Making every minute count -effective Guidance at Retirement


Michelle Cracknell

Peter Shellswell

Peter Shellswell







Many people say that you cannot do much to really help people in a thirty minute guidance session.

I disagree; more importantly, Michelle Cracknell disagrees.

Michelle is the CEO of The Pension Advisory Service (TPAS) and an enthusiast for the Government’s Plan to give everyone a chance of 30 minutes with an expert to sort out their options at retirement.

And my co-workers at First Actuarial, who do thousands of personal guidance sessions with employees of companies they advise, also disagree!

The average guidance session conducted by TPAS (and they conducted 80,000 last year) takes 25 minutes. “Get people talking about themselves and you’re halfway there”, says Michelle.

The average guidance sessions conducted by First Actuarial lasts around 30 minutes. “Help people understand their options and they’ll do the rest” says Peter Shellswell- who head their team.

Building on this positive start, I’m going to deliver a blueprint that builds on Michelle and Peter’s ideas. We reckon will work and meet any “measure of success” including the one I think we should adopt (see the end of this article).



I started my career in finance door- knocking and stopping people on Oxford Street to ask for half an hour to talk about insurance. We had thirty minutes to establish trust and get people to a point where they wanted to see you again to see what you advised them to do. Like Michelle, I have advised people most of my working life, mostly as a regulated adviser.

Guidance is a little different, you are not delivering a definitive course of action, but whether you work at TPAS, sell financial advice or offer guidance under the Guidance Guarantee, you need to be using the same techniques and following the same processes.

So imagine that you are in the hot-seat, you are giving the Guidance!



The challenge – not 30 minutes- 2 minutes!


You have 30 minutes to make a difference. The colleague in front of you is facing a decision on how to spend the retirement savings. She or he’s looking to leave the meeting knowing what to do next, clear about the options.

You don’t have 30 minutes to get trust, you have a minute- at most two minutes – if you can’t put your colleague at ease within the first 120 seconds, the next 28 minutes may seem a very long time! If you two can hit it off from the start- you’ll have a successful meeting.

Back in the day, we used to do these meetings using a script, we had to memorise the introduction and each question that followed so that the outcomes of the meetings were consistent-people needed to leave trusting you enough to take a next step. I don’t think scripted sessions work- but Guidance sessions need to be structured because most people will not come to these meetings with an agenda.

So what follows is a structure for the meeting that worked for me 30 years ago and has worked ever since. It gets trust and engagement, which opens the door to the guidance and it finishes with next steps and a “close”.


How to start a guidance session


Step one – introduce yourself


“Hi I’m Henry, I give retirement guidance and can talk with you about what you can do with the money that you’ve got in your pension pot”

Step two- ask a question that your colleague can answer

“The people I talk to , fall into one of three categories, either you’re struggling with money and want to clear your debts , or you’re ok at the moment and want to stay that way, or you have large amounts of money and want to manage your wealth, which category do you fall into?”

Step three- confirm what you’ve heard and ask them to tell you about their aspirations

“Fine, so you are (repeat what they’ve said), can you tell me what you’d like to see happening in your life in the next few years?”

Step four- make sure you understand the anxieties

“Fine, so (repeat what they’ve said) and can you tell me what worries you looking forward?”


Establishing trust and engagement

That is all you should be asking to have a meaningful conversation about options. The skill will be to manage this part of the meeting to allow yourself time to deliver some practical help. But you cannot deliver anything unless you have established this level of trust and got people engaged.

A word of warning- don’t be too rigid, some people will want to take control of the meeting and simply pummel you with questions and information, these are what I call elsewhere the “badgers”. Badgers want to know it all and want to be in control. If people know what they want to ask and are pre-engaged- don’t trouble them with this stuff- get straight to the point (don’t mess with badgers).


Roles and definitions

I struggled to find the right word to describe the person to whom guidance was being given, “pupil”, “patient”, “student”, “client” and “customer” all seemed wrong. “Colleague” seemed only half-right but better than “guidee”!

The three categories seem right, I would expect 90% of people would claim to be in the middle with perhaps 5% in the “cash/debt” category and 5% being “wealthy”. For those struggling with debt cashing out may be the next step, for those with independent wealth, it may be a wealth manager– wealthy people “go private”!

Being clear about the terms of reference for the conversation is essential and this has to be confirmed on both sides.


Guidance that makes sense of the years of pension saving

People remark that the guidance process needs to have begun well before the point at which people start spending their savings. This is right though in the short-term we won’t have a chance to “back-date” guidance. To get people to engage with their retirement choices we need to make life simple and help people to be clear about what they are saving for.

At a macro-level, Government is looking for people to be taking control of their later life finances and plan around their work-patterns, health, family and debt. The current system is insufficiently flexible to help people do this. But while everyone will differ in the minutiae. It’s helpful for people to think about retirement according in groups. We like to think we are not alone “People like you” statements give reassurance.

If you’re a fair way out from retirement, you can’t be certain exactly what you want when you get there, but you can start thinking of retirement saving as part of a wider group- or type.

The three categories create such a system of “clearing”. Some will clear a way to clearing debts (or buying Lamborghinis), some to preserving wealth but the default will be the middle way which helps ordinary people stay solvent.

The financial services industry needs to concentrate on the middle way and create a new default to replace the annuity. It also needs, whatever that default turns out to be, to produce products that meet the needs of the wealthy and the insolvent.

In time, people will start thinking about what they are “in” for;    “clear debt – stay solvent – be wealthy”.

If the products into which we auto-enrol, lead to these outcomes then we’ll be making sense of pension saving. But the products are created by the need and not the other way round!


By using the clearing system I’ve suggested we can create a retirement saving system which people understand and we can integrate the guidance at retirement with what has happened in the decades of saving that have come before.


What can be delivered once trust is established

Once trust has been established, an understanding of what the colleague desires and fears, it is possible to explain very simply the options available –cash-annuity-drawdown. It’s possible to link these options to these aspirations and fears and it’s then possible to answer the questions that arise.

The key issues that will determine what people do with their money can now be introduced. At this point, Colleagues need to be encouraged to ask “how long will I live?”, “what tax must I pay?”, “how much certainty do I need?”, and they need to be signposted to where they can get the answers. The answer may be technology-based, or advice-based or it may be “what other people do” – which leads to a default.


Closing the meeting

The meeting can end with a simple articulation from the colleague of what they think their next step will be (though this can remain unsaid if your colleague does not wish to share this). The final question which will define the success of the meeting is this.

“Do you feel that you have enough to take the next step?”

“Have enough” translates into “feel informed”,

“The next step” translates into “the choice”

We are, to use the jargon, asking our colleagues “can you now make an informed choice?”

If the answer to the question is “no” or “I’m not sure”, then the meeting has not ended, the problem must be articulated and may need to be prompted by “can you put a finger on what’s troubling you?”


Guidance uses the same process and techniques that are used in sales.

Those reading this will recognise that all these techniques are from the sales manual. They explore what is called the “Broad Concept” where someone moves from considering their aspirations and anxieties, to a narrower view of their options to a decision on what to do next in a logical way. The decision in sales terms is “the close” and often, to close a meeting, you will need to handle objections. Objection handling in this context is simply getting people to work through what is troubling them.

Most people who I speak to do not think that you can do anything effective in 30 minutes. But those people who know about selling, know that 30 minutes is about all you’ll ever get in terms of real engagement. People who have done this, and done this many times know that you have between one and two minutes to get trust and you have to listen, guide, ask and close in the remaining 28 minutes. It’s a skill that is acquired over time.

The people who work in places like TPAS, MAS and First Actuarial have to learn these skills to become effective. They may not know they are following sales techniques, but to be effective they learn them. We do not need an army of these people, probably no more than a pool of two and a half thousand who become available around the country to meet face , face or screen to screen or even phone to phone.


Why independence is key

I know through bitter experience you can’t compromise independence. If there is any idea in your colleagues’ mind that you as guide could benefit from the decision they take, that independence is gone, trust compromised and the value lost. This is the key message of the retail distribution review- what you are selling is yourself, the guidance you are giving is the product you are delivering and that product must be totally un conflicted.

By “conflict” I mean the battle between what’s best for the Guide and what’s best for the Colleague.


I hope, having read this, that you feel a little more comfortable that we can deliver guidance in thirty minutes which at a macro-level clears people down different routes while at a micro-level, gives people confidence to take next steps. As I’ve said before, the next step may be to outsource large chunks of the decision to third parties- or instance the investment management of the drawdown fund, the drawdown rate, the annuity research, the debt or wealth management. Taking decisions need not lead to great engagement, many people simply don’t want to engage with financial management (any more than they have to).


Measures of success

What the Government is saying (and I think they are right) is that everyone should be encouraged to engage for half an hour. What follows has to be a decision, even if that decision is to default to a common solution. If people leave the meeting clear about the next step for them and confident that they are informed on what they can do, the meeting has been a success.

There will be a proportion of the population who take Guidance who will find it unsatisfactory, sometimes this will be the fault of the Guide and sometimes it will be the fault of the Colleague. We cannot deem Guidance a failure because some of those who do not find it works (or do not turn up for the session). As with auto-enrolment it is the 90% who are “in”, not the 10% who are “out” that represent success. But 90% seems the right number – more than 10% fall-out is not success.


Making plans

And as with so much else, if we fail to plan we plan to fail. We have 11 months to plan and the delivery of this great enterprise is well underway. Hopefully, now you have read this, you will be encouraged to support and promote Guidance and be a little less sceptical.



About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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1 Response to Making every minute count -effective Guidance at Retirement

  1. Me says:

    As always, excellent stuff, Henry. Thanks!

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