with British Airways, the airline’s customer service standards were found wanting. Indeed, they remain so – last year ,the airline was ranked 83rd out of 100 British brands for customer service.

The panel debate was fascinating as the audience (a splendidly feisty crowd) lamented the quality of customer service across swathes of industry – from energy suppliers through to banks and insurers.  A result, most felt, of the overwhelming need for companies to deliver profits rather than good customer service. I walked away from the event determined to keep holding to account those companies whose service standards slip, while praising those who put customers first – the likes of First Direct and Nationwide Building Society.

An evening later, and at a venue a stone’s throw from the shopper’s delight that is Bicester Village in Oxfordshire, I spoke at the launch of Chiltern Women in Business, a group of like-minded people determined to make financial advice a welcoming and rewarding experience for women. Not just in terms of ensuring women feel comfortable when talking about money, but investing it in a way that is line with their principles and beliefs.

It was an exhilarating night as forceful presentations were made by Time Investments and Earthworm Group on the growing demand for responsible investing – be it of an environmental, social or good corporate governance nature (so called ESG investing). There was a near-fervour in the room about the need for all of us as investors to ensure we support companies that are doing their utmost to safeguard the planet. Even Victoria Prentis, Conservative MP for North Oxfordshire, was caught up by it all, vowing to run the rule over her investments to ensure they were ESG compliant.

I think responsible investing will be the major investment theme of the next decade. Investment managers are setting up ESG-friendly investment funds in their droves while demanding that companies embrace good ESG practice.

Financial advisers are also waking up to the demand from clients for advice on ESG investments while fund platform interactive investor (Moneywise’s parent company) has launched the UK’s first rated list of ethical investments – the so-called ACE 30 – 30 funds that invest ethically, whether in UK  or  international companies, bonds or physical assets (for example, plants that produce clean energy). I came away determined to write more about ethical investing.

So good customer service and good investing – two causes whose drum I will beat ferociously over the coming months. Do let me know if they are causes close to your heart. I do hope so.

Jeff Prestridge is the personal finance editor of The Mail on Sunday. Email him at columnists@moneywise.co.uk.