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.