Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Argos as Ebenezer?

It's a Christmas tale to warm the cockles of the heart. a tale of struggle over adversity and a warm heart hidden within the cold face of corporate bureaucracy. And it has been resolved just in time for Tiny Tim to tuck in to the turkey...well you'll know what I mean.

The tale started a few weeks ago when Rory made his debut for the school table tennis team. Now he's not played much, but got hooked on the game in Cyprus over the summer, when he spent most of his days lurking round the table at the hotel waiting for anyone rash enough to take the challenge of a marathon ping pong session with him.

His school has three tables, but the kids have limited access to them as they're kept in the dinner hall. So, when putting together his Christmas list, the one thing he said he , definitely...definitely...'no that's a definite definitely' wanted was a table tennis table. The other kids were well up for one too - fine by me....it'll give them a bit of exercise and it's something we can play as a family.
I soon found out that a) table tennis tables are not cheap; b) they're in short supply in the winter (especially outdoor ones) and c) they're in especially short supply at the moment.
We finally sourced a 'budget' table in Argos and trucked down to Wycombe two and a half weeks ago to order the thing. It appeared to be in stock, so we joined the queue snaking through the shop to get to the one open service point. Now serving on the desk was the ultimate 'puter says no' employee. Attitude, body posture and couldn't-give-a-damn look all conspired to present the positive face of customer service....not. There must have been 30 people queuing to pay, but she hadn't even got the common sense to call any colleagues to help her by opening up one or two more tills.
Anyway, we finally got to the head of the queue and guess what? 'Puter said no. In the time we'd been queuing, any stock of table tennis tables Argos had seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. Her response to my question as to whether they'd have any in? "Try again in a couple of weeks." Very useful in the immediate run-up to Christmas.
Still, I went home and checked on line and sure enough, the table was out of stock for our area - but I was offered the option to be notified by email when the item came back into stock.

So, here's the sequence that followed:

A week later, I got an email stating the table was back in stock. I immediately placed an order - although it appeared from the delivery estimate that the table would not arrive for Christmas. Still, at least I could show the kids that the present was at least on its way.

The next night Rory took a call from Argos direct. L-B was in the room too, and both were grinning and dancing around a bit as the agent informed me that Argos could deliver the table the following Monday (yesterday). So all was good for a bit of festive sport.
But just a couple of days later, I took another call, which prompted my email below:
Having tracked stock availability of a table tennis table as the number one Father Christmas present for my children, I ordered it a week ago (having waited for stock to become available) and was informed it would be delivered this coming Monday in time for Christmas.
I've just received a call from the same person at Argos Direct who arranged the delivery informing me: "We will not be delivering your order on Monday;a representative will contact you within seven days to organise delivery..."
Now how useful is that less than a week before Christmas? No reason was given why the table could not be delivered, and the representative did not know the reason for non-delivery nor could give any indication as to when it might be delivered. He then went on to script mode with "Is there anything else I can do for you this evening?". So I responded: "Yes, you can find out why the delivery can't be made on Monday, and ensure it is made on Tuesday or Wednesday." To which he gave the entirely useless, unhelpful and indeed annoying answer:"I can't do that sir, I'm only authorised to tell you the delivery can't be made."
How useless; how unempowered.....and what a great way to destroy any semblance of a good relationship you have with this customer. Your agent has no authority to deliver customer satisfaction and I'm sure gets little job satisfaction from such an uninspiring role.He asked whether I'd like to cancel the order? And get him and the rest of Argos off the hook? Absolutely not.
You have the opportunity now to be Father Christmas or the Grinch. Do you want to save Christmas in the Shanahan household or ruin it for three kids desperate to get their hands on a table tennis table?When arranging to deliver the goods on Monday, you entered into an agreement with me. You've now broken that agreement at an absolutely crucial time of the year through poor internal practices.I challenge you to honour that agreement and go a long way to restoring my faith in Argos.Please contact me within the next 24 hours to either reinstate the delivery or let me know what you are going to do to restore my confidence in your organisation.....

Having googled Argos Customer Service issues and read a few horror stories (not least comments from one of Argos' own agents at Grumbletext) I made a point of looking up Argos' parent company Home Retail Group PLC, and copied my email to its CEO, Terry Duddy.

However, this was on Saturday, and before I could get any response from anyone in his office, I got this response from Customer Services:

Dear Mr Shanahan,

Subject: Order number XXXXXX

Thank you for your e-mail regarding your delivery. I am sorry to hear that the item can not be delivered on Monday.

This was due to a system error that booked the order in without there been any stock available for the delivery. I sincerely apologies about this.
As you will have been aware when you placed the order this item is delivery within 42 days which means we will contact you before 26th January 2009 to arrange delivery.We will do our up most to get the item to you as quickly as possible we are awaiting stock from the supplier.
I am sorry for the inconvenience that this may cause. Should you require any further assistance please do not hesitate to contact us at order.enquiries@argos.co.uk or call us on 0845 640 2020.


Louise Rowse
Argos Direct E-Commerce Customer Service Team.

Now that was not what I wanted to hear, and felt like a bit of a standard fob-off - hiding behind systems errors rather than actually addressing the issue. So I responded, again copying in the CEO. Here's what I said:

Good afternoon

Please note the correspondence below. This is simply not good enough.

The sequence of events is as follows:

1. I tried to order a table tennis table online two weeks ago today and was told there was no stock available;
2. I opted to track the stock so that Argos would contact me when stock was available;
3. On Monday December 15th I received this email:

Thank you for your recent enquiry on argos.co.uk You recently enquired about a Double Fish Table Tennis Table., Cat No. 335/6304, on the Argos web site, which was out of stock.We have just received further stock of this item.If you would still like to order, please click on the link below as soon as possible as stock may be extremely limited on some products and we cannot guarantee availability.
http://www.argos.co.uk/BIS?partNumber=3356304&traceablereference=TRK009We hope you enjoy shopping with us. Argos Internet Team

Did you actually have any of this stock at that time?

4. I promptly placed the order - which was accepted, and I acknowledge that it had a 42 day delivery time.

5. Pleasantly and unexpectedly, the following night I was contacted by one of your agents to say the item could be delivered on Monday December 22nd. At this point, my expectation was raised that I would have this gift for Christmas. My son had taken the call and my elder daughter was in the room, and both were very excited at the prospect of having the table tennis table for Christmas Day.

Again, at this point, there was no reason for us or seemingly your agents to believe that the item was out of stock: it had been in stock on Monday; in stock when the order was placed; and in stock when delivery was arranged.

6. It was then utterly galling to be phoned last night by an agent who interrogated me for my details and then announced that the item could not be delivered. As noted in the original email, it was doubly frustrating that this agent could or would do nothing to investigate the situation further and make any attempt to rectify a failing on your side of your agreement with me.

I could have put up with not being called in the first place until after Christmas and not having my expectation raised that we would receive the goods. It's not great service, but I would have accepted it. However, to promise and then take away that promise; and then to hide behind 'system errors' is unacceptable - especially at this time of year.

At the point you arranged the delivery for December 22nd, your agent had varied the agreement Argos had with me and the 42 day delivery window was no longer relevant. Therefore, you cannot fall back on that - it's merely a poor excuse.

It is now your responsibility to rectify this problem - caused entirely within Argos - to ensure we have the selected (and paid for) goods, or another equivalent table tennis table.

As a consumer journalist, I see such breakdowns in customer service often. Invariably, the companies surviving and thriving in this economic downturn are those with the empowerment and ability to resolve such issues satisfactorily....as for the rest? Think Woolworths and MFI. That's where your reputation with me stands at the moment.

Can you step up to the challenge?


Ok, so my message was laid on with a particularly thick palette knife, but the simple message was: never promise something that you can't deliver, and never compound poor customer service by hiding behind 'system errors' or pushing the blame somehow onto the customer.

Anyway, for whatever reason, this note seemed to do the trick. Yesterday I was called by someone in the 'MD's Office' - I suspect Customer Services still, and, after profuse apologies, she announced that they had managed to find a table and could deliver it this morning.

And, at 10.30am, two men in a van pitched up with a VERY large box.....which I'm still trying to convince Sophie is a lamp table for grandma.
So, Argos have turned it round and restored at least some of my faith in them - but it took my usual cussedness, copying emails to the CEO and no doubt invoking my status as a journalist to get an unempowered customer service team to suddenly pull its collective finger out to actually resolve a customer issue caused by a failing on their side.
I'm of course delighted - but wonder why all Argos customers can't receive the same level of proactivity?
Anyway, it's nearly Christmas, Argos-Scrooge has seen the error of its ways and Tiny Tim will, no doubt, be tucking into turkey and all the trimmings as we Whiff-Waff to our hearts' content.

Like many a Christmas tale, it's all turned out well in the end.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Arse covering by committee

How do people think things will read better if they're written by committee?

I'm waiting on one last document to be signed off on one of the magazines I write for - and it's being held up by needing sign-off seemingly by everybody in the organisation.

Now the draft I sent over on Monday wasn't the most riveting piece of copy in the world, but it did what it said on the tin; was written to length and was even grammatically correct.

What came back, had been pored over by a director, her department, a marketing team, uncle Tom Cobbly and Santa's elves. It was painful: substance replaced by PR gush and 150 extra words supplemented by half a dozen extraneous apostrophes.

Why is there such an arse-covering mentality out there - especially in our public services?

And why does arse covering seem to inevitably end up as a series of poor compromises?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Winding up, winding down

By Thursday this week, I should be all but finished for Christmas. It has been a very hectic last fortnight with lots of research, interviewing and writing, but everyone wants their work signed-off by the end of this week - and for me, that means at least 24 hours before.

I realise that I thrive on pressure. Give me a deadline and I'll meet it - but I'll probably need the pressure to perform to really deliver my best. And over the last couple of weeks I think I've written some pretty good stuff: certainly the client feedback has been good. I've just culled a few quotes from emails I've had in the last week or so to stick in my 'feel good' file.

The quotes have included:

Very impressive!.....from a lawyer

Excellent - very readable. Well done Mark......from an HR Director; and

Good Job!.......from a CSR guru.

I tend to keep those pieces and the comments that go with them in an online file and refer back to them when I'm struggling to string words together. Sometimes pieces I've already written and liked can spur a new chain of thought and help me find a way to tackle a more tricky issue - or find something new to say about a subject that's inherently dull. Of course, I won't always be able to - and one of the downsides of business to business writing is that some pieces always end up sounding a little mechanical - especially if they've been reviewed, chewed over by committee and sanitised within an inch of incomprehension.

But virtually all the pieces I've written in December have been signed off very close to the initial draft. It has helped greatly to have some really interesting interviewees and some meaty subject matter across a number of clients. And weirdly, it has helped to be writing a 4,500 word essay in parallel. There's an academic rigour involved in that which has probably seeped into my business writing, making it just a tad more disciplined this time round.

Anyway, whatever the reason, I've enjoyed the challenge of this latest round of writing.....although I'm also looking forward to a rest next week.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Another sign of creeping mortality

In the lands of the North, where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long the Men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale...

I don't have too many heroes in life, but one of mine from childhood was Oliver Postgate. I woke up this morning to the sounds of John Humphrys announcing his death. Postgate was 83 - so not a bad innings - and I knew he'd been ill for a while.

Strangely enough, we had been talking about him and his programmes around the dinner table on Sunday evening. Jac's favourite was Pogles' Wood, while for me it has to be Noggin the Nog - although Ivor the Engine comes a close second.

A generation on, my own kids were still enjoying Bagpuss and the Clangers - both made after Jac and I had started school, not not at the heart of our pre-school memories.

Today's kids TV is cheap and often cheerless - too often just a tie-in to some commercial product. Postgate's short films were cheap without doubt, but filled with charm, mystery and an other-worldliness that today's kids simply aren't exposed to. He was simply a great communicator with an innate sense of how to tap into children's interests, with simple stories beautifully told; often with a bit of mystery, occasionally (as with the witch in The Pogles) with a character who was just a bit scary.

Postgate himself was a bit of a proto-blogger, using his own website to protest against the war in Iraq and other issues that raised his ire. He'd turned his back on film making over two decades ago when he realised he was out of step with the commissioning editors in children's television. that was a shame for my kids although they've grown up with our dusty Postgate VHS tapes.

Anyway, so ends the Postgate saga......making me feel just a little bit older.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Onwards....and upwards?

So despite my best intentions, it has rolled round to Monday, and I'm only now blogging again. It's always the same - when I'm busy, I haven't got time to blog....but when I'm less busy and have the time, there are fewer interesting things to say!

Anyway, as I write this, I'm printing a report stating that the UK jobs market is heading downhill at breakneck speed. It's salutary stuff, but at the moment, in this tiny micro-business bubble, I'm definitely not feeling the full effect.

I'm busy - with magazine deadlines this week and next (plus a 4,000 word university essay on Stalin's foreign policy to fit in in those few free hours when the kids have gone to bed). I've a couple of projects that'll take me into the New Year, and one or two possibles that I hope will come through.

Some planned projects have completely disappeared off the radar, and others have been delayed...and delayed again. So the picture's not altogether rosy, but at least I'm still working and still billing.

Some of the work in the last fortnight has been frustrating - it's definitely harder to get people on the end of the phone (or in person) at the moment and those in work seem to prefer to keep their heads down and get the job done rather than speak to journalists. There have been comedy moments too - not least when I approached one director whose firm (actually he's a non-exec not a full-timer) had just won a business award.

In a short, ego-inflated email, he informed me what kind of journalist he liked; what I needed to do before he'd deign to speak to me, and how he, as an ex-national newspaper journalist did not want his time wasted.

Ok....so that's where I've been going wrong for the past 20 years. Anyway, I raised his arrogance with my pomposity, informing him I had no intention of wasting his time, my time or that of the paying client. I then looked at his own website which was cheesier than a Wensleydale salesman...and felt a little better. I perhaps put slightly more homework than usual behind the piece; surprised him with my knowledge and line of questioning, and ended up with a piece that drew praise from both him and the client.

Other pieces have been fun to research and for every two or three 'hard-to-gets' I've unearthed a gem of a contributor, willing to share their views and their time generously...sometimes too generously. On occasion I've ended up having a really good chat, but it's taken a while to get to the nub of the questioning. Perhaps I've got to be a bit tougher on interviewees.

Anyway, the report's now printing its final page. So onwards, and I hope, upwards

Monday, December 01, 2008

Is it always the communicator's fault?

This seems to be becoming my Monday morning habit now - warm up for the working week with a blog entry. Actually, it's a habit I'll aim to break swiftly. However, the pace of work did pick up last week meaning I hadn't got too much time to stop and take stock of what was going on around me.

One thing I got caught up in towards the end of the week was the debate around CiB's proposed change of name - part of the package for the organisation to focus ever more on internal communication and, eventually, reach the status of chartered Institute.

Some freelancers are getting irate on two fronts. One, that the CiB awards are now focused only on IC categories, and two, that they haven't been made aware of the name change proposal.

On the first point, I'm fully in favour of CiB tightening its criteria, sharpening its focus and making a concrete move to grab the internal comms high ground. It's a brave move and one that probably should have taken place years ago. But all credit to the Board who are making it happen now. More power to them.

I found myself - from a position of ordinary member without office - defending them on the second point as six or eight freelancers chipped in that they hadn't heard about the name change.

From what I can tell, it's a proposed change that will be voted on in May. It has been actively discussed for almost two years, and has featured in Communicators, the chairman's blog, Council papers and on the CiB website. Yet this was clearly seen as not enough.

One member said: "For an organisation that aspires to be the Institute of Internal Communications this is really a very poor example of communication. Members should not have to read a chairman's blog or delve through the website to know what is being planned. When internal comms fail it is the fault of the communicators not the audience."

And thereby lies the rub with volunteer-run member organisations. They can't be a one way street. For one thing here we're talking about the early stages of a significant shift that's designed to put CiB at the heart of the internal communication debate. But the key communication campaign was never set to start until the new year, so we're all getting our shots off early on this one anyway.

Second, in a volunteer-run member organisation members should have to do a little work to ensure they're connected with what's going on - especially if they are communicators themselves. Surely we should be interested enough in the organisation to take the time to read what's sent out? Surely we should be helping to set the agenda not meekly following it - or rumbling on discontentedly when it doesn't fit our personal circumstances?

Sometimes I despair.

Communication is a two-way relationship. However good the communication, there will always be some who choose not to listen.

It seems we can take the horses to water, but we can't make them walk on it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Where has the pace gone?

There are two apples left on my tree.....not normally something I'd notice. But it has been a SLOOOW day today. Much of it has been taken up editing and rewriting a document written in American business speak with the goal of making it rather more readable and relevant for an audience of sales people. It's not the most exciting piece of work I'll ever undertake, but ultimately it's quite satisfying to turn the unreadable into words that both flow and make sense. However, it has taken a long time, punctuated with periods of staring out the window at the leafless twigs that only a few weeks ago were home to about 2,000 apples (it's a wide, 40 foot high dual varietal tree!).

Other than that, today has mirrored the last few days - in fact not much has changed work-wise since the last posting. There's a real feeling of caution in the market at the moment. All I've heard for the last week is job losses and lay-offs. It started with freelancers and agency people, but has now spread in-house. I'm less affected than most - so far - but I could certainly be busier.

What I've noticed most though is a malaise around getting anything done. I have a list of interviews to set up and complete - but the first action's taking forever, and too few people seem to want to put their heads above the parapet and say anything of note at the moment. Those who have jobs are working hard to protect them. Those who don't simply don't want to be controversial at all at this time. There's no pace to communications activities in too many places. Any discretionary spend that was out there has gone, and even projects that have to happen are happening with a sense of shell-shock around them.

I suspect it's temporary, bout doubt we'll all get back to our senses before the New Year. Until then, I guess we'll all just battle on.

Meanwhile, it's getting dark...but there are still two apples on the tree.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Just one of those days

There's something about Monday. For whatever reason, it never seems to be the most productive day of the week - and today has lived down to this unloved day's reputation.

Apart from a trip to the dentist which has left me with a fixed but sore mouth, most of my day has been spent trying to move three projects on.

One has actually reached a stage close to a conclusion - I just need one more quote to complete a piece of work. But that quote has to come from a Czech property developer, and today's a public holiday in the Czech Republic. Ah well, when I emailed the commissioning editor to let him know, I found out he was away as well today. Maybe he's in Prague??

For project two, the client seems to have disappeared - phone calls and emails unreturned....so limbo rules.

Project three is trundling along, and today I've called three press offices, and emailed three others with follow-up information to previous calls (if you follow). All have edged things slightly further forward, but none has led to a definitive result. So, as I prepare to hang up my keyboard for the evening, I'm hanging on x 6.

Maybe next week I'll start work on Tuesday.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Can one 'tone' fit all?

There's a good debate happening on the Communicators in Business freelance forum at the moment about tone of voice.

The first posting said (in part).....

A company I am working with has just adopted a new "Tone of Voice". It has hired a "Tone of Voice" consultant and we are all told that this is how we will now write, whether we like it or not.

The ToV will be used for ALL communications and contains such nuggets as: From now it will be "XX are" not "XX is" as it is more inclusive. In fact, forget the "XX are" - from now on it will be "We are" in all communications, even if we don't say who "we are" actually is and it is not attributed to anyone.

We are to use contractions wherever possible, so in comes "we've", "I've" "we'll", "they're".

All sentences must be between 15-20 words long and we must stop using boring, banal quotes from managers. While I agree with him, having spent 25 years playing ping-pong with managers during a sign-off procedure is there not a point where you just have to accept them?

All features must show an element of "recognition" wherever possible. That is someone must be "recognised" for doing "something". Everything must be "energetic".

So the question is, do you forget 25 years of best practice and journalistic theory and concede defeat? Or do you wave ta-ta to a contract?

I know the writer and feel for him - especially as this tone of voice stuff seems to have been created elsewhere and foisted on the professionals working in and for the communications team.

My contribution to the debate stated: If we're doing our job and identifying the right internal audiences and the right means to connect with them, the tone of voice should follow that segmentation of audience and media so that the information is presented in a way that's familiar for the audience and prompts them to action. So, our skill surely is to understand how our internal communities communicate among themselves and tap in with a style and tone that connects rather than jars.......That's a hugely long-winded way of saying one size can't fit all, and imposed tonal rules set themselves up for failure.

I was doing a job for one of the big banks over the summer and was presented with a set of style/tone guidelines that looked set to make everything sound like a cross between 'Dick and Dora' (that'll be lost on anyone under 40...) and the instructions for an Airfix model kit. The 'rules' worked wonderfully well for conveying procedural information and 75 per cent was just common sense. However, they were too restrictive for presenting guidelines to managers and senior execs on how to manage change and simply didn't give the scope to connect with that audience in a way that would actually get them to read the stuff and then bring it into their own working lives.

Anyway, my internal client backed me over their comms team - and have come back to me with more work subsequently.

I have no problem with working inside a well thought out and articulated employer brand. But visual identity and tone of voice are just tiny pieces of the Employer Brand since the 'EB' (as my consultancy friends call it) is what differentiates the organisation from others. It's far more about identifying, attracting and retaining people who share the organisation's ethos and values. Thus EB covers culture, leadership, environment, performance, development and reward - and communication is a support and enabler to all of these.

Those brand consultancies trying to impose one tone of voice on an internal organisation miss a trick. While it may be essential to have a single solid presence in the minds of consumers, we tend to see our own organisations as a collection of divisions, teams and individuals, all with their own personalities. We're interacting with them daily - not once in a while at the point of purchase. Consequently, the real trick is to give people within organisations the skills and tools to communicate effectively and with personality. Great guidelines are useful and can be supported by IC professionals. But imposed 'one size fits all' rules stifle and breed a million little work-rounds.

So, I'm pretty much against 'tone of voice' rules internally - unless they're part of a far more encompassing and flexible 'cultural DNA' practice. It's one avenue where the rules of marketing don't translate internally. Good practice shared widely is one thing. Po faced rules are quite another.

Monday, November 10, 2008

How embedded is CSR?

I'm researching a follow-up piece to the CSR feature I wrote for Badenoch & Clark's Connections back in the summer (follow the link and it's on pages 10-11).

It's an area I'm very interested in - possibly more so since I've been working on the International Relations MA. Now my initial research showed a tailing off in CSR spend among corporates - and certainly many charities seem to be suffering as corporate philanthropy dwindles as the winds of recession blow ever harder.

But CSR guru Wayne Visser on his CSR International blog has run a poll recently that indicates CSR spend might actually strengthen as the economic downturn continues to bite. Ok, so he got only 48 respondents, but they're probably near enough all people working directly in CSR.

His line is that corporate philanthropy will, indeed, decline - and those indulging in it in the name of responsibility will be exposed. But for those organisations whose ethos is responsibility and whose practices are tackling the world's great problems such as water management and climate change, corporate responsibility will be unchanged since it underpins these organisations and is embedded at their core.

I'd like to think he's right, but suspect CSR isn't as well embedded as we'd hope. Anyway, I'm happy to be proven wrong and will enjoy researching this piece over the next couple of weeks.

Another Irish president

Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton.....It was only a matter of time.....He's really O'Bama.....with a tuneful ditty to prove it!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Hail Fellow, well met

Busy old week, this week, and not a lot of time to pause for breath. However, I was most chuffed to get one email yesterday afternoon from CiB's National Chairman, Paul Brasington. It read, in part:

Dear Mark

Hope all is well with you. One of my more pleasant duties as CiB chairman concerns the association’s recognition of the highest standards of professional practice. Its fellowships are awarded only to a limited number of members working at the top of the profession and so I am delighted to be able to congratulate you on your election as a CiB fellow.....

Now I have a pop at CiB every now and again - normally for not being as fleet of foot as I would like it to be, but it's the one professional organisation I've been a member of continuously for the past two decades (well, 19 years anyway). It's a very nice feeling to be recognised by my peers.

So, I've had a grin on my face for most of the last 24 hours, and I'm looking forward to collecting my certificate (or whatever marks a fellowship) in London next month.

Now, I must dig out the invoice and pay my subs.....!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

21st century candidate secures a place in history

Barack Obama wrote to me last Friday - in fact he's been keeping up a pretty good correspondence for quite a few months now - him, Joe Biden, Michele, David Pouffle and other 'names' from the Obama ticket.

The messages have been well-written - straightforward; not at all complacent; a call to action with a personal touch - despite the fact that I'm just a faceless piece of data on a mailing list.

Yet, throughout this campaign I've felt connected to the candidate despite being an Irish citizen living in the UK, thousands of miles from the action.

Some time ago, I was attempting to fix up an interview with the former VP, Walter Mondale (it never happened!) and went through the Democeratic Party HQ to gain access to 'Fritz'. Obviously my email details were picked up at the time and I started receiving regular campaign updates. I could, of course, have unsubscribed, but it was interesting to see the issues emerge and the candidate's response to them - and indeed the stands he took and issues he generated himself.

Obama used the 21st century communication tools to full advantage. His messages were simple and elegantly packaged. He carried through the power of his oratory by judicious use of video to back the written word and his tones remained measured - indeed presidential - throughout. He offered plenty of opportunity for face-to-face contact; and even incentivised donation-giving and volunteer work with the kind of back stage pass access normally offered only by rock stars.

He seemed to 'get' the changing demographic of the nation far better than McCain - targetting those who usually didn't vote rather than merely attempting to change the minds of those whose partisan voting patterns were simply a lifetime's habit.

I went to bed last night in the hope that Obama would pull prevail, and woke, excited this morning knowing that he had. We may have an ocean between us, but the air of connection on this side of the Atlantic is palpable.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the US reconnects with the world. Since 9/11, Bush has appeared to be only an avenging bounty hunter, sometimes bully, sometimes isolationist, rarely statesmanlike in his foreign affairs dealings. I'm genuinely interested to see the Moslem world's reaction to a black President. I'm excited by the prospect of a new Secretary of State ready to enagage with the world on different terms from the Bush administration. I'm hopeful that the simple message of change will resonate through world economics and that Obama's arrival in the White House will signal the first flowers of economic recovery.

America will be a different place over the next four years and by its massive global impact, the world will be a different place too.

The President is only three years older than me. I'm excited that the time for my generation has arrived.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Perfect day...almost

My work ethic is based on rewarding myself - but only when the job's done. So today, with the kids off on half-term and a deliberately light work schedule, I bashed out what I needed to do by 10.30am. I'll do some more after 3pm when Jac's back, but have just come back from spending an hour and a half on top of Whiteleaf Hill overlooking Risborough.

Last night we went to football at Wycombe Wanderers, but the game was called off after just 22 minutes due to heavy snow. It was an icy and dicey drive back home (I miss my 4 wheel drive Subaru!) but we awoke this morning to a good two inch blanket of snow.

Sophie and I headed up into the Chilterns mid-morning and found a lot of timber down across the minor roads, collapsed under the weight of snow. While it's melting off now, I can't remember having this heavy a snowfall in October.

Up on the Chiltern escarpment the snow was deep, powdery and crisp, the sky blue and cloudless and the scene was beautiful. Frankly there's no-one better to spend an hour and half in the snow with than an eight year old.

Taking a bit of time off is one of the great perks of freelancedom.........I just wish I'd remembered to bring my camera......!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Two things....

.....have really made me smile today.

It's half term and the three kids are all at home. I decided to work early before they got up and lively and get my main bits and pieces out of the way before the kitchen (which backs on to the office extension) became a seething mass of radios, computers, shouting and the odd squabble (Jac's away at the moment at an exhibition, so the last 36 hours has been me + 3).

Anyway, around 10am, I wandered through to get a coffee to be confronted by eight year old Sophie dancing round the kitchen singing 'Love will tear us apart' along with the radio.

Then, I nipped off for a quick bath having done the freelance thing of working in a t-shirt and underpants for three hours. When I came out, L-B, my soon-to-be-fifteen-year-old met with the words: "Some random Spanish bloke rang about work. He asked for your mobile but I said you were out. He said he'd ring back."

Did she take a name? No. A number? No. Has he rung back? No. So that's probably my million ££ contract down the drain....
Ah, the joys of children!!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

CMS Success

I was conducting an interview at CMS Cameron McKenna in the City on Friday afternoon at the end of a long and busy week and it was great to pick up the FT Innovative Lawyers publication and see the firm featuring so heavily.

I'd been involved in helping to compile some of the award entries so it was great to see the firm getting recognised at the other end of the process, but it was particularly satisfying for me to see the client magazine - Solve - commended.

I've been working on Solve since issue two, and the last issue I wrote directly for the firm, won significant praise in the FT Awards.
It was bitter-sweet to say the least that when the design team for the magazine changed, I lost the writing gig. But having missed out on one issue, the new agency has asked me to come on board again writing features. I won't be doing as much of the writing as before, but that's no bad thing as more voices bring in more expertise and will help the publication evolve further. The baby's growing up and hopefully is on its way to delivering even more business benefit for the client.

Still, even though I'm a very very small external cog in CMS's corporate wheel, it's nice to get a bit of recognition every now and again, and I came out of their corporate HQ on Friday evening feeling rather chuffed.

Monday, October 20, 2008

It pays for Rays to mix up the brand

For the past decade, I've supported the team that's been pretty much the worst in baseball. But no more. Yep, I'm still a Tampa fan, but after 10 losing seasons, the Rays have come up trumps. Against all the odds, they're off to the World Series to face the Phillies.

Over the last few weeks I've stayed up late into the night watching Crawford, Longoria, Garza and co first reach the playoffs, then dispose of the White Sox and finally, very early this morning win 3-1 over the Red Sox to win the American League series 4-3 and stretch credulity once more by getting to the final two in MLB.

Now, it always makes me laugh that the World Series in played for only by US sides - with the Blue Jays waving the flag for the rest of humanity. But baseball's all-American and this is the quintessential heart of what's good about the world's last Superpower.
Hopefully we're in a post-drugs era for the sport (though I wouldn't bank on it), and it's far more of a spectacle that gridiron or ice hockey. With the nosediving of the Yankees this year, it was obvious that there was an opportunity for an aspiring team to put themselves forward, but no-one expected it to be the Rays.

But the St.Petersburg franchise, for so long the Devil Rays, have ditched their devils. New owners have overhauled the organisation from top to bottom, inside to out. From rebranding as simply the Rays, to new coloured kit, to a refresh for the unlovely Tropicana Field (and the prospect of a new waterfront home on the horizon), the club has an entirely new outlook on baseball.

For so long, home fans for matches against the likes of the Sox and Yankees have been in the minority as relocated northerners have stuck to their traditional allegiances. But an off-field outreach programme to get local baseball fans to support the local team, backed by astute signings in both management and on field talent have turned things round for the Rays.
The likes of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, BJ Upton and Scott Kazmir remain from the bad old days, but they've been reinforced by seasoned veterans and exciting new talent to produce the Bay's first winning season - and what a season. Aybar, Bartlett, Longoria, Pena and the rest will probably never have to buy a drink again in any Floridian Gulf Coast bar. If they can overcome the Phillies, they're made for life.
Even from across the Atlantic in what's less than a hotbed of baseball interest, I can see that Brand Tampa Bay Rays is strong, coherent and successful - yet still operating on a budget a fraction of many of their rivals. It's amazing what can be achieved with a clear vision, and great execution by one team, all across the organisation, pulling together. The job's not done yet. But already it's feeling pretty good.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

To work with the leaders, be seen as a leader

It's easy for internal communicators - however senior we are - to tag along for the ride as second class citizens in leading our organisations. In too many, we're valued for our skill in turning the ideas of others into neat communication packages.

While the going's good, it's easy to breeze along and pick up communication awards without really trying. Yet the best communicators will come into their own now, not for their ability to craft clever messages, but by being an essential part of the leadership team, prompting, challenging and directing to help steer the organisation through to safer waters.

This week's Melcrum Source newsletter points to some of the characteristics communicators need to show if they're to be valued rather than tolerated at Board level. They're all good, and I don't question any of the points Geri Rhoades puts forward.

She opines:

  • Be courageous.
  • Be curious.
  • Point out the possibilities.
  • Be knowledgeable.
  • Listen.

I'd add a few more:

  • Be challenging - no-one in your organisation will know more about internal/organisational communication than you. Show your expertise (as long as you can justify it.). Challenge the status quo and be an effective contributor to business debates, not a scribe or a doormat.
  • Be a leader - run your own team in an exemplary way and take that leadership into the boardroom. Even if you don't have board status, act as though you do (without being arrogant). Demonstrate you've a right to be there by virtue of your skills and input - and of course back them with excellent execution. Act as an equal among function managers - they may have more resource, but are no more expert than you.
  • Be different - most boardrooms are stuffed with lawyers and accountants who 'get' the balance sheets and operate by them. Then there'll be HR people who understand the policies and the impacts...but perhaps aren't the most creative tools in the box. Sales will be figures-led, and marketing will be interested only in customer impact. Comms, in whatever form comes from a different angle. You absolutely need to know what makes the business tick and what drives its success, but you'll be best placed to talk about what drives those within the business. The tools of communication are merely a start point now. You need to have a very high level of political business knowledge and awareness of the impact of each of the drivers. But you'll earn more than grudging respect if you have mastery of what engages people to deliver those drivers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Common sense - not in the nanny state

Just weeks after a whopper of a cold, I've managed to pick up another one - not surprising with three kids at different schools all bringing their own germs home and having spent six hours in the company of my cold-ridden Brunel tutor in an airless, overheated lecture room last week.

Anyway, this cold's not so bad, just your average head cold. So this morning I headed down to Lloyds Pharmacy as I normally do when the lurgy strikes to stock up on Day Nurse and Night Nurse. As a freelancer, only five minutes of man flu wallowing is allowed, and then it's on with the job.

So, I trotted into Lloyds and the lady behind the counter duly got the two bottles of syrupy liquid for me - as pharmacy staff have done for as long as I can remember. But this time as she checked them with the pharmacist he said: "No - we can't sell both, it has to be one or the other."

I asked why, since they'd been selling them to me perfectly happily once or twice a year for about the last 25 years. He replied: "It's a head office directive. The amount of ephedrine in the day and night versions exceeds the prescribed limits, so we can't sell them together. People have been abusing them."

Now, unless they've increased the amounts involved, which I don't think they have, I struggle to see why the pharmacist has to nanny the average cold victim by not selling the products together. Surely it would make sense just to give an advisory and perhaps say don't take so many does of the Day Nurse if you're going to take Night Nurse as well?

Now from what I can tell, the pseudoephedrene in this cold remedy is a decongestant, but ephedrine is an anabolic steroid, and is taken in large doses by bodybuilders and can indeed be abused. However, this is where common sense is called for from the pharmacist - not nannying. Today I've got a red nose and red eyes from copious nose blowing and a poor night's sleep - but I look about as far from a body builder as it's possible to be, and at 44, fairly clean and reasonably dressed, hardly look like the average druggie.

Surely the pharmacist should have the discretion to sell me the products but with a verbal advisory on their use? That would be fulfilling his obligation as a health carer and also treating me as an adult. Instead, I left the store with my Day Nurse but also feeling slightly insulted. There are two other pharmacies on the High Street - I suspect I'll be popping into one later to get some Night Nurse - which I'll use with the same care that I've taken for the past couple of decades.

Apollo 7 - it's over there

Just tracking visits to this site, and there are a fair few clicking through from the New Scientist's Short Sharp Science blog which references my piece on the Apollo 1 fire from January last year.

I've actually copied that piece onto my race to the moon blog which also features my recent interview with the last surviving Apollo 7 crew member, Walt Cunningham.

I'll be using 'race to the moon' as the home of my space writing and space-linked MA research material from now on.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Sign of the times

After a couple of weeks when I had plenty of immediate stuff to be getting on with but, despite several enquiries and pitches, nothing new coming in, the phone started ringing today. Typically I was in a three hour university session on the National Security State in the interwar years so couldn't answer it!

But having got back here about an hour ago, I've agreed to take on one piece of work and have been asked to price for two others. Nothing big, but enough to keep the accountant happy.

I'm not sure there's any more confidence in the financial or real economies than there was a couple of weeks ago. Instead, I think that clients have realised that they can't hold their collective breath for ever, and have started to get on with the doing - perhaps realising that their businesses:

a) aren't investment banks
b) haven't got their money tied up in Iceland; and
c) still have to do all that's necessary to make money.

So, while cash-flow (more likely cash collection) may be a bit iffy in the next couple of months, the underlying trend is that the work's still out there and needs to be done.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Neyroud - a good outside bet?

I'm certainly not known for my betting tips, but if I was to stake a few quid on the next Head of the Metropolitan Police Force, I'd probably put a few bob on Peter Neyroud.

Now the Anglo-Swiss Neyroud is hardly a 'coppers' copper', but in these political days, he could well fit the bill for the Met.

He's an Oxford graduate and currently leads the National Policing Improvement Agency, having spent four years as Chief Constable at Thames Valley Police.

I was writing the force's paper at the time that Peter joined TVP, succeeding my near neighbour at the time in Oxfordshire, Sir Charles Pollard.

It was always 'Sir Charles' with Pollard, while Neyroud introduced himself to me with a 'Call me Peter'.

I'm not sure he ever really won over the force's footsloggers at TVP, but I really liked him. He had a very open communication style, was sharp of thought and welcomed new ideas.....not always the most apparent features of senior police officers.

Boris Johnson, now London's Mayor and Chair of the Police Authority, was a local MP in the Thames Valley when Neyroud was based at Kidlington. I'm sure they met quite often, and it wouldn't surprise me, in the way these things work, if Neyroud were to get the nod to succeed Sir Ian Blair.

There again, the last horse I backed fell at the first fence in the Grand National!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Spot on Ron

Lunch today was spent reading other people's blogs - I think Ron Shewchuck was pretty well spot on here on the when it pays to say no debate.....

It's all about belief

The current economic situation has to be a worry to anyone with a small business. We're the small fry who are easy to forget, to drop and to ignore when the going gets tough further up the food chain.

I've spent most of the past few weeks interviewing lawyers, bankers and senior business people on how the credit crunch is affecting them and what they see as the short, mid and long term prospects for recovery.

The bankers and financial services professionals are in the darkest place. Some I spoke to had already lost their jobs or were expecting to get laid off soon from the likes of Lehmans, UBS and a couple of the more boutique establishments.

The HR guys from the big funds and retail banks were looking at refocusing for a smaller, better regulated City. And the lawyers weren't talking about deals so much as restructuring and insolvency.

None saw the picture brightening particularly in the next 12 months, and many were talking about recovery taking three to five years, with a rather different financial community emerging at the end. Yet all saw this as part of the natural cycle of business. Confidence may be low now, but no-one really believed that this is the end of capitalism as we know it.

But the lack of confidence in the City is now affecting all parts of the economy, and those of us who service other industries rather than create from scratch are vulnerable, and it would be easy to get very down, very worried and start on a downward spiral. But worry sows worry, fear sows fear. A lack of belief is immediately evident and it causes confidence to fall further.

This is the time for the small and unsung to show that what we do is actually very good, very necessary and unaffected by an economic crisis we didn't create and are pretty powerless to resolve.

Nothing I do now is any different to what I was doing three months or even three years ago - so as far as I'm concerned, there's no need for me to worry. True, there are fewer opportunities in the market at the moment, and as more comms professionals get laid off and turn to freelancing, there may be more competition. However, I first went freelance in a recession some 16 years ago. For three years my business grew and grew until it was too big for me to handle alone and I folded it into someone else's organisation.

Now is the time for those of us who've been there and done that to be using our experience to help clients who've only done business in good times; to be a voice of reason against the panic I'm already seeing in some businesses and to be the cost-effective innovators who use communication skills to help clients navigate the choppy business waters.

It's easy to do well in strong economic times. But only the strongest will survive in this steep a downturn.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Slow on the uptake

Melcrum's Source for Communicators took me aback slightly today when among Kathy Collura's five suggestions for communicators coping with employee angst she stated: Connect the employee communication plan with the external communication plan The messages about jobs, paychecks, retirement and benefits are specific to employees but these messages should be linked to the business and industry messages going to external audiences.

Hello Kathy, but where have you been this past decade? Or is this just a sign that employee comms in the US is some way behind Europe.

For all my time in Leapfrog and even before, I've dealt with issues communication - as have most of my peers around me. Today's employees are shareholders, customers and vociferous members of their employer's local community.

Even back in my corporate days we looked at issues and defined the appropriate audiences for them, cutting across the artificial internal/external boundaries.

Employee communication should never be dealt with in isolation. If it's to be credible, it has to be bound up into one seamless corporate communication plan that identifies all of the audiences to be engaged, and builds the appropriate relationships with them.

It's quite shocking that Melcrum and Collura seem only to be waking up to this now.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Communicate through the downturn...but don't overdo it

As recession nears, the tendency in most corporate is to slash and burn – and then batten down the hatches. Training, development, communication and R&D all tend to suffer as reduced income leads organisations to focus on what’s seen as core services.

Yet, is it not just as essential when times are tough to focus on your people and to keep the innovation pipeline flowing? If you can manage to keep your best people – and even poach a few from the competition – and find innovative ways to deliver your business goals, you’ll be in a much better position to gain a competitive edge once the upturn finally comes around.

It’s easy to cut communication resource when times are tough, but there’s a real danger that this will lead only to greater uncertainty among your workforce, and an even greater likelihood that your best people will walk. They’re the ones who’ll be in demand, even in tough times, and they’re the ones you should be focusing your communication on.


There’s no harm in using a downturn to audit how you communicate with your people. In good times, we tend to get a little lazy. Communication mushrooms in terms of the media used and the frequency we hit our people with more and more corporate messages. There’s no harm in refocusing efforts: concentrating on what’s really important to share rather than what’s nice to share and blowing the froth away to get to what really matters.

This is the time to sharpen core tools – use line managers far more as a credible conduit for information. Give them the skills to build morale among their teams; to get people pulling towards clear and measurable goals, and encourage them to share small successes. Equally, listen to them. They’re your eyes and ears to real engagement among teams, but so often their voice is unheard.

Bring them together more, but for action not rhetoric. Tough times call for collaboration and visible leadership – your line management presents opportunities for both.

There’s received wisdom that says you should communicate more in tough times – but is that really worthwhile? If people suddenly hear more and different things, or have to adjust to new communication media, they may well just as easily assume the worst: ‘Why are they suddenly talking to us now?’ ‘What’s wrong?’

It’s better to tap into existing channels but to take time to understand what’s really motivating your people to deliver against a tough market and to shape communication around those drivers.

The staples remain: be honest, don’t speculate, and if you don’t have all the answers, tell people – and then try and find those answers.

As someone who has worked in internal communication through one recession, I’d say the two most important communication skills are the willingness to listen and the ability to be flexible. The business world is moving very quickly at the moment. You want to be on the front foot, not backed into a corner.

© Mark Shanahan 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cutting closer to home

Before trimming back my more strategic consultancy work to concentrate on the MA, I was an associate of one of the UK's better-known HR consultancies.

For the six years I was involved with them, working on occasional projects, they worked hard to build a communications and engagement practice. However, I saw today that even the best are struggling in this credit crunch when I received a note saying:

"We have taken the decision to move to a purely associate model for the delivery of Engagement and Communication Strategies. Whilst many clients recognise the importance of this work, the current economic climate means that it is not sustainable to continue to retain internal resource in this area. There will be a total of 7 post closures......"

Now, from what I can tell, they are creating other HR consultancy roles, but not in IC so some pretty skilled practitioners are going to be out of a job. This is the first time that the current downturn has struck close to home for me. I suspect it won't be the last.

Monday, September 22, 2008

No point worrying about what you can't influence

A long time ago, someone gave me some very good advice: 'don't worry about things you can't change.' Now at the time, I probably thought I could change the world, and I still think there is stuff outside my control that I can probably still influence...if only a little.

Now I'll do my little bit for global warming, and take what steps I can to reduce my costs and manage my finances as well as I can - but I'm not really going to sweat the big stuff too much.

I'm coming to the end of three projects and my biggest concern is that despite all three having long-ish lead times, they've all converged so that deadline time has hit for all three at once. To be fair, two are now all but finished and there's only days left in the third. But it's a fact of freelance life: however long the time allowed, projects will only get serious once the deadline's looming. But I'm not panicking. The last week has seen a lot of juggling and some 50 hours in front of the computer, but features, case studies and scripts have all been delivered on time and in pretty good shape.

When I first started Leapfrog, and was looking over the shoulders of three other people, I did worry. There were a fair few sleepless nights involved. Now that it's mainly me with the odd project that Jac handles and a bit of associate support, life's a lot simpler.

I'm certainly glad I haven't got staff at the moment. After these three projects conclude, there should be four others in over the end of September and throughout October. But none has been definitely confirmed yet. All are set up and ready to roll, but my clients' bosses are being cautious and waiting to see what's happening in the market. I'm ready and they know I'm willing - if the work's going to come, it will. And if not, I'll be raising my profile among all my work contacts fairly shortly.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pause for breath....or will my bubble burst?

I'm really busy at the moment, but worried that my business is in a bubble that could just burst at any moment. So, with 15 minutes between phone interviews, there's just time to knock out a few thoughts.

This week, I've three live projects on the go. One has a deadline of Thursday, and on current form, it'll be a tight squeeze as some of the needed information still isn't quite here, and interviewing will go right to the wire.

Another has a Monday deadline and it's eminently do-able....so long as I put in a stint over the weekend.

The third completes next Wednesday. At the moment, all's A-OK.....but that's 'coz nothing much is happening. If it's still that way by Friday, I'll move from slightly manic to rather panicked.

After those three, there could be an hiatus or I could be just as busy. I simply don't know. The economic downturn hasn't had much of an effect on my work pipeline yet - but if some of the possibles don't turn out to be actual pieces of work, I'm definitely going to feel the pinch soon.

Balancing work with the MA has rather forced me to take a tactical and linear view over the past 12 months. That's quite a change from the previous three years when I've gone for the strategic projects and spent most of my time balancing between clients. Sometimes it worked and sometimes......

I expected to make less money this past year, but I've ended up slightly ahead, mainly through doing solid projects for solid clients with a few added extras dropped in from three or four agencies who all know me well.

To be honest, those agency calls have been less frequent in the last couple of months. The previous pattern had been to quote for work from one or more of these agencies on about a weekly basis. Some we won and some we didn't, but it produced a few good little earners, and it always galled me to have to turn down these opportunities when bigger projects demanded all my time.

Since the summer, the calls have become fewer and the word is that clients have been postponing projects left right and centre, and cancelling some plans outright.

My direct client work has actually benefited a little from the downturn as clients haven't replaced staff who have left, but have been asked to do just as much and more with leaner teams. The result has been outsourcing some projects - and I've been lucky enough to pick up some of this work.

However, a lot of my work is linked to the organisational development arena and that so often comes under intense cost pressure when times are tough. So I'll wait and see what comes through over the next few months.

I'm still in a far better position than some of my peers. A former colleague called this morning to say she'd gone into work and had been told her project had been cancelled and her interim contract was being suspended. She was running comms on a people development project for a bank. The Lehman effect has kicked in and her project, along with a number of others, has summarily been pulled and the contractors and small numbers of permanent staff involved have been laid off.

Her contract is actually with an employment agency, so she should be paid the remaining six weeks, but her strong hopes of it being extended for the next year or more have been completely extinguished.

I've done work for three major banks in the last six months, and have no doubt that the ripple effect of the Wall Street meltdown will even catch up with mini-fry like me sooner or later. In the past three years, I've pared my costs to a minimum and have enough now in the Bank to cope with a few months of flat-lining business. But I doubt any micro businesses are feeling too confident about things at the moment.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Since starting this blog, I've used Sitemeter to track the stats on this blog. they upgraded over the weekend and much of what had been useful no longer seems freely accessible, and the new reports are pretty useless to someone line me who counts hits in 10s not millions!

Anyway, I've put a new counter in and also took the time to revise the look of the blog. Not sure I'm entirely convinced by this template, so I may tinker a little more with it if time allows during what's set to be a very busy week.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The scourge of Voicemail

How did we ever get any work done before we could hide behind voicemail?

Okay, I don't actually think that - mainly because I've been operating on the flip side of the coin today, calling people for quotes and interviews for a number of magazine pieces I'm writing and hitting voicemail, after voicemail after voicemail. Actually, I did get one person directly this afternoon - and she flatly turned down my interview request.

From those on the receiver's end, it's easy to use voicemail as phone screening - never answer a call and only respond to the messages you want to. It's a lot cheaper than having to have an assistant answering your calls, and it means never being unprepared when dealing with a caller.

But it's lazy and frustrating too - and too often leaves people to communicate only by email.

I hate cold calling. When I'm requesting an interview for an article, I'll email first and set up a date and time for the call where possible or at least give a reason why I need to speak to the person before I call them. That way, I'm not having to 'sell' anything over the phone first before I get into the conversation. But the most frustrating thing is to have sent the email, perhaps set a time and date, and then reach only a voicemail. It's fine if people come back quickly....but a thorough pain in the bum if I'm left hanging on the will they/won't they return the call intrigue for the rest of the day. What's the best thing to do then? Ring again and begin to sound like a desperate stalker or wait and wait - and probably not end up talking to them at all.

I know a couple of companies that have banned voicemail. If a person's away from their desk, they have to forward their phone to someone else who can take messages. I like that idea; it maintains a personal touch in an increasingly electronic world. Email's great, but useless at sensing nuance and open to massive abuse. Voicemail is useful....but it wasn't invented as a telephone screener.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Telephones are great....discuss

As a freelancer working largely with the written word, there are two essential tools that I need to be able to function effectively. They're a phone and fast internet. Sending drafts to and fro, arranging interviews and conducting web research are key elements of my everyday job - and I'm severely hamstrung without the right tools for the job.

Thanks to BT, fast email and other internet services have been but a memory for most of the last five days.

The saga began last Thursday when the line for our Broadband hub and secondary phone line dropped out for no apparent reason. That was 'no apparent reason' until I looked out the front window and saw a BT man with his Openreach van over the road. He had his head down a manhole, and I put two and two together and concluded that whatever he was working on had caused our line to drop out.

I popped over the road and explained this to him. He was clearly a good sort as he came back to me about 20 minutes later, checked out my line, acknowledged there was a fault and spent the next half hour putting it right. So, all good, and only about an hour's working time lost.

Next afternoon, the line dropped out again. I looked out and there was another Openreach van with two different engineers peering down the same manhole. Being now expert in the procedure, I trotted over the road, exlained what had happened and how it repeated the events of the day before and asked them to ensure my line was reconnected before they left. One of them, David Essex-like with dark curly hair and an ear ring nodded and assured me that all would be ok.

An hour later, the line was still not back. I looked out and saw that the manhole was closed up and the pair had gone - clearly it doesn't pay to stay late at a job on a Friday afternoon. So, my service was stuffed for the rest of the day.

I reported the fault, told BT Customer Services what had happened and was told an engineer wouldn't be out until Saturday. So that was, effectively, four more working hours severely compromised.

Two more engineers arrived on Saturday lunchtime and restored the service within the hour. All good again.....until yesterday morning. Then, guess what? A fourth BT man with his Openreach van, legs dangling in the good ol' Brook Road manhole, but this time he was deeply engaged in a personal call on his mobile.

My line/broadband had, of course, dropped out again but I knew the drill. I crossed the road once again and stood over the engineer for a good 10 minutes as he chatted on. It was an interesting conversation as this tall, bald, tattooed engineer told the other party all about the job interview he'd just had and how he still intended to do some private work after he left BT and would make sure that the van went back to his employer empty..............I wasn't so sure that this engineer was quite such a good sort.

Anyway, once he'd deigned to complete his private call, I explained the saga and the effect that each engineering visit had caused. I gave him my number. He said he'd get it sorted.

Within 20 minutes he was gone - but still I was lineless. Needless to say, I was pretty mad but surprisingly calm when I once again reported the fault and explained to Customer Services for the second time in three days why they'd have to send an engineer out.

For the rest of yesterday and all this morning, I was reduced to using my Vodafone mobile wifi dongle. It works great in London and big towns where there's access to the 3G network, but Risborough hasn't been 3G'd yet, so the experience here in rural Bucks is much like dial-up. Very slow and very frustrating......much like my BT experience.
The line was restored at lunchtime today - a two-hour job as today's engineer said that yards of my line had been ripped out and used to patch another job. I assume that was yesterdays' work.

The lack of professionalism of two of the engineering crews is galling, and trying to actually report a fault is a byzantine process - made all the more annoying by BT's automated system constantly encouraging me to report andf track my fault online.......I would if I could bleeding well get online!

I become ever-less impressed by the service of some of our major organisations. I intend to take this further with BT, and hopefully they can restore my faith a little.