Thursday, January 29, 2009

(No 10) Crapspeak in business

'Crapspeak' is the inelegant word coined for the metaphorical slang so beloved by too many consultants, executives, bureaucrats and others in today's business garden. Indeed I have often felt as if I was drowning in a sea of corporate euphemisms and metaphors. 

In the current business world there are too many examples of the desire to call a spade a gardening implement. For example: in the life insurance business what we used to call cross-selling or needs selling is now referred to by some people as 'holistic selling'  --  precious phrasing to be sure but hardly helpful to understanding or precision.

Useful leadership in business as in politics requires knowing when change is progress rather than decay; indeed, understanding that change is not a synonym for progress no matter how much the acknowledgement of that reality may force amendment of an executive's career management plan. Such understanding has not, unfortunately, loomed large in the recent financial services 'meltdown' --  or in the sort of activity that produced it. 

The view that everything is changing for the better has been (at least until very recently) an effective form of marketing propaganda. It's a brand much beloved by some corporate types and has recently and aptly been dubbed "Google progressivism". Perhaps nowhere is use of that phrase in business more apt than when applied to those life insurance companies and their senior executives who abandoned career agency distribution systems supposedly because of the need they identified to change with the times (or some such rationale). The real reasons more often than not involved their own incompetence or lack of commitment to a system seemingly (to them) more difficult to operate successfully than some form of brokerage.

Such executives are yet another illustration of the fact the rise of the internet and its zillions of websites has encouraged the seductive but foolish notion that information and knowledge are interchangeable. The negative effects can be easily observed today in financial services as in other spheres of business activity.

The power of euphemism, often indistinguishable from linguistic flatulence in our current 'feel good' society, has even caught up with the selling of individual life insurance. For example: the increasing substitution of "financial advisor" for the traditional and honourable title of "agent". Indeed  today some life insurance industry research even argues for avoiding use with both agents and clients of words and concepts invoking "death" or "estate" or "death and taxes" in favour of more supposedly compelling, comprehensive and hopeful concepts embodied by the word "legacy".  

Hence agents talking to clients should talk about "legacy coaching" and life insurance as an "I love you contract" (it's not about me, it's about you). By extension we are meant to recognize that agents have similar 'values' to their clients and therefore this thinking has implications for agents selling successfully in markets from which they come. Why anyone should regard this latter point as in any way new to the business is beyond me. The idea of agents selling (at least for a time) in the markets to which they belong when they are recruited into life insurance selling is about as new as as last year's Christmas pudding.

There are days when I think it is nothing short of amazing that the active (i.e., prospecting and selling) agency system for individual life insurance survives at all considering the performance of its partners -- the majority of North American life insurance companies over the past 20-30 years. Its survival in as healthy a state as it still enjoys is a reflection in the main not of good company management but of its essential role in selling individual life insurance. 

Indeed it can be fairly said that the active agency system survives in spite of those responsible for its direction in many companies, not because of them.

Al Rickard