Saturday, 29 March 2008

Our finest hour

Willie Walsh, the barely coping Chief Executive at BA says of the T5 fiasco 'It wasn't our finest hour'. It drags on into its third and fourth day - so not quite an hour Willie. How long before his bosses call it a day for him? Passengers all over the world are re booking with other airlines. The damage is almost irreparable. Worse it seems BA may face fines of up to £5000 per passenger for issuing a letter restricting hotel compensation to £100 when they have a legal requirement to provide it (on Thursday night the cheapest Heathrow room was £250). Willie was invisible when the chaos started, now its all 'mea culpa'. The focus is shifting to Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary (not so much mea culpa - as opus dei) who Jeff Randall in the Telegraph describes as one of least effective ministers of this or any other government. Ruth remains strangely quiet on this national transport disgrace.

Meanwhile Google, who I have chosen to host this blog, are having a fine 'Earth Hour' and have turned the lights out on their homepage. When I went to log on to write today it gave me quite a shock - what has gone wrong? - was my first reaction. The Google homepage is black (the homepage has been described as the most valuable real estate on the web, yet it remains ad free). Nothing is wrong. Google has turned out the lights in support of raising awareness for an initiative on carbon emissions. Apparently we are all supposed to turn the lights off for an hour today to reduce our carbon footprint. Google, who don't really do 'stunts' often also deserve full marks for confessing that making that making the page black actually consumes the same amount of energy as making it white.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

T5 goes Terminal

Why is it so unsurprising that the opening of BAA and BA's heavily trailed Heathrow terminal 5 has dissolved into such chaos this evening? Passengers can check-in (if their flight isn't cancelled) but they can't take any luggage - because the state of the art baggage system with 11 miles of conveyor belt, which has been 20 years in the planning, has ground to a halt. Of 18 new passenger lifts just 1 is working this evening (reports Channel 4 news).

The media which trumpeted the opening with such glee is enjoying the disaster just as gleefully. Clearly BA aren't. Chief Executive Willie Walsh was all over the TV when eager anticipation was in the air, now its all gone tits up he's nowhere to be seen. The hapless Director of Operations has been wheeled out in front of the world's press to issue a short apology. Mr walsh is probably on his way to the Chairman's office to discover whether his own fate is best summed in the words of Sir Alan Sugar's catch-phrase "You're fired!"

Why are we so bad at this stuff? I began to fear the worst when I read that all the dry-runs had been carried out with a fraction of the passengers who would go through the airport on opening day. Even now the terminal is only running at a fraction of design capacity.

The whole 4.3 billion pound thing looks like a fiasco. Reading Transport for London's advert about public transport makes no sense either. The Heathrow Express no longer calls at T4, Underground train passengers for T5 and T4 appear to have to change at T123. Can't wait until we host the Olympics in 2012...

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

We're all car mechanics now thanks to the interweb

My VW Golf has started making an alarming clunking sound - coming from the front wheels. I'm no mechanic, handy yes, but I leave the car to the garage. In the old days you'd turn it in to the service department and try and describe the fault without sounding too stupid. You'd accept their diagnosis and stump up for the repair.

When the sounds of Armageddon emanated from my usually reliable VW my first stop wasn't
the garage, but it did begin with a 'g'. Googling 'clunking sound VW steering' produced plenty of helpful trouble-shooting. It sounds like my front bushes have worn out, a common fault on the Golf mark IV.

Next I call the garage and report that it sounds like the front bushes need to be replaced on my Golf. 'Ah-huh' answers the teenage girl on service reception, I can almost see her eyebrows raise. I smile 'yes we're all car mechanics now - thanks to the interweb'. 'Yeesss' she says. 'The earliest we can book it in is next week'. Some things don't change. We're all smarter but just as helpless.


Once Petrol prices finally crept through the psychological £1 a litre mark, I predicted they would quickly race up to 110p a litre. Walking (yes, walking) past the garage yesterday I saw my local was almost there. The £5 gallon is nearly upon us (4.5 litres to a gallon - but I had to check). Funny because after Christmas the sign board at most Shell garages wouldn't accommodate 4 digits (just 3, 98.9 say). For the first time they were having to display whole pence per litre (105 say). Now they have the new display it also appears to be motorised and nudging upwards daily. Incidentally why does the govt (and therefore car manufacturers) measure fuel consumption in miles per gallon when fuel is sold in litres? If the on board computer told us how pitifully few miles we drove on a litre of the precious stuff we might leave our cars at home more often (as I have done).


I flew back from Glasgow with BMI yesterday afternoon. BA has become hopelessly unreliable on the route into Heathrow but yesterday BMI had a bad day. My partner's early flight went 'technical' and was cancelled. She ended up at Gatwick. My flight was about to depart on time when the Captain made an unexpected announcement. They had a spare bag loaded, which they needed to remove and this was taking longer than he had hoped. Then 20 minutes later an announcement I believe he was making for the first time in his flying career. Apparently the company BMI employ to load the bags (Aviance) weren't sure they had loaded the right bags. Any passengers with hold baggage would have to disembark and identify their baggage which had been lined up on the tarmac. The delay cost us an hour and deep embarrassment for the Captain. But was there any gesture to the passengers... (a free cup of tea or bottle of water?) no, nothing (good luck with your connecting flights). Just try turning up for your flight an hour after departure and see if they let you board another one for free...

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Rewarding Credit Card Debt

Cashback, Interest Free, Reward Points - It's a curious phenomenon that we're actually rewarded for going into debt via credit card spending. You'd think with the banks facing a credit squeeze that they'd award prizes for staying debt free. But of course banks wouldn't make any money out of that. So instead we're incentivised to accumulate credit card debt in the hope that we won't pay off all the balance at the end of the month, thereby incurring interest and administration charges and making banks rich while keeping us poor.

You can make reward and cash-back credit cards work for you, but you have to be organised. A direct debit to clear the entire balance each month is the only safe way. For years I was collecting BA miles (a mile for every pound spent) on a British Airways Amex card. Better still once I had spent £20,000 I was awarded a 'Companion Voucher' to swap for a flight equal to the one I was redeeming. So you redeem say 50,000 BA miles for an economy trip to the US and get to take a partner too. All you pay is the taxes and charges on both tickets. At this point in the promotion you could take as long as you liked to spend the qualifying £20,000 - it took me 3 years of asking 'Do you take Amex?'

Then BA and Amex got wise and changed the rules - they'd literally been 'giving flights away'. Now you have to spend £20,000 in just 12 months (you can get cards where you qualify after half that spend - but those cards charge an annual fee - and who pays for credit when its so freely available?). Anyway my partner and I set out to do all our shopping on Amex for 12 months to see if we could manage the £20,000 target. If we failed we still got the miles - so the rule was no additional spending - just what we would have brought anyway.

Using Amex every time you make a purchase doesn't even raise an eyebrow. At the supermarket self-scan its just as easy to feed in an Amex card as a debit card and actually easier than feeding in cash. The bills only a couple of quid? It doesn't matter. "Amex? That'll do nicely."

In fact Amex isn't welcome everywhere. Norwich Union won't insure you with it, Tui won't take you on holiday. John Lewis only recently welcomed the card at their stores. don't, Amazon do. But remember the rule - no additional spending, so you must still take the lowest price you can find, regardless of the sellers' stance on Amex (otherwise the flights aren't quite so free are they?)

This morning at 4.30 am I received an email on my mobile (I love the O2 email to mobile which comes free with their broadband - but I haven't yet quite accounted for the people who email me while I'm sleeping - although to be fair O2 have thought of this with their various divert settings). Normally middle of the night messages are bad news - this was good news; I have just earned my companion voucher. Phew, we only had a week or so to spare. I don't know why 4.30 am was the magical moment. I wasn't even spending, I was sleeping. But somewhere a cyber transaction pushed me into reward land. (It reminds me of my first trip to Las Vegas where the Luxor Casino advertised 'Keno while you sleep' you could literally select numbers to play while you were in the land of nod).

So a year of driving up monthly debt has been rewarded. There was a time when you had to phone British Airways to book Companion Voucher reward flights. The BA sales staff were always sniffy. They were reluctant to carry out the lengthy searches necessary to uncover the scarce few freebie flights allocated. Fortunately BA has removed this final hurdle and now you can search for your own flights online. This is time consuming - but fun if the world literally is your oyster (well, as far as BA flies anyway).

Spending £20,000 on credit has been hard work. I think it actually makes me spend less. When the monthly bill arrives (aside from unavoidable business expenses) you're forced to re-live the purchases and trips which weren't really worth the expense. So spending everything on credit has been good discipline, but I'm not yet sure I'll be playing again next year.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Silverburn - Glasgow

A vast new shopping mall has opened just outside Glasgow. Glaswegians famously love to shop. The City's Shopaholics already have the Buchanan Galleries, St Enoch Centre (under-going extensive refurbishment) Princes Square, Argyle street, Buchanan Street and Sauchiehall Street clamouring for their custom. But today there is also a strong pull out of town. The Fort and Braehead are already established and now vying for shoppers' cash is the interestingly named 'Silverburn' mall.
Besides shopping, Glaswegians also love a joke. So perhaps the 'burning of silver' in pursuit of consumption is a deliberate pun, although it seems perverse. I was at Silverburn on Friday evening. It has the biggest Tesco I have ever seen and boasts Scotland's largest M&S. The overground car park was full and I see from the mall's map that there is also a 2000 space multi-storey. Of course it is the car which makes these malls possible - and desirable. Parking in Glasgow is increasingly difficult and expensive. Parking at Braehead, The Fort and Silverburn isn't always much easier - but it is always free and you can push your shopping trolley right to your car.

It makes you worry for the City Centre shops. Sauchiehall Street already has more than it's fair share of 'pound' shops and discount retailers (not that there's anything wrong with pound shops, but they tend to indicate decline and deter the big names from becoming neighbours).

City Councils will have to do something radical to prevent out-of-town malls sucking the life out of their city centres. Perhaps they should introduce free city centre weekend and evening parking (you can't separate shoppers from their cars) - or even more controversially force mall operators to charge for their parking? I don't think we want our city centres to become purely business districts as they have in the US, do we? Interestingly Silverburn promotes a 'Silverburn Express' on its website - a fast link to and from Glasgow City Centre. I'd love to share the details the mall's public transport policy with you - but the web link is broken - hopefully not a metaphor for the actual 'link'.

Incidentally while inside Silverburn I took some photographs. I was approached by a shabby looking suited security man, carrying a walkie-talkie, who told me 'photos aren't allowed'. Why's that? I asked. 'I don't know - security I suppose'.

'Security' has become a catch-all excuse for far too much idiocy. One branch of M&S looks pretty much like another, no matter how many square feet of retail. You won't get stopped in Sauchiehall Street for
taking photos of the shops.

The 'banned' photo. Security is tight at Silverburn - they want shoppers to feel 'safe' - although no 'safety' worries about shoppers who are sold over-priced in-store credit.

I asked the official if he could point out the signs telling shoppers photography is banned. He said there 'aren't any'. In which case I explained he had made me feel awkward for no justified reason and had made me feel unwelcome at Silverburn. Perhaps he would pass this customer feedback on to the mall's heavy-handed bosses. I won't be back anytime soon (well until Scotland's biggest TK Maxx opens there).

Monday, 17 March 2008

Not exactly what it says on the tin...

Just under a month ago I spent a few hours painting some decking with Cuprinol Garden Shades - once so loved of the BBC's Ground Force gardening make-over team. Black Ash was the colour selected for the balcony of a period property. "Beautiful long lasting colours to transform and protect ALL your garden wood" (Cuprinol's emphasis) gushes the claim on the front of the can.

After less than a month of exposure to the British elements the 'long lasting' colour has simply flaked off. Disappointing - as I am an experienced DIY'er - and carefully followed all the directions on the can. I waited for a dry spell, sanded and cleaned the deck and applied 3 coats, with the manufacturer's directed intervals in-between each application.

This morning I re-read the can. Have you noticed how many companies now invite us to interact with them about their products? A quick survey of the larder contents reveals freephone numbers on products from beans to crackers for Tesco, Sainsburys, Heinz, Branston, Jacobs et al. Only M&S and Morrisons hide behind postal or web addresses.

Cuprinol, the ICI owned makers of Garden Shades say they would also like to hear from us. They're careful to label their helpline 'advice' not 'customer satisfaction' - as some others do - and they choose to charge for their premium (national rate) 0870 service. In a moment of frustration, I idiotically decide to phone Cuprinol and ask why the 'long lasting' product appears to be washing off after less than a month, when I had followed the instructions so carefully. After selecting from a menu of products I was connected to a well trained and apparently knowledgeable girl.

Apparently I've used the product at the wrong time of year:

"We really wouldn't recommend using the product outside March to September - the climate is too damp for the product to get a long lasting hold in damp conditions."

I ask where among the lengthy instructions Cuprinol advise customers of the seven months of the year when the product actually works.

"We're not saying it won't work during the other months - but conditions must be dry. Although you may not see it, the dampness at night affects the product."

When I point out that they don't seem to be very interested in customer feedback and that the product doesn't seem suitable for year-round use she invites me to send in some flakes of the paint for laboratory analysis if I believe the product has suffered a technical failure.

At this point Cuprinol's 'customer advice line' has told me all I need to know. I'm an imbecile who would be better off using a product which does exactly what it says on the tin. Funny that, isn't that precisely the claim of Cuprinol's main competitor, Ronseal, for their outdoor wood-care products?

Friday, 14 March 2008

BAA Dixons Update

The story so far: Dixons has an exclusive deal at Britain's BAA airports to sell tax free technology goods. But shoppers can get a far better deal by shopping around. I wrote to BAA to complain the tax free claims were dishonest.

The formal opening of BAA's Terminal 5 is live on TV as I write. I'm due to fly from Terminal 1 later on today. The specially composed 'Heathrow Overture' composed by the man behind such great works as the score for Bridget Jones Diary and Finding Nemo, is overly-inspired by the car ad where the 'orchestra' make appropriate car noises. This time the sounds are appropriate to the goings on at Heathrow's terminals. Coffee whooshing from espresso bars, steak frying in the classy restaurants, cameras clicking in the duty free stores (I kid you not). Missing was the frustration as passengers await their luggage, the warning noises from baggage carousels spewing out nothing more than a discarded drinks carton.

Appropriate then that BAA's Director of Retail Operations emailed today (perhaps not invited to the Royal occasion over in T5?) about my pricing complaint in Dixons Tax Free (11th March). He thanks me for my comments but puts me right:

"The intent of high street benchmarking is to ensure that customers are not over-charged for purchases made at a BAA airport by comparing walk-up prices at the airport to the walk-up price at an off-airport location. This is then verified through an independent auditor who compares the tax free airport price to the price for the same item at the bench marked location."

There's also a maths lesson from BAA for me:

"Tax free pricing is not the same as a 17.5% discount. For any EU customer making a purchase, Revenue and Customs still expect to receive the same VAT when an item is sold at tax free price as if it were sold including VAT. For example, the underlying ex-VAT price of an item sold on the high street at £100 is £85.10, implying a 17.5% VAT rate of £14.90."

And finally:

"Thank you again for your feedback. Please be assured that we share your concerns over the potential for misleading pricing and are always working hard to ensure that the customers who use our airports are treated fairly and are not overcharged."

I've emailed straight back with the photos from my previous post showing that the current discount on the quoted item is less than 2%, asking if he has anything to add before I send the evidence over to Trading Standards.

People often ask me why I bother with this type of the complaint when there's nothing in it for me. Honestly its the principle and if I can save a few other people the hassle that's fine by me. The interweb however is a heartening place and I have discovered that there are many others who feel just as strongly as me.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Every Little Helps

The story so far: Tesco says it needs government help to beat its adiction to offering massive discounts on booze - while continuing to offer incredible market-beating offers.

Update on my previous Hardy's wine 'beat the budget' three for a tenner post... Due to the vagaries of Tesco pricing policy you'll actually get an even bigger discount if you buy at a smaller Tesco. Work that one out.

Well Tesco Express have the single bottle price at £5.14 (20p more a bottle from the £4.98 charged in the big stores). So when they calculate the 5% wine saving on purchases of 6 bottles or more (using the single bottle price before discount) an extra £1.54 comes off - rather than £1.49. Not a huge saving, not even quite a penny a bottle, but as they say; 'every little helps...'.

Of course this update should now come with a DRINKAWARE label. This is the sensible health warning that supermarkets insert in their advertising so that they don't have to do anything sensible about their pricing.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Here's to the Chancellor

Alistair Darling, the Chancellor who invested £3,500 on behalf of every tax payer in teetering Northern Rock has to balance the books somehow. 14p on a bottle of wine is the answer apparently - announced in the budget this afternoon and due to take effect midnight Sunday. This will also obviously contribute massively to the current binge drinking problem...Or as the Chancellor said in his speech 'the average price of a bottle of wine has decreased from £4.50 a bottle to £4 today'. Clearly adequate justification for an inflation busting duty hike.

For those of us who dislike paying extra tax here's a current shopping tip and a note about hypocracy at our leading supermarket. A couple of weeks ago Tesco was begging the government to save them from their addiction. 'Stop us selling cheap booze!' they pleaded; 'we just can't stop - we need legislation to ban cheap supermarket booze offers! Please, help!' ('but we don't need any help with plastic bag waste thank you very much, we've got that under control').

This week's special offer at Britain's biggest grocer will help the wine stockpilers but won't help Tesco's case. Hardy's Stamp Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon - not bad if you like a full bodied Aussie red - is £4.94 a bottle, or £10 if you buy 3 bottles. Even better - why not buy 6 bottles? That way you'll get 5% discount as well. But not just 5% on the £20 but 5% on the £29.64 - the full price of 6 individual bottles. So you leave the store with 6 bottles at an average price of just £3.10 (total price £18.61) a massive 37% saving on the single bottle price. Hic.


People are always asking me how I manage to get my complaints resolved. The answer is so simple it couldn't possibly be classed as a secret. KEEP NOTES. That's it, you didn't miss any big idea, just KEEP NOTES. If I phone about something - for example a utility account or an insurance quote I make a note on the letter of the date and time I called, who I spoke to and a brief description of what was said. If you complete a transaction online keep a notebook and jot down the reference. If you have to complain in the future you've already got one thing on your side - credibility. You are the kind of person who keeps records. There's another thing you can do too - if your complaint is serious ask them to listen to their recording of the call. Regulated companies keep calls for legal reasons and many others keep them for training.

I'm not fanatical about filing, but I'm organised. I do flick back through my notebook every week and see what's outstanding or send myself email reminders. Every so often I flip through my box file of current paperwork. Yesterday I found a letter I had filed away from Direct Line Insurance.

You'll know from my previous entries that I've recently renewed my house insurance. I always get quotes using screen-scraper websites. Sometimes I'll follow up offers which offer a real incentive. Direct Line sent me a personally addressed letter inviting me to obtain a quote in exchange for a £5 Waterstones voucher. That's a fiver I can use and a quote I'm interested in receiving. Filling out the online form took about 5 minutes (£60 an hour if you prefer). I was pretty sceptical about the chances of the voucher arriving if I didn't accept the quote - which was £100 higher than my renewal quote. So, with scepticism in mind I filed the letter away to see what happened.

Of course the voucher didn't arrive. So yesterday I re-read the offer
T&C. There were only 20,000 vouchers available and the offer closed 31st January. I completed my quote the day the letter arrived on 16th January. So if Direct Line say all the vouchers were allocated 1. Why were they still sending out invitations? 2. By what date were all the vouchers allocated?

There was a free-phone number for queries so I dialled it. The girl who answered (Denise at 16:58 hrs on 11 March 08 - always KEEP NOTES) said their agency only dealt with 'the pet vouchers'. I pushed her further - this was the number listed in the T&C afterall and Direct Line is heavily regulated. Denise checked with a manager - and confirmed yes they did do the Waterstones vouchers, but I'd have to call Direct Line customer services if I hadn't received one. That was all I needed to speak to her manager (Maureen - always keep notes).

Maureen has promised to speak to Direct Line and respond to me. So let's see what happens. Should be fun.

3pm update! Maureen calls back - the £5 Waterstones voucher is going out to me today. There's a limit how far you can push it with an agency who just mail things out as instructed, but for the record Direct Line didn't originally pass on my details. When I asked if they had verified the quote she said they must have done. Who knows whether they did? If you think you're due a £5 Waterstones voucher the number listed in the T&C for queries about the offer is 0800 923 5902. Do let me know if they verify the online quote you took during January...(If you get Denise you could always ask about the 'pet vouchers' - I don't have one, or want one - a pet that is).

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Dixons and BAA - retail hell

It's timely to highlight a recent complaint to BAA, Britain's Spanish owned airport operator. Today BAA announced a 20% hike in landing fees at Heathrow and Gatwick. It's been famously reported that BAA makes more money from car parking and shopping than handling aeroplanes. Its easy to see why - there's more space devoted to retail than there is for security, check-in or baggage collection. BAA isn't interested in what their customers came to the airport for in the first place.

Every one thought 'duty free' would end with the single EU market. It did in law but as 'shopping speak' it lives on. The duty is still paid by someone (the retailer from their margin) but the 17.5% vat is deducted from the 'high street' price'. But what is the real 'high street' price?

Dixons Tax Free, the electrical and technology retailer, has its own definition of 'high street' price. It's the price charged by Curry's Digital - before vat at 17.5% is added. So even though all the price tickets in-store read 'High Street' price, they're only referring to one store on the high Street. Apparently, according to sales staff, this has all been cleared with BAA, so that's OK then.

Of course there are many electrical and technology retailers on the high street besides expensive Curry's Digital. The reason Dixons Tax Free compares only with Curry's is because they are both owned by DSG - who also own PC World. BAA allowed Dixons to carry on with the brand, even though the Dixons name now only retails on the web. Dixons' prices on the web are less than those charged by Curry's Digital on the 'high street'.

Dixons 'Tax Free' price for the Panasonic DMC TZ3 - note high street price comparison £219.89 (small type below main price).

So here's our airport shopper. Lets call him 'The Chief Executive'. He knows the name Dixons - he's seen them on the web with their discounted prices. The Chief Executive wanders into the Dixons' Tax Free store killing time while his plane is delayed. He's surprised because the digital camera he saw on Dixons website last night is £15 more expensive than it was online where the tax was included. 'Ah yes, but we don't compete with the web, just our 'high street' prices' the assistant counters. 'But Dixons doesn't have any high street stores anymore' The Chief Executive 'points out. 'We compare with Curry's Digital which is part of the same group- that's their price, all our prices are checked against theirs daily - BAA has agreed to this'. 'So' says The Chief Executive 'Can you show me the sign in the shop which explains all this to customers?' By this point the assistant offers much less assistance (is this possible in branch of Dixons?) and suggests The Chief Executive refers his complaint to the manager - who isn't here today.

Consumers are offered a great deal of protection under consumer law. Misleading pricing is outlawed. Dixons Tax Free pricing looks misleading. Prices are not directly compared with their own trading name 'Dixons' it is a comparison with only one store - Curry's Digital - this is a pretty heavy qualifier of the generic description 'high street' price.
Complaining to Dixons group is a waste of time (I've done it before) but BAA is responsible for all the claims made by the retailers it licenses. So I email the Managing Director BAA Glasgow about the misleading prices.

The next day, while out and about on the high street I pop into a branch of Curry's Digital.
The same camera is on sale in Curry's Digital for £189.99. Of course Dixons Tax Free checks its prices daily, so I call the airport branch of Dixons. No the Tax Free price is still £187.14. 'But haven't you agreed with BAA to charge Curry's Digital high street price before vat is added?' I ask. 'Yes we have, we'll have to check your claim.' The manager at Dixons Tax Free digital calls me back with an explanation. The Curry's Digital price is a clearance line, whereas we will get more stock, so this is an exemption. 'Where is that exemption condition explained?' asks the incredulous Chief Executive. 'Its been agreed in our terms with BAA'.

'So is Dixons Tax Free price £187.14 and Curry's Digital £189.99?'
'So you'll be quite happy for me to report this to Glasgow Trading Standards?'
'There is another way... I could 'price match' the item and let you have it for £161.69 - the price it would be before vat is added'.

So The Chief Executive has established that its all just made up to confuse not only the airport shopper who might wrongly think they're getting a good 'tax free' deal and hoodwink BAA into allowing Dixons to charge whatever they like. BAA don't care - I'm still waiting for a reply to my email - as long as Dixons keeps paying the sky-high rent.


On yesterday's subject of loyalty - a surprising arrival from Sainsbury's via snail-mail. A happy birthday card - that's why people don't like giving their personal data to retailers - if I pop in to Sainsbury's before the end of the month a free box of Elizabeth Shaw mints await. Obviously they hope I will do my weekly shop too and feel warm about their gift while I trundle my trolley round the aisles. Actually I'm liking Sainsbury's at the moment. A couple of months ago I emailed their Chief Executive Justin King about a fairly major pricing error on a wine promotion - 25% off all wines - but my store's systems only applied a 20% discount ("25% wine swindle" ran the subject field of my email - always get their attention). I wondered if the problem had run nationwide. In a personal, high level response (but not from Justin) Sainsbury's assured me it was a local problem - and they would be writing to all Nectar card holders who had purchased wine at my store during the promotion. I was slightly sceptical - but pleased with the £30 of vouchers they sent me. A month later I received a further standard letter and another £10. It appears Sainsbury's had indeed written to all the Nectar card holders as promised. I don't think they went to the bother of faking a mass-mail out for my sake.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Rewarding Loyalty?

A 'hamper' of Thornton's chocolates arrives from Norwich Union Direct insurance. It's to reward my loyalty for renewing my house insurance 14 days before renewal. They say it's worth £30. Funny that. When I used some screen-scraper websites to seek a more competitive quote M&S Money came up exactly 30 quid cheaper. Would Norwich Union Direct match the lower quote? Long answer (get my call escalated to a supervisor etc) No, Norwich Union don't 'quote match'. So they are quite happy to let a customer who hasn't claimed for 12 years walk away for 30 quid I ask - despite having collected over 3 grand in premiums? 'Yes' is the short answer.

So why did I stay with Norwich Union - surely it must have been my sweet tooth, rather than the bitter taste in my mouth? Actually what the manager did do was allow me to choose from any of the loyalty 'incentives' on her list. I took £25 worth of M&S vouchers - I can use them so they're almost as good as cash to me (many people also ebay them, but I won't) - and they arrived two days later. A month later Norwich Union sent me the chocolates too (an error I assume).

My loyalty has been rewarded - but I really would rather have had £30 off the premium.


Loyalty is much valued by retailers. I'm sure we all have a wallet or purse full of their cards, Nectar, Club card etc, etc. The Shell Driver's club must be one of the meanest. If my memory serves me correctly 20 litres spend is worth 1 airmile. With Unleaded at over a pound a litre you'll have to spend at least £15,000 on petrol to earn 1 flight to Paris...

Friday, 7 March 2008

User Learning Journey with O2 broadband

'User learning journey' isn't a term I like much. But I've just been on one with O2 broadband. They say they've thought hard about Broadband - to make theirs the best. That's a big boast. But they also have a compelling promise - it's so good that if you're not completely satisfied within the first 100 days 'we'll give you your money back'. O2 has just extended its £5 a month discount to pay as you talk customers, so at £7.50 and unlimited use it is a whole £10.49 cheaper than my previous ISP. Even better sign up via Topcashback and you get £25 back - so that's your first three months and change for free. O2 must believe we'll remain loyal - and with 1 in 3 mobile users choosing O2's network they must be doing something right.

Why a 'user learning journey'? Well O2 have really thought about what it's like to be a customer and then they communicate with you capturing that anticipation. When you sign up they send you a text and an email thanking you and showing where you can track your order's progress - you won't need to, they update you by text every step of the way. Next it was 'Good news' I was going live within a week. Then more 'Good news' - my free wireless kit was on its way - but if the delivery slot didn't suit I could text 1 for the next day, 2 for the day after etc. When you open the dull brown cardboard box from the courier company you see the bright blue O2 livery and all the goodies. Naturally you can't wait for the service to start, they know that - so they warn you not to set up until they tell you.

Yesterday just after lunch my broadband went dead and I was rid of Madasafish and their quirky name. Then nothing. Oh no I thought, it's not going to work... At 18.15 I thought I'd better phone O2 and see what was wrong. A confident and friendly Scot reassured me that all was going to plan, and I'd 'definitely' be live 'this evening' but in the meantime I could plug in my router and watch the lights go green - but don't run the CD until we send you your text. I excitedly plugged in and lights flashed just as described in the pocket size manual.

At 1900 hrs on the dot my text summed it up 'Great have now been connected to O2'. See 'User learning journey' - 'Great' was just how I felt.
O2 has developed some very clever software (I'm no expert, but it seems to work). Whereas in the past when a connection didn't work I'd spend ages on the phone, while reconnecting, re-configuring or re-booting and generally feeling a bit foolish. O2 have eliminated a lot of that. Their software diagnoses its own problems - and helpfully tells you its just going to intervene and have a look inside and then try something a bit different. It's not quite this chatty, but you do defintely feel they're talking you through it. Sorry to gush - its just so rarely that services so exceed their promise.


As a slight aside, I signed up to O2 via a cashback website. I've read about these before but I couldn't really see it being worthwhile - even though some forum posters claim to have earned thousands of pounds - but I'm naturally cynical. However Topcashback's promise of £25 just to click through to O2 from their site after opening an account was too good to pass up. My account shows the credit and I've left feedback for other cutsomers thinking of joining O2 - so I guess they'll get their £25 worth of recommendation. After leaving feedback I saw an offer to buy recordable DVD's very cheap with Dixons Dixital - cash back too. Apparently I've saved an extra 34p on £8.49 for 50 DVD's. Well, I would have done if Dixons could actually fulfill the order. They're one of my least favourite retailers, so more fool me. Next time I'll share my story about Dixons 'Tax Free' shopping at a BAA airport near you. In the meantime a warning - its not the deal you might be expecting...

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Call Centres - Don't you just love 'em?

I've just been watching Channel 4's Cutting Edge 'Phone Rage'. The producers have managed to gain amazing access. First Direct bank obviously think so too - because they've paid for ads in the break around their section to advertise that they'll give you a £100 to switch your bank account to them. As you'll know from my previous post about Abbey's dwindling customer service I'm in the market for a new bank. £100 is quite a tempting offer. I've heard great things about First Direct - and they did come top in the BBC Watchdog poll. However I was a bit unconvinced by the sight of the team members (no bank managers at First Direct - just team leaders. Paddy's team is called 'Paddy's Power House') 'sumo wrestling' in a paddling pool filled with coloured balls, to one side of the call-centre. It may be an effective way to promote team bonding but looked more like an unruly kids' birthday party - not quite what I had in mind for my cash.

Incidentally I'm no great fan of South African call centres after my recent Madasafish experience (see previous post) and some of The Cutting Edge film's cruel cuts between UK and offshore did highlight real cultural communication problems - but having recently visited Cape Town I can testify that workers are friendly and ambitious - and not quite as world apart as protrayed in the film. That's editing for you.

Call centres have a bad image, often deservedly so. Some of them are terrible - British Gas is probably my all time worst. Energywatch say so too. British Gas has the worst customer service record. After endless menu options I found it took up to 20 minutes to speak to a person and they couldn't often help. Every year BG say they'll improve, every year (so far) they've failed. I closed all my accounts with them - and wrote to the chief executive to explain why. I didn't recieve a reply - but that was the year they lost a million customers. Corresponding with an average of 4000 departing customers every working day would be beyond the means of even the most communicative of chief execs. I switched to Southern Electricity. It's free to phone them and they answer right away. I will remain loyal while they keep it up. The other call centre I'm impressed with is O2. That's one of the main reasons I signed up for their Broadband. So well run call centres can help grow the business.

On the subject of O2 - this is a late post. My new O2 broadband connection only went live at 7pm tonight. A full report next time.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Finally Madasafish live up to their name

I succumbed to the lure of a Broadband connection in August 2005. I'd just come back from Canada and finally realised that dial-up was stone-age after experiencing always on, super fast Internet. However having come to such a breakthrough decision I promptly made a big mistake. I signed up with Tiscali. Tiscali were TV advertising a market leading low price and I had previously used them for a very cheap dial-up package. Tiscali was a Bad Choice. After over a month of waiting several 'live dates' came and went so I called their ever so unhelpful off-shore call staff (why is it that when you sign up the operators are all in the UK, but when it all goes tits up you're speaking to someone 5000 miles away who's working the night shift?) to cancel as they were in breach of contract. "No problem" they said.

That was when my problems began. It's now well known that you need a MAC code to migrate your broadband to another provider. Would Tiscali give me a MAC code? Silly question. I tried to order with another provider 'And your MAC code?' I haven't got one. 'Phone us back when you have'.

So Tiscali were 'squatting' on my telephone line. I couldn't shake them off and I couldn't sign up with another Broadband supplier. These are the situations regulators are dreamt up for. In my time I've complained to quite a few regulators and threatened to complain to quite a few more. It doesn't always work - there can be quite a lot of hurdles to jump through before they'll help. But when it came to evicting Tiscali, Ofcom - the telecoms regulator - were more than up to the job. One phone call explaining the problem and I got a phone call from Tiscali and a letter from Head Office explaining that following contact from Ofcom they were releasing their marker on my telephone line.

It was then that I began my love affair with Madasafish. However like many love affairs it would one day turn stale. That day arrived late last year when Madasafish 'The Friendly ISP' got involved with someone else. Then there were three of us in the relationship and sadly the 'other party' was BT. It may have been a co-incidence but after BT went shopping for small successful broadband suppliers they managed to screw up the very thing which had made them successful in the first place - excellent customer service.

A few minor niggles with Madasafish turned into a string of disasters during which their customer service team (based in South Africa) managed to undo all the good work of two and a half years of service with barely a glitch. My speed had dropped - I needed a new computer they said, a new router...a new service provider I began to think. I began to research (the first stage to any complaint) and discovered that I had been taken for a mug. New customers were being offered a far lower price - not just as an introduction (as I had been) but forever! Now I noticed that the forums where techy types swap broadband horror stories - in particular the excellent weren't so glowing about Madasafish as they had been when I signed up.

It was while I was following the posts on Thinbroadband that I realised Madasafish were actually providing better customer service via secret PM's (private messages) between an omni-present poster named 'Samara - proud to be part of the Madasafish team' than they were from their own customer service centre. Suddenly my speed problems were being investigated, a new deal was on offer - cheaper than any on offer to other new customers. I received telephone calls, and attention. Madasafish were courting me again. But then their new systems intervened to destroy the best efforts of their loyal staff. I didn't receive the crucial email confirming a new deal and my technical problems didn't get resolved. When their metering of my broadband use appeared to be broken (I was away from home but my 'usage' was sky high) they suggested I sign up for a higher allowance - at a special nudge, nudge, wink, wink rate of course. I had made my mind up, the love affair was over. Not only that, I was now feeling just a little bit 'mad' with them. Not perhaps 'madasafish' but certainly they had driven me 'mad'.

Finally after two and half years 'madasafish' lived up to their curious name.

Two and a half years is a long time in the broadband world. Now there are deals for under a tenner a month which will give you a free wireless router, super-fast speeds up to 8mb and unlimited downloads. Sign up for a package bundled up with satellite TV, cable TV, a home phone or a mobile phone and you can even get broadband for free (although of course I do believe you get what you pay for - free is very rarely the least hassle - ask any Talk Talk customer about their 'free' broadband).

Tomorrow I expect to be rid of Madasafish, their broken promises, their secret whispered messages and offers of token gifts. For the last week I've been receiving lovely texts, emails and gifts from my new interweb partner. I hope my new found love affair with O2 won't end in tears. At least BT sold off O2, so there's little chance I'll ever find myself back in bed with BT...

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Abbey escalates complaint

It was 1989 when Abbey National became the first building society to give up its mutual status and become a bank. All depositors and borrowers qualified for free shares.

In 2003 Abbey underwent a complete re branding - divorcing itself from the 'National' moniker to become simply 'Abbey'. It even scrapped the familiar logo of the couple sheltering under an umbrella shaped like a house roof.

Its £11m new lack of logo and pastel colours were described by one critic as the most effective and expensive camouflage job since WWII - as the subtle new logo-less letters rendered Abbey's branches virtually invisible on the high street.

18 months later the new branding was ditched. Unsurprisingly the bank was in trouble. Not trouble like Northern Rock (heaven forbid) but ripe for the taking. Spanish giant Banco Santander agreed to buy Abbey for £8.5 bn. The old shareholders could convert their former Abbey habit (as the famous advertising jingle of the 1970's went "Get the Abbey habit, with Abbey National" ) into Santander shares and many of us did. In fact I was surprised to read the other day that Abbey is currently the only former building society whose shares are trading at a premium to the flotation price. In other words shareholders who still hold the shares have made a paper profit.

However not all has been plain sailing. The Spanish owners have undoubtedly increased shareholder value and raised dividend payouts - but at what price? Customers are very unhappy. In a recent BBC Watchdog survey Abbey was rated by its own customers as the worst bank - a staggering 47% of Abbey customers said they were thinking of closing their accounts and taking their money elsewhere - but worse 83% of customers said they wouldn't recommend Abbey to anyone else either.

I was horrified. Could I really be doing business with a bank voted the worst by the viewers of the BBC's infamous consumer programme? In my opinion Abbey were dismissive of the poll - further underlining their arrogant stance where customer service is concerned. Funnily enough included in Abbey's annual results and targets for 2008 is increased emphasis on customer service...

So surely it was time to email Abbey's chief executive and express my dissatisfaction at the way the business is being run (remember shareholders own the business). Actually this was the second time I had emailed Abbey's chief executive in 12 months, so I already had his email address handy - which is fortunate. Mr Antonio Horta-Osorio only uses one of his hyphenated second names in his email address (the second one in case you're wondering). However I wasn't expecting a personal reply. Being highly regulated, by the Financial Services Authority, Abbey takes complaints seriously (as it should) so all replies come in the post with an enclosed leaflet advising that you can take your complaint to the Financial Ombudsman if you remain dissatisfied.

Last year when I wrote my complaint had two parts:

  • Abbey had failed to open a Shareholder Account after a long delay and had lost the paperwork.
  • Under staffing in my local branch meant they attempted to turn me away when I went to open a cash ISA close to the tax year deadline. Heaven knows how many other potential customers they turned away while simultaneously paying for full page newspaper ads to announce their market leading rate.
A year ago my complaint wasn't in vain. I received a telephone call from a one of the Executive Team to inform me that as a result of my email the Shareholder Services Director had discovered that all the applications for Shareholder Accounts had been dumped in a forgotten corner while bank staff got on with processing the backlog of ISA applications. Eventually this was resolved and Abbey backdated the interest. On the second part of my complaint Abbey wrote and credited my account with £100 for the inconvenience caused.

This time I wrote to express concern that;

  • Abbey's response to the TV poll would damage the business (who in their right mind would open a new account with the bank voted Britain's worst?) and therefore the value of the shares that once loyal customers hold.
  • I also took the opportunity to point out that poor customer service wasn't the only image problem facing Abbey. At my local branch a large area in front of the cashiers desk has been coned off for weeks to allow for a bucket collecting water dripping from the leaky ceiling.

Today Abbey triumphed. In a lengthy 2 page reply a Senior Customer Resolutions Manager wrote to say of the water leak:

"I am grateful to you for bringing this matter to our attention and your concerns have now been escalated to the Regional Manager."
Delighted with my success I immediately hot footed it down to the branch to see this 'escalation' in action.

Where until recently there had been just one bucket catching the water it has now been joined by a second. 'Escalation' indeed!

Well done Abbey!

Monday, 3 March 2008

Chief Executives love their Blackberry

If you want to complain effectively these days it's a sad fact that more often than not you'll have to go to the top. Calling customer services is fine - if you have a lifetime to wait and like hanging on the phone, pressing option 1, * key, # key, any key, while getting nowhere fast. When you do get through you'll have to listen to someone reading from a script telling you (a.) how important your call is or (b.) that they'll log your call and someone will call you back (they rarely do).

But when the now ubiquitous hand-held email Blackberry device first took off Chief Executives and Senior Managers discovered something new.

Their email.
Before Blackberry (BB) most CEO's were shielded from real world contact with their customers by efficient PA's who just printed out the important stuff or forwarded it on to customer services. But once the Blackberry became the 'must have' executive accessory, Chief Executives unwittingly found themselves getting a lot closer to their customers.

Of course Chief Executives learn fast. You don't get a comfy chair on the Board, share options and the best spot in the car park otherwise. So mostly CEO's still have their PA's pass email complaints on to their executive team to deal with.

However I have discovered something recently which I've used to surprising effect.

Chief Executives can't resist reading their Blackberry email at the weekend.

I'll just say that again:

Chief Executives can't resist reading their Blackberry email at the weekend.

So if you have something you want to say to the Chief Executive of the company or organization which is driving you crazy, then Friday evening (after their PA has gone home) is the best time to email your complaint. There's a very good chance they will read it personally at the weekend, they may even - in a moment of madness - reply.

Now don't forget to tag your message asking for a 'read receipt' (With the email message open click; Tools, request read receipt). That way you can have double the fun by seeing just how late at night / early in the morning the Chief Executive was actually browsing your email (its a lonely life at the top).

This weekend I decided to bring to an end a fruitless game of telephone tag with X City Council over an erroneous council tax demand. I had telephoned them 5 times over a period of 3 weeks and 3 times they promised to call back. They never did. I didn't fancy a visit from the Bailiffs so it was time to act.

Late on Friday I emailed the Chief Executive of the X City Council. I still had to get his attention - CEO's won't read just any email - so in the subject field I wrote "Complaint about statutory duty on council tax billing enquiries/ errors." Most CEO's take the law, rules and regulators seriously (it's always worth researching what rules / laws may have been broken before you complain) so I thought I'd get his attention:
Complaint - Failure of statutory duty to respond to council tax billing enquiries / errors

Dear Mr X (Chief executive's name)
I have contacted X City Council Corporate Resources five times by telephone since 13th February attempting to resolve a billing error with the above council tax account.

Three times I have been promised I will be called back - the 13th February, the 26th February and 29th February.

I'm still waiting....

The Council has a statutory duty to deal with council tax enquiries efficiently. I do not believe that in my case this duty has been fulfilled.

Can you please look into this matter and find out what has gone wrong.

Yours sincerely,

It was 07.50 hrs on Sunday when the Chief Executive replied. Here's a council leader providing value for the constituents. It took him just 2 minutes to punch out the following reply with his thumbs....

Dear Sir
Thank you for that we will get a response back to you

So how do we know this is the actual Chief Executive of X City Council emailing from his Blackberry?

Here are the clues:

1.It's early Sunday morning
2. It's the short message so beloved of Blackberry users - try typing with your thumbs on a keyboard the size of a mobile phone...
3. There's no sign off.
4. It's cc'd to The Director of Corporate Resources.

And the proof:

5. A telephone call from a senior council official at 13.15hrs Monday completely resolving the Council's mistake which I had spent 3 weeks telephoning customer services about.

So it would appear:

Chief Executives can't resist reading their Blackberry email at the weekend.