Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Because we really care

Why on earth do they do it? “They” being large corporations whose mission statements emphasise that they care for their customers above all else.

Yet how do they treat us if we try to get in touch with them? First they make us run a ludicrous, multiple choice obstacle course on our telephone key pads. And if that does not shake us off, they put us through to a call centre on the other side of the world where the poorly paid staff are equipped only to read out pre-determined answers to a handful of blindingly obvious questions.

They know that customers hate this. That’s why “a direct line to your branch” and “UK only call centres” feature so prominently in the advertising of certain banks and insurers. So the others can only be persisting with it because it’s cheap; and because not enough of us are summoning the energy to take our custom elsewhere.

For the last few weeks I’ve had a problem with my emails: rather a lot of them simply vanish, and are neither delivered nor returned. It’s a bit of a lottery, like checking a bag onto an airline, only with even worse odds. I’d stand a much better chance of getting through by old-fashioned snail mail, but I’ve got attached to the principle of instant communication, so I wanted to get it sorted out.

I knew it would be a hellish process. The last time I had a serious IT issue I spent two solid hours on the phone to a very charming young man in India, who finally concluded that my problem was insoluble and regretfully hung up on me. Remarkably enough, given my technical illiteracy, I worked out the solution myself about ten minutes later.

While I was looking up the right phone number on the Internet, I came across reams of postings from aggrieved customers. Amongst these were many claims to have discovered the Holy Grail of IT problem-solving: a number that would get you straight through to a customer support centre in the UK with knowledgeable, interested and helpful staff. “They” had swiftly responded by making all these numbers unobtainable.

I’d wonder if the British IT support centre were not simply another urban myth, if I did not have a friend who got transferred to one after she had been reduced to tears by the uselessness of the overseas operation. The next time she rang, she naturally asked to speak to the same individual and was told that no such person or facility existed, before being treated to a stern lecture about racism.

By some mischance, I got through to sales rather than technical support. Well, I thought, they keep advertising fabulous broadband packages that sound much better value than mine, so why don’t I have one of those? You’ll know the answer already, of course. They’re for new customers, like those amazing interest rate offers you see from some banks. Why should we give it to you, sucker, we’ve got you hooked already? But amazingly, after long periods listening to music while consultations took place, it was agreed that I could upgrade. Yippee!

I then got transferred to technical support and started explaining my problem. “Ah,” he said very slowly, “It’s because you’ve ordered an upgrade.” I patiently explained that I had done that about five minutes earlier, while my email problems had been going on for weeks. But he just kept repeating the answer on his card: I must expect my broadband service to be intermittent or even non-existent while they were in the process of upgrading it. (A bit of an issue for someone like me in the communications business, and one that sales might just have mentioned in passing, don’t you think?)

I gave up at that point and am sitting at home with my fingers crossed. I wonder if this email will ever reach The Journal?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Passing Titans

Today I’d like to mark the passing of two huge British institutions, whose demise was foreshadowed last week: Dawn French and GNER. People wept openly in the streets after one announcement, but greeted the other with shoulder-shrugging indifference. I certainly did. But then I’ve long had rather a soft spot for GNER, while finding Ms French about as funny as a broken pelvis.

Dawn French herself broke the news that she is retiring to Cornwall to die. She’s only just coming up to 50, though a glance in the mirror would tend to confirm her supposition that she will not make old bones. Apparently she’s known it since the age of six. Once one has been granted that revelation, I suppose the temptation to say “what the heck” and have that extra slice of pie must be irresistible.

She did not actually set a date for her death, so her many fans will have plenty of time to pray, and to lay in stocks of beer and snacks for the inevitable re-runs of her finest work when she does hand in her dinner pail. Here’s hoping that the BBC majors on The Vicar of Dibley, which was redeemed even for me by its brilliant supporting cast, rather than the excruciating Wild West or Jam and Jerusalem.

The end of GNER, by contrast, will follow a strict timetable. (Now there’s a first.) The Department for Transport has decreed that new franchisee National Express will take over the East Coast main line on 9 December. Could there be a better time to change the entire management of the country’s premier rail route than immediately in advance of the Christmas rush?

National Express will apparently be spending a lot of money repainting trains in a more contemporary style, ditching those irrelevant old crests, and giving their onboard staff some snappier togs. I can’t help wondering whether all the investment in paint jobs and new uniforms since rail privatisation has been the best possible use of funds. But then I’m an old fogey who rather liked GNER’s midnight blue livery and its attempt to recapture the spirit and style of the great days of train travel.

I commuted between Alnmouth and King’s Cross every week for nigh on 20 years. In that time I had many more chuckles out of GNER than I’ve ever had from Dawn French, though admittedly they were usually in circumstances where one either had to laugh or cry. It’s funny how disaster always struck when one was in a tearing hurry to get to a meeting, lunch or show, and never when one had all the time in the world.

Still, at least GNER gave the impression of caring about their customers in a way that made a refreshing change from the jobsworth mentality of British Rail. And I’ve also seen enough of the UK’s other train operators to know that GNER were much the best of an admittedly questionable bunch.

So I shall miss them. Along with the numerous anorak-wearing nerds who will undoubtedly be crowding platforms and trains in the final weeks. I’d book your seat now, and maybe take your own mug with you. Those crested cups, glasses and cutlery will be in strong demand from souvenir hunters.

I do empathise with Ms French in one respect. I also retired to the country to die shortly before my 50th birthday. Not only have I failed to do so, but my health has improved exponentially since I cut out the weekly stress of travelling to London. Maybe Cornwall will have the same positive effect on her, particularly if she also goes a bit easier on those Terry’s Chocolate Oranges.

So, farewell then. I’m sure that both these great national icons will be fondly remembered. But I reckon that Hornby will still be turning out replicas of those rather gorgeous blue trains long after the very last Dawn French DVD has been de-listed.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

A window on the soul

I met an angry woman in the village shop the other day. Nothing unusual about that: I meet angry women all the time, albeit less frequently than when I lived with one. This encounter was striking because the lady was incensed by something I thought only I cared about: windows. She’d turned her back for a minute, and yet another of her neighbours had had their old, wooden sash windows ripped out and replaced with hideous uPVC ones. Which stick out on a historic building like a huge comedy red nose on the face of a much-loved grandmama.

The only consolation I could offer was that there aren’t too many more people in the village who can pull this stunt, since the men in unmarked white vans have now conducted their campaign of vandalism and uglification pretty comprehensively.

When it started, I was concerned enough to ring up the council and complain. The village is supposed to be a conservation area, after all. Ah yes, they said, but that doesn’t stop permitted developments, like putting in new doors and windows. In fact I struggled to find out what it did prevent, apart from felling trees without permission, or erecting visible satellite dishes.

This surprised me, as I used to have a flat in a conservation area in London. The main benefit of this was that all the houses retained their original fenestration (as they call windows in Pimlico). The sight of any plastic-mongers in a white van would have brought officialdom down upon the perpetrators like a host of avenging angels.

Not so in Northumberland, I discovered. If you spot a beautiful old farmhouse having its original windows ripped out, just shrug your shoulders regretfully and avert your eyes, unless it happens to be on the register of listed buildings. Then no effort will be spared to ensure that the destruction is prevented or made good.

I cannot even begin to understand the thinking behind this “new windows” craze. If you choose to live in an 18th or 19th century house, it’s presumably because you like old buildings. Would you go and buy an antique chest of drawers, then remove all its original handles and replace them with plastic knobs from Poundstretcher? Would you invest in a classic car for the express purpose of replacing its leather seats with new vinyl ones? I venture to suggest that the only correct answer to these rhetorical questions is “no”. So why should houses be any different?

No doubt some happy customer or rich supplier will write in to point out that uPVC windows offer improved insulation and are therefore playing a valuable part in the “fight against global warming”. So does aluminium secondary double glazing. And both that and good, old-fashioned wood are free from the numerous deadly chemicals involved in the production and disposal of uPVC.

In fact, the angry lady in the shop conjured up a nightmare vision of her neighbours trapped behind their efficiently sealed windows in the event of fire, perishing from the noxious fumes released by the burning plastic. It sounded like Dante’s Inferno, only a lot nastier. If it ever happened, I got the strong feeling that she was looking forward to shouting “serves you right!”

Still, at least I can offer some consolation to those old stick-in-the muds who share my prejudice. Each generation seems to regard the previous one’s “home improvements” with total horror, and spends a fortune reversing them. Back in the 1960s, people had a fetish for ripping out Victorian fireplaces, and nailing sheets of plywood over panelled doors. (Acts of desecration which were at least invisible to passers-by.) Much effort has since been spent repairing this damage. One day, I predict, uPVC windows will be no more than a horrid memory, just like wind farms. It’s almost enough to make me wish for a Government-approved long life.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Seeing conspiracies everywhere

Only three things upset me on Saturday, making it a pretty good day by my standards. The first was the discovery that Powburn Show had been cancelled owing to the foot and mouth scare. I drove home wondering whether this could be yet another wicked Labour conspiracy against the persecuted farming sector, designed to show Gordon in a good light (concerned, decisive and able to return swiftly to return to London to take personal charge of the crisis, since he wasn’t holed up in some superannuated pop star’s villa on the other side of the Atlantic). The subsequent revelation that the virus probably came from a nearby Government laboratory did nothing to lessen this suspicion.

Forced to spend the afternoon reading the press rather than inspecting giant leeks, scrumptious scones and lovingly coiffed sheep, I was then thoroughly upset by a letter in this newspaper from Mr Dave Pascoe, who billed himself as Press Secretary of the Hartlepool Branch of the UK Independence Party. This contained an intemperate attack on the “slavish” pro-New Labour line of columnist Paul Linford, and on The Journal’s editorial policy for failing to reflect the fact that “not everyone follows the liberal-leftist-Guardianista agenda” and ruthlessly confining any such views to the letters columns.

Oh dear. I’ve been called many things in my time (though “rude” and “fat” have tended to predominate, if I’m honest). But “leftist” has never featured on the list before. I pride myself on making this column at least as barking in its Tory anarchism as anything in “Voice of the North”. And then there’s my Thursday counterpart Willy Poole. He used to be almost a neighbour of mine, and it is true that the word “red” often features in local conversations about him. However, this is most definitely a reference to the impressive colour of his face, rather than to any political bias.

I could only conclude that Mr Pascoe does not read our columns, or does not understand them. I agonised for a bit about this. Does anyone actually read this stuff, apart from my loyal auntie in Morpeth? Philosophically speaking, if no-one reads it, does it still exist? Is it pitched on such a high intellectual plane that it eludes normal human comprehension? Why would anyone continue to read a weekly column guaranteed to annoy him, and ignore ones with which he would almost certainly agree wholeheartedly? It’s a puzzle, but at least it’s probably not a conspiracy, which makes a pleasant change.

Funnily enough, I received precisely one response to my column two weeks ago, which concluded with the rhetorical question: “Where should we look for a Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela with the vision and determination to lead England on its own long walk to freedom?” The answer I received (not from Mr Pascoe, who clearly does not know that I exist) was “Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party”. I’ve done a bit of research on Mr Farage, and he certainly appears to have some Churchillian qualities, although in his professed enthusiasm for real ale he seems to have picked the one form of alcohol of which Sir Winston was not an epic consumer.

However, while I agree with nearly all UKIP’s political philosophy, somehow I don’t think I shall ever bring myself to vote for it. It seems to have a track record of spirited infighting far exceeding that of the various Palestinian communist factions so deftly satirised in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Then there’s all that unfortunate PR about illegal donations and current and former MEPs facing charges of fraud. It could be another establishment conspiracy, I suppose. But then again …

The third thing that upset me was an uninvited caller on Saturday afternoon. You move to the middle of nowhere, disconnect your doorbell, unplug the telephone, and still they come. Now surely that’s got to be some sort of conspiracy?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.