Improving Adviser Interactions with Centrelink

Originally published in Industry Moves:

Interacting with Centrelink isn't the greatest experience under optimal circumstances. During the current pandemic and economic crunch, it can be problematic.

Asendium is hosting a thought leadership webinar featuring AdviceLink director Sheena Stow-Smith on ways that advisers can better navigate Centrelink and help manage client expectations.

The webinar will take place on Zoom on Friday, 28 August at 11am. While call volumes to government agencies like Centrelink are exceptionally high right now, interfacing with them has always been challenging. Why do you think that is?

I see three main areas impacting the Centrelink service:

1) Minimum client-centric focus resulting lack of (motivation) innovation to deal with the red-tape and disjointed system.

2) Navigating the Centrelink maze for anyone without the technical knowledge is frustrating and time-consuming.

3) The investment in Centrelink (staff training, technology, communication to clients etc) has not kept up with the exponential increase in client needs from diverse demographic.

With the current confusion and changes around available benefits, means testing and eligibility, clients are often left frustrated with no reliable avenue to assist. We have seen changes to Centrelink staff arrangements, a lack of training and knowledge gap on the complexities of the various benefits, debts process and the Aged Care system it supports, therefore it is not surprising that the staff provide a less than satisfactory service.

Centrelink’s own client relationship survey had only 51% of satisfied clients and this is up from last year’s 46%. This is understandable given the long wait times and numerous teams and contact numbers for Centrelink. The current system is too often failing our most vulnerable.

What are some common mistakes that financial advisers and planners are making when they interact with Centrelink?

I see advisers providing great advice around income, Centrelink benefits and Aged Care strategies but either at a loss on how to best support their clients in this area or providing ad-hoc assistance without an efficient process or fee agreement in place.

Like any value-add service it’s important to understand where the advisers time is best utilised, the impact the service will deliver to further cement the adviser/client relationship. I want advisers to be in a position, in regard to Centrelink, where the client says ‘I couldn’t have done this without your help’.

Advisers doing this well are treating Centrelink advice much like any product recommendations, assisting the client execute their strategy in the same way they do when recommending an income protection policy or new account-based pension. They don’t leave a client to complete complex forms, lodge and trouble shoot any inaccuracies once complete. With Centrelink dealings, if financial advisers, want to go it alone they need to be experts in the strategy, implementation, technical updates, administration and on-going support, on top of everything else they are doing.

Alternatively, a Centrelink Service can not only deliver value add for the client but a high margin service for the financial adviser. By using AdviceLink, regarded by many as the leading outsourced Centrelink Service experts, we save the adviser a lot of time and meet compliance needs.

Are there any technologies that can make getting answers from Centrelink easier? Where can we find efficiencies that either speed up the time getting a response or getting a better outcome? Even if it just means a better experience for clients.

There is a lot happening with Centrelink – robo debt 2.0, a single touch payroll system to aid income reporting requirements, digital client identity etc. As with any technology, there will be continuous updates, bug repairs etc.

Despite the initial technology mishaps, my number 1 tip to working with Centrelink will continue to be driven by technology … Be online!

Claim online, update and upload documents online and check regularly online. A great example is the Centrelink business portal access. Advisers can act on a client’s behalf, increasing data accuracy and turn-around times. Failure to use the Centrelink technology and the ongoing improvements will eat in the adviser/practice time.

However, be aware when entering an onerous nominee arrangement, it should not be taken lightly, as without the right process advisers would be adding to their business risk.

At AdviceLink, we have a clear agreement and efficient process, that has seen a standard pension claim processed as quickly as one week compared to the Centrelink target of 7 weeks. An online claim can reduce the questions by half and provides the adviser and client with a tailored list of supporting documents required. The outcome is often a stress-free claim and income support in a timely manner.

While I can’t see this technology working solely for a client without expert guidance and good advice, it certainly assists to provide the client with a better experience.

One major frustration for everyone is the lack of transparency and unpredictability. Sometimes Centrelink responses are quick, sometimes they take a long time and there’s no obvious reason why. What can be done to aid transparency?

Our AdviceLink staff often wish we had better insight into Centrelink’s unpredictability. Finding something updated yesterday being processed before another similar update provided a week ago. We can only explain this by understanding the staff training limitations, where new staff are trained in only one task, resulting in tasks to get pushed around the system. Our follow up process becomes crucial to achieving our service and preventing costly delays.

I’m a big believer that when we manage a clients expectations with honest and clear communication we not only aid transparency but create an ethical and fair system. By arming clients with personalised information on not just their income and asset values but how they are assessed and how this affects their benefit, we can empower a client and reduce frustrations.

Centrelink seemingly have a different view. Up until recently we were told Centrelink don’t release expected timeframes. This often pushes the client to either sit and anxiously wait, or make emotional phone calls. Estimated claim completion dates are now available with online claims. These may still be unrealistic or unacceptable, often based on Centrelink’s current 49 day plus target, but a step in the right direction in opening up communication.

Are there any changes to the way advisers talk about benefits because of the pandemic?

The current economic environment has created a concern not only for older clients and their retirement savings but also for their families with concerns for their financial security. Advisers have become a source of information to support and protect their clients in retirement by being able to provide useful information on current benefits to all age groups.

Before the pandemic, two-thirds of those over 65 were receiving the Age Pension and we are seeing more claims with reduced assets and impacts on rental incomes. For families, some may be currently supported by the Jobkeeper but changes to reduce or cease this means that there will see an increase to the 1.4 million families already receiving the Family Tax Benefits.

Advisers are answering more questions about the Jobseekers allowance than ever before and with the current hold on the usual 13 week waiting time and Asset test exemptions coming back in on the 24th September, young clients and their families are seeking guidance in benefits to support them and provide future financial security.

Not only are they needing to provide additional support in finance and income benefits but there are added complexities around clients welfare as advisers are often given a very trustworthy position to recommend, and refer additional services. It can be a burden most are not taking lightly.

I don’t believe that clients are expecting advisers to be the ‘Oracle’ expert with regards to Centrelink. It’s important for advisers to know who the ‘go-to’ expert is for information, this is a key service provided by AdviceLink, supporting the adviser to ensure the advice provided is in the client’s best interests.

View Sheena Stow-Smith's profile