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How Research Can Help Prevent Mis-Selling Scandals: Monitoring Service & Advice

By Neal Cole

The latest mis-selling scandal in UK banking reminded me of the value of having accurate and credible monitoring of customer interactions where advice is being given. In financial services this is particularly important because poor advice can be very costly to the customer and may have long term consequences on their lifestyle.

However, reputation and good will is critical in all businesses and it is essential that your customers have confidence that you have the right controls in place to identify when service levels and advice are consistently below expected standards.


In one of my research roles I came across a company who assured me that they could measure real customer interactions be sitting next to advisers and recording their telephone conversation with customers. I was advised that this would not influence their behavior because the advisers were dealing with business transactions. Sales management were also comfortable with this approach.

This is clearly a fallacy. There is plenty of research that indicates it is human nature to behave differently when we know we are being observed. People are more careful to follow standard procedures and want to portray themselves in a good light with everyone concerned.

Indeed, a number of years ago I was asked to establish a program of research to monitor service standards and identify training needs for an insurance company’s direct sales force. Each sales person was already evaluated on a regular basis by being accompanied and assessed during a normal sales visit. The vast majority of sales people passed these assessments without much trouble. The question was whether these observations were a true reflection of their normal behavior.


  • To ensure an accurate and detailed evaluation of service standards and behavior I established a program of regular mystery customer surveys. We recruited people who met the basic customer profile and gave them a very simple scenario (customer need) to follow. This allowed the customer to use their own details as much as possible. They also collected any documents or leaflets they were given during the process.


  • Sales management and Legal were shocked by the findings. There was a total lack of consistency in how the sales process was followed and most advisers did not perform to expected standards. This was valuable feedback though and a great deal of effort was employed to improve the customer experience and the standard of advice provided.
  • Only video mystery shopping (using a hidden camera) can accurately capture every element of customer interactions to ensure there is no disagreement about what was said and done. Where traditional pen and paper mystery shopping was used I believe this was a false economy. The sales process in FS is too long and complex to be able to rely on the memory of a mystery shopper.
  • It is difficult for anyone to ignore a video of poor or misleading advice in FS. This is partly because video evidence can capture the whole sales experience. But also regulators will normally be given access to such material when they visit companies and they will expect to see evidence of corrective action.
  • There was no correlation between customer satisfaction with the advice given and the adviser’s compliance with basic standards for advice giving. This is perhaps not surprising as why should a customer understand details of the advice process. But it does confirm that Voice of the Customer research should not be used as an indicator of the quality of advice provided.
  • Videos of customer interactions are a powerful aid to change. They allow advisers to see the interaction from the customer’s point of view that encourages changes in behaviour that would otherwise be difficult to achieve. Each adviser was able to view their video with their manager and agree a detailed personal development plan to address any issues identified.
  • In FS you need fully trained advisers or trainers to assess the customer interactions. Each company has its own standards and you need a good understanding of regulatory requirements to accurately evaluate a service and advice.


  • The findings suggested to me that the regulatory framework is too complex and prescriptive. The focus should be on giving customers good service and advice rather than ticking boxes and following set procedures.
  • People need to be able to trust  advisers, particularly when dealing with money issues. However, a minority of people will always have a tendency to cheat or cut corners unless there are controls in place to spot such rogue behaviors. It is human nature and it happens in every sector. Video mystery shopping is an excellent tool that can be employed to capture the reality of the customer experience and the nature of advice given. With the correct controls in place it can be a catalyst for positive change in an organization and a means for identifying potential mis-selling.

Thank you for reading my post. I hope it generated some ideas for conducing and using market research.

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