Monday, 26 February 2007

I am nosey @

Deep inside the v-shaped cranny formed by the folded top of the supermarket-sized pack of the Innocent smoothie we have in our fridge is this e-mail address, printed in tiny, barely readable text:

I think that is just hilarious, and burst out laughing when I read it. Who thinks of this stuff? Has it always been there, but I haven't been nosey enough before? Can you imagine the conversation between the chap from Innocent and the chap from TetraPak:

I: Can you print something here? Right up here, see, right up in this corner here?
T: Er, well, yes, I suppose so. But who's going to read that? Why? You people are crazy.
I: Great, cool, just do it.
T: [Walks off shaking head in dismay]

Why am I so impressed by this? Because it shows how Innocent are really trying to connect with each of their customers as an individual. When I see that tiny, weeny e-mail address printed in a place where (I think) no-one else could possibly read it, I think: "They are talking to me! Me!"

That's what it's all about these days - marketing is a conversation.

Friday, 23 February 2007

How we recruit our handymen

A customer e-mailed me the other day, asking how we recruited our handymen. I ended up writing quite a detailed response, which I thought might be worth sharing here, so here you go:

From: James Baker
Sent: 22 February 2007 12:54
To: 'Bruce Greig'

Hi Bruce,

We use your services a lot for our clients and I wanted to say a huge thanks for the level of service you provide – we particularly like your new website and blog. It is very refreshing to use a company who are prompt, efficient and professional. I was at a client’s the other day and it was very interesting to see one of your guys work – I was very impressed. It made me curious though as I watched to understand how you recruit your handyman – after all you are not seeking a specialist but how do you find someone who is capable all round and how do you actually check they can do what they say (do you advertise for them – what backgrounds are they from, etc) – do they have a practical test? It is a question which many of our clients want to know – I think they want to feel reassured by the level of competency.

Please keep up the great level of service - look forward to hearing your comments.

Kind regards


James Baker
your life uk Ltd

From: Bruce Greig []
Sent: 22 February 2007 18:03
To: 'James Baker'
Subject: RE:


Most of our applications arrive speculatively, after people have downloaded the app form off the website. We sometimes advertise on Gumtree, but only very rarely. Applicants go through a process as follows: application form, interview (with some practical tests), trial day, probation period. About 90% of applicants fail the application form / interview stage. About 50% of trial dayees get offered a job, and after that we nearly always keep them. It is rare to lose someone during their probation period, we usually have got it right by then. So overall, we reject about 95% of applicants, so you can be confident the remaining 5% are pretty good.

Not sure which handyman you saw, but lots of our guys are retired / semi-retired professionals. We have a surveyor, an RAF pilot, a couple of policeman, an ex-Army chopper pilot (joining soon), an aeronautical engineer, a KPMG consultant, etc. We rarely hire people with a specialist "trade" experience, we find they don't really fit in with our culture and lack the communication skills / problem-solving ability which we value very highly.

Who was the client where you saw our handyman? I'd like to pass your feedback on to the handyman who was there, if I may.

Regards, Bruce Greig
Managing Director
0800handyman - Professional Handyman Service
T: 0800HANDYMAN (0800 426 396)

From: James Baker
Sent: 23 February 2007 08:49
To: 'Bruce Greig'
Subject: RE:

Hi Bruce

Many thanks for your response.

It is interesting and encouraging to understand that you have such a thorough process. I am still curious though – are the people you employ just good DIY’s – ie – when you do a plumbing or electrical job – have they had previous experience – do you give them training – how do you know they are competent in that area. As you said many of the backgrounds like the police, etc is not somewhere they would have learnt the skill. I really like the idea though that their communication skills are a priority. The other question a lot of clients often ask me is what are you allowed to do for plumbing and electrical work – what do the regs allow you to do.

The handyman I met I think was Robert – South African



From: Bruce Greig []
Sent: 23 February 2007 14:44
To: 'James Baker'
Subject: RE:


Yes, most of our applicants' experience is "DIY" in that they have a lifetime of rebuilding their own homes a few times over, doing work for their friends and family, etc., but those that we employ I would describe as more than "just good DIYers". We need them to be excellent handymen, simple as that, that is what we look for. We know they are excellent handymen by the end of the application process, especially the trial day. Even if we can't test every skill in one day, we can tell a lot from the tasks we do set them, how they handle the tools, how they approach the task, how they talk about what they are doing, and so on. And of course we also see how they relate to the customer, to the handyman assessing them, to the guys in the office when they show up for the trial, how they talk about their hopes and aspirations for the job, why they want the job, etc. etc.

Regarding training: we do a "masterclass" at our monthly staff meeting, where another handyman will present on a particular task or subject or tool that they are expert on, or where they have recently learned something new, and pass this on to the rest of the team.

Regarding plumbing and electrics: well, they are just part of the skill-set we look for. There is nothing intrinsically more difficult about fitting a tap vs, say, changing a sash cord. Householders are more wary of these areas because (I suppose) they perceive the consequences of a mistake to be more costly / severe than the consequences of a mistake in other areas. But you don't have to be a specialist plumber to know enough about plumbing to expertly replace a tap, or service a WC. You do need to be a specialist plumber to design and install a central heating system; or to service a boiler; or to work with gas. But those are not tasks we do, for that reason.

Ditto electrics: you need a good understanding of electrics to change a light fitting on a loop-in circuit, but you don't need to be a specialist electrician. You do need to be a specialist electrician to understand and diagnose an intermittent fault; or to select and install the correct gauge of cable to supply a new cooker.

Regarding regulations, we fortunately live in a very lightly-regulated country, possibly the most lightly regulated country in the developed world (contrary to what you might think from reading the Daily Mail or Torygraph), certainly much less so than the USA or mainland Europe. There are only really two areas of our work which are governed by specific regulations: Part P of the building regs, which places some restrictions on what electrical work a non-qualified electrician can undertake (basically, you can't do any new wiring unless you are accredited by the NICEIC; but replacing things -- lights, switches, fans, etc. -- is not covered at all by Part P. See below for more detail); and Gas Safety Regs which place a blanket ban on anyone working on gas unless they are CORGI registered. This is in complete contrast to the (supposed home of free-market enterprise) USA where most states would require you to have a plumbing/electrician licence to advertise your services as a plumber/electrician, and likewise with mainland Europe.



Part P: specifically lists a set of tasks, defined as "Minor Works" for which you do not need NICEIC accreditation. Main Minor Works are: replacing fittings (lights, switches, etc.); replacing a single circuit damaged by fire or rodents; adding a spur socket (except in kitchen). We actually set our own threshold well below that of Part P, mainly to make it really easy for our handymen and office staff to explain / understand what we can and can't do. So, we could (as far as Part P is concerned) add spur sockets in living areas, for example. But we choose not to, so that we can have a simple "no new wiring" policy: that is much easier for everyone to understand, explain, and adhere to than going through the whole Part P (which, even the Minor Works section, gets pretty complex). The full document is here if you are interested:

User review websites for handyman/maintenance services

Why haven't consumer review sites for home services worked very well in the UK? Remember back in the dot-com boom there were two big-ish players, HomePro and Improveline is now a fairly ordinary maintenance company, doing mainly insurance-repair work, and seems to have dispensed entirely with their tradesman-rating service. And HomePro is still around, but I don't hear anyone talking about it. Alexa gives them a rank of 1.2m, well lower than our own 800k rank, so doesn't look like that many people are visiting them either. And a quick browse through some of their listings show that each company only has a handful of ratings, i.e. only a handful of their customers have taken the trouble to log on and rate them.

You'd think this sort of thing would work. Home maintenance services (plumbers, electricians, roofers, handymen, etc.) are notoriously hard to source. By far the best source is a recommendation, so you'd think that a website devoted to recommendations would work really well in this industry. Yet for some reason they have all found it very hard to reach critical mass (of both tradespeople and consumers to do the reviewing). Here are some others;
Ask4Quote (gone bust)
Quote4Me (gone bust)

Check-a-trade has probably done the best in this sector, but they are still relatively tiny and rely heavily (I think) on a printed flyer listing tradesmen, rather than on people visiting the website. So they do best in areas where they have been distributing that flyer for several years - hard to roll that out nationally. But this should work as an internet-only service, you shouldn't have to be printing hundreds of thousands of advertising cards to get noticed.

Lots of these guys are trying to do two things: allow potential customers to post "projects" for tradespeople to bid on, and also provide a rating system for those customers to rate the tradesman who did the project. But I think the whole bidding on projects thing just adds too much complexity, for both the customer and the tradesman. If the project is complex enough to "bid" on, it needs a visit first, so not much point using the web to manage the "bid", just give the customer a written quote. And if it is not that big / complex, then there is not point "bidding" on it (I mean, we are hardly going to bid on "fix my leaking tap").

So what you need is just a listing of tradesmen, with a really simple feedback system, just like eBay. I suppose the huge difference with eBay is that, on eBay, both buyers and sellers want feedback, so they give it in the hope that their opposite party reciprocates. Buyers want feedback to show credibility (some auctions are restricted to buyers with certain ratings), and of course buyers are also sometimes sellers. Not the same for tradesmen/householders. The tradesman needs feedback, but there is not a huge incentive for the householder to give it. They probably only use a tradesman once a year or so, so it is not a big part of their life.

If a householder was a regular consumer of maintenance services, it would be in their interest to get feedback from tradesmen ("This customer keeps appointments, listens to my advice, and pays promptly"), but, as I say, most householders would only need a tradesman once a year or so, so don't really need to build up a good reputation as a purchaser of maintenance services. And therefore the incentive that exists on eBay (of offering feedback in the expectation of receiving valuable feedback in return) doesn't really exist with the tradesman / householder relationship.

So how do you encourage householders to offer feedback?

You can ask them nicely, of course, which is pretty effective - about 20% of our customers return our feedback cards, and we are very grateful that they do. We give a monthly prize to the handyman with the best overall feedback score, to encourage the handymen to ask their customers fill out the card. But to get our customers to report to some kind of centralised feedback website would be harder, especially as the majority of our customers would not have heard of check-a-trade or whatever.

What might work would be this: offer some kind of "feedback module" which any company could tag onto their website. That company's customers use it to offer feedback about their experience with that company. All white-labelled, so it integrates nicely with the existing website. Company gets to display and publicise that information on their website (pretty much as we do now, except a bit more sophisticated).

But if you have a load of companies using the same, standard, feedback module, you can then aggregate and share the information on a central website.

Big advantage of this is that you can much more quickly compile critical mass of feedback data, and that is the key to getting people to come to the central website, listing your approved tradespeople.

The drawback of, say, Check-a-Trade's model is that you are only really going to gather feedback from customers who found us via Check-a-trade, and even then only a proportion of those customers will take the time to offer feedback. Which is why you'll only find a handful of ratings for each company listed. But thousands and thousands of our own customers have fed back directly to us. Imagine if we, and other like-minded companies, submitted that data to a central website. That's exactly what we could do if we were all using a standardised set of questions and a standard method of collecting the data (and, of course, we'd have to tell the feedersback that their responses would appear on the central website as well as our own).

Needs a bit more thought, but there could be something in this.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Yanks take small business seriously

Dan Matthews at Real Business points out that John Kerry chairs the (US) Senate Committee on Small Businesses. John Kerry! And who do we get? Margaret Hodge. And before that, the even more ineffective Nigel Griffiths (I think). More here.

Americans really are so much better than us at this sort of thing.

Interesting post on customer service

Interesting post here on Seth Godin's blog about how customers increasingly expect immediate resolution to any problem, and about how much easier it would be if companies just said to the customer: "OK, I understand the problem, I am going to look into it and I will have a resolution for you in 24hrs". If company could convince the customer that it really would be solved within 24hrs, and they really would get a call back, everyone's life is much easier: Customer only has to spend a few minutes on the phone, not ages on hold waiting for people to figure stuff out. And company gets a bit of breathing space to figure out what went wrong, without the pressure of the customer waiting on the line (5mins is a long wait for the customer, but no time at all to really solve any kind of customer service mess-up).

Ceramic tap valves

Seamus, our General Manager, was talking to me yesterday about the problems we have fixing ceramic tap valves. Most modern taps use ceramic quarter-turn valves instead of rubber washers. Ceramic quarter-turn valves last much longer than rubber washers, and the taps are much more pleasant to use as you only have to twist the handle a quarter turn to get full flow, rather than screwing it around and around like an old-fashioned tap.

But when a ceramic valve tap plays up, it is a mission to fix. The quickest (and therefore cheapest for the customer) solution is to replace the valve. But few valves are the same, so you have to identify and supply a matching valve. If you know the manufacturer's name, and even better the tap name or model number, it is easy. But how many people know who made their taps? Not many.

Plumbers merchants seem to hold only the slimmest range of replacement valves, and in our experience we can only source a matching valve from someone's stock in about 50% of jobs. How do we deal with the other 50%? Our handyman zaps a photo over to the office, and Seamus uses Google Image search to find one that looks to have the right parameters and we order a few in.

So we can usually do it, but I have to say it is never very convenient for the customer, often requiring two separate visits (just to fix a tap!). A rubber washer tap would rarely take more than half-an-hour to fix, if that. But it can easily cost £100 to source and replace a ceramic tap valve, and you can buy a very nice brand new quarter-turn tap for that.

Of course a specialist plumber with a van full of spares might be able to solve this problem more easily, if they keep a large stock of different tap valves in their van. But if plumbers merchants don't even keep a wide range, seems unlikely that a plumber would. I would be interested to know.

Our aim is to identify a set of valves which will cover 100% of replacements. For a while Seamus had thought that three particular ceramic valves would cover all eventualities, but it had just been lucky that those three worked in a long run of tap-fixing-jobs. We soon found a whole load of taps for which our magic range of three valves didn't work. He now has a range of 10 different valves which, since a renewed effort to solve this problem, have worked in all cases.

Still, having every handyman carry even just 10 different valves around is not very efficient. Each handyman probably only does one tap job every couple of weeks (I'm guessing here, haven't checked the stats), so it would take at least 6 months to turn over that stock of 10 valves, not very efficient from a stock-holding point of view.

(Astute readers will be thinking, why replace the valve at all? Why not just take it apart and service it, that should get it working again. Correct. But that also takes a lot of time, and if after cleaning it up (including leaving to soak in a descalant) it still doesn't work you've wasted a whole load of the customer's time. Our view is that it is better to replace to be on the safe side.)

More on Health & Safety

Finally spoke in detail to the auditor at National Britannia who is responsible for our Safecontractor renewal.

Had a predictable discussion about how, yes, they need to see thousands of words of guff, and no, our safe, concise, effective new materials just won't do. We spoke in some detail about using sharp tools, as an example. We have a single generic risk assessment about using sharp blades. Copy here. Basically reminds you to secure the workpiece (less chance of slipping), keep yourself out of harm's way (so if you slip you don't cut your hand off), wear gloves (so if you do slip, and somehow slip blade onto hand, injury reduced somewhat).

But that's just not enough for NatBrit. They want to see a separate risk assessment for every job where you might be using a sharp blade, plus a method statement to describe the steps to take to perform that task. So one risk assessment plus one method statement for cutting a carpet tile; one for opening a package; one for cutting into plasterboard, etc. And then (although I think he was just getting carried away here, and he can't have really thought this through) they also want risk assessments for permutations of tasks (e.g. cutting into plasterboard while also up a stepladder). Not sure how good our man is at arithmetic, but if you had risk assessments for every job and every combination of jobs, you really would have a book full of worthless guff.

So, I have written to Jim Neilson, who is the man at HSE responsible for the Workplace Health Connect programme (through which we produced our new materials); copying in Geoffrey Podger (HSE Chief Exec) and Lord McKenzie of Luton (Minister responsible for the HSE).

Copy of my letter is here.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Printingdirect rocks

We use for our printing. I have been reminded recently how good they are by an unfortunate foray into another printing company's world.

You might notice we won an award sponsored by Sage (the Sage Business Awards). As well as fame and honour, that prize also got £1,000 of Sage products. Now we don't use Sage software (we don't, frankly, think it is very good. QuickBooks is, in our opinion, a much better product than Sage Line 50, or whatever they call their SME package these days). So we dithered for ages deciding how we could spend our free money - then Sage kindly pointed out that they also do printing (mainly for customised invoices and stuff, that are compatible with Sage software). So we asked to please do us a bunch of feedback cards and flyers up to the value of £1,000. That was back in October 06.

There then followed a painful, six-week-long process of proofing and re-proofing and me chasing and chasing, and then the items arrived. The feedback card had a typo on it (my name was spelt wrong!); and the flyer was printed on horrid, flimsy, shiny paper.

Sage offered to reprint everything, and it eventually arrived some time in December, a good two months after we ordered it.

Was this just because they were doing it for "free" (not really free of course, they got plenty of publicity from sponsoring those awards)? Or is their service always like that?

It contrasts starkly with printingdirect. We just received some new letterhead from them, and the process was as follows:

- Log on to website
- Find last order of letterhead
- Click "Re-order"
- Arrives 5 days later

Total management time required? About 2 minutes. Total management time required to manage that Sage order? About 4hrs.

Monday, 19 February 2007

Mike Watson, Guildford area franchisee also joins blogosphere

The 0800handyman family of bloggers has just increased by another 50% with the addition of Mike Watson (who runs our Guildford area franchise). His blog is here.

Friday, 16 February 2007

Epsom franchisee starts blogging too

I've been trying to persuade my colleagues to start blogging too, and Steve Williams, our franchisee for the Epsom/Sutton/Reigate area has started a blog. Here it is!

Dumb Millionaire contestant hoax

Bit off-topic this, but it is Friday afternoon. This story is doing the e-mail rounds, about a too-dumb-to-be-true contestant on the US version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, who chooses "elephant" instead of "moon" when asked which is larger.

I am a born skeptic, and didn't believe this could be true. Sure enough, it isn't, it's a hoax. Hoax-slayer, as ever, has the full story.

Mouseproofing - better get it right!

Heard a curious story from a customer earlier today. We had attended their property (customer is the landlord, property is rented out to tenants) back in the autumn of last year to fill some holes where mice were getting in. This our handyman did, using our standard method of filling with steel wool and covering with filler and / or expanding foam (the mice eat through filler alone, but have not yet evolved steel-munching teeth). Filling the holes is the easy bit, the hard bit is being sure that you've found every possible hole. Customer then got the boys from Rentokil in to lay poison for any mice still in the house. This seemed to do the trick and the infestation disappeared.

Then the letting agent managing the property gets sent a dead mouse in the post, disguised as a Christmas present, from the tenants. Yikes. Seems a bit excessive, to say the least. Especially as another pest control firm checked after Christmas and could find no evidence of recent mice activity, so presumably the dead mouse was just killed by the poison Rentokil had laid down which is, obviously, the whole point of laying the poison. Finding dead mice in that context is a good thing, better than having live ones still running around.

To cap it all the tenants (who have now left, I understand) were Italian - talk about conforming to stereotypes, sending dead animals to your perceived enemies. Letting agent has, apparently, asked the police to look into the matter. Quite right too.

Understandably, the customer has asked us to come in again to fill some more holes which the second pest control company found, really does want to be sure that no re-infestation happens. What I don't really understand, though, is why Rentokil don't offer to fill the holes themselves? Seems like an obvious extra service to offer. I mean, we are happy to do it, but it does make it all more hassle-ful for the customer having to get two separate companies in. Hmmm, maybe I've got this the wrong way round. Maybe we should do the pest control bit? Mental note to find out what that involves (suspect lots of bureaucratic licensing to use poisons, etc., but perhaps not).

Monday, 12 February 2007

National Britannia SafeContractor vs HSE Workplace Health Connect

As mentioned in previous post we are having some trouble renewing our National Britannia SafeContractor accreditation after revamping our Health & Safety procedures under guidance from the Health & Safety Executive (under their oddly-named "Workplace Health Connect" programme).

We think our new H&S stuff is great: concise and effective. National Britannia basically want us to reinstate all the pages and pages of guff we used to have, which no-one ever read, but which tick all of NatBrit's boxes. But managing safety should be about reducing risk, not ticking boxes.

Here is an example: click here to see the sort of waffle NatBrit would like us to say about working at height. Over 1,000 words of guff.

Now click here to see our version. 150 words of clarity.

Which is more likely to get our handymen to be careful with ladders?

(Ironically, the HSE themselves contract NatBrit to manage their H&S advice line. I've told NatBrit and Workplace Health Connect about this whole palava, hopefully they'll fight it out amongst themselves and our concise, clear, safe documentation will win the day.)

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Customer complaints - found another company that publishes them

OK, further to earlier post about including negative comments on website, I have found one example of another company that publishes customer complaints: the San Francisco Chronicle.

They aren't doing it for quite the same reasons, though. They are publishing the complaints for their pure comedy value. Listen to this (complaint left on their answerphone), it is very, very funny.

Monday, 5 February 2007

HSBC offshore call centre experience

Tried calling HSBC (in India) today, with quite comically frustrating results. I wish I had been able to record the conversation, it summed up everything that is wrong with offshore call centres. But here is my best recollection of the conversation, which lasted just over 30 minutes:

HSBC: HSBC Card Services, this is Rani speaking, may I have your merchant number please?

BG: I don't have my merchant number handy, but can I please give you our postcode?

HSBC: The merchant number is an eleven digit number, starting with a '1'

BG: Er, as I say, I don't have it with me, I am not in the office at the moment, could I give you our postcode?

HSBC: The merchant number is an eleven digit number, you will find it ...

BG: Yes, I know what a merchant number is, but I don't have a note of it with me, can you find our details from the postcode?

HSBC: What is your postcode, please?

BG: SW11 5TG

HSBC: (confusion)

BG: Sierra Whisky one-one. Five-Tango-Golf [I spend too much time watching The Bill]

HSBC: And your company name, please?

BG: 0800handyman

HSBC: (pause)

HSBC: Do you trade under any other name, sir?

BG: No, but I think you still use our old postcode. The Post Office changed it. The old one was SW11 5TF.

HSBC: No, no, sir. I asked if you trade under any other name?

BG: Yes, I know what you asked me. We don't trade under any other name.

HSBC: I cannot find your details, sir.

BG: Have you tried the old postcode?

HSBC: What is your postcode, please, sir?

BG: SW11 5TF

HSBC: Thankyou. Please confirm the first line of your address

BG: Shakespeare House, 168 Lavender Hill

HSBC: Thank you sir. How may I help?

BG: I have quite a detailed technical question about changing the way we transmit card details to you, can I speak to someone about that?

HSBC: How may I help, sir?

BG: Well, at the moment we still manually key each card transaction onto a terminal in the office. We would like to transmit the card details directly to you, in some kind of electronic report, rather than keying each transaction in one by one. Just trying to find out a bit about whether that is possible, that sort of thing.

HSBC: So, do I understand that you are having some difficulty with your card processing terminal, sir?

BG: No, it is working fine, it is just that at the moment we key the customer's card details into our own database and then at the end of each day print out a report of those card details and manually key them into your terminal. We would like to be able to send a file direct from our database to yours, to save keying each transaction manually into the terminal.

HSBC: Sir, you do not have to do anything manually. If you key the transaction details into the terminal, we automatically poll it and the money is deposited into your bank account overnight.

BG: Yes, I understand that, it is just that we don't want to have to key each transaction both into our own database and into your terminal

HSBC: Sir, you should not have to rekey each transaction. You should just key the details into the terminal, and follow the instructions on the screen. Once you do that, and that transaction is confirmed, the money is deposited into your account overnight.

BG: Yes, I understand that. The terminal works fine. We know how to use it. We have been using pretty much the same terminal for six years. It's just that we'd like to avoid keying every transaction into the terminal and instead send you some kind of file electronically, with all the transaction details in it.

HSBC: Sir, you don't need to send us a file. You just need to key the details into the terminal. Do I understand that you want to send us a file with all the details of each transaction?

BG: Yes, that's right

HSBC: Sir, you don't need to send us a file with all the receipts for each transaction in it. You don't need to do that. You just need to key the details into the terminal.

BG: (astonished pause)

BG: OK, this is hard work. Let me try and explain one more time. The terminal works fine. We know how to use it. We use it every day. At the moment we take a report of the day's card transactions from our own system, print it out and then key the details into the terminal. We'd like to be able to directly transmit those details from our system to yours. I am sure there is a way to do this? Could you please point me the direction of someone that knows about that sort of thing?

HSBC: So, you want to connect your computer directly to ours?

BG: Well, yes, sort of.

HSBC: No sir. That is not possible. Not possible at all. You should only connect your terminal to the phone line.

BG: Huh? What do you mean? Of course the terminal is connected to the phone line, that's how it communicates with your system.

HSBC: Sir, the terminal can be connected to any analogue phone line.

BG: I don't understand. What are you talking about?

HSBC: Sir, you cannot connect your computer to the terminal. The terminal must be connected to a phone line. If it is connected to your computer, it will not work properly.

BG: You think I am suggesting that I can transmit card details from our server to you by simply running a cable from our computer to your card terminal?

HSBC: Sir, perhaps you could explain again to me what it is that you need to do.

BG: Well, it is pretty simple really. We have a computer system which stores details of our customers, the jobs we do for them and so on. During the day, if a customer pays by card we key that information into our computer system (to save having to drop everything, key into the card terminal there and then, then return to the customer call). At the end of the day, our system produces a report of the card transactions taken that day, which we print out and then someone sits by the card terminal and manually keys in each transaction. We'd like to avoid that manual process and simply transmit that transaction report directly to you. I don't think it is that unusual or radical a suggestion. Other companies must do it all the time.

HSBC: So you have a list of card details which you want to send to us?

BG: Well, yes.

HSBC: Sir, the terminal can store a list of card details. The terminal has a list of lost and stolen cards which is sent to it by us each night.

BG: Huh? What has that got to do with it?

HSBC: Sir, the way that lost and stolen cards work is that the terminal is sent a list of lost and stolen cards so it knows whether a card is valid or not.

BG: Well, yes, but I don't understand why that is relevant. How did we get onto that? Every time I ask you something, you just respond by giving me some information which is loosely related to what I asked, but is obviously not the answer to my question. Are you winding me up?

HSBC: Sir, no, sir, I am not winding you up. I am just trying to help. Could you please tell me again what it is you need help with?

BG: OK. One last time, then I give up. We want to send to you a batch of card transaction details, probably over the internet, for you to process. So we don't have to key them manually onto the card terminal.

HSBC: You would like to use the internet to process credit cards?

BG: Well, yes, probably. The internet would be the obvious way to transmit the file, but I suppose there could be other ways

HSBC: OK, I think I understand now.

BG: (sceptical) Great

HSBC: Internet transactions allow the customer to select products or services on a website, then enter their card details on a secure server. Their card details are then processed by us, and the money is sent to you.

BG: (heavy sarcasm). No way! What, so I can buy stuff on the internet? Select products on a website and then enter my card details on the website and you process them using a secure server and pay the website owner? Wow. That's amazing. I never knew that.

HSBC: (failing to detect sarcasm). Yes sir, that can be done. Would you like me to set that up for you?

BG: No. I need to speak to someone who knows what they are talking about.

HSBC: Yes, sir, I will connect you to my supervisor.

BG: Great.

HSBC: But first, please tell me what it is that you need to do.

BG: I have told you many times already, I just don't think you will be able to understand.

HSBC: Please tell me just one more time.

BG: OK. Write this down exactly and pass it to your supervisor: "customer would like to transmit batch file of card transactions". That'll do. They'll know roughly what I need. Please write that down exactly, word for word.


BG: Please read back to me what you have written

HSBC: "Customer would like to e-mail card details as an attachment"

BG: (losing rag) What???? What??? Who said anything about e-mails and attachments? This is insane. Please connect me to someone who knows what they are talking about.

HSBC: Very well, please hold the line


HSBC: I have Ranju on the line, he can help you.
(Note: conversation has taken 34mins so far, I check on my phone)

HSBC (Ranju): This is Ranju, how can I help?

BG: (deep breath). OK, Ranju, to cut a long story short, we want to transmit a bunch of card transaction details directly to you from our server.

HSBC (Ranju): Sure. You can send us an XML file to our API.

BG: (gobsmacked) That sounds like just the ticket. How do we set that up?

HSBC (Ranju): I can e-mail you the spec for you or your technical guys to review.

BG: Yes, excellent, thank you.

E-mail arrives as soon as I hang up the phone. It describes exactly what I was hoping it would. Time on phone with Ranju - about a minute.

I really cannot understand why Rani (the first guy) spent so long trying to understand what I wanted when he must have realised he was a million miles from understanding. There is such a huge cultural gap between India and the UK, these types of conversation are often so painful. If you look back over the conversation, each time I described my request Rani seized on some part of it (or even just one word in it) and earnestly offered an "answer" which was loosely related to my question, while surely obviously (even to him?) not the right answer. You cannot really answer a question until you at least understand it. Did he really, honestly, think, that I needed to know about lost and stolen cards?

Hear phrase "list of card details", use answer which includes "list of cards": "the terminal maintains a list of lost and stolen cards";

Hear phrase "send file", use answer "you don't need to send us a file of receipts, sir [which you used to have to do with old-fashioned manual paper voucher machines]"; etc.

It is like interacting with a very bad search engine that serves up loosely related, but largely irrelevant answers. Maybe Rani really was a machine. I guess it is not impossible. It would certainly explain how he managed to keep so calm and polite while I got increasingly frustrated (although I did stay polite).

And the thing is, I just can't see how this whole conversation works out cheaper for HSBC. It took 34 minutes to (fail to) extract information which really should have taken 3 or 4 minutes. Are Indian call centre workers really TEN TIMES cheaper? They would have to be at least that much cheaper if every conversation takes ten times as long as it needs to.

Maybe it will get better. Maybe there will be sufficient cross-cultural contact through call centres that the cultural (and language) barriers will erode away and we will be able to exchange easy banter with Indian call centres and find out what we need quickly, instead of putting ourselves through this tortuous process of slowly, slowly, inching our way towards mutual understanding of the most basic of questions.

Greg - gentle giant, really

Included a paragraph about Greg's run-in with the scooter theives in our newsletter and one customer, quite reasonably, said that she found it a little unnerving. She said:

"... appreciate it's meant to be light-heartedly macho but to be honest I find it unnerving. I'd be very concerned having someone in my house who sorts out his disputes with his fists...and for his employer to then brag about it."

Fair point. Certainly don't want our customers getting the impression that our handymen are regularly involved in pavement brawls. I've copied below my reply, to hopefully allay the fears of any customer with similar concerns:

"Thank you for your feedback.

I did think long and hard about whether the tone of that section was too lighthearted given the serious nature of the assualt that Greg suffered, and was concerned about both making light of the danger he had been in and of giving the impression that we employ brutes for handymen. I redrafted it many times, but maybe I still didn't get it quite right. I was hoping that by including the fact that Greg is a former policeman (which he is) readers would see him as a gentle giant (which he also is) rather than as a bare-knuckled brawler (which he definitely isn't).

I would absolutely commend Greg's actions, though. He was probably in personal danger (although you can never be sure in that sort of situation until it is too late), and his/our property was certainly in danger. One of the group had already managed to rob him of his GPS unit and they were moments away from making off with his bike (including tools, phone and money). I don't think it is quite fair to compare Greg using his fists in that situation with the way he might resolve a dispute which might arise in a customer's home: Greg is actually very good at managing customer disputes (rare as they are) and it certainly doesn't involve violence!

But I quite understand your point, that my newsletter may have given a different impression, and I will take that on board for future issues (although I do hope we don't have any more similar incidents to report).

Thanks again for taking the time to offer your thoughts."

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Carphone warehouse Ofcom fine

Carphone Warehouse have been fined £35k by Ofcom for pestering people with silent calls.

Why is a company like CPW cold-calling people? I thought they did well because they had good, independent service in their stores. Surely cold-calling is just about selling on price? I mean, you are hardly going to persuade someone that you offer them really amazing service if (a) you are so desperate you are calling them out of the blue and (b) you have just disturbed their dinner to get them to speak to you.

And if you can only sign people up because you offer them a cheap one-off deal, then they are just going to switch to someone else when they later call and offer another cheap deal.

And, worse, what about all those people who you call who previously thought highly of you and now think much less of you because you have annoyed them? I bet companies doing the cold-calling thing just focus on the 1% of people (or whatever the figure is) who sign up in response to a cold-call, and don't factor in the impression they leave on the other 99%.

We often get calls from "CPW Business" (which is really Carphone Warehouse) at our office offering to "review our mobile bills". They call probably once a week, despite us asking them not to. Would I now consider CPW when we really do want to review our mobile bills? No, of course not. And why do they call themselves "CPW business" when Carphone Warehouse is such a strong brand? Is it because they think Carphone Warehouse is just a consumer brand? Or they actually want to hide the fact that they are calling from Carphone Warehouse so that the Carphone brand is not devalued in the minds of people (like us) who pretty much hang up straight away?