Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid is wined and dined

Confessions

Every so often someone from Smarmy Consulting asks me out. I don’t mean in that way; I mean they offer me lunch. I don’t get too worked up about such jollies; I know there is no such thing as a free lunch. The price of this one will be that I have to spend a couple hours of my life with the dullest of men, talking about benefits of all things. Yawn. When Smarmy’s budget doesn’t run to taking Big Bad Boss, who has honed a taste for expensive wine and fancy cuisine over many years, they send a junior to talk to me instead. Frankly, it is wasted on me.

Smarmy Consulting usually travel in pairs when they are working for clients, as this doubles their chargeable fees. However, when they are on non-chargeable time like this lunch, they tend to come solo. It must be quite scary for those guys to venture out on their own when they are so unused to it.

Our account manager, Oily Oliver, always seems quite nervous when he takes me to the local bistro, but then he is a serious kind of chap and ‘entertaining’ clients is rather out of character for him. He does make an effort though and I am amazed he will remember exactly what projects I was working on over a year ago. I don’t even remember myself, and I always end up having to ask him for the 10th time where he lives. It’s not that I am not interested, it is, well, maybe it is that I am not interested. But at least I do pretend to be.

This time, Oily Oliver is away, so I am to dine with the new man, Lawrence. So far, I have only dealt with Lawrence on the phone, but, of course, I have built a mental picture based on the usual pension actuary type. I am expecting someone in their 40s, of average height and little hair, with tiny myopic eyes peering out through thick specs from a pale, greyish face. He will be wearing a badly fitting dark-grey M&S suit and a ‘don’t-look-at-me’ boring tie.

How wrong could I be? Lawrence is lush. Lawrence is fit. He actually has hair, broad shoulders, and everything. That said, he is not the best company I’ve ever had. He doesn’t say anything particularly welcoming, or even make eye contact. He keeps looking at his watch as if he is due to meet another client any minute. I rather hope not.

It shouldn’t be up to me, the client, to keep the conversation flowing, but I find myself thinking up questions to ask so as to fill the uncomfortable silence. I’m not bad at drawing people out, but Lawrence manages to answer my most open questions in monosyllables. He never asks me anything back. I haven’t eaten with anyone so disinterested since my ex-boyfriend.

Still, he is nice to look at over the top of my menu. Big Bad Boss would automatically order the most expensive thing; he says we need to get our money’s worth for Smarmy’s ridiculous fees. However, I’ve just gone for my favourite dish: pasta. The problem is it is hard for me to keep up an interesting conversation to impress Lawrence while I roll up my spaghetti. It seems that every time Lawrence looks up (which I have to say isn’t often) I am sucking in the end of a string of pasta. I look down and see my top speckled with Marinara sauce and my cheeks burn to match. Lawrence hasn’t noticed though, he is too busy looking at his phone. Grrr.

Finally, Lawrence asks if I am working on anything in particular at the moment, which is another way of saying: do I have anything Smarmy could charge a fee on. This leaves me with a dilemma; I can say I don’t have much going on, which makes me sound lazy and rather dull, or I can tell him all about it, which will leave the door open for him to try get some work out of me. I settle for the middle line and tell him about just one of my projects: audit and benchmarking of a new subsidiary in Finland.

Well, it was as if I had mentioned his favourite football team; Lawrence is suddenly electrified into life. He looks me in the eye at last and draws perceptibly nearer. I try to mirror his body language in an encouraging kind of way. He tells me he was seconded to Smarmy’s Finland office for a year and so he is steeped in their benefit system. Really? I lean nearer. I wonder if there is some useful free market data I can draw out of him while I briefly have his attention. While our consultant is trying to pump me for potential work, I am trying to tap him for free advice. Yes, you can call me a hypocrite.

Sadly, the unaccustomed wine at lunchtime has gone to my head and I can’t think of a single thing to ask him. Actually, the only thing I can think of is: Lawrence and I, side by side, pouring over the Finland office-plan documents as we work on the benchmarking project together. I admit it is not the most romantic fantasy, but it is as close as I get these days.

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That rosy picture soon fades as Lawrence tells me, his eyes glowing with enthusiasm for all things Finnish, that he met his gorgeous fiancée Katja there. How wonderful, I say through gritted teeth. I don’t know what it is about me, as every once in a blue moon when I meet someone interesting through work, invariably they turn out to be engaged to a Scandinavian. Huff.

Next time…Candid takes on the head of sales.