Review: Consultant White Paper

A friend of mine passed on this consulting report from Monitor Group, so I thought I’d review it.

The report presents the following problem, in respect of banks and insurers:

Customers are increasingly demanding simplicity, transparency and consistent service.

It goes on to argue for a seven-step solution, which I’ll caricature as three:

1. explain your product well

2. find out what your customers want you to do better

3. execute

Bizarrely, I love the solution but really don’t buy into the problem.

I don’t at all think customers are increasingly demanding anything. What’s changed is the supply. To the extent that there’s a problem for banks and insurers to solve, it’s that their competitors have raised the low-water mark for service.

To be fair, the paper does touch on this, but I’d build the entire project around understanding how and why the environment has changed and stealing whatever ideas the competition had that queered my pitch.

Again, the report touches on this, too, by referring to the entrance of competitors that execute better. Problems of execution aren’t about knowledge, though, but about action: a difficult thing to address in a ‘white paper’ format.

I cheered when I read this:

Only the CEO can lead the transformation involved to make an organization customer-centric

Now we’re cookin’ with gas. Limp slogans like “we need to satisfy our customers better!” are as cringe-worthy as a raising a daily group-cheer before opening a Walmart. But put the CEO behind a project and suddenly everyone gets serious.

But why would a CEO not be focused on something as important as customer satisfaction?

Let’s first think of the implications of needing CEO leadership for a transformative project: it needs to be his/her #1 priority. And in business, like in real estate, you can only have three priorities if you want to succeed:

1. Your #1 priority

2. Your #1 priority

3. Your #1 priority

Is ‘customer satisfaction’ worthy of such focus? The report is silent on this point.

One thing I’ve learned about insurance companies is that for a lot of them, their #1 priority isn’t the customer, it’s the regulator. Sure, the regulator is supposed to have the customers as ITS #1 priority, but it’s not quite the same thing.

Think of the Canadian banks, which have a government-supported oligopoly. Who matters most?

Here’s a better example: have a look at the management teams running Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the US. See their bios? All Washington insiders.

What do you think their #1 priority is?


Because I’m a pedant, I can’t leave this topic without commenting on the jargon shooting through the document. I find this kind of thing rather common among consultants for some reason. I have very close friends who are consultants (smart, capable folks, all), so I hope they don’t take this the wrong way.

First, I get that this is a sales document, and I’m sure that these folks know their target audience well, so I have to believe that use of jargon is deliberate. You’re risking something here, though, and that’s that the reader leaves with the impression that the author is trying to sound ‘smart’.

At the other end of the reaction spectrum, jargon can act as a kind of mental opiate. Ever notice how, in a sound-proofed room, your voice kind of disappears? Unnerving. It feels like your head is stuffed with cotton balls or something. Well, sometimes jargon makes me feel like that, too.

And when I say ‘jargon’, I don’t just mean words. Take this sentence:

before going live this bank had to reconfigure back-end processes to overcome cross-functional fault-lines, and co-create with key employees on how to deliver the promise in practice

What I think this means is: “people in routine-driven jobs who had never met had to work together for the first time”. But my point is that I don’t really know what it means because, though I understand all the words used, I somehow don’t understand the sentence very well.

In this case, assuming my interpretation is correct, I’d argue that a reader instinctively understands the difficulty of  introducing a bureaucracy to a new task if it is expressed as what it is: a social problem.

It’s easy to cherry-pick a sentence form a report and criticize it, obviously. And sometimes jargon is necessary. I am guilty of reaching for it too, particularly when referring to concepts that don’t exist outside of my industry. Nobody outside of reinsurance knows what a rate on line or inner aggregate is, and those concepts have to be called something.

At its best, jargon is an effective short-hand for familiar concepts.

At its worst, it’s just lazy writing.

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