“Right now we are built to facilitate transactions. What we are not built to do is engage in conversations around goals,” TSP Executive Director Gregory T. Long told the board.
Currently, personal contact is “only reactive,” he said. “We have an opportunity to provide a different type of service, something that is more consultative . . . Our participants are asking for and need a greater level of engagement from us.”
The TSP is the largest 401(k)-type plan in the country, as of April holding $454 billion in assets for 4.7 million current and former federal employees and military personnel.
Long said the transformation likely would take five years or more, and some elements would need approval from the governing board or changes in law. For example, it includes an assumption that the TSP will open an investment “window” through which account holders could direct money to investment funds other than those the TSP itself offers.
The TSP has had that authority for years but only recently moved toward carrying it out. A formal recommendation to the board is planned for the upcoming months, although even if approved such an option likely could not be made available until 2017.
Another issue ahead, Long said, is the “very meaningful and important line between consultation and advice. Where you cross the line is when you say what someone should do. Are we thinking about it? Absolutely.”
Individual attention “is something that really drives participants to action,” said Renee C. Wilder, director of enterprise planning. “It gives them some comfort for making retirement decisions. They are looking for someone to help them plan for their retirement.”
Such services could include contact initiated by the TSP, including by phone, at key career points including at hiring, one year later, on moving to another agency or on entering or leaving Reserve service, on reaching certain ages, and at retirement. Other opportunities would arise when an investor contacts the TSP about taking a financial hardship-based withdrawal or transferring an account to an IRA after retirement.
While the TSP provides information in printed form and at www.tsp.gov, “the reality is that not everyone is going to absorb information in that way,” Long said. “We want to take advantage of life moments when you’re receptive to information.”
“Our phone reps are doing exactly what we are asking them to do, transaction support,” he added. “What I’m advocating here is a different posture for our one on one conversations.”
As a step in that direction, the TSP recently began soliciting phone numbers and e-mail addresses from those who check their accounts online. Other planned steps include simplifying and driving online current paper-based transactions such as designations of beneficiaries, as well as improving the online calculator features. Expanding withdrawal options is also on the list, for example to allow more than one partial withdrawal.
“What we’re focused on is building a long-term strategic plan for the organization,” said board chairman Michael Kennedy, a managing director in the Atlanta office of Korn/Ferry International. “We still have a way to go from the customer service aspect. We have come a long way over the last year but we certainly have a way to go.”
One telling statistic, officials said, is that 55 percent of investors who leave government for retirement or other reasons transfer their money out of the TSP within a year. In many cases they may not even know they can leave their money in the TSP, and they may not realize the TSP has exceptionally low administrative fees for the investment industry, officials said.
A note of caution was sounded by Jacqueline Simon, public policy director of the American Federation of Government Employees, a member of an advisory board of employee organizations also at the meeting. She said that participants might reject phone contacts out of fear of fraud.
“Federal employees are constant targets and I think a lot of our members will be very wary of someone calling saying they’re from the TSP—‘I’m not falling for this.’ A lot of these ideas will have you seem like a marketer,” she told Long.
Long said that phone contact would be just one aspect; another would be pop-ups when investors are making certain transactions online asking them if they are aware of the consequences and if they would like to engage in an online chat.
Also, some of those concerns would be eased if the TSP established a more personal relationship with investors, he said.
Referring to those who transfer their TSP accounts rather than keeping them open, he said, “The way I see it is that 55 percent of people are firing us. You fire people you don’t know.”