Lost in translation

01 December 2019

This article was featured in the December 2019 - January 2020 issue of the magazine. 

Gareth Stears, pensions technical consultant at Aries Insight, says translators fluent in Pensionese and English are required 

Our industry is battling to convince the public to engage with their pensions. Many people, after being enrolled in a scheme automatically by their employer, stay in the default fund and change nothing until they retire. Even at that point, savers’ retirement choices often follow the line of least resistance.

These are important decisions in a person’s life. Get them right, and you might enjoy many comfortable years with your feet up. Get it wrong, and you won’t get that reward for a lifetime’s hard work. But many can’t bring themselves to try and make sense of boring pensions.

One explanation for this apathy is how impenetrable pensions can be, with its jargon (‘flexi-access drawdown’) and acronyms (‘UFPLS’). It’s like its own language. The solution for some is simply to cut out that jargon and those acronyms. To let ‘Pensionese’ die and speak only in English. 

I disagree and think there’s a place for it within the industry. You can quickly express a concept to those who know the lingo. And it fosters a sense of a community. You know you’re a pensions person when you have a conversation about ‘GMP equalisation’ and ‘the Lloyds case’ that no outsider could ever dream of deciphering.

The mistake is getting frustrated with outsiders wanting to know community business. When the public want to understand something about their pension, that is their right and the industry should embrace this. Our duty is to translate Pensionese into plain English so they understand their options and can make informed decisions.

It’s like the medical profession. Doctors and nurses say things to each other that most of us can’t understand. We don’t expect the surgeon to ask their assistant for the ‘wee tube’ instead of the ‘catheter’. But when you need to know what they’re talking about (perhaps when such an implement is produced from a tray) they should help you understand all your options so you can give informed consent. In medicine, this is part of having a ‘good bedside manner’ and is a respected skill.

The pensions industry is already doing a good job of simplifying and clarifying the communications we send in writing to the public. Initiatives like the single page wake-up letter should help matters. But there’s another battleground that receives less attention. The first thing a lot of people do when they receive any pensions missive is to find the phone number and call for an explanation. This is a critical moment. If they can’t get a straightforward answer, this is when any hope of engaging people is lost.

Sometimes the call handler doesn’t know enough to explain. This is easily solved with help from a colleague, and we all have to start somewhere. But other times, it’s almost as if the call handler knows too much. They’re fluent in Pensionese, but they can no longer translate that understanding into English. You need the empathy to pitch the explanation at a level the caller understands, without patronising them, and the verbal communication skills to ensure the message gets across.

...verbal communication skills to ensure the message gets across


This isn’t to criticise call centres and their staff. Quite the opposite. I want great call handling to be valued more. Communicating is a bit like swimming. Once we’ve learned how, most of us stop going to training. But we can always improve. We should treat this skill of translating Pensionese into English more like a craft. It’s an underappreciated skill, and that’s a problem for pensions.

Pension providers are (quite rightly) spending time and money on their mail-outs; hiring communication experts to ensure their message is presented clearly and vividly. But I hear less about initiatives in verbal communications. 

Translating pensions should be something in which you can specialise. Call centres should identify those with an aptitude for this and give them recognition. Callers struggling to understand a concept can be put through to a specialist translator. Nobody should be allowed to rest on their laurels though. The whole team should regularly go on courses to master their craft. These courses might even be run in-house by your best translators; but a word of caution: not everyone who can do, can teach. 

If your helpline isn’t well stocked with great translators, look for this skill when you’re next hiring. The main skill identified in most interviews is the ability to exaggerate achievements. This does not necessarily translate into the skill of translation. 

Perhaps ask applicants to describe a mouse trap. My partner was asked this when applying for a patent attorney role. The ability to describe objects clearly, accurately, and in detail is critical in that profession. Those who do it well can expect to be compensated generously. If the industry is serious about keeping the public’s attention and truly engaging them, it needs to value its communicators too.