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.