Tweeting from Timbuktu

Back in the day, anyone who ever flew on Concorde kept the cabin baggage label affixed to their briefcase until it disintegrated.  In fact, I bet there are still people with the remnants attached to their briefcase handles even today.

The modern equivalent, I notice, is tweeting from exotic destinations, and especially airports.  Anyone who is away on business in Shenzen, or Dar-es-Salaam, or Bogota, or even Pigsknuckle Arkansas, will feel obliged to share the fact with their network – usually including some bogus “news” such as a flight delay or a problem with a hotel booking, in order to provide an ostensible purpose for the message other than just showing off their location.

Personally, I’m just as snobby and pompous as anyone who does this, but I’m snobby and pompous in an inverse kind of way.  In the next ten days – this is true – my business destinations are, in order, Kettering, Luxembourg, Redhill and Bury St Edmunds.   I’m hoping for late-running trains or problems with station buffets to give me a pretext for tweeting my whereabouts.

Oh, well, if it’s going to be difficult, forget it

Spent most of the morning in a state of some anxiety at a Financial Services Forum event about mutuality.

Why anxiety?  Well, the thing is, pretty much everyone involved with any kind of mutual has spent the last God-knows-how-long searching for their own mutual-sector Holy Grail, which is of course the answer to the question about how to turn the theory of mutuality into a meaningful consumer benefit which actually motivates people to choose mutuals in preference to proprietary companies.  And of all the Holy Grails that different people on different quests go looking for, this is the one which, some three years or so ago, I actually located.  I know the answer.  I can tell them where to find it.

For a consultant, this is a good position to be in – but it’s only a really good position if no-one else has made the same discovery.  That’s why my main motive in going along to the event this morning was to make sure that none of the speakers, panellists or contributors from the floor showed signs of thinking along the same lines.

One – the very last one – did, and somewhat troublingly, over the last three years, I’ve presented my thoughts on the subject to his boss and to several of his colleagues.  Could be a coincidence, but I have a feeling that on this occasion my role as grail-finding satnav has led to the clients deciding to go grail-digging unaccompanied, rather than reward me with a nice big consultancy project.  Oh well.

But anyway, taking the event as a the whole, if you’ll forgive the analogy-switch, this morning felt a bit like one of those games of Battleships where your opponent’s shots are landing all round your fleet but somehow they’re all just missing and your ships remain unscathed.  Which was good.

You may wonder, if I am indeed a consultant, if I have indeed been going out to talk to clients and prospects about all this and if I do indeed have the map reference to the Holy Grail, why my thinking hasn’t had a transformational effect on the mutual sector, not to mention my own reputation, profile and fee income.  You may even suspect that I’m kidding myself.  Perhaps it isn’t the Holy Grail after all.  Perhaps it’s just a Fool’s Grail.

No.  Definitely not.  My confidence is unshaken by your doubts.  My presentation goes down a storm.  People absolutely bloody love it.  Almost everyone who’s seen it knows that I’m right.  It’s a true lightbulb moment.

But then…

Then I go away, and they think about it, and they realise that the implications of what I’ve been saying are really difficult.

It’s not just a question of a new marketing campaign, or redoing the website, or making some tweaks to the product range.  It’s about big, sweeping, top-down, bottom-up, in-from-the-sides change.  It would be expensive, difficult, time-consuming and, I suppose, not without risk – and, perhaps, even worse, it would result in change that would ultimately make the people who implemented it less rather than more powerful.

Frankly, I don’t think this should come as a huge surprise. Having been run for a century or more as second-rate, off-the-pace PLCs, mutuals have got to be kidding themselves if they imagine there’s some way of reinventing and redefining their raison d’etre by fiddling about with the website or the Ts and Cs.

But voluntarily beginning a process of really transformational change is hard, and although it’s really good fun to think about it, it’s really scary to do.  To my knowledge, a couple of mutual organisations have made some progress.  But what I find a bit disappointing is that even among those organisations who – with or without my help – have managed to dig up their own Holy Grails, hardly any have yet been brave enough to see what happens when they lift the lid.


45 years after the Summer of Lerve, I don’t think I’m a hippy any more

Truth to tell, I was a bit too young, and my school’s rules on hair length were a bit too strict, for me to have ever been a proper hippy.  (I thought Scott Mackenzie’s San Francisco was the real deal, for goodness sake.)

But the counterculture left its mark, and a whole VW Microbus-full of experiences led me to believe that the world would be a better place if only The Man would get off our backs and leave us all to be cool and beautiful.

I must admit that even at the time, I found it a bit tricky to reconcile this view with my simultaneously-held political conviction that the big reason why we need socialism is to make sure that we do the right thing collectively when we won’t necessarily do the right thing individually.  But on the whole, as the decades slipped away, I didn’t worry about the contradiction too much.  And more recently, when the Internet established itself as pretty much the last significant bastion of old-style hippy laissez-faire libertarianism, the old Scott Mackenzie fan in me tended to say (or at least think) “Right on!”

But then came today.  Hush-puppy-wearing, jazz-fan Minister of Justice Ken Clarke has published legislation to slow down, or maybe even stop, the loathsome practice of trolling on the Internet.  And I realise, finally and definitively, that I’m not a hippy libertarian at all any more, if I ever was.  Too many people are just too horrible.   If you give them freedom, they’ll abuse it and abuse it and abuse it past all sense and past all reason, until other perfectly innocent people end up horribly hurt or even worse.

Ken Clarke is no socialist, but his proposed legislation is exactly the kind of thing that explains why socialism is important.  In all honesty, I never was a proper hippy.  But I always was, and still am, a proper Pinko.

Demanding disloyalty – those wild and wacky motor insurance folks are at it again

Just about exactly a year ago, faced with a thumping great increase from my motor insurer, with the help of a price comparison site I roughly halved my previous year’s premium by switching to Admiral. A year later, faced with a thumping great increase from my motor insurer, with the help of a price comparison site, I’ve roughly halved my last year’s premium by switching to Privilege.

I must make it clear:  despite what I do for a living, I am by nature a typically inert financial consumer and absolutely not the kind of hyper-active rate-chaser who scours the market for trivial savings.  So if I’m figuring that a few minutes on Moneysupermarket and a saving of several hundred pounds is worth the bother, I’m confident that most people are figuring the same way.

And if that’s the case, could someone please explain to me how this apparently ridiculous market works?  One way or another, insurers spend a ton of money (or half a ton, anyway) acquiring new customers and offering them nice soft rates in their first year – then, a year later, they blow away every trace of goodwill and loyalty they’ve earned by demanding thumping premium increases so that even customers with third-quartile levels of inertia feel obliged to look around.  And then, when they find they can save hundreds of pounds by switching, they promptly leave in a state of angry resentment, promising never to return.

(And one final point on the whole inertia issue.  Left to my own devices, I still might not manage to overcome my own highish-to-high level –  but these days I’m absolutely not left to my own devices.  On the contrary, when my motor renewal date is approaching, every direct insurer and comparison site I’ve ever visited sends me emails inviting me to click here and save two, three or four hundred pounds:  and tempted as I am to ignore them and wander away to Favourites such as cricinfo or, for four hundred quid I feel I can’t refuse.)

As far as I can see, only two possibilities arise from all this.  Either these firms are behaving stupidly and short-sightedly, and marketers and consultants all round the industry should be vigorously advising them to mend their ways without delay;  or all those textbooks, papers, pitches and presentations which go on about the importance and commercial value of loyalty and the need to develop as much of it as possible are all completely wrong.

Actually, I suppose there is a third possibility, which is that the textbooks, papers etc are right in emphasising the importance and value of loyalty in every consumer market except insurance, but I can’t really see why that should be so.

I’d appreciate any help, thoughts or views on all or any of this.  I don’t actually work for anyone in this market at the moment, which you may think in the light of my evident confusion is probably just as well.  But you never know, I might get a call from one of the major players at any moment (actually, a minor player would be fine too).  And I’d hate to go in  and have one of those really terrible meetings with them.

What is it people call them?  Oh yes, real car-crash meetings.

Defaulting to hatefulness

I suppose that when it comes to the behaviours they will and won’t tolerate in the Olympic Park, none of the main sponsors comes out with much credit.  McDonald’s is unwilling to allow anyone to buy any similar fast food (although I think they will allow you to buy and eat chips elsewhere provided that you buy them with fish), and I doubt if we’ll see many Pepsi concessions alongside the Coke stands.

Even so, it seems that the intolerance and unhelpfulness of the one main financial sponsor, VISA, sets the benchmark.  According to newspaper reports, VISA is insisting that 27 cash machines already located within Olympic facilities must be turned off, while at the same time installing eight of its own machines which will, of course, only take VISA cards.

It’s extremely – no, make that impossibly – difficult to understand what VISA hopes to get out of this mean-spirited decision.  The negative media coverage of their decision must already far outweigh any PR benefit in games spectators finding the helpful VISA logo on all the Games’s ATMs.  The fact that with only eight machines there are sure to be long queues and they’ll frequently run out of money can hardly be good for the brand.  And surely the revenues from cash withdrawals over a couple of weeks at eight machines must be totally insignificant in the overall financial equation?

No, I can’t see even a glimmer of a case that it’s a good financial, business or public relations decision.  Just another example of a financial institution faced with a choice between the right thing and the wrong thing, and defaulting instinctively and automatically to the latter.