Simplifying Retirement Planning Communications

For many people, retirement planning tends to be an exercise in frustration. Some complaints focus on numbers that seek to dazzle without enlightening. Others call out language that is overly long, complex and ambiguous. The author of "HR communications falls short" (Benefits Pro, November 10, 2015) references a Davis & Company survey that validates employee angst as follows:

  • About compensation, only one out of four persons were satisfied with documents they received;
  • Regarding benefits, only fifteen percent said they were adequately apprised; and
  • Nearly ninety percent of survey-takers said they had not been provided sufficient intelligence about performance management.

These results are not good news for anyone. Shareholders are paying a company's staff to convey important information to retain and attract talented workers. If that's not happening, money is being wasted and that erodes enterprise value. It's likewise problematic for active employees and retirees. Without meaningful instructions and data, they are ill-equipped to make decisions about how to save and select benefits. As a forensic economist, I've worked on multiple matters that addressed the frequency, magnitude and clarity of participant communications. It's a real issue and costly when the task of communicating is done poorly.

Unfortunately, even when arguably clear and copious guidance is made available by an employer, some may resist reading and/or asking questions. As former Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Clements points out in "Don't Bother Reading This" (November 18, 2016), certain persons are focused on today and not tomorrow. He adds that others "want to believe in magic" even when evidence about investment returns suggest otherwise. Finally, he bemoans the association of "sophistication with complexity." (As an aside, I don't agree with Mr. Clements that complexity is "usually a ruse to bamboozle." However, I do acknowledge that complex economic arrangements require a thorough vetting of the risk-return tradeoff).

If my experience teaching on an investment cruise a decade ago is any indication, there are signs that financial empowerment through education is alive and well, even for those who learn on their own. Based on questions and comments I received, it was clear that the audience had a strong sense of what risks they were willing to accept and what they hoped to avoid. Admittedly, these were mostly small business owners who had grown and prospered over the years by understanding that doing one's homework is necessary to survive.

While investment uncertainty is, by its nature, something we all face, it is always prudent to gauge risks ahead of time, to the extent possible. Employers and policy-makers who want to help others improve their financial literacy can contribute in multiple ways. Joanne Sammer advocates in HR Magazine for a "whole portfolio" focus that encompasses all savings and retirement vehicles owned by an employee and his or her spouse. See "Helping Employees Plan for Retirement" (March 1, 2014). Based on my work in the benefits world, I suggest other prescriptions to consider as follows:

  • Listen to what your constituents tell you they need to know.
  • Understand the composition of your labor force since not every demographic cohort absorbs information in the same way.
  • Become adept at storytelling to make retirement planning relatable.
  • Make it easy for employees and retirees to ask questions and receive answers in a timely fashion.
  • Get creative with snappy visuals and relevant technology tools that encourage knowledge-gathering.
  • Monitor engagement patterns and revise your communications protocol as often as needed. 

Whenever I think about getting my message out, I reflect on something a former doctoral professor shared with his students. Taking some liberties since I don't recall his exact words, he required us to distill pages of terse text and equations into a single sound bite that a lay person could understand and care about. This drive to motivate the recipient to pay heed is undeniable. As Ryan T. Howell said in his Psychology Today article entitled "Less Is More: The Power of Simple Language" (September 20, 2012), concentrate on the problem consumers are trying to solve.

Applied to retirement planning, what's the end goal? For millions of people, the answer is not so much about having X amount of money in the bank but more about satisfying life goals and having "enough" to make things happen.

The Importance of Clear Communications

A funny thing happened the other day while having a snack in a Paris bakery. I am here for a few days, tagging along with my husband who is teaching for a month. Shortly after we sat down, a Japanese family arrived, went to the counter and asked in English for a sandwich to be heated before serving. As the woman at the cash register only spoke French, she did not respond right away. I think she was trying to understand what they wanted. The new arrivals asked again, in English and speaking a bit louder. Again, no reply. Then another customer, already seated and chatting with her friend, began speaking in Japanese to the family and subsequently translating into French for the bakery worker. As a result, the lady behind the counter was able to respond that they had no way to heat a sandwich and thereby allow the family to choose what they wanted to do as a result. Minutes later, four hungry customers were enjoying cold bread and hot beverages, with gratitude for the translator all the way around.

My take away points from observing this encounter is that the world is getting smaller. Speaking a second language is a plus. When you cannot speak the "right" language, access to someone who can translate is an advantage. When individuals are not communicating, opportunity loss occurs. Had the friendly passerby who spoke Japanese and French not played an active role, a family would have gone hungry for awhile and the bakery owner would have lost a sale.

Applied to the investment industry, similar lessons exist.

Investors often complain that contracts with managers, brokers, advisors, insurance companies and other service providers are too complex to understand. The ambiguity or absence of clarity as to who should be doing what and in what manner typically shows up as part of a dispute resolution. Something has gone awry and one party is bringing action against the other, based on facts and circumstances that include each party's interpretation of words.

Complexity of a product or service is another consideration. In "Don't Make Investing Too Complicated" by Matthew Luke (The Motley Fool website, May 10, 2013), readers are urged to focus on companies with simpler business models. Luke writes that "The more complicated an investment however, the more things can go wrong." While his statement may not apply to all investors, there is merit for everyone in being able to identify risk factors that can potentially destroy value.

As an independent risk governance and prudence expert, I am often in the position of having to ask service providers and investors alike to tell me what risk factors they deem most significant as potential destroyers of long-term value. We then talk about the likelihood of something going wrong and how risks are being mitigated. Those conversations cannot take place if information is overly complicated and/or unclear.

In other situations, a "translator" such as an informed consultant or advisor can assist both managers and investors in closing a sale and keeping a relationship alive. Like the bakery clerk and the hungry family, someone may need to intervene so that various parties are understood.

As new regulations are put into place, what investors will read likely reflects the need for the seller to comply. Compliance text is not necessarily the type of plain language that would better aid buyers in making an informed decision. This is not good. Investors need to understand what is at stake. Investment management service providers can benefit, sometimes materially so, by conveying concepts in plain language.