Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid attends benefits training


Big Bad Boss has decided I should go to a benefits training seminar. Sounds like it won’t be much of a jolly or he would be going himself. Smarmy Consulting, our pension advisor, run all sorts of events from splendid banquets to low-budget breakfast meetings. It is typical that I get to go to the latter. I don’t know if you feel the same, but I just hate breakfast meetings. My commute is bad enough without having to go even further and to have to get in early as well. Huff.

I am not sure where it gets off calling it a breakfast meeting; I arrive at what feels like dawn, desperate for a coffee, only to be presented with some foul brown liquid that makes me cough. And since when does anyone start the day on stale biscuits and tiny clumps of burnt oats purporting to be flapjacks? I was expecting bacon sandwiches, or a croissant at the very least, but I am sadly disappointed.

Consultants versus clients

Even though it is a client event, Smarmy Consultants outnumbers the customers significantly; I know a lot of them by sight. Oily Oliver is here, along with his new sidekick. Have you noticed that consultants always go around in pairs? That way, they can charge double the fee for any work. Oliver and his little mate trap me in a corner so I cannot even get to the orange juice. As usual they want to know what I am working on right now. I try to think of something to tell them that won’t sound pathetic, but without giving them enough information to start pitching for more work. I just want to be left alone so I can network with the people I would actually like to meet: other benefits professionals.

There is one woman I recognise from last time. She works for one of our competitors and I would really like to make friends. Not only could we compare benefits data – I know how to have a good time – but she might even be a position to offer me a job some day. Unfortunately, two more Smarmy consultants have snaffled her. I notice that the Smarmy guys all have light blue ID lanyards, whereas us punters, the clients, have black ones. That should help me decide who to stand next to on the next break.

There is one tiny consolation for the lack of breakfast. Each seat has some Smarmy freebies including a flash drive and a rather nice notebook. I wonder whether to use the notebook to make notes on the seminar as I forgot to bring one, but I would really to keep it for something more interesting.

The seminar kicks off with one of the Smarmy Higher Beings making some sort of opening address. He is one of those guys who talk in corporate-speak, using lots of words but not actually saying anything intelligible. Whatever he is on about is completely lost on me.  I hear the word ‘paradigm’ and my brain just switches off.

Fresh ideas?

The seminar goes on with two Smarmy guys talking about fresh ideas in benefits. I cannot help but feel it is just the same-old-same-old insurance options dressed up in a new tech wrapper. Still, the interface does look quite pretty, so I can imagine Big Bad Boss getting excited about it. He just loves anything he can show off to the other Higher Beings, so I try to learn what I can. I have my notebook at the ready, poised to write down any pearls of wisdom. The blank page mocks me; it becomes clear the object of the exercise was not to actually teach us anything; all Smarmy really wants from the seminar is to open the door for a sales call.

During the break, I head for a tall guy in a black lanyard. Someone from Smarmy introduces him as Derek, but I do not quite catch the company name and his ID card is facedown. We end up chatting in a corner away from the others. I ask him what he thinks of the seminar. He does not really answer, but says something bland about the new products covered in the first half. I sigh and say I wished Smarmy would actually deliver what it said on the invitation. It did specify benefits training, didn’t it? I wouldn’t normally be so openly negative, but he is rather cute and I am trying to make him laugh with my sarcasm.

The next presentation

I am still ranting when the Smarmy boss comes up and asks Derek if his slides are ready for the next session. Next session? Derek is a speaker? Well, I guess they do sometimes ask clients to present. Geez. I hope the boss did not hear me going on about Smarmy overtly touting for work. Luckily, the boss man seems to be floating around at 10,000 feet oblivious, his mind on strategic paradigms.

I turn around and find a woman standing unexpectedly close behind me. She must have heard my diatribe against Smarmy too, but she is wearing a black lanyard so I am sure she’ll be on my side. She smiles and introduces herself. Oh God. She is from the trade press. How much did she hear? What an earth possessed me to speak so freely in public? Now I will be branded a harridan. She cannot actually write about it, can she?

We take our seats and Derek begins his presentation. He must have been given the wrong lanyard because I am mortified to hear that he actually works for Smarmy. And I was rubbishing it and its seminar to his face. All I can do is make frantic fictitious notes and avoid making eye contact. Awkward.

Next time… Candid looks at benefits branding.