I’ve never been a huge fan of consultants.
I can think of a few specific incidents where I found them to be little more than very highly-paid “regurgitators”!
Coming from a huge company like Citi, we had a wealth of brilliant, creative & knowledgeable people!
I would often find it difficult to believe that an “outside industry expert” would have answers to challenges we faced that we ourselves hadn’t already thought of.
(Sometimes, a consultant’s greatest value comes from the fact that they’re able to ask questions that never even crossed many companies’ minds!)
And, yes, of course, there are always some consultants (in more defined, specific areas) that are certainly worth what they’re paid.
And I tend to believe that the smaller the company, the more useful a consultant can theoretically be in that the existing leadership team may not be up to speed on the latest trends & technologies employed in that particular industry.
Here are some of the, er, more interesting experiences that I’ve had with consultants at different points in my career…
>> Early on in my career, I was asked to “take a look” at the Brooklyn/Staten Island Region’s telecommunications expenses to see if there were any cost-savings opportunities hidden anywhere.
For someone completely new to this field, that was a rather daunting undertaking!
I started off by learning as much as I possibly could. Read lots of stuff, subscribed to several industry publications, took a number of different training courses & seminars offered by outside vendors, spoke at length with our current service provider, met with various experts within the company…basically did everything possible to become well-versed in this arena.
At the time, we were contracted with NY Telephone (part of Ma Bell before the great divestiture that broke up that huge conglomerate into a bunch of separate & independent companies) for their “Centrex service”.
Centrex was similar to how companies owned & operated their own PBXs (Public Branch Exchange), or “big phone computers”, with the major exception being that the equipment remained on the phone company’s premises. In reality, you were paying for space on their massive PBX.
In addition, all our phone equipment was currently being rented from NY Tel as well.
In a few months, I hired a private firm to replace all the rented NY Tel equipment with stuff I purchased for the bank.
We saved hundreds & hundreds of thousands of dollars on an annual basis. (I could buy a 5-line phone for what it used to cost us to rent it from NY Tel for 2 months!)
I also replaced hundreds of expensive Centrex phone lines (for which we paid monthly “mileage charges”, calculated by the distance between a specific Citi branch & NY Tel’s main office) with POTS/Plain Old Telephone Services lines, just like the lines you had at home.
Centrex lines offered free-calling, free transfers & 4-digit dialing to & from other Centrex lines. This is similar to how you can “short-dial” within your own company today
But a finely-balanced combination of expensive Centrex lines & cheap POTS line was the optimal mix for great service at the lowest possible cost.
All in all, between equipment purchases & a “balanced approach” (to phone line engineering), we saved well over $1MM annually…and this was back in 1980!
But before we went ahead with the equipment replacement/installation, I did extensive inventory reviews for every piece of equipment for which we were being charged by NY Tel.
The monthly bill, the infamous “SN981”, was composed of pages & pages of computer-generated paper (the cute stuff with all the holes on each side so it could easily be fed through the high-speed printers)…probably 6-8 inches thick!
Now, there were a number of consultants out there who would perform an expansive review of your entire phone bill…every piece of equipment, every circuit, in every location!
Besides our huge back-office operations site, we had ~50 branches scattered throughout Brooklyn & Staten Island as well as several other administrative offices.
And the ONLY FEE these consultants would charge was a 50/50 split of any credits received back from the phone company for equipment & lines that we didn’t have, but for which we were still incurring charges.
No upfront money at all to them. All they asked for was a split of identified saves from “overcharges”.
These companies were often run by former NY Tel people who clearly realized how very complicated the billing process was, how very screwed-up the bills often were & how unknowledgeable most companies were in telecommunications matters. Many companies relied purely on their service providers & vendors for “everything telecom” (on the voice side), including advice, direction & expertise.
Well, I signed a contract with this consulting firm & they spent the next 2 months validating the entire inventory of instruments, accessories & phone lines we had.
At every single Citi site in Bklyn/SI.
Upon completion of their exhaustive study, they found 4 headsets – – 4 headsets!!! – – for which we were erroneously being charged for a few months.
I believe we split a $146 refund check from NY Tel with them!
Not sure how many pennies per man-hour it cost them, but it may have been the best $73 I ever “spent”!
>> My next notable experience with a consultant came in 1994, about a year after I helped migrate the Retirement Plan Services Operations area (previous known as “Tax Shelter”) from NY to the USCC in San Antonio.
Apparently, the USCC Senior Leadership team believed that we would benefit from a consultant taking a closer look at our shop.
I told my boss, Dan Owczar, Sr., that “you guys are making a big mistake & will just waste your stupid money!
“You don’t think I know what I’m doing?!?”
I reluctantly agreed to have the consultant spend time in my shop.
I spent several hours with him over the next week.
I shared ALL my ideas with him, especially what areas of opportunities existed to improve productivity, quality & timeliness. I let him know what I was already working on with the Tax Shelter Systems group to automate our investigation & research request processes.
I gave him copies of dozens & dozens of documents that I had written to better help him understand what we had been discussing.
I was 100% honest, open & thorough with me…completely “open kimono”!
In retrospect, I was probably a little too naïve, a little too open with the consultant.
About a month later, I got a copy of his published report, the “jewel” for which we paid a nice tidy sum (more than my annual salary, that’s for sure!).
I hit the damned ceiling AFTER JUST READING THE FIRST PAGE OF THE CONSULTANT’S FINDINGS & RECOMMENDATIONS REPORT.
I didn’t get any more calm nor relaxed after finishing the rest of it, either!
I stormed into Dan’s office.
“WTF is this shit?!? These are all MY OWN WORDS! This asshole did nothing but “steal” everything I told him & all the docs I gave him!
“Half the time he didn’t bother to change a single word & just lifted an entire paragraph from one of my memos!!!
“Here, look at my memos & see if they’re not the same exact thing he wrote!
“He did NOT include one, single original point of his own. His whole damned study are things that I previously said or wrote myself!!!
“And you’d better talk with McEachern (John was the USCC President who evidently brought this consultant in, with Dan going along with everything) & make sure that he understands that this idiot did nothing but either plagiarize my stuff or outright copy it, word-for-word!”
I was steaming.
“OK, Mike, just calm down! I had no choice in the matter! I had…”
“Just make sure that McEachern knows what was done…and how pissed off I am about what happened!
“Should I start printing out my all e-mails from now on & putting them in fancy folders & cool covers & bindings for you guys so you’ll actually read them for once?!?
“Or would you rather I send you an invoice every time I do something or come up with an idea?”
He just allowed me to blow off steam as he realized that I was beyond mad.
And that I was right.
>> Fast forward to 2011 when I first joined Nationwide Insurance (the Retirement Plans Operations division of Nationwide Financial, their wholly-owned subsidiary that handled retirement plans, annuity sales, mutual funds & basic banking services).
I was asked by Steve Somen, VP & head of RP Operations, to do an assessment of his Ops world, concentrating mostly on the Processing area.
(Steve was a very close, personal friend of mine who I first met back in NY with Citi in 1988. We worked for the same boss, Dave Forshay, for 5 years. After I moved to the USCC in San Antonio in late ‘93, he later followed in 1995. Our families became very close. He left the USCC in 1999 & transferred to other Citi locations in FL & CT.
Eventually, he joined Cigna’s Retirement Plans business In Connecticut (which was later bought by Prudential). He was then recruited by Nationwide to run their RP Operations area in mid-2009.
At his urging, I joined Nationwide in February of 2011.)
I was in the organization less than 2 weeks. It was 180° from the Retirement Plans Services business at Citi where we simply offered IRAs to consumers & Keogh accounts to small business owners.
At Nationwide, they offered 401Ks to small firms (for their employees) & 457 plans to state & local governments employees, policemen & firemen, etc..
But, with both the Private decor & Public sector retirement plans, it was the employer (the owner, the city, the state, the county, the city fire department, etc.), not the employees themselves, who made the decision of what firm would be used to administer the plan.
Anyway, I dove into my new assignment (it was to evaluate the Operations area & see what changes/improvements should be made) & spent a couple of weeks researching & talking with several people.
I spoke with different staff members & managers, mainly in an attempt to better understand their operation. Things were pretty new to me, but I was being asked to come up with an analysis of these shops so the learning curve was incredibly steep!
I put together what I learned about the different shops, mostly the Public sector Processing & Customer Service areas, and using my expertise & experience in these general areas, formulated an assessment & included about 25 or so different recommendations & suggestions for improvement.
Over the next few years, there were a number of different initiatives undertaken to address some of these points, in one way or another.
But the great majority of these problems (shortcomings, opportunities for improvement, issues, etc.) still existed for the most part.
In late 2012, the entire Retirement Plans Division underwent an extensive study by the prestigious accounting & business consulting firm, Deloitte.
They brought in dozens of consultants & research assistants to interview hundreds of employees, sit down with managers, look through thousands of documents, meet regularly with the Senior Leadership team & special committees.
(Note: Deloitte was previously engaged with Nationwide Insurance on a total organizational review of the “insurance side” of the business. You know, 🎵 “Nationwide is on your side!” 🎶, Peyton Manning & Brady Paisley commercials, etc..
Apparently, corporate leadership was so pleased with their work & recommendations that they then hired Deloitte to take a closer look at Nationwide Financial.)
They met with & actively interviewed employees & managers for about 5-6 weeks. I spent about 5 hours over a couple of days with a few of their consultants. (Yes, of course, I shared the analysis I had performed when I first joined Nationwide as well as all the observations I made & beliefs I formulated in the time since .)
Then, they spent a few months compiling their comprehensive study before formally presenting it to the management team for Retirement Plans Operations.
They really did an incredible analysis of comparing us to other companies in the Retirement Plans industry.
In addition, they also looked at the best service companies in the country, regardless of industry, and saw where we sat in comparison to them.
We came out terribly in each analysis.
We ranked below almost every competitor in almost every performance category. That had been pretty obvious to many of us (ESPECIALLY those of us who recently came from other companies…🙋🏻♂️) as we were continually losing market share, suffering annual asset losses of o~10% for several consecutive years & posting operating losses in the tens of millions of dollars
And we weren’t even in the same galaxy when they looked at, and compared us to, the very best service companies in the country.
What Deloitte also prepared was a group of “32 major points” that we needed to work on if Nationwide was really serious about improving our overall performance.
The interesting part of these 32 points?
I had about 20 of them included in the assessment I completely myself, in a couple of week’s time, two years earlier!!!
And Deloitte was probably paid well in excess of $4MM, plus incurred expenses, and invested thousands of man-hours!
Just one more consultant story before you’re free to go about your normal lives for the day…
>> While I was at Nationwide, our division brought in a highly-regarded “service performance company” (whose name currently escapes me) to examine, evaluate & help improve our Customer Service area ((for Public plans).
When I heard the news, I immediately remembered them as they had previously done a study at the USCC at Citi, probably 10-12 years earlier.
Although I wasn’t directly involved with CitiPhone back at that time, I still managed to spend considerable time with these same consultants ‘cause I’m always interested in trying to learn more.
And since it’s obvious that I suffer rather badly from diarrhea of the mouth, I clearly remember sharing a lot of stuff that we had worked on & were still developing/fine-tuning when they came to visit the USCC for an analysis.
Lo & behold, now this same consulting company is in Nationwide’s Retirement Plans Customer Service shop.
They were there for an extended assignment & were trying to implement Best Practices into that department.
In speaking with one of the senior Cust Svce reps (who would regularly monitor phone calls), she shared this new “call monitoring form & process” that this company convinced the department to implement.
When I took a look at it, I thought I might have been suffering from a flashback or something.
Apparently, the form they introduced was based on the enhanced monitoring process that we developed at Citi…12 years earlier!
They used the exact same categories & an identical “1-5” scoring methodology.
But they added an incredible amount of detail…way, way too much detail, in fact!…that it completely bogged down the whole purpose of monitoring a call & providing useful & valuable feedback! They made what was originally an agile process to follow & execute and completely transformed it into an exhaustive exercise of going through numerous checklists before the call monitor could complete the form!
And it was not received well at all by the reps as points were constantly being deducted if the rep didn’t do this or didn’t say that…often times, stuff that didn’t have any relevance whatsoever to why the customer called in the first place!
They took a very valid concept that worked extremely well in the real world & remolded it to spell out every possible call/service enhancement known to man!
Apparently, they had never heard of the K.I.S.S. philosophy…Keep It Simple, Stupid!
It was so unrealistic to expect any rep to complete all these “value added” activities without having to use a physical checklist on every phone call!
In my estimate, if the rep did everything that the form specified/required, the average talk time would at least double.
It was absolutely absurd what they had done to Citi’s idea for enhancing the call monitoring process.
(At Citi, we moved away from the traditional 1-100 scoring model to a more realistic & “beneficial” process of rating calls from 1 to 5, based on “value added” by the rep to the customer’s overall experience. There is a whole different basis behind this approach from what call centers traditionally employed in their call monitoring activities. I’ll get into that more in some other stories.)
I know why these consultants probably did it. They didn’t want to leave it up to any individual exactly what “added value” meant.
But by doing so, and going completely overboard with it, and “forcing” each & every call enhancement opportunity to be taken advantage of on every single phone call, they ruined a great idea!
They wanted everything to be 100% objective by physically removing any appearance of subjectivity whatsoever.
But instead, they created a monster!
A clumsy, complicated monster.
Hey, you can design the most wonderfully-performing car in the history of motor vehicles, but…
…if the drivers can’t operate it correctly & easily…
…and the passengers find it way too uncomfortable…
…and it sucks up fuel (fossil or electric) at a crazy rate…
…then it’s simply not usable. Not useful in the real world.
Funny thing with monitoring phone calls & trying to maximize a customer’s level of satisfaction with that same call is that there is, indeed, an element of subjectivity involved…no matter how hard you try to completely eliminate it.
It’s like trying to prepare the perfect meal for your family, making sure everyone is superbly satisfied. But now it takes you 5 hours to prepare a meal & your kids are trying to stay awake at 11PM so they can eat!
You have to be practical.
When I looked at the form, I was like, “How could any human being keep all of this in mind while trying to speak with the customer? How could the business ever afford their people taking all this time on every phone call? They’d hafta double, triple their staffs!
“Totally impractical & unrealistic!”
One day, while I was poking around in Customer Service, I happened to see the consulting company’s President.
I approached him & introduced myself.
Chit-chatted for a minute before I said, “Not sure if you remember me, but we met several years ago. And it looks as though you may have “inadvertently used the call monitoring idea” that we originally developed.”
He immediately took a very defensive posture (I’d probably do the same) & said, “Ah, that’s impossible! We developed that entire program ourselves & then customize it for each of our clients.
“Besides, we’ve been doing this for the past 5, 6 years!”
I then went in for the kill.
“Well, it’s apparent that you don’t remember me. I met with you when I was with Citibank down in San Antonio.
“That was at least 10 years ago. I had recently helped develop a new monitoring process for Citi & I specifically remember sharing that information with you. In fact, I gave you copies of the form & the leader guide we put together!”
He just stood there.
“I knew we should’ve applied for a trademark back then. Oh, well…you guys have a nice day!”
Truthfully, I’m not sure if it was even eligible to be trademarked or patented or whatever, but he knows damned well that he didn’t “create” anything “5, 6 years ago”.
Always enjoined kneeing the (supposed, self-proclaimed) big shots in the nuts to bring back down to reality, but that may be because I have a death wish or just enjoyed messin’ with ‘em.
(Disclaimer: Don’t be copying some of the things that I did if you’re gonna come back later & say, “Mike, I followed what you did…now look what happened to me! 🤬”
This blog, although it’s 100% accurate & true (as can be, considering my failing mental & physical health) is published solely for your enjoyment & entertainment purposes. The author makes no claims that it’ll actually help your personal or professional life (though it may).
Of course, I hope you’ll be able to derive some useful things outta all these stories that’ll help you beyond just entertaining you, but nothing in life comes without possible side effects.
Never read this on an empty stomach as you may starve to death, especially if you decide to read a 2nd story. Do NOT operate heavy machinery. Do NOT pass Go or collect $200. Past performance does not guarantee future results.)
“No claims, representations or warranties, whether express or implied, are made by me as to the safety, reliability, durability and performance of any my stories. Furthermore, I accept no liability whatsoever for the safety, reliability, durability and performance of any of these stories should you decide to follow my example in your actual lives.”
Have fun. Be good.
And, as always, thank you for listening!