I love Mark Polson. I love the name of his business (inexplicably, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, The Lang Cat.) I love the way he writes. I love the range and depth of his enthusiasms, although I can’t say I always share his taste in the music he shows such passion for. And I love the way I can rely upon him to be even more contrarian than I ever am – to make me, by contrast, boringly mainstream.
Occasionally, very occasionally, Mark goes a teeny bit too far with the contrarian thing. His determination to be different, not just to zig when others zag but to zeg, zug and even maybe zoog or zoig, drives him to say some things which are jolly silly. And the way he’s decided to love the term “robo-advice” is a classic example.
Mark says he loves the term “robo-advice” basically because everyone else in the industry hates it. Anything so hated by the industry has to have some good things going for it, he figures.
But Mark is missing the point. And he’s missing the point in a worrying way that makes me wonder if maybe he’s been part of this crazy financial industry for a bit too long. It doesn’t matter what people in the industry think of the term. It matters what real people – people not in the industry – think of the term. And what they think is all bad – they think it’s silly, confusing, a tiny bit scary and definitely of no interest or relevance to them. Which is absolutely right as far as the form of words is concerned, but absolutely wrong in terms of what the words are trying so hopelessly to describe.
You might guess that the brunt of my ire would be focused on the “robo” bit, with its stupid 50s science-fiction overtones, its connotations of clockwork-powered tinplate toys. Actually no. “Robo” is bad, but actually “advice” is worse. Because to consumers, robo-advice services aren’t advice services at all. You don’t come away having received “advice.” You come away having made an investment. Robo-advice services are in the business of providing investment advice in the same way that restaurants are in the business of providing food advice – which is to say, from the consumer’s perspective, not at all. While you’re deciding what to order, you may ask the waiter whether the T-bone is better than the sirloin. But when you leave, you don’t leave thinking that you’ve had some good steak advice. You leave thinking you’ve had a meal.
Robo-advice is like that, except that I suppose the waiter would need to be a clockwork tinplate toy. Advice may be a small part of the service. But the big part is investments. And, by the way, once you’ve had your advice and made your investment, you may be a customer of the service for many years without ever taking any more advice ever again – for 10, 20, 30 years or even more, it’s just an online investment service, But according to Mark Polson it’s a great and clever thing that it’s called “robo-advice.”
In my book, gratuitous language abuse is pretty much the worst thing that we in the financial services industry can do to our customers. It’s the surest way to confuse, alienate and alarm them, to make sure that they keep right on wanting to have as little as possible to do with us and the bewildering nonsense that spouts endlessly out of our mouths. You’d think that in recent years we’ve already done so many stupid and alienating things with the word ”advice” that it would be hard to come up with yet another one, but somehow we seem to have managed it.
All of which, I hope, explains why, much as I love Mark Polson, I really, honestly and seriously hate what he’s saying about this.