Archive for June, 2010

Don’t make an impact

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Everyone here has their little language bugbears. The cliché, the common spelling error, the generally-accepted-but-technically-wrong turn of phrase.

Some of us go on about our (least) favourite bugbears so much that they have become personally associated with us. If someone finds an example of one, they’ll wave it silently in front of your face with a pained expression. Or they’ll email it to you with no explanation and something cryptic in the subject line.

Until recently, mine was conditional phrases like this:

If you want to get more information, our helpline is open 24 hours a day.

Nonsense. The helpline is open 24 hours a day regardless of whether you want to get more information. You see this kind of thing all the time. Or at least I do. Of course it usually doesn’t matter. But it’s sloppy, and it makes the reader do more work than is absolutely necessary. If the reader is doing you a favour by reading your stuff in the first place, don’t make them do any more work than necessary to get through it.

It’s a small thing, but that’s what these bugbears are. Small but annoying.

Now I have a new favourite. Like “going forward”, this seemed to come from nowhere, overnight. Suddenly everyone’s using it and pretending that’s it’s perfectly normal and perfectly acceptable. Well it’s not.

It’s the use of the word impact.

I am convinced, with no evidence whatsoever, that the problem comes from people not being sure whether to write the verb ‘to affect’ or the noun ‘effect’. So they write ‘impact’ for both. It’s not too bad for ‘effect’, though it’s usually a bit of an exaggeration. But it’s using impact as a verb that bothers me. It doesn’t mean ‘to affect’. It means to strike forcefully or to pack together. So whilst a boxer might impact another and knock him out in round one, that won’t impact the TV schedules.

I just googled ‘impacting‘. 5 out of the first 7 results used the word incorrectly. Social media is not impacting the way we email. The BP oil spill has not impacted restaurants. Climate change is not impacting biodiversity. Acidity is not impacting oyster shell growth. And iPad is not impacting the eBook industry.

I could go on and on. You just know I could.

An Open Letter to Michael Gove

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Dear Secretary of State

Sounds good doesn’t it? Secretary of State for Education. Yes, I know it may not last long – tricky things these hung parliaments – but for now, congratulations.

And could we please have a change in the National Curriculum?

Look at the list of GCSE subjects. Media Studies, obviously. Ceramics, Biblical Studies, Nautical Studies. Maltese, Korean, Persian. All very worthy courses.

But are any of them within a hundred miles of being as important as Personal Financial Planning? Secretary of State for Education sounds great. But so does “I got an A* in PFP.” And if you seriously want to do some good, that might be the place to start.

Let me introduce you to my son. Sixteen. Took his first GCSE on General Election day. So far school has taught him how to care for the environment. Why he needs to eat five-a-day. How to avoid Chlamydia. Hell’s teeth, Minister – if we think school needs to teach my son how to put on a condom and how to turn the tap off every time I start brushing my teeth, is it not at least equally important that it sends him out into the world knowing how a mortgage works?

Now come with me to Downing Street. Number Eleven. There’s your brand new colleague, Vince Cable, slumped over his desk, already worn down by intractable problems. One of them is the pensions gap. Or chasm if we’re being accurate. The huge gulf between what people should put into their pensions and what they actually do put in.

Why don’t they contribute? The simple answer is, they don’t understand pensions – and sadly, they don’t trust them either. So how much is the average client going to contribute to something he neither understands nor trusts? The minimum. And if the minimum’s nothing, that’s fine.

Look, I know you pols like lists: something to tick off in front of Paxo. Here are three good reasons why PFP should be taught in schools:

  1. Pensions. Ease the eventual burden on the state. See above
  2. People would protect themselves: they’d buy into life cover and critical illness cover and redundancy protection. They’d take proper care of their families if they understood the risks
  3. You’d avoid mis-selling scandals. Educate the consumers and they’re better able to defend themselves against plausible young men in suits. They’d realise that if it sounded too good to be true it almost certainly was too good to be true. They’d be able to say, “Hang on, I’m a teacher. And you’re trying to flog me redundancy cover? No thanks.”

Oh, and there’s a fourth reason. You have a moral duty. We simply cannot have generation after generation whose concept of financial planning is informed by the ads on Cartoon Network. Get a loan, get another loan, consolidate, then fall over and sue for compensation is not a financial planning strategy. Neither is buying scratch cards.

So let’s have a commitment. That by the end of this parliament (I’m not expecting miracles, 2015 is fine) every child will leave school with a basic understanding of how a mortgage works. Why it’s important to save. How he can protect his family. And how to ask intelligent questions.

Think on, Michael. You’d have done more for the country than a hundred think-tanks and a thousand quangos. That’s not just doing some good. That’s the ‘L’ word. That’s a Legacy.

Customer Serviced

Friday, June 11th, 2010

I’m guessing you’re familiar with the saying ‘the customer is always right’. Reading it back to myself it feels as true now as it was on the day Harry Selfridge set up shop and coined the phrase that launched a thousand trips (viz. the customer journey).

Assuming it is true, either I’ve acquired a rather short fuse over the years or the average shop assistant has become more… umm… average.

This is a tricky problem for the shareholders.

Teenage Me was mostly grateful to get purchases out of the shop without accusations of being:

  1. too young
  2. a thief, or
  3. too nerdy to be allowed in.

A couple of years and a few milestones later – first part-time job, first car, leaving home, first boyfriend, college, first grown-up job, first flat – I’d gained some confidence and realised that shopping was becoming different.

It was still mostly about getting everyday stuff: food, petrol, hoover bags. Oh and some cat food (another milestone). But as student life became a distant memory, I began shopping without having to go for the cheapest option. I still knew what I needed, but became more aware of the choices I had: which shops to use, how much to spend, what make or model to buy.

At this time it started to dawn on me that all shops were not the same.

The outgoing CEO of Marks and Spencer recently complained that his company finds it virtually impossible to fill undergraduate vacancies. They attract people who can barely string more than two words together to form an adequate sentence. Looked at in another way, a cynic could argue that he’s really saying there are better ways to spend money than teaching raw recruits the basics.

Another outgoing CEO, Tesco’s, has a rather different take on the same problem. Low paid starter jobs might not attract quality applicants, but he articulated a belief that it was part of his company’s social responsibility to nurture the potential of these new joiners.

Whichever side of the debate attracts you, one thing is as true as our own retail infallibility; we are all customers. We have a choice.

Lots of our clients are acutely aware of this and have long ago ditched the assumption that they’ll automatically retain business. They are actively learning how to mitigate some of the sharp bends, adverse cambers and potholes on their customer’s journey.

The View from the Shop Floor

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Back in the 1990’s, when I was an IFA, I had a new client in Leeds. Car body repairs – the boss, his wife, a secretary and nine or ten lads. They started a pension scheme, and by and large the lads were sensible. A tenner a week, so with tax relief they had over fifty quid a month going into the pension. Add in the boss’s contribution and it was seventy or eighty. ‘Sound’ as they said on the shop floor.

Over the next ten years the company grew and grew. Three sites, eighty lads, the boss, finance director, estimators, secretaries. And yes, the boss’s wife – though she did manage the odd half-day in Harvey Nicks. But the attitude of the lads had changed significantly…

  • pension? Can’t afford it, mate. Night out’s a hundred and fifty quid.
  • pension? Bloke next door bought another house. That’s his pension.
  • pension? Look, last year you told me I had three grand in my pension. So another thousand quid goes in and now you’re telling me I’ve got two thousand, eight hundred? Thanks a lot, pal.
  • pension? Not bothering. Heard about this Government guarantee thing. Mate down the pub says the Government’ll keep me.

Over the course of a decade the combination of Gordon Brown’s tax raid, the property boom and stock market falls had turned them against pensions. They’d moved from seeing saving for retirement as a good thing to seeing it as a rip-off. Simply put, they didn’t trust pensions any more – and they didn’t trust the people (Government or financial services industry) who were telling them to save.

Something else was happening as well. They were getting disillusioned. They were beginning to realise they were on the wrong side of the pensions divide. It was the kids they’d been at school with that were causing the problem. The ones they’d laughed at – the ones who couldn’t play football, didn’t drink, didn’t chase girls. Who’d had to get a job pen-pushing at the town hall.

Now those kids had started talking about their index-linked pensions. About their boss who’d just taken early retirement. “Packed it in. Pension and a big fat lump sum for going early. Only 53…”

53? Bloody hell. Dave the panel beater was 55 wasn’t he? Still lying on his back on a stone floor all day, bashing away at a Mondeo. Saying he’d have to do it ’til he was 65.

‘Sound?’ Not any more. And it was a vicious circle. The more disillusioned they became the less they contributed. The less they contributed, the more they realised their pensions weren’t going to be worth much – and the more disillusioned they became.

So what’s the answer? Well, I know what my answer is – one uniform pension scheme which is the same for public and private sectors and with compulsory contributions. Just a shame it’s politically unworkable. Over to you, Mr Osborne…