Saturday 22 December 2007

I have sold 0800handyman to The Zockoll Group

Reason for recent lack of blogging is that I have been frantically pulling together vast quantities of detailed paperwork to support the sale of my controlling stake in 0800handyman to the Zockoll Group. This sale is now complete, and I am now delighted to report that, after nearly seven years, I am handing over the reigns to new owners.

The Zockoll Group, and Jim Zockoll in particular, is (are?) responsible for establishing the only national brand in the domestic maintenance sector, Dyno Rod (now owned by British Gas, but founded by Jim Zockoll in the 60s). They have been a minority shareholder in 0800handyman since 2002, and now own a majority of the business. They are joined by one of our franchisees, Paul Geoghegan, who is now a director and shareholder of 0800handyman Ltd.

When I founded 0800handyman, or RedJacks as it was then, there were two businesses that I had ambitions to emulate. Kwik-Fit was one, and Dyno-Rod was the other. Both have succeeded in building strong, national brands, in sectors which have historically been plagued by poor service. That is exactly what I have been working towards with 0800handyman. We aren't there yet (we certainly don't have a national brand), but are a long way along the line. If you searched for "handyman" on the internet in 2001 you would not have found much at all. Now you will find dozens of companies all (I like to think) trying to emulate what 0800handyman is doing.

The existing team will continue, of course, and I would like to thank all of them publicly for giving me the opportunity to work with such a diverse and stimulating group of people.

I am looking forward to observing the progress of 0800handyman from a distance, and I sincerely hope that, in 10 years time, 0800handyman will have done for home maintenance what Kwik-Fit did for car maintenance and what Dyno-Rod did for drain clearance.

I have some ideas for new ventures, I'll start a fresh blog for those when there is something concrete to report. I'm sure you won't need to hunt too hard to find me.

Need any odd-jobs doing? Check out 0800handyman.

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Rubbish collection, junk removal, blogs, e-mail newsletters

My friend Jason Mohr, who runs a business called Any Junk? (doing junk removal for households in London, Bristol and Birmingham), asked me the other day if they could have a mention in our email newsletter, in return for giving 0800handyman a mention in theirs.

But we haven't sent an e-mail newsletter for ages, because I've started to think that e-mail newsletters are too intrusive. A blog seems to be better, and those people that are really interested in what I have to say can subscribe to the RSS feed. As long as you don't mind sometimes waiting a few weeks for me to post (although, to be fair, I generally post several times a week, but just haven't for a while now. Back now.)

So I said I'd talk about junk removal and rubbish collection on my blog instead. Any Junk? seem to be doing a pretty good job in their sector doing what what we have done in ours: adding some professionalism, great service, efficient back-office systems (they use the same software as us, fancy that), and strong branding to a previously haphazard, one-man-band-dominated, sometimes dodgy, fragmented sector.

Just like in the handyman sector, the Americans are way ahead of us with junk removal. Jason has modelled his business, I think, on Got Junk?, the market leader in the US. If anyone is thinking of setting up a service business in the UK, checking out how they do it in the US is often a good place to start.

Junk removal has the added advantage of being able to play the green card. Some reasonably high percentage of everything they collect is either sold on or recycled, saving space in landfill. Jason manages to persuade everyone his business is so green that the taxpayer should actually pay for some of it - they were recently awarded a grant to buy four new trucks outright. I'm not sure if that is supposed to be public knowledge, but given that it is public money, it ought to be. And it is now. I am very cynical about taxpayers subsidising commercial businesses -- I think it is cheating -- but no doubt there is a strong economic argument for using tax money to keep junk out of landfill, blah, blah.

Anyway, if you need junk collecting or rubbish removing, do check these guys out, we've used them ourselves and they are excellent, and the chap the runs it is a good egg:

Need any oddjobs doing? Check out

Tuesday 30 October 2007

T-mobile account management

This is priceless: because we now have a certain number of lines with T-mobile, we have been assigned our own "account manager".

But we can't get hold of this person (no direct line, and if they are unavailable, and presumably most of the time they will be on the phone to other customers given that that is their job, we have to leave a message. We have been waiting a day and a half for a call back so far), so we can't place an order for more lines.

Best of all, the ordinary people in the call centre are NOT ALLOWED TO HELP US. Only our account manager can now access our account. Last week (before we hit the magic number of lines which entitles us to this "improved" level of service) ordering a new line meant making a call, sending a confirmatory e-mail and handset would arrive the next day. Easy.

Now we have to wait for our "account manager" to call us back to carry out the trivial task of adding another line to our account. Just awesome.

Need any odd-jobs doing? Visit

Thursday 25 October 2007

Should I have discounted this bill?

Just come off the phone after a very difficult conversation with a customer who is convinced we were overcharging her.

We attended her rental property back in August and carried out a list of jobs for her (she was not present).

She has a clear recollection that our man, Morgan, called her at 2.30 in the afternoon and said he estimated he had another 30mins to go. So she thought he finished at about 3pm. Morgan's jobsheet records he finished at 4.55pm, two hours later than that.

She is convinced Morgan made a mistake on his jobsheet. We are convinced he left at 4.55. We think this, because:

(a) that is what he wrote on his jobsheet
(b) he remembers calling the customer mid-afternoon, but does not think he said he would be finished in half-an-hour
(c) he didn't do any other jobs that afternoon: if he really did finish at 3pm for sure we would have sent him on to another job
(d) he recalls being there till pretty much the end of the day

On the other hand, it is hard to understand why the customer can have such a clear recollection of this conversation about finishing in half-an-hour if that conversation didn't take place. My best guess is that conversation did take place, but Morgan just underestimated what else there was to do, or later on noticed some other tasks on the list, or whatever.

(Note that the customer does not think Morgan was fiddling his hours, she just thinks he made a mistake)

The situation is not helped by the fact that this all took place in August - the customer says she discussed all these issues a while back with someone else in our office, but whoever that was didn't note down the details of the conversation and / or didn't act on it, which is a bit of a cock-up, to be honest. Had we dealt with this whole issue a week after it happened I suspect it would have all been a lot easier.

Anyway, as I did in a similar situation which I posted about here, I stuck to my guns and insisted that we charge for the time which we firmly believed we spent there.

We had already discounted this bill for other reasons: (1) we had originally charged her 30mins for a visit which had to be aborted because the tenants would not let us do the work at the appointed time, we agreed to waive this charge; (2) she felt that because we had had the benefit of seeing the work during the original aborted visit we should have come with all materials ready for the second successful visit and not spent time fetching them during the second visit (we always charge for time taken to fetch materials, but we agreed to waive an hour of the second visit again as a goodwill gesture) (3) we bought a tin of paint which was the wrong colour (no argument there, we shouldn't have ever charged for that).

So, we had already discounted 1.5hrs off this bill, but the customer wanted another 2hrs off. I declined to offer this.

I am sure the customer will pay the revised bill, but she is convinced she has been hard done by and will no doubt be relating this tale to her friends. If you are that customer, and are reading this, please feel free to post your version of events as a comment and I will publish it.

Wednesday 24 October 2007

Freephone number back up

Looks like Opal have fixed whatever it was that they broke and our freephone number (0800 426 396) is back up.

Opal freephone numbers down - please use our landline: 0207 978 6674

Opal telecom's entire bank of non-geographic numbers (including, helpfully, their own customer service numbers) seem to be down this morning, and that includes our own 0800 number.

Please kindly use our landline:

0207 978 6674

until Opal fix this.

Thursday 11 October 2007

Is flat 18% capital gains tax (CGT) really so bad?

Gosh, everyone (e.g. Real Business, Supper Club, FSB, etc.) really is up in arms about Darling's new flat CGT tax. I thought we free-marketeers were supposed to like flat, low taxes? Isn't that what our next chancellor, George Osborne, keeps talking about?

Sure, if you sell your (long-established) business in May of next year, then 18% vs 10% looks tough. But if you buy some shares now, and make some money, and sell them in May of next year then 18% vs 40% looks good to me.

We do very well in this country when it comes to government-approved ways of avoiding capital taxes (EIS allows you to invest in an unlisted company and pay 0% CGT; EMI allows you to get share options in a company and pay 0% CGT; ISAs let you buy listed shares and, yes, pay 0% CGT; plus Child Trust Funds, etc. etc. Don't rock the boat, all this other stuff might fall off).

Politicians usually tinker around the edges of the tax system. You've got to hand it to Darling for being a bit ballsy - it is quite daring to just cancel, in one afternoon, a plank of the tax system that has been around for decades. Well done. I still might sign Duncan's petition though.

Wednesday 10 October 2007

Retail maintenance

Further to earlier post about office maintenance, worth mentioning that we also do plenty of maintenance in shops.

Similar types of jobs, to those we do in offices, things like:

- Fixing shelves and other shop fittings
- Fixing lighting in the shop
- Small plumbing jobs like dripping taps, WC flushes, etc.
- Fixing doors and windows that don't close properly
- Touching up paintwork and so forth

Here are some examples of shops that use our handyman service for their day to day maintenance:

- Reiss
- Nike
- The BBC Shop
- Unwins (until they went bust)
- Rigby & Peller
- Benjy's
- Subway
- Ocean
- Nelson's Homeopathic Pharmacy

and many more shops and retail outlets.

Plus restaurants like

- Bombay Bicycle Club
- Tootsie's
- Gourmet Burger Kitchen
- Square Pie Company
- The Real Greek

So if you run a shop or other retail outlet and need maintenance from our handymen, give us a call on 0800 426396.

Need any odd-jobs doing? Visit

Office maintenance

We do lots of office maintenance, especially in central London (City / West End), but we'd love to do more. It's pretty much impossible to bid on "office maintenance" on Google Adwords because that keyword is dominated by cleaning companies. Quite why dozens of cleaning companies are hankering to sell cleaning contracts to people who really want office maintenance (cleaning is hardly maintenance), I don't know, but it means that the cost of bidding on that keyword is very high.

So, I'm going to blog about office maintenance instead. We already occupy the #2 spot in the natural search results on Google for "office maintenance", I'll see if this post gets in there too.

Here are some of the sorts of things we do when it comes to maintenance in offices:

- Putting up shelves
- Putting up noticeboards
- Fixing minor plumbing issues (leaking taps, WCs that don't flush, etc.)
- Changing lightbulbs
- Fixing flourescent lights (replacing flourescent tubes, starters, ballasts as needed)
- Replacing lights
- Assembling / disassembling furniture
- Touching up damaged paintwork

You get the idea. So if your office needs any of those kinds of oddjobs doing, give us a call on 0800 426 396 or visit

Need any oddjobs doing? Visit

Tuesday 9 October 2007

More red tape myths - age discrimination regulations

Which bit of the EMPLOYMENT EQUALITY (AGE) REGULATIONS 2006 does Kirsty Rogers, a lawyer quoted here in Personnel Today, not understand?

Ever since Age Discrimination regs came into force, busy-body human resources experts have been bandying around misleading claims that words like "experienced", "dynamic", or "energetic" in job adverts are illegal. I am not a lawyer, but to me the law seems pretty clear, and this is what is says:

Direct discrimination occurs where, because of B’s age, A treats B less favourably than he treats or would treat other persons unless A can objectively justify that treatment.

Indirect discrimination is taken to occur where –
• A applies to B a provision, criterion or practice which A applies equally to other persons; and
• that provision, criterion or practice puts persons of B’s age group at a particular disadvantage; and
• B suffers that disadvantage.

If B can show that he suffers in this way, then the provision, criterion or
practice is indirectly discriminatory unless A can show that it is a
proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

(This, and excellent explanatory notes are freely available from the DTIs / BERR's website)

Note the last bit: "unless A can show that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim."

Sure, specifying a certain level of experience would likely put a 16yr old at a disadvantage to a 30 yr old (i.e would be indirect discrimination according to the definition above), but if experience is important to the employer (and why would it be specified if it was not important?), then I'd be amazed if any court or tribunal denied that this was a "proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim".

This is how urban myths about red tape arise - it is not from government, or Europe, or the courts. But from press releases sent out to garner publicty for the sender's organisation, whether they are a law firm, business organisation, or some other special interest group. Would Personnel Today have reproduced DWF's release if it had just said "age discrimination regulations just a matter of common sense, really". No. But they happily reproduce the sensationalist statistics, even headlining it "One in five job advertisements still fails to comply with age discrimination legislation". In the opinion of this law firm, they don't comply with the law. But has any tribunal or court found against an employer for legitimately asking for experience? Or liveliness? Or dynamism? Of course not. And if they do, I'll eat my hat.

Need any odd-jobs doing? Visit

Friday 5 October 2007

What's happening at DeWalt? Problems with DC935KSF XRP 14.4V cordless drill

We have had some real problems with DeWalt drills lately. We have for a long time preferred the DeWalt DC984K2 XRP 14.4V, but this has recently been superceded by the DC935KSF. We must have owned well over 20 of the old DC984K2s, and we can only recall two ever developing a fault.

These are serious bits of kit, costing £250 a pop from Screwfix, and get heavy use from our handymen, so we are pretty fussy about them working properly.

But of the four new DC935KSF models that we have bought, two have developed faults that have required them to be sent back: in one the chuck would not lock closed and kept releasing the bit; with another the chuck just wasn't centered properly, so the bit would wander around.

Plus, the slowest speed you can run the drill at is too fast to be able to grip the chuck with your hand to make it lock onto the bit (any regular user of drills will know what I am talking about: rather than screw the chuck in by hand to grip the bit, you just hold the chuck still and gently use the drill's power to close the jaws onto the bit). If you try and hold the chuck it just whizzes out of your grip. You have to turn the chuck manually, which makes changing bits a chore.

And none of our handymen like them - the older model just feels to be better quality (although DeWalt insist the replacement is a huge improvement, saying that the chuck, motor and battery are all of higher quality than the old one).

We won't be buying any more of this model of DeWalt. Screwfix have kindly agreed to swap our dodgy DeWalts for the Makita Lithium-Ion BHP440SFE 14.4V even though the Makita costs a bit more, which is very nice of them. This Makita might be a little lightweight for our use, if so then we will probably upgrade to the Makita BHP441SFE Lithium-Ion 14.4V

Need any odd-jobs doing? Visit

Wednesday 3 October 2007

Changing a light fitting / wiring a light

Changing a light fitting is the sort of job that a novice DIYer would expect to be very easy, but it actually often isn't. The novice DIYer might expect to see three wires - live, neutral and earth. But most of the time they will see a whole lot more wires than that.

With most light fittings, the ceiling rose doubles as a junction box, so you have one cable coming into the rose from the previous light in the circuit; then a cable going down to the switch and back; and then a third cable running off to the next light fitting.

We always ask handyman candidates to describe the wiring they would expect to see inside a ceiling rose - if they answer correctly straightaway, that gives us a pretty good idea that they understand how lighting circuits, and domestic electrical circuits in general are set up.

There is a good picture here of how a typical light fitting is wired.

Need any odd jobs doing? Visit

Tuesday 18 September 2007

Renewing old grouting in tiled bathrooms / showers

We are often asked to "regrout" a shower cubicle or around a bath, because the grout has got old and nasty-looking. Customers often confuse grout with silicone sealant. Replacing the silicone sealant (rubbery substance around the edge of the shower tray or bath) is straightforward (especially now all our handymen are familiar with Stan's perfected technique). Replacing grout (the rock-hard substance filling the gaps between the tiles) is not straightforward at all. In fact, you may as well not even attempt it - the grout is usually harder than the tiles, so any attempt to scrape out the old grout will inevitably result in a lot of damage to the tiles.

You'd usually be better off getting a tiler to re-tile from scratch.

Sometimes, if there is just a small area of grout that has deteriorated, you can scrape out the loose bits and apply fresh grout. But even this isn't ideal, because the new grout will look much, well, newer than the old grout in the rest of the tiles.

However, we now have a new solution: steam-cleaning the entire area, which we have found is astonishingly effective. It is time-consuming (takes about a day to do properly), but makes the tiles and grout as good as new. Plus, if there are any areas where the grout has deteriorated and crumbled, it can be replaced without the new grout looking out of place.

Even a full day's labour (plus a small charge for hire of the steam cleaner) is a lot less than having the whole area re-tiled.

The first customer we did this for was so impressed, they asked us to come back once a month (!) to keep their bathroom in pristine appearance.

If you'd also like tired tiles to look as good as new, give us a call on 0800 426 396, or e-mail

Thursday 13 September 2007

Daily Mail, and others, don't understand free markets?

Daily Mail headline today expresses astonishment that the Bank of England says that "We Can't Control Mortgage Rates!".

Which bit of a free market economy does the Mail not understand? Do they really think that the huge range of mortgage deals, carefully tabulated on their own finance pages, are all individually controlled by the Bank of England? That the Bank of England says to, say, Bristol and West that their 5yr, 0.5% discount tracker deal, with £2k cashback and a £100 M&S voucher is fine; but that they'd prefer that the Woolwich shaved a couple of basis points off their 1yr-fixed, first-time-buyer- only offer?

The article at one point reminds us of the problem of sub-prime defaults in the US and says that "as a result, High Street lenders here are lookng to make more money from borrowers".

So, if it wasn't for the situation in the US, UK banks would be happy making less money from borrowers? That's just silly. Any bank will always try to make as much money as possible from their customers, but they are restrained by the fact that they operate in a competitive market. This is obvious stuff, everyone knows this really, don't they? They know that prices are controlled not by the State, but by competition from other companies?

But, you know, I think that while everyone sort of knows this, lots of people don't really believe it. They think that companies are generally out to get them, and if something is expensive that is nothing to do with the price the market will stand, but because the company is ripping them off.

I had a conversation with my brother (a scientist) recently about his car insurance, and he was utterly convinced that all insurance companies operate in a cartel, and that there is no competition for his business. He really believed this to be the case. Maybe it is, but it seems it would be a very, very complex cartel to manage. It seems to me much more likely that the market for car insurance in the UK is highly competitive, and if you are unmarried, drive a Lotus which you sometimes take to track days, and park it on the street in Bloomsbury, your premium is probably going to be quite high however competitive the market is.

Wednesday 12 September 2007

Why are insurance claims handlers so bad at handling claims?

For the first time (as far as I can recall) in our 6yr history we have recently had cause to claim on our public liability insurance. We fitted a ball valve to a storage tank, the valve subsequently failed, the overflow couldn't cope and water flooded into the customer's property, damaging paintwork and carpets.

No huge drama, but large enough cost (well into four figures) to warrant claiming on the insurance. How long would you think it might take, from notifying the insurance company to them authorising the repairs (bearing in mind this is water damage, so pretty unpleasant to live with for any length of time)? A week? Two weeks?

Six weeks on, and we still haven't had any decision from the insurers (AXA, who have subcontracted the claims handling to Cunningham Lindsey). In the meantime, we've just gone ahead and repaired everything that we can do ourselves, but customer is still left with old carpets. We don't want to tell him to just get new carpets and send us the bill, because the insurers might want to inspect the old carpets.

Why does it take so long? Why can't it work like this:

Day 1: Notify insurance company of potential claim
Day 1: Insurance company contacts customer and arranges to inspect damage (in, say, 5 days time)
Day 2: Customer gets estimates to repair damage
Day 6: Insurance co inspects damage, reviews estimates
Day 7: Insurance co authorises repairs

Why does it take weeks and weeks? And why do we have to manage the process (i.e. we only see any progress at all if we badger the insurance company)?

Although this is the first time we've had to claim on our own insurance, we've often had to claim on other peoples for road traffic prangs, and the process is always extremely painful even when there is no dispute about liablity.

Tuesday 11 September 2007

Top tip when applying for a job ...

... read the job advert properly.

We are currently looking for more London handymen, and have an ad running in Gumtree (here). The ad specifically asks people to go to our website and complete the application form they will find there. It specifically says not to simply use the form on Gumtree to send in a CV.

At least 50% of the respondants simply send in their CV, it is just unbelievable. I suppose they are just not even reading the ad, it is a bit annoying.

Thursday 30 August 2007

SafeContractor - the final instalment

Firstly, apologies for recent lack of blogging. My father died unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago. I am now back in action, and with plenty to blog about.

We finally said goodbye to SafeContractor in August. They were still trying to get us to use an overly wordy, repetitive and therefore ineffective Health and Safety Policy document. Plus a whole load of other issues, very similar to those we first came up against when this whole fuss started. The H&S policy was just the first thing on their list, and when we failed to persuade them that ours was much better (being clear, concise, not repetitive, and still covering all the key points) I decided enough was enough and we simply wouldn't ever convince them that their materials are (in our opinion) less safe than our own.

Here, if you are interested, is their super-long Health & Safety Policy sample. And here is our version (in draft form - the one we actually issue to staff is much prettier).

Despite being far, far longer, I really don't think there is anything substantive in theirs which is not in ours. Or at least, nothing sufficiently important to warrant the inevitable loss of clarity that would result from extending the length of the document.

Plus their sample is horribly let down by what I can only assume is a drafting error in the very first two clauses (which are almost identical).

Here is the letter I wrote to SafeContractor informing them of our decision to withdraw from their accreditation programme (copied into the HSE):

John Kinge
National Britannia Group Ltd
Britannia House
Caerphilly Business Park
CF83 3GG

Dear John,

Thank you for your e-mail of 1st August.

We do very much appreciate the work that you and your colleagues have put into reviewing our SafeContractor accreditation. It is a credit to your organisation that you have paid so much attention to our very detailed concerns.

Nevertheless, we cannot escape the fact that we have very different views on managing health and safety. We think that long, repetitious documents with redundant information are dangerous as they are not read properly, the really important information gets lost amongst less important information, and they give the reader the impression (whether justified or not) of being part of a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise.

In our discussions you have indicated that you agree with these principles (of keeping documents concise, readable, relevant etc.). But, in practice, you give far less weight to these principles than we do, to the extent that those principles are completely overshadowed by the competing principle of including as much information as possible, even if it is of minimal importance, or repetitive.

I think that the first two clauses of your sample H&S Policy template are very telling:

“1.1 The Company acknowledges and accepts its legal responsibilities for securing the health, safety and welfare of all its employees, of subcontractors working on its behalf and all others affected by their activities.”

“1.2 The Company recognises and accepts the general duties imposed upon the company as an employer under the Health and Safety at Work Act and subsequent health and safety regulations appertaining to it’s [sic] operation.”

Clause 1.2 says nothing substantive that clause 1.1 does not say. While you might see this redundancy as a trivial drafting error, I think that the fact that such obvious repetition has found its way into the very first section of your sample template says a lot about the (lack of) importance given to producing a concise, readable, effective document. Clearly no-one has read through this document, thinking “Can we make this shorter and clearer? Can we make the key messages more prominent?” etc. No document (whether relating to health and safety or not) would be produced by our organisation without that sort of attention to detail. To you, attention to detail seems to mean “have we covered everything?” To us, attention to detail means “is this document as effective as possible?”

I should emphasise again that we are not rejecting your approach because we want to reduce paperwork, or that we see paperwork per se as burdensome. We are rejecting it because we think it is less safe. We firmly believe that our health and safety documents help foster a safer working environment than we would have if we followed your approach. We therefore no longer wish to seek renewal of our SafeContractor accreditation.

We will continue to work independently to further improve our materials and processes, including taking into account Jim Neilson’s and Steve Pointer’s comments about more formally documenting the process we have gone through to produce the employee-facing material that we use.

Thank you again for the time and effort you have put into this.

Yours sincerely,

Bruce Greig
Managing Director

Tuesday 7 August 2007

Has O2 boss never heard of a smartphone?

Profile of Peter Erskine (CEO of O2, mobile phone company) in yesterday's Times. After the article, there is a bunch of the usual trivial questions, including "What gadget must you have?"

To which Erskine replied "I guess it would have to be a toss-up between my sat-nav and my BlackBerry. I can’t choose one outright, but I know I’d be really lost without one of them."


Has no-one told him that there are plenty of phones which will do Blackberry stuff and Satnav stuff? I bet Erskine is one of those chaps that carries around a Blackberry for e-mail, a high-spec but completely underused mobile for voice calls, and a PDA for a diary. Plus sat-nav.

When all of those functions can easily be performed by one device (e.g. Sony Ericsson M600, all the Sony-Ericsson P-series phones, loads of Nokia smartphones, etc.)

If the boss of O2 hasn't figured this out, no wonder so few other people have.

Friday 3 August 2007

Valuing money vs service gestures

I often harp on to our handymen about the importance of billing accurately. We bill in half-hour intervals, so if a job has taken one hour and fifteen minutes, that's billed as 1.5hrs. The customer expects that, it is generous compared to most firms who bill in full hour increments (so 1hr15 would be billed as 2hrs), and crucially you don't really get any brownie points from the customer if you under-bill. At least not enough brownie points to justify the massive dent in your day's revenue if, say, you rounded DOWN three jobs in the day. That'd be 1.5hrs of billable time which you've lost out on, and the customer, really, will hardly have noticed. Customers notice small, important SERVICE gestures, but don't really notice PRICE gestures (e.g. returning to a customer and spending 10mins showing them again how the new combination lock on the door works without charging would be hugely, hugely valued by the customer. But rounding down the original 1hr10min bill to 1hr would be hardly noticed, customer would just think it was a standard policy, wouldn't really register that you'd just surrendered 33% of the entire bill).

I saw this first hand today. As a customer.

We had to drop our Ford Focus off at the local dealer to get a new front window fitted (friendly policewoman had to break into the car on Wednesday to rescue baby Lara after Robyn (wife) had somehow managed to lock both key and baby in the car. No huge drama, but did obviously result in broken window).

I also asked the dealer to programme a new key as we only have one (hence having to break into car in the first place.)

I picked up the car this evening and noticed that they had charged us a lot less for the window than they had quoted. I even managed to draw attention to this, as I thought they might charge more: they had originally quoted something like £180, I asked them to match Autoglass's price of £157, which they said they would do, so I was keen to check that they had charged £157. They hadn't, they'd charged £103! I quickly moved on to check that the new key worked OK.

So, at this point, I knew (and dealer knew I knew) that I had already saved over £50 on what I expected to pay.

I checked the keys and found that the zapper on the old key no longer worked, only the new one did. Dealer offered the perfectly reasonable explanation that, actually, the old key had never worked 100%: the unlock button was mechanically defunct, which meant they couldn't get it to transmit its full range of signals, so couldn't programme a new key to match it. They'd just reprogrammed the car and the new key to match, leaving the old key fine as a key, but no good as a zapper.

This is a completely satisfactory explanation. I now had what I needed: a perfectly functional zapper key for everyday use, and a spare key to use to if we ever lost the first key.

You'd think, given that they had just given me £50 (by, for whatever reason, underbilling for that amount), that I'd be happy with that. But I wasn't. I was expecting to have 1 fully-functional zapper key (the new one) and one 50% functional zapper key (my old one). And I was mildly irritated not to have that.

The dealer was great, offering to replace the zapper bit of the old key, offering to come and collect the car from our house (as I had pointed out it wasn't that easy to bring car back, involves taxi or 2-car / 2-person trip), etc.

I was perfectly polite about the whole thing, and quickly realised I was fussing over nothing, but it struck me later how much I had fussed over the trivial matter of the zapper, compared to how little I had appreciated the free £50 I had just got.

Had, for example, the dealer never underbilled by £50, but instead had produced, immediately, a third key free of charge (value about £30), I would have been ecstatic and raving about them even though I would have actually been £20 poorer than I am under the £50-lower-bill / half-a-zapper scenario. To be honest, they could have produced a £20 bottle of Chablis, or bouquet of flowers, or whatever, and I would have valued that much more highly than the £50 off the bill.

We aren't that rational when it comes to things like this. We, as customers, value gestures and service far more highly than we do cash, which is odd, but extremely interesting.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Footway parking loophole closed?

Read that a barrister, Clive Wolman, lost a case yesterday in the Court of Appeal regarding a footway parking loophole which we established back in 2004.

Here is the BBC report on our original case, where we established in the Parking And Traffic Appeals Service that a literal interpretation of footway parking law is the correct interpretation (that one or more wheels have to be on the footway. If neither wheel is touching the footway, no contravention has occurred.)

As I understand it, PATAS rulings are not precedent-setting (i.e. another court can decide on their own interpretation of the law; and indeed a future PATAS adjudicator can reach a different decision to the adjudicator in our case), and it looks like the Court of Appeal have decided that the carelessly-drafted paragraph in the London Local Authorities Act 2000 should have read "on or over" not just "on" (as in one or more wheels on any part of an urban road other than the carriageway).

Not sure if Mr Wolman knew about our case or not - I Googled him last night and left him a voicemail at his chambers, as I am curious to find out a bit more background on his case.

Tuesday 31 July 2007

Publishing customer complaints

I posted a while back about the idea of publishing customer complaints, to show everyone that (a) sometimes things go wrong and (b) how we deal with those situations. This post is my first shot at doing that.

I'm not going to identify the customer, nor publish verbatim their complaint (because I don't think it is fair to do that without their permission) but I am going to summarise the situation, and publish our side of the correspondance:

The customer had a list of short jobs to do. She phoned up and we estimated that her list would take 3hrs (£140+VAT) to complete, and booked in one of our handymen.

As with many customers, she was happy to let us in first thing in the morning and then leave our handyman to it while she went to work.

Our chap turned up in the morning and it was clear that there was much more to do than the list of items we had noted down during her phone call, and that it would take much longer than our estimated 3 hrs to do. We don't know exactly what conversation took place, certainly our standard practice is to say something like "looks like I'll need about x hours for all this, is that OK?". Whatever exact conversation took place, our handyman was left with the clear impression that the customer was happy for him to do everything on the list, and wasn't too fussed about how long it all took.

It took seven hours in the end, plus £80 of materials, a total of £380+VAT.

The customer later complained that she thought it very unfair that we had originally estimated 3hrs and it took 7 hrs. We explained that her list was longer and more involved than it had sounded on the phone, and that our handyman had been led to believe that she wanted the work done, even if it took a long time. There was also an issue about us leaving a mess, which arose because our handyman (mistakenly) thought her vacuum cleaner was in a locked cupboard and not available. We conceded that it would have been helpful to have called her during the day to double-check that she was OK with the amount of time the work was taking. Here is what we actually wrote.

After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing the customer requested a detailed breakdown of exactly how much time was spent on which tasks. It can be very time-consuming to prepare that sort of thing, and inevitably you leave off something which you didn't think was important but the customer does, or whatever. So instead we suggested the handyman return to her property and spend a few minutes showing her exactly what he did, and how long he spent doing it (much easier, and quicker, to do face-to-face, than in writing.) We suggested that by email here, and by letter, and then again by e-mail.

She declined this offer, and continued to insist on a written account. I'm not sure why, perhaps she didn't want to take another hour or so off work in the morning, or perhaps she worried about an awkward confrontation with the handyman.

After some deliberation, we decided that our bill (which by now we had discounted to £360 to try and secure payment) was completely fair and that we had done more than we reasonably needed to "justify" the total. We advised the customer that she needed to pay or we would treat it as we do any other unpaid bill (i.e. eventually file a claim in court), by e-mail here. She paid in the end, after receiving a formal final demand threatening legal action.

This customer is almost certainly dissatisfied. Should we have just written off the loss (which would have been £180, as she was offering to pay £200+VAT vs actual bill of £380+VAT)? is that £180 loss worth it to keep that customer happy? My view is no: by that stage customer would probably not have been happy even if we had written off the entire bill. She felt she was being ripped off, and if she has got that impression of us in her head, it is unlikely we are going to be able to change it.

But most importantly is what is the "right" thing to do? Did the circumstances merit writing off a large chunk of the bill? I don't think so.

It is also not very fair on the handyman who has worked hard for a full day, only to be told that (effectively) we don't think his work is worth charging for. He still gets paid, obviously, but it is a little demoralising for him to hear that, after he has worked hard to solve the customers problems and fix lots of things in her house we have decided not to charge much for that.

Throughout this dispute, we were aware that the customer worked for a (quality national) newspaper (she hadn't mentioned this, but it was obvious from her e-mail address), creating an even bigger temptation just to cave in and waive the bill entirely. But it would not have been right to give a customer special treatment in this sort of situation, just because we fear she might write about it (or tell a colleague who writes about it). We have to decide based purely on our understanding of the facts. Did we do 7 hours of work? Yes. Did we explicitly say that we expected the bill to be nearly £400? Probably not, and if we did say that, we obviously didn't communicate that effectively to the customer (unless she was simply pretending to be surprised at the size of the bill, but that's unlikely). So could we have managed her expectations better? Definitely. But should she reasonably have expected that the bill could have reached £400, after he initial conversation with Robin on the morning of his visit? Yes. We charge by the half-hour, and anyone should reasonably know that a rough estimate given over the phone is gonig to be just that: a very rough estimate.

These situations are very, very rare: we could get all corporate about it and give everyone in the office a little script to a say every time they offer an opinion on how long something might take: "Please note that is a rough estimate only, based on what you have told me. If it turns out there are more tasks than you have mentioned; or some tasks prove to be more complex than normal, then, the total time required will be longer.". And then they could ask "Have you understaood that?" and tick a little box on the customer's record saying "Estimate disclaimer read out and customer acknowledged".

But 99% of customers would find that irritating and perhaps a little insulting to their intelligence. Of course the time will increase if I add more tasks. Of course you can't estimate exactly how long something will take based on a 60-second phone call. I just want a ball-park figure, don't bombard me with this legal yada-yada.

We could also present the customer with written terms and conditions at the start of the job, and somewhere in those T&Cs would be something about accuracy of estimates, we charge for as long as it takes, etc. etc. But we don't want to do that either. There is nothing worse for breaking the rapport with a customer than to present them, as soon as you walk into their house, with an A4 sheet of close-typed legalese and ask them to sign to say they understand it.

So we don't do written terms & conditions either. Which means that, every so often, we have a minor dispute which might, maybe, have been more easily resolved if we had a few paragraphs of legal waffle to point to. But at the cost of mildly irritating every single other customer.

So there you go, my first shot at publishing the detail of how we deal with a customer complaint. I am satisfied with the way we dealt with this and think it does, overall, reflect well on us. Although it is disappointing that we were unable to resolve it in a way that kept the customer happy. You might think differently, I'd be interested to hear.

Thursday 26 July 2007

Equal Opportunities - discrimination on grounds of belief

I've done a little more research into Equal Ops law and have found lots of people claiming it is unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of "religion or belief". At first glance, it really might appear unlawful to discriminate against someone who believes that black is live and red is neutral (I know, EU rules require new colours these days, but the vast majority of houses still have red/black wiring for the bits the householder doesn't usually mess with).

So I checked out the relevant statutory instrument which seems to be The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. Fortunately, "religion or belief" is quite specifically defined as:

"any religion, religious belief, or similar philosophical belief"

I doubt you'd consider black-is-live-red-is-neutral to be religious or philosophical, so I guess we're OK on that point.

However, the sincerely-held, but probably delusional, quasi-religious belief is going to be trickier. It really does seem to be unlawful to discrimate against an employee (or potential employee) who, say, sincerely believes something that would be harmful to our business (e.g. that nails and hammers should only be held with the right hand, thereby making it impossible to hold both the nail and hammer at the same time; or something far more serious like believing that members of another religion should be exterminated.)

I can't find an exception for this sort of thing. There is an exception to allow discrimination if it is in the interests of "national security" (reg 24); and a rather complicated exception about Sikhs, turbans, helmets and building sites (reg 26). There is also an exception (reg 7) if your business really needs to employ only people who are members of a particular religion (presumably to allow the Church of England to only employ Anglicans as vicars. It would be awkward if they had to also employ Catholics and Muslims), but it doesn't operate the other way. i.e. if you need people to be members of a particular religion, you can reject people who are not members of that religion. But we don't need people to be members of a particular religion, so we can't use that exception.

I suppose, though, that if the person's belief prevents them effectively doing their job (as with the hypothetical nail / hammer example), that's going to be the over-riding principle, right? So you are rejecting them because they can't do the job, not really because of their belief? Surely it's OK to do that?

Wednesday 18 July 2007

Environment Policy - my version

And here is my version of our Environment Policy. It is admittedly a bit weak, but still an improvement on Supply London's standard version.

Environmental Policy

We are committed to comply with legislation, to continually improve our processes to prevent pollution so lessening our impact on the environment.

We seek out opportunities to reduce our environmental impact where possible.

Examples of such actions which we have already taken include:

- Using motorcycles instead of vans in all urban areas
- Using bicycles instead of motorcycles where distances permit (e.g. City & West End)
- Encouraging office staff to cycle to work through the provision of a Ride2Work scheme
- Drinking tap water, not bottled water, out of glasses, not disposable cups
- Recycling office waste wherever facilities exist to do this
- Using low-energy lamps instead of incandescent lamps

We actively seek out new opportunities and review our progress on a regular basis.



Environment Policy

I discussed Equal Opportunity policies yesterday (here and here). Now for the "Environment Policy". Below is Supply London's boilerplate version, with my annotations. Note that I am not an environmental expert at all, happy to be corrected on the paper / water issues in particular:

Company XYZ Ltd
Environmental Policy

Company XYZ was established in xxxx to provide xxxxxxxx to the xxxxx industry. We are based in xxxxxxx and employ xxxxx people.

We are committed to comply with legislation, to continually improve our processes to prevent pollution so lessening our impact on the environment. We provide training and education for our employees on environmental issues and monitor and review our environmental progress on an annual basis. We have set ourselves specific objectives and targets which show that we are aware of our impact and that we are acting upon this knowledge.

Our objectives and targets are:-

1. to measure our use of energy and water [why is using water bad? I never understand this. The planet can’t run out of water, we aren’t turning the water into anything else – it will eventually run into the sea, evaporate and come down as rain again. I think you only need to conserve water in the case of a local shortage, it is not a global environment issue] and reduce this by x% by xxxxx
2. to reduce the amount of waste by introducing a recycling system for paper, bottles and cans by xxxx [local authority best positioned for that: it is not environmentally friendly for everyone to individually drive loads of paper/cans/bottles to a recycling point]
3. to reduce the amount of waste by printing double sided [is using paper actually bad? Paper is produced from trees grown specifically for making paper. Before they are harvested to make paper, those trees spend a few years soaking up greenhouse gasses. If we used less paper, some of those trees would not be planted, and so we would have more greenhouse gas] and by using glasses by xxxx [Using glasses instead of plastic cups is not necessarily better for the environment: the energy needed to make a glass, and to wash it regularly, is so high that you need to be sure to reuse the glass many, many times before it offers an environmental advantage over disposable cups. See Hocking, 1994, Environmental Management 18(6)]
4. to encourage employees to use public transport and share cars wherever possible and to investigate the feasibility of providing a bike to work scheme by xxxx [this we already do]
5. to use our buying power wherever practicable by buying local [Buying locally is almost certain to be harmful to the environment: a local stationery supplier making lots of small, inefficient trips between his store and his customers is less environmentally friendly than, say, Viking’s super-efficient national distribution system], fair-trade [fair trade is probably harmful to most third-world producers, although not sure whether it is an environmental issue at all: if you pay a privileged group of producers above the market price you distort competition, and disadvantage other (equally deserving) producers, really no different from the EU artificially subsidising French farmers see here for detailed review of this issue], recycled and products from sustainable sources
6. to use wherever practicable suppliers who share the same environmental ethos as us.

[Apart from the specific points I made above, I am uncertain that us putting in place, say, a target for printing double-sided is the best thing to focus on. The best way for us to have a positive environmental impact is to grow our central London motorcycle-based business: for every additional bike-based handyman we employ, that is likely to displace one competitor’s knackered transit van. And you’d have to, surely, save on a huge amount of paper to outweigh the benefit of 100mpg scooter vs 30mpg Transit? Achieving some minor target of dubious environmental benefit is going to distract from that.]

A copy of this policy is posted on the Company Notice Board and is also contained in the staff handbook and is made available to our customers via our website.

The next review date for this policy is xx/xx/xxxx



Tuesday 17 July 2007

Equal Opportunities Policy - my version

OK, further to yesterday's post about Equal Ops policies, here is my version:

0800handyman Ltd
Equal Opportunities Policy

We ensure that we are aware of and comply with legislation including the Equal Pay Act 1970, The Race Relations Act 1976 and Amendment 2000, Disability Discrimination Act 1995, Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

We value diversity: we love employing staff and serving customers from diverse backgrounds. We think it makes our business more effective and more interesting to work in.

We actively seek out and reward those candidates and employees who are likely to, or who do, excel at their work. The factors that are likely to affect success at work include technical ability, communication skills, friendliness, intelligence and so forth. We do not consider gender, sexual orientation or race to be relevant selection / assessment qualities and do not use these in selecting or assessing a candidate or an employee.

We do not tolerate victimisation or harassment, and will take decisive action to protect an employee who is subjected to victimisation or harassment.

We work with our clients and suppliers to ensure that they understand our ethos.

This policy is available in the staff handbook. All new employees are asked to read this policy during induction.

The Managing Director is responsible for this policy and its implementation and for investigating any apparent breaches of this policy.


Which I think is a considerable improvement - I think it covers all the main points in Supply London's version, but does so concisely and in a more positive way.

Now I just need to do an "Environment Policy" and a "Quality Policy". (I haven't read Supply London's boilerplate versions yet, but no doubt they will make interesting reading).

Monday 16 July 2007

Blogging works!

Delighted to see this comment, from a reader who, after reading my post about Doorstep Selling Regs, successfully saw off cowboy "builders" attempting to rip off their elderly father.

Equal Opportunities Policy

We have been asked by an organisation called Supply London, which helps smaller companies sell into the public sector, to supply an Equal Opportunities Policy in order to gain access to (apparently) lucrative public sector contracts. We don't currently have a written Equal Ops policy, so they have kindly sent us a template and (literally) said just to put our company name in the gaps. Regular readers of this blog will know about my thoughts on using generic, boilerplate, waffly "policies", so it will be no surprise that I have one or two problems with the template they provided. Here it is (with my annotations):


Company XYZ Ltd
Equal Opportunities Policy

Company XYZ was established in xxxx to provide xxxxxxxx to the xxxxx industry. We are based in xxxxxxx and employ xxxxx people.

We ensure that we are aware of and comply with legislation including the Equal Pay Act 1970, The Race Relations Act 1976 and Amendment 2000, Disability Discrimination Act 1995, Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

We aim to encourage, value and manage diversity in all areas of our business and to be an equal opportunities employer. We are committed to providing equality for all [well, no, we aren’t. For example, some of our handymen earn more than others, because they work harder and/or more efficiently. I earn more than James, our newest hire in the office. There was a social experiment launched in St Petersburg in 1917 which committed to provide equality for all, but it didn’t really work that well] and to this end we make real efforts to attain [sic] a workforce that is representative of the local community [kind of saying the same thing as the first sentence] by ensuring that we use as wide a selection of advertising mediums [sic: media] as possible [No: we don’t use a wide selection of media, we only recruit people who have applied on our website, because we only want people who are resourceful enough to find out about us; we don’t want to field applicants who are trawling through the paper looking for any old job] and by monitoring the ethnicity of job applicants. [we don’t monitor ethnicity because I think it is intrusive, and largely irrelevant; I never answer those questions myself]

We do not accept discrimination on the grounds of gender, sex, marital status or gender re-assignment [strange that gender re-assignment, which is a very rare circumstance, is here, but not race or sexual orientation. Although we wouldn’t discriminate against any of these]. Nor will we tolerate discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnic origin, colour, nationality, national origin, religion or belief [We would most certainly tolerate discrimination on grounds of belief: if someone really, honestly, believed that they had been sent by God to murder people with pliers, we probably would not employ them. Ditto if they honestly and persistently believed that black was live and red was neutral], age or disability [slightly tricky one, ‘disability’. From a recruitment point of view, we are inevitably going to discriminate against someone who does not have the ability to perform the job. From a customer service point of view, not an issue at all].

We will not tolerate victimisation, discrimination or harassment in any form [ludicrous to "not tolerate discrimination in any form”. If we did not discriminate between applicants / employees, we would hire everyone, and reprimand no-one. And we discriminate, for example, against customers that don’t pay their bills. And what if a customer chose not to use us because they thought we were too expensive, would we “not tolerate” that??] and we make it clear that if any instances will be investigated and is deemed to be a disciplinary offence which could result in dismissal. [grammar here is so poor, I am not quite sure what this clause means]

We believe that everyone should be treated fairly and on their own merit and ability [Yes! This should be at the start of the policy. Stress the positive, not the negative.]. This policy is the ethos of our selection and recruitment procedure and applies to promotion and training and to discipline and dismissal. We provide training for managers and supervisors in interviewing, selection, promotion and recruitment ensuring that they understand the legislation and our policy.

We work with our clients and suppliers to ensure that they understand our ethos and we make it clear that fair treatment for all is expected and should be maintained.

This policy is posted on the Company Notice Board [don’t have a Company Notice Board, not really our style] and is also available in the staff handbook. All new employees are asked to read this policy during induction.

The Managing Director is responsible for this policy and its implementation and for investigating any instances of discrimination.




The more I read this, the more shocked I am at how shoddily drafted this document is. Clearly anyone using this template as their "policy" can't have read it properly and probably doesn't give a monkey's about the important issues it is really trying to address. I am sure I can draft a better version, which I will post shortly, and which I will submit to Supply London in lieu of this weak and counter-productive effort.

Tuesday 10 July 2007

Inefficient customer goes bust

A customer of ours, Nationwide Facilities, has gone into liquidation. This was a strange customer: they had some quite impressive contracts servicing corporates and retail chains, and subcontracted the work to us. But they were such hard work to deal with, we could never understand how they had persuaded these companies to entrust them with their maintenance contracts.

Our preferred method of processing a job request is as follows: receive instructions(usually phone call/e-mail, or fax if you are living in stone age); schedule job; do job.

Pretty simple.

But some people make it a whole lot more complicated, and Nationwide was one of those. Typical process would be: receive conflicting, incomplete instructions; clarify instructions; try to reach contact person on site to schedule job; contact person has no idea who we are; revert to Nationwide, receive amended instructions; etc. etc, you get the idea.

This didn't just create a whole load of extra work for us, but obviously created a whole load of extra work for themsleves. Which might explain why they went into liquidation: they were presumably making a few pounds off each job, but spending tens of pounds on administering each job.

To their credit one of the two directors appears to have put the company into voluntary liquidation while there was still a reasonable amount of cash in the bank, so we will probably be paid most of what we are owed, which is nice.

PS - Googling them reveals a whole load of companies with similar names, so to avoid accidentally libelling anyone, I am talking about Nationwide Facilities of SW18 4PZ.

Somewhat unimpressive service from Charles Tyrwhitt

Back in the days when I used to wear suits a lot, I spent many hundreds of pounds a year on shirts from Charles Tyrwhitt, who pretty much dominated the quite-posh-shirt-by-mail-order market. And I still buy quite a lot of clothing from them, given that I don't especially like shopping (particularly in places like Debenhams where they inexplicably group items by designer, rather than more usefully by product type. So to compare lots of shirts you have to traipse around the whole store. Coincidentally, Seth Godin had something to say about this only a few days ago.)

Anyway, I never had any reason to complain about Charles Tyrwhitt, but rather assumed from the friendly, informal tone of their marketing that if I ever did complain they would resolve it without fuss. Not so.

The dye in the label on this pair of trousers ran horribly in the (first) wash, ruining the trousers and a couple of items of (baby) Lara's clothes. No drama, I thought, send back to CT and I am sure they will refund the cost of the trousers (£45), the cost of Lara's clothes (about £20), plus hopefully the £20 I spent at a local tailor getting the trousers adjusted as they didn't quite fit.

They have offered to refund the trousers. But only offer a £20 credit note for the baby clothes (not purchased from Charles Tyrwhitt, so can't use their credit note to replace them), and refuse point blank to refund the adjustment costs.

Am I going to spend hours quibbling over this? No.

Am I going to see if Marks and Spencers' menswear has improved as much as people say it has? Yes.

Monday 9 July 2007

Public Liability Insurance

We have just renewed our Public Liability insurance. Our existing insurer, predictably, offered a premium slightly higher than last year. Our broker went to one other provider and got a much better quote. Then we went back to the original firm, and they bettered their original offer by fully 50%! You'd like to think that the insurance market is pretty competitive and efficient and that a premium quoted is going to be pretty much the best rate available (especially if quoted by a company who has full and detailed information about our claims history as they have been insuring us for years). Clearly not so, it could be out by 50%. Amazing.

Anyway, we have now saved ourselves many thousands of pounds in insurance costs for the coming year. Well done to our broker, Kerry London.

(Note: I'd understand if two different providers offered wildly different premiums as we might fit one's preferred risk profile better than another's. But for the same firm to change their price by 50% within 24hrs is pretty astonishing).

Friday 6 July 2007

Serving B&Q customers in Manchester / Liverpool

We are not having a huge amount of success finding someone to cover Manchester / Liverpool area. As mentioned in this post, a particular customer wants us to provide coverage for them in that area.

The customer is this company:

We have been providing a handyman service in a couple of B&Q stores in London for a while, and B&Q very much want to include handymanning in a range of services that are now available in the Manchester area (alongside cavity wall insulation, flooring, electrical work etc.), and they really, really want us to provide that handyman service.

The way this works is that the customer buys 1,2,4 or 8 hours handymanning in the store, pays for it in the store, then we come round and do the work. DIY stores in the USA have offered this kind of thing for years, and the UK market is going the same way. Anyone who follows B&Q closely will have seen mention of the handyman and other services in B&Q's quarterly announcements.

So we really, really, need to find one or two super-handymen based in the Manchester or Liverpool areas who want to work for us. Please fill out the application form on our website if you might be the person we are looking for.

Thursday 5 July 2007

But "less is more" obviously doesn't work for no-smoking signs

Why do we have to put a "no-smoking" sign on our office door? We apparently risk a £2,000 fine for not doing so.

What is the point of such a sign? I quite understand needing signs when people might otherwise not know the law (e.g. speed limit signs). But not smoking in public places has surely got to be in the top ten of laws that people do (now) know about. And if they don't, they are soon going to find out with or without a four inch sign on our door.

There are all sorts of things people are prohibited by law from doing in our office, including committing fraud, committing murder, driving a car without a seatbelt, trading whilst insolvent, fixing a gas boiler while not competent to do so, etc. but we don't put signs up for those things. Requirement to display a no-smoking sign on every public door (especially if you occupy, say, a gorgeous listed building, which alas we don't) is a bit silly, if you ask me.

Less is more in (traffic) safety

Pleased to see that London's experiment with reducing street clutter in High Street Kensington has improved safety, consistent with our own "less is more" philosophy of managing safety.

Two years ago part of Ken High St was revamped, with pedestrian guard rails removed, many traffic signs removed, etc. Accidents involving pedestrians have dropped by a whopping 40-odd% since the changes.

(Reported in today's Evening Standard, but can't find it on their site. Similar, but apparently older, stats are reported here, though.)

Tuesday 3 July 2007

More on silicone sealant, plus fun leaking pipes

We had another London staff meeting on Friday morning, and another animated discussion about the intricacies of silicone sealant. What an exciting bunch we are! Don quizzed Stan (silicone meister) about exactly how his seal-then-spray-then-wipe technique coped with a very large and/or uneven gap. You probably don't need this much detail, and I'm not sure I can remember Stan's answer. But poor Eric (new guy) helpfully chipped in that using masking tape also worked well. Masking tape! So last month. Eric of course didn't have the benefit of seeing Stan's technique in person, so wasn't to know that masking tape is now decidely passe (not sure how to do an e-acute accent in blogger) in the world of silicone sealant.

Plus, more fun and games later in the day when Paul called in a mild panic to report that he had managed to put a screw through a central heating pipe. No huge dramas, we despatched another nearby handyman (Peter) to help out while Paul kept his finger over the hole. Paul couldn't even get to the door to let Peter in (customer had gone to work), but fortunately a set of keys were kept at a nearby estate agent's, so Peter let himself in with those and between them the fixed the problem.

Paul did report later how, while he sat waiting for the 0800handyman support machine to roll into action, he pondered what on earth he would do if he was a self-employed handyman? Obviously, short answer is not to put a screw through a pipe in the first place. But that kind of minor mishap is going to happen sooner or later (we prefer not to rely on pipe / cable detectors: they give too many false positives, and even sometimes false negatives). I think we've probably had two or three accidental pipe breaches out of 50,000+ jobs since we started in 2001. If you were on your own, I suppose you'd tend to be a little more careful (=slower) knowing that you had no-one to call if anything went wrong. And if it did, you'd just have to bite the bullet and let the pipe leak until you could isolate it. God forbid you put a hole in the rising main with no local stop-cock and a long hunt for the stopcock in the street.

From Greek plumbing to French hammers

Why do most hammers in France look like this:

While in the UK, pretty much every hammer looks something like this:

You can buy, if you look hard enough an "English" hammer from Castorama, but you certainly can't buy a "French" hammer from Screwfix.

Presumably, a French carpenter uses a different tool to remove a nail. Buy why? And what, actually, does he use the narrow end of his hammer for?

I suspect a carpenter (English or French) will know the answer, I am probably missing something very obvious here.

Thursday 28 June 2007

Prize for nice customers?

Just catching up on my blog reading, and noticed this post on Seth's Blog.

We could do that, offer a prize to the nicest customer who called each day. Decide by a quick straw poll at the end of the day, and send them a small prize. There might not be someone outstandingly super-nice every day, but often there is, and we do talk about it, but we would never actually tell them "hey, you're such a pleasure to deal with, we really appreciate your custom", but why shouldn't we? I'd love it if I was that customer.

And, of course, it's great for word-of-mouth marketing:

"Where did you get those lovely flowers?"
"Oh, 0800handyman sent them to me because I am really nice"

I'm back!

Ok, I'm back from holiday, and ready to blog.

First thing: why can't you flush loo paper down the loo in Greece? I wondered about this quite a lot, it is very odd. Which part of the system is so susceptible to blockage?

It can't be the loo itself, because they (appear to be) exactly the same as the loos you see anywhere in Western Europe.

The pipes within the house? But why? The villa we stayed in seemed fairly new (certainly less than 10yrs old, maybe less than 5), why use narrow diameter pipe if you are designing a modern building from scratch? (You do sometimes use narrow diameter soil pipe in the UK where you are converting an awkward space into bathroom, but then you just add a saniflo to mash and pump everything.)

I didn't risk testing whether this is just a myth, but I did ask our tour operator's rep about it: she said that every year some clients do ignore the instruction, and sure enough the drains get blocked. She (understandably) didn't know which bit of the system got blocked.

Could it be the actual sewage treatment system, not the house drainage? But surely most houses will be using a local septic tank, they can't all be on mains drainage on a mountainous island like Corfu.

I recall Yugoslavia (as it was then) had the same issue with loo-paper-down-the-loo. But of other countries in roughly this area that I have visited (Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Turkey) I am fairly sure none of them have this problem.

I couldn't really figure it out. Anyone know?

Friday 15 June 2007

I'm away, by the way

In case you are wondering why I haven't posted for a while, I'm away. Checking out the handyman industry here.

Friday 1 June 2007

Manchester / Liverpool handymen still needed

Further to this post, we are still looking for the right candidates to work in our planned branch covering Manchester and Liverpool.

If you think you might be one of the people we are looking for, please complete the application form on our website.

Thursday 31 May 2007

Silicone sealant in bathrooms

We'd had a few call-backs recently on silicone sealant jobs. A very frequent job that we do is re-sealing baths and showers, where sealant has got old and mouldy and leaky. Removing the old silicon, and resealing with new is the sort of job all of our handymen should be complete experts at, so hearing that some of them weren't was worrying.

So, we had "silicone sealant" as the subject of our masterclass on Friday. Every fourth Friday we have our London team get together over breakfast. This is partly for social reasons - as our guys work mostly alone, they can go for days or weeks without seeing any of their colleagues; and partly to share knowledge and skills. And most times, we pick a topic for one handyman to talk about - whether it be a new technique, a new tool they have discovered, or whatever.

Stan and Don both gave brilliant demonstrations of their silicone sealant technique. Stan had a secret weapon, which he had mentioned before but none of us really understood how effective it was until we saw it in action. The secret weapon is simply an old perfume spray bottle filled with soapy water - spray this onto the silicone, and onto the tiles an inch or so either side of the bead, then (and only then) smooth it off. It is very, very effective, allowing you to produce a perfect smooth bead of silicone with ease. We'd used a mocked-up tile corner using black tiles and white silicone so any imperfections would be very visible. And even under those conditions, Stan's handywork was perfect.

So now we are issuing everyone with a little water-spray bottle, and now that everyone knows what 0800handyman silicone work should look like we hopefully won't have any more sub-standard siliconing.

Tuesday 29 May 2007

Meeting with National Britannia / Safecontractor

So I went up to Caerphilly to meet with representatives of National Britannia (including their divisional managing director, James Ostler) to discuss the curfuffle I have created over our SafeContractor renewal.

I was actually quite impressed: National Britannia have put a lot of thought into what I have said, and took my concerns very seriously. Broadly speaking, this was the outcome of the meeting:

1. NatBrit agree that overloading people with information is counter-productive

2. Our risk assessments are very good, and do a good job of communicating information to our handymen

3. They would prefer to see more paperwork documenting the work we have done to produce those risk assessments (i.e. why we have chosen those risks not others; our process for identifying new risks, etc.)

This is also what the HSE hinted at: that the paperwork we issue to handymen is excellent, but we should have more 'back-office' paperwork to back it up.

NatBrit are going to re-audit our application and issue a revised list of additional things they'd like to see. I doubt if producing this extra paperwork will make our business any more safe, but it probably won't make it less safe (assuming, that is, that they don't ask us to issue more bumf to our handymen, just have it filed away for occasional review in the office) Once I know what new paperwork they would like to see, I will decide whether it is commercially worth the extra time and effort needed to produce it.

One question I did pose, which to their credit they did consider very carefully (and, I suspect, discussed further after I left) was this: "would you ever reject a risk assessment because it was too long-winded?". If one really does believe that over-loading people with excessive information is counter-productive, then it follows that you must reject some risk assessments for being too long. A 2,500 word document about, say, using a Stanley knife is unlikely to be an effective document and should be rejected. NatBrit didn't think they had yet rejected anything for ticking too many boxes, but maybe they will start doing that now?

Friday 25 May 2007


I love Greenthumb. These are the guys that spread magic fertiliser stuff on your lawn four times a year to make it look lush and green. Why is that so special? Why not just buy the magic fertiliser stuff from B&Q and do it yourself?

Because it costs more to buy it from B&Q (or any other DIY store), even before you account for your own time trying to spread the damn stuff over your lawn. And it takes ages and ages to painstakingly pour n grams per square meter over your whole lawn.

So, for £21 a time, a lovely chap from Greenthumb comes four times a year and treats our lawn. To buy enough fertiliser to cover our (quite small) lawn does cost more than £21. That is a great business. Imagine if you were a restuarant and you could provide your customers with a gourmet meal for less money than it cost them to go and buy the ingredients in the supermarket.

I don't quite understand the economics of Greenthumb, but I am guessing that:

(a) they are (obviously) paying a wholesale price for the fertiliser stuff

(b) they can spread it over a lawn in a tiny fraction of the time it would take the lawn owner, because they have bought (one) somewhat expensive fertiliser-spreading machine which it would be uneconomic for a single lawn owner to purchase. I've never actually seen Greenthumb administer a "treatment", but my wife tells me they are in and out in less than five minutes

(c) because they don't need supervised access, they can schedule their appointments to perfectly optimise (I like split infinitives; I think it is better to split than cumbersomely not to split one) their own travel time. So they do (I am guessing) a dozen lawns all within a stone's throw of each other, on a particular day, getting a good £250+ revenue per day. And presumably a lawn-treatment-dispensing person costs about £80 / day to employ (less?), minus (say) £5 a pop wholesale cost of the fertiliser, leaves you 40-odd% gross margin.

Then they charge extra for mechanical things over the winter (aerating and that sort of thing, which could easily add 50% to their annual revenue from each customer, if we are anything to go by), so all adds up to a good little business.

Plus they can charge extra to fix nasty things like leatherjackets (cranefly larvae, which live underground and eat grass roots, turning a lawn into a patchy brown area with some tufts of grass). Once you have a beautiful lawn, you are very, very ready to pay a bit more to keep it that way. (I speak as someone with a recently-cleared-up infestation of leatherjackets)

And, finally, I like them because they are focussed. They keep your lawn green, that's it. They don't mow it. They don't weed your flowerbeds, sell you compost or prune your roses. They don't do anything else in your garden at all. They just do lawn-fixing. There's a lot to be said for that - every additional thing you try and do inevitably reduces somewhat your expertise in your core area.

Link from John Kerry's blog

Gosh, this post I made a while back (noting how we have Margaret Hodge looking after Small Businesses; Americans have none other than John Kerry) has been noticed and linked to by John Kerry's own blog. That's one dedicated research team.

Wednesday 23 May 2007

Safecontractor renewal latest

James Ostler, Divisional Managing Director of National Britannia has invited me to come to their office in Caerphilly to discuss my concerns about our SafeContractor renewal.

So I am up at the crack of dawn tomorrow to travel to Caerphilly in deepest Wales (well, 30mins from Newport, deep enough) to meet him.

Should be interesting.

Tuesday 22 May 2007

May 2103: 0800handyman completes its 100millionth job

I see that the AA attended their 100 millionth breakdown today. 100 million jobs in just over 100 years (the AA was founded in 1905). BBC reports they did 5 million jobs in their first 9 years (citing outbreak of WW1, which by my reckoning was 1914), but I don't believe that, they must mean WW2. Otherwise they would have averaged over half-a-million callouts a year between 1905 and 1914, surely there weren't enough cars around then to generate that many callouts (even if they did all break down more often)?

And, actually, the 3.5m callouts per year they say they do currently seems pretty high. Taking a wild guess that their market share is 50%, that implies 7m breakdowns a year - nearly a quarter of all cars in the UK (there are 33m cars in the UK) breaking down once a year? Surely not, seems far too high?

Anyway, I look forward to 0800handyman performing our 100 millionth job, which if we follow the AA's trajectory will be somewhere around May 2103.

HIP fiasco

So, the government decides to postpone HIPs once again. What a fiasco this has been. I always thought the point of HIPs was to reduce the costs and time associated with a house purchase by making the seller do a house survey, not the (potential) buyer. That way, fewer surveys are needed (as each potential buyer would otherwise do their own survey, even if they later pull out); and purchase can be completed more quickly (as buyers don't have to wait for a survey).

But then the building survey element was dropped some time ago, leaving a watered-down proposal that seemed to be pretty pointless, I don't know why govt didn't just abandon it completely at that stage. I suspect the whole thing will be quietly dropped not long after Aug 1.

Handymen needed in Manchester / Liverpool / M62 corridor

Interesting development today. A key customer of ours is very keen that we provide coverage for them in Manchester and Liverpool. They have obviously looked at the local competition, but have decided they'd rather use us (even though we don't cover those cities at the moment), which is very flattering

So we are going out on a bit of a limb and will hire one (or maybe more) handymen to cover this area.

Such a person would have to be super-self-sufficient and able to work very much on their own. Popping into the office in Battersea to catch up with the gossip wouldn't really be an option. But we could maybe stretch to getting them down for the summer go-karting.

If this might be you, fill out our application form and send it directly to me (my first name [at] We'll be interviewing next week.

Tuesday 15 May 2007

London bookings going through roof

Is there something in the water in central London? Our 30-day average bookings-taken-per-day metric has leapt nearly 25% over the past month or so (see graph; y-axis units hidden, to retain a modicum of commercial confidentiality).

It hasn't taken us completely by surprise, we have been doing one or two quiet little bits of new marketing, but it is pretty amazing, nonetheless.

Sunday 13 May 2007

Red tape myth repeated in Sunday Times yesterday

Rachel Bridge in yesterday's Sunday Times (tried to find link, but their website still has last week's articles on it; it is on page 15 of Business section of the paper version), repeats this myth that we all spend many hours a week on so-called "red tape".

She reports a new, even scarier statistic about how much time businesses spend dealing with red tape. Not to be outdone by the FSB claiming that businesses spend 28 hours a month on government red tape, a business-advice outfit called Peninsula claims that small businesses spend an average of 9.5 hours a week just on employment law and HR matters. That's a whopping 41 hours a month.

Anyone who is so poor at managing their time that they have to spend more than one entire day a week on "red tape" shouldn't be in business.

What are these businesses doing that we aren't? I suspect this figure must include-lots of things which aren't "red tape" (i.e. government-imposed bureaucracy), although that is not how the Sunday Times / Peninsula are presenting it. "HR matters" may well include lots of important and valuable work which isn't "red tape" at all. If you run a service business, most of your time is going to be spent managing your staff. But that is the nature of your business, nothing to do with government-imposed bureaucracy.

And I am deeply skeptical of Peninsula's claim to be campaiging to reduce red tape. They are, I think, really campaiging to increase awareness of (belief in?) red tape. Their business depends on other businesses believing that red tape exists, is excessive, and is expensive to comply with, so those businesses pay for Peninsula's advice.

They are not a credible campaigner to reduce red tape. It is like a petrol company lobbying the government to require cars to be more fuel-efficient.

I say again that a much more productive stance for the Sunday Times, the FSB, and anyone else in a position of influence is to say "we, in Britain, enjoy loose regulation and are generally trusted to manage our own affairs, unlike businesses in the USA and mainland Europe. We'd like to keep it that way."

You don't want politicians and bureaucrats to think that we operate in a highly-regulated environment. If they think that, they won't worry about adding a few extra regulations here and there. It is like dropping litter on the Tube: if you think you see other people leaving their litter in a particular corner of a platform, you might not worry about leaving your empty coffee cup there. One more won't make any difference. But you wouldn't dream of leaving your empty coffee cup on a pristine platform. So it is with red tape: if, as a politician, you think there is already lots of red tape around, and that most businesses set aside a day a week (!) to deal with it anyway, adding an extra trivial regulation (which, your RIA tells you takes five minutes a week to comply with) really won't make any difference, you would go ahead and implement it.

Thursday 10 May 2007

Microwave drill

Check this out:

The Microwave Drill

The inventor contacted us a couple of years ago, looking for someone to get involved in real-world testing of this extraordinary invention. Apparently, the device is too dangerous for the amateur domestic user, but he reckoned that pros like us could handle it.

We've decided to stick with DeWalts for now.

Wednesday 9 May 2007

Quickbooks upgrade and sunset policy

I love Quickbooks, it is fantastic software, and I happily recommend it to anyone who will listen. It is far superior to Sage.

But I don't like the way they handle their upgrade policy. Every couple of years, they release a new version and eventually stop supporting old versions. This is perfectly sensible, and we also upgrade every few years, as our version approaches its "sunset" date (the date when they stop supporting it, and stop offering payroll tax table updates).

We prefer not to upgrade to the very latest version as soon as it comes out, because new software (whether from Microsoft, Sun or Quickbooks) often has bugs which are only ironed out once very large numbers of users have been bashing away at it for a year or so. Indeed, Quickbooks itself had quite a serious bug in their 2003 Pro edition when it first came out. Plus there was a complex change to VAT reporting in 2005 Pro which, while not a bug, was difficult to handle and we handled it incorrectly causing us considerable problems later on. This was our fault, but nevertheless is another example of why we avoid upgrading too frequently - we don't want to have to spend time every year figuring out this sort of thing.

But Quickbooks always try and bamboozle us into upgrading nearly a year before our current version sunsets, by refusing to sell us a payroll subscription for our version, on the basis that that version will sunset a few weeks before we have had a full twelve months' use out of that payroll subscription (because we first subscribed in May 2001, so every year we renew in May, but the sunset date always falls in April.)

We then have a little barney about this, insisting they honour their published sunset date, if that means we lose a few pounds-worth of payroll subscription we really don't mind. And they agree, and we then upgrade about a year later. (And I don't think we do ever actually lose out on the payroll subscription, because we roll it into the new version when we do upgrade).

That's all broadly fine. It is obviously in Quickbooks' interest to persuade people to upgrade more frequently, so I don't object too much to them trying to do that.

But I do hugely object to the telephone manner of the "supervisor" who I just persuaded to renew our payroll subscription. She did this very begrudgingly, saying "but you are just going to complain about this in 2008 when you need to upgrade the software. Every time you contact us it is to complain."

Pop quiz: what's the best way to deal with a customer who complains? Blame them for complaining too frequently? Or try and fix the problem?

(plus, it's not me contacting them, it's them contacting me, trying to sell me something I don't really need.)

Friday 4 May 2007

Fixing broken handymen

I generally avoid politics on this blog, but I feel I have to post about our recent experience of the NHS. One of our handymen (Greg, he of the "No, you are not stealing my scooter" adventure) had a low-speed tumble on his scooter several weeks ago, leaving him with an apparently injured knee.

He was obviously in pain and unable to work properly, but struggled to get any meaningful treatment from his GP, despite several visits - just a prescription of anti-inflammatories. He really needed an MRI scan to properly assess the damage.

In exasperation, Greg returned to his native Hungary to get an MRI scan (he has been a UK resident for ten years, but still holds dual Hungarian / British citizenship). He's had the scan, his (Hungarian) doctor has diagnosed what is actually wrong (which is, unsurprisingly, more than just "inflammation") and will fix him.

We in the UK spend $1,429 of tax money per year per capita on healthcare. In Hungary, they spend just $842 per capita and that includes private spending (Source: Nationmaster).

And in the past year 0800handyman handed over in excess of £300,000 in taxes (including payroll taxes, corporation tax, net VAT). You'd think there'd be enough in there to pay for a prompt MRI scan (which should cost the NHS about £300 per scan)

Thursday 3 May 2007

Handymen extra-curricular activities

A recent handyman applicant included a cover note to explain that he was an aspiring actor and wondered if we could allow him occasional time off when acting jobs came up. He candidly admitted that being an actor meant that "for most of the time I'm unemployed".

We love handymen with strong outside interests, here are some of the activities / interests our handymen and office staff pursue when they are not fixing your shelves:

- Fly fishing
- Professional yacht skipper
- French literature
- Special constable
- Assessor for Institute of Advanced Motorcyclists
- Paraglider pilot
- Military helicopter pilot (*)
- Samaritans counsellor
- Clapper/loader (assisting cameraman on film set)
- Military fast jet pilot (*)
- Scout leader

(*) I'm cheating a bit with these two examples. We have handymen who used fly jets / helicopters, but from before they worked for us.

And that's just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. No doubt there are all sorts of other worthwhile and interesting things our guys get up, all of which makes for a great, well-motivated, friendly, interesting team.