Publisher's Perspective

Image: Hyejin Kang/Shutterstock.com

The Thrift Savings Plan deserves credit for regularly asking its customers—current and former federal and military personnel—what they want in the program. That has led to the addition of numerous features in recent years.

But in light of the most recent of those changes, it is clear that what they want—what they really, really want, as the song goes—is customer service.

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While the TSP has the reputation of being a highly stable program, in fact it has changed significantly over time, and especially so within more recent years. In some cases, that is due to changes in the tax code that governs many features of the program along with similar retirement savings programs such as 401(k) plans. But in other cases, it was the result of feedback from account holders.

Much of that feedback has come from a series of surveys. For example, the TSP asked why so many investors rolled their money into IRAs after leaving the civil service or the military and the answer came back that people were looking for more choice in investments and withdrawal options.

The TSP responded first to the withdrawal issue, by loosening a number of policies in 2019. It began allowing lump-sum withdrawals as often as every 30 days, rather than only one time, and added new flexibility to the option to take installment payments.

Regarding the investment choices, the TSP the following year expanded its roster of lifecycle funds by offering them in five-year increments rather than 10 years, and extending those funds as far out as 2065. Then earlier this year it opened its mutual fund window, which allows investments in a choice of thousands of outside mutual funds, although with a number of strings and fees attached.

Because of the complexity of that change, it could be carried out only as part of a major change to the TSP’s underlying operating platform. And that’s when it became clear what investors really want.

For what the TSP calls security protection needs, the new system required that participants set up a new personal online account, which turned out to be frustrating if not impossible for many. Their only option was to call the ThrifLine customer service line, which was overwhelmed with callers, resulting in hours on hold, dropped calls, and connections with agents who couldn’t help them.

For what the TSP called data-related reasons, beneficiary designations of some 150,000 account holders weren’t migrated into the new system. Those who discovered theirs were missing and filled out new ones encountered problems which required them to call that same customer service line—where they encountered the same kinds of service issues as those who had trouble getting into the system in the first place.

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The list goes on. Account holders have complained that the new system does not include historical account information that they need; that requests for loans and withdrawals have been delayed or lost; that account balances don’t square up with their own records. In each case, their only recourse was to call the customer service line, where . . . you know the rest.

The TSP has not exactly endeared itself to its participants with its response. That has been mainly a series of bloodless statistics showing increases in the number of customer service agents onboard, reductions in time on hold, success rate of those attempting to set up online accounts and so on. It also cited the results of its most recent participant survey showing that satisfaction has been about stable over the last three years and is above that of a private sector benchmark—but that survey was taken before the changeover.

And calling the experiences that so many investors have been going through “bumpy”—as the TSP did in responding to a House member raised those issues on behalf of her constituents—simply shows a lack of connection to the people it is there to be serving.

For many of those people, the TSP is their main life savings, certainly their main savings for their retirement. It is not a statistical exercise for them. And when they experience problems with it—problems the TSP itself is responsible for—personal, effective help is what they really, really want.

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