Money for nothing!

Today I had to spend a few more quid speaking to a well known embassy to try and sort out the ongoing saga of a travel visa. For those of you unfortunate enough to have to get a visa for America will know how problematic it can be to get good advice. The web site failed to answer my basis questions, the search on the site  just lists media articles that are no use or ornament. So, off I go again spending £1.23 a minute plus network charges for the privilege of talking to a call centre operator somewhere on planet earth. The first minute is a sales pitch that you cannot bypass. I had to get to option 4 to get the access I needed, another minute gone; so £2.50 in and I had nothing to show for my efforts.

The query simple really- the travel plans had changed so what needed to happen next. Eventually I got through to a chap, we will call him Jim. I gave him a concise story and asked what needed to happen. He assured me that the visa would be ok and would stay in operation. He even suggested that provided I got into the country before the visa expired that I could stay out on the student visa until the end of my studies. Jim said he wanted to check some more info and would I hold, well what could I say-  he had me by the short and curlys really. So, off he went, eventually he came back apologising for the delay. The conversation went on a bit longer and then he said that he needed to speak to a specialist supervisor. Guess what I go on hold and he disappears to get help. Time and money is ticking away, but what can I do… Then he is back and guess what everything that he has said before is rubbish! He confirms that having taken more advice that in fact the visa will not cover the revised plans and that I will have to start from scratch. The visa that I have set up cannot be cancelled, and I cannot have a refund. Great news! Well at least I ended up getting an answer to my question, and to be honest I was not entirely surprised by the answer. However, the cost of this privilege ran to another 15 quid.

My beef is that the system, like most contact centre operations is flawed: Well at least from the customers view point. This particular contact centre is a licence to print money. Not only do you get charged a significant amount for the visa itself but you have to spend, on my count, an average of £12.50 for the privilege of speaking to someone. I have no idea what the leaders in this system get up to, well I do really, but they certainly do not understand anything about the nature of customer demand in their system. If they did they would have call handlers that were trained to answer calls against an understanding of customer demand. My question was not difficult, and yet Jim had to get help twice at my time and expense! Of course to the call centre manager it’s money in the bank –  the longer the call goes on the better. If the supervisor had answered the call I would have got an answer in less that half the time. Good news for me, but not for the business. A crazy world!

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O2 or Orange?

Well O2 have been taking a fair amount of stick recently over the loss of their network and the thought of trying to sort out a problem with O2 filled me with dread.

Where is help when you need it? I don’t know about you but i am  increasing dependent upon mobile technology to help me manage my busy life. To lose access to your phone, email, and calendar feels like loosing a part of you. How can we function without it?

Well, the other day the worst of nightmares, but not for me but my partner.  She looked at her phone and said that strange  the network message on my phone is  showing no sim! What could this mean i wondered, and soon found out. No access to all the key information that she depended upon. Oh let me have a look at it i said willingly. In truth i had no idea what i might do to fix it.  I tried a bit of DIY – took the sim card out. Even that was a challenge. I had to find the special little key that helps to extract the sim from the body of the phone. Luckily i remembered that i had put it in my man draw. After a bit of searching i found what i was looking for. Ah ha! Anyway two or three goes at removing the sim and cleaning it proved no different, even when i combined it with the classic IT helped advice of switching it off and back on again. I was stumped at least for now. Feeling a little deflated i said that i did not know what to do next, and that she would have to go and get help from the local phone shop.

The next day proved a busy day for both of us and i was worried as i left that my wife did not have access to the phone, she would not be able to keep on touch with the kids. Shocking really isn’t it that we feel so dependent upon bits of technology to help us run our lives. Anyway, she was left trying to find a way to fit in a trip to the phone shop along with everything else in her busy day. I was left feeling that i should have been able to fix it, but what could i do?

As luck would have it i came out of my morning appointment slightly early. I dropped in to one of the mobile shops that sells all major brands of phones and packages and asked them what advice they could give me. Despite the fact that they sell the 02 network they could offer no useful advice, other than to visit an 02 shop. I dropped in to an Orange shop, as a current arrange user i thought that they might be able to offer me some advice as they sold the particular handset, but no they too suggested an 02 shop.  Whilst i was on i had been having a problem with accessing my online account. So i thought this would be a great opportunity to resolve the matter while i was with a real person, rather than a remote voice in a call centre. I explained that the web site did not offer me the help that i needed and that there was no obvious way to get help on the site. He went away to talk to an anonymous person in the back, probably the manager busy doing more important things out of the way of the paying customer. After waiting a couple of minutes the helpful chap came back and said that he knew that there was a number because he had given it to another customer in the past, but that he could not remember it. His boss had no idea. So that best thing to do was to call 150 from my phone and see if they could help me. Great help!

Disappointed  i walked out of the shop still keen to try and fix the problem with my wifes phone. As luck would have it i came across an 02 shop. I walked in and spoke to a really helpful employee. I briefly explained the problem and what i had tried to do to fix it. She listened intently.  I was keen to know if the sim needed replacing. Myabe not she said. Can i suggest that you try two things before taking the phone into an 02 shop. Within a minute she had explained and demonstrated what i needed to do to try and fix the issue.

Well i though it must be worth a try. So i took the bull by the horns and phoned my wife at work. Thanks to the demonstration offered by the sales assistant in the shop i talked her through the first of two reset procedures.  Within in two minutes the phone had rebooted and hooray the connection to the network had been restored.  A problem fixed through the expert knowledge of a key worker who had the skills and knowledge available in the shop to first explain and the demonstrate what i needed to do to restore the service to the sim card. An excellent example of having the technical knowledge in the right place to help the customer.

All the other shops on the high street that i visited and who claimed that they could not help me could learn a thing or two from the women who helped me in the 02 shop. In the end the procedure that she offered could have been explained by any of the assistants in the other shops as i have since learned by looking at my own phone on the orange network that the same procedure will reset my phone.

So to unhelpful staff in the  Orange shop who referred me to dial 150 to sort my problem out i would say study the demands that are made by customers like me in your shops and make sure that the colleagues that you employee at the front line have the basic technical knowledge and skill to help customers whilst they are in the shop. Fending me off to a call centre is not the answer. It costs you more, both in terms of bottom line and importantly by brand reputation. After all if you had done a good job in the moment i would not have been tempted to compare your service with that of the assistant in the 02 shop.

Think on!

And for anyone with an iPhone that hits the same problem go to settings/general scroll to the bottom of the page and touch reset. Look for reset network setting and follow the instructions. If that fails switch the phone off by holding down the on off button on the top of the handset and the circular menu button together until the phone completely shuts down. Failing that

Room service

I have been using a hotel recently on business and have managed to strike up a good relationship with the local staff. My business priorities changed after I had made a booking locally at the hotel. No worries I thought I will ring them and let them know that I need to change my plans. That’s when the fun started. How hard can it be?  Well I was about to find out!

I googled the hotel to find the number and make the call. I hit an IVR system, I thought this is strange –  the hotel is not that big and an IVR system seemed a bit over the top. I started musing about the IT salesperson the had flogged them an overly specified system for the purpose. A large bonus would have resulted and you would have not seen him/her for dust. Anyway, back from my day-dream and  having chosen the bookings option I was then surprised to hear that I was 5th in the queue! It started to dawn upon me that this was not a call that was going to be answered by the hotel reception, but by a call centre somewhere in the world. To cap it all the message playing advised me that I was being charged 10 p a minute by the hotel for the call and I was still 5th in the queue. At this point I thought stuff it! I put the phone down and emailed the local sales manager at the hotel to make her aware of my experience and to change my booking. She answered first thing the following morning and all was well.

Upon my arrival at the hotel the sales manager immediately apologised for my experience and said that they had no control over the phone calls. The hotel group to which they now belonged had centralised it call handling facility some time ago and that there was nothing that she could officially  do. However, she then whispered that I could have the local number for reception which is managed about 20 hours a day and that they would be very happy to help me in future. Of course she was quick to let me know that this was against company policy,and she could be shot for giving the number to me. Shot for doing the right thing!

The conversation then went on to reveal that the centralisation of the booking system causes all sorts of problems for not only the customers, but also to the local staff. She said, Imagine trying to book a conference or a wedding through a call handler somewhere else in the world who does not understand the local hotel, its provisions etc.  It causes a lot of problems which have to be sorted out once the hotel become aware of the booking, causing duplication of effort and frustration for the customer who is keen to ensure that their event goes off well. As is always the case the local team pull together and do their best to make sure that the customer gets what they want on a way that best suits their needs, but at what cost to the business and its hard-working employees?

Another classic case of a bunch of suits in an ivory tower somewhere in the world thinking that they can save money by centralising and standardising their approach to customer enquiries. Of course they will be using a bunch of metrics that tell them that the system works wonderfully and probably also helps to justify the decision to invest in the IVR system and call centre operation. If only those guys got out of their tower and came to study and understand the reality of their decision through the yes of the customer and colleagues in the workplace they would understand that all was not what it seemed. Until then I will use the local phone number to sort out my accommodation. However, the obvious frustrations and morale of the staff will continue to suffer along with the reputation and lost business to the hotel and others in the chain until someone is brave enough to wake and realise that this does not make good business sense.

It pays to give bad service

I recently called  an embassy to fix an appointment to gain a visa for a relative  and it turned into an expense wild goose chase when the agent failed to do their job properly. Firstly, i was surprised to learn when i called the number that i would be charged £1.23 per minute plus my call rate. After all i was already paying over £100 for the privilege of a visa in the first place. A minute in to the IVR message i realised  that i needed more documentation that the web site suggested. So i hung up to get the missing information.  Then back to the phone i sat through that IVR message to get to the number i needed to set up an appointment. Fixing an appointment took a full ten minutes on the phone. I was then told that an email would be sent to me with the necessary information in it to enable me to undertake the next steps, which must be  completed before attending for the appointment.  Failure to do this would mean that entrance to the embassy would be refused.

So i waited patiently, and sure enough an email arrived but minus the all important documents that i needed to print off and complete in order to gain entry to the  embassy. Imagine my frustration when the email contained no attachments! The catch 22 – you cannot email the embassy you can only ring them on the standard number to get any help. This left only one option spend more money sorting their problem out. So i was forced to repeat the process – call the call centre explain the issue and attempt to get the all important attachments. Back through the IVR i went and eventually spoke to another agent who confirmed that the attachments were missing. She agree to send them to me again. No apology, no hint of sympathy for my inconvenience. 10 minutes and £12 poorer the documents were sent across to me. This time thankfully they arrived.

This is a system that clearly helps to cover its costs by the charging by the minute for its service. The individual agents are not to blame for this shabby approach to meeting customers expectations. The leaders who decided to to industrialse the process made the mistake. Unfortunately as the system is now a licence to print money no one will care. As customers with no choice but to respond to this dumb system we will be forced to continue to put up with poor service. Someone, somewhere clearly thinks that this service gives good value. My advice would be for a senior bod to come out of their bullet proofed glass panels and walk the workflow as a customer from start to finish. Only then could they see the broken system for themselves. As command and control thinkers they might need some help seeing the wood for the trees. Pity really as the average teenager can see what a ridiculas process has been created.

To top it all when you evenly get to enter the embassy in advance of the allotted time you find a line,   more a kin to queuing for a pop concert that a business meeting. You then find out that the time given in the original phone,  for which we paid £24, does nothing more than place you  in the very long queue. In all 2.5 hours was spent in the building mainly sitting around waiting for something to happen. Useful time spent totalled about 10 minutes max during the 2.5 hours. This ‘useful time’ was spent giving in documentation, much of which they already  had on their computer system, and answering a couple of questions. The waste , and cost, of human a time  runs to many hundred of hours a day. sadly no one cases about what matters to customers anymore we are merely numbers of a screen waiting and waiting……

Apparently we were lucky  – it can take up to FIVE hours on some days. Madness!

Data data all around, but not a bit that’s useful

It’s that busy time of the year for people in finance in local government –  ‘close down’.

A magical time when every last ounce of energy goes into the exercise.

There is a target date to meet and everything must add up, balance and be filed for inspection by the dreaded external auditor.making efficiencies

Life and death for accountants: like watching paint dry for everyone else.

During ‘close down’ it’s very difficult to get any useful information out of accountancy, as they are ‘too busy’.

So whilst the business goes on spending millions of pound a week managers run blind on what’s actually happening with cost, until they get an update at the end of the quarter. That’s when the fun starts again.

One persons view of a budget and spend profile is different to another. As the manager of the budget you often have limited say in what get reported to the many meetings that purport to scrutinize the detail only to nod it through.

It’s claimed that only the accountants really understand what the figures mean. In practice I wonder if even that it true.

The slight of hand that goes on to churn money in the system means that it’s difficult for anyone to know what the true picture is. By the time it gets reported, and audited the game has moved on.

Every year as a manager you do you best to manage and profile your spend to get value for money.

Now let’s not get started on VFM that will come up in a later blog.

A while ago in quarter two I was told that I was going to over spend by the end of the year by £2M (I was naturally quite worried) at the end of the following quarter I was going to underspend by £550K (now I was even more worried, did anyone know what was really going on?)

You could not make it up. What are you supposed to do!

Experience says keep your own information, so most of us keep our own spreadsheets just in case. They obviously sit outside of the main financial system, possibly even on memory sticks, but don’t tell IT as its against the policy to stick anything dodgy into your USB port.

At least having your own records gives you something to argue with when the accountant tries to manage your codes and your budget for you, and gets you in to hot water.

Ironically the latest accountancy system was introduced to remove the need for all those spreadsheets, but I am really glad that I secretly kept mine. It’s duplication of effort, but you cannot be too careful.

Another thing that bugs me is that fact that you are accountable for the budget and its spend, but the accountants mysteriously have secret powers to enter the system and move numbers around, seemingly at will, to balance things out for that all important financial report.

Overspends of course remain the managers problem.

This can be hugely frustrating when the overspend is cause by a cock up in accountancy when a Zero or the comma in the wrong place. Opps sorry these things happen!

Can you give me an explanation of the reasons for the overspend, and what you intend to do about it for the Management Team report. Oh and by the way the Director of Finance needs it by tonight.

The irony is that the budget is pored over and used as some amazing tool that informs our decision making.

In truth it’s a lagging measure, historical information regurgitated at various meetings to show everyone that we are in balance for the year against the agreed allocation of spend.

This whole exercise is an arbitrary judgement made largely on the basis of rolling forward previous years spent plus or minus a percentage.

It has little relationship to community or customer need, and gives us little if any information about true end to end operational cost of the services being delivered.

Why?  Because budgets are apportioned to hierarchical structures and further subdivided into functions and cost centres causing the system to sub optimise.

In practice this means that individuals manage the money that they have been allocated and spend it on the part of the organisation for which they have responsibility.

Simple really.

The issue is that each of us looks after our bit and has little, if any, focus upon the impact this has upon the customers that we are all here to serve. This in fact drives massive inefficiency and therefore cost into delivering essential services.

The result is that the organisation runs very inefficiently, but few people realise that this is the case because they are focused on their bit. The drive for efficiency only compounds the problem faced by many organisations.

Salami slicing or prioritisation of spend via a lottery causes individuals to act in a territorial way to protect spend in their area. It’s human nature.

The true cost of the system is in the flow – how things actually move around the organisation, not in unit cost.

Only by studying the organisation as a system can you begin to understand where and how to act to improve service and reduce operating cost.

Confessions of a public sector director

I have missed my deadlines!

I should have completed all my end of year reviews by the end of last month.

I am late putting the final touches to my business plan, and the performance team wants to know the reasons why my numbers were down for quarter 4.

It seems to be getting harder each time. The last management review removed three of my colleagues and I inherited two extra reports to go with the six that I already have.

The performance objectives that had been set for the new guys have been passed on to me together with the outstanding objectives from two of the managers that did not survive the last jobs cull.

Everyone seems to me to be trying really hard, but according to the latest guidance from HR I need to score three of my team as under performing. This means that they will miss out on a bonus, and I will have to fill in a detailed improvement plan with each of them, which I have to monitor on a monthly basis.

If I fail to do this then my boss will put me on to an improvement plan! I am drowning in paperwork; well I tell a lie some of it is paperless.

We have a new on line web based portal to update our performance metrics on each week.

Honestly I spend more time staring at my computer screen up dating forms and scorecards than I do actually trying to do my job. Is this what I joined this business to do? I talked down the pub with a few of my mates and they mainly seem to be caught in the same trap.

The end of year reviews are all based on the revised competency framework, revised again this year by HR, and also have to link into the business plan targets for the team.

Mine are linked to the team and to my boss, and so on.  It’s a maze. I am not sure that anyone really understands what it all means.

The online guidance and video blogs don’t help much with explaining what we need to know, I just need someone to talk to in person, but the HR team now operate out of a contact centre 400 miles away.

The game at the end of the year is to come up with smart words to show how what we ended up doing looks like it fits with the original plan. I have become pretty skilled at making things look ok.

In truth what we actually do and what we put into the plans are very different, but as long as the right boxes are filled in and we can come up with a sensible reason why we missed target we can usually get away with it.

What a way to run a business!

I sometimes wonder whether everyone is up the same trick? Is the MD also spinning the numbers with the board? He must be! As long as the board is happy then we live to breath another day.

As for this years business plan, well everyone else seems to be rolling forward last years ideas and adding a bit at the margin on performance targets.

You have to do it to survive, but it feels like cloud cuckoo land to me. It feels more and more like a losing streak when betting on the horses. A few of my colleagues have let all this get to them and it has starting to impact upon their home lives.

One of my colleagues had her longstanding partner walk out on her the other week, because she was hardly ever at home. The culture of presenteeism means that we have to be seen to be at work crunching the numbers.

Two of my colleagues are off with stress, and I am not sure that one of them will ever come back. Maybe it’s for the best, at least he will end up with some sort of deal to keep him quite and the company out of the courts!

I have to sit down later this week with one of my reports,  to talk to him about his performance this month.

It’s going to be a difficult conversation you see because he is very good at his job and brings in great results; in fact he is ahead of target. The problem is he is ahead on the wrong target.

Let me explain a bit further – the powers that be have decided that we need to review ten clients a day, and this is the target that we get measured on.  Well Alan has only been hitting around five a day for the last three months, so things are not looking too good for him.

The problem is that he has actually converted more of his reviews in to new business than any other member of the team, but the other team members regular hit their target for reviews.

How can I explain that one to him? The business needs new business to survive, but the target is for numbers of completed reviews. The big bosses don’t seem to realize the implications for the business.

I wonder if it has anything to do with the bonuses they are due at the end of the financial year?

However, I am not sure that it has to be this way. I was reading an interesting article the other day by a chap called John Seddon. In it he talked about that fact that targets always drive the wrong type of behaviour in organisations.

When I reflected upon my own experience I could see what he meant. He also argued that business planning, and annual performance reviews were a waste of time and energy. Well I agree with him there! He argues that such processes are entirely arbitrary and add no value to the business what so ever.

So, why I am finding myself having to doing more and more of this stuff?

The article says that as a manager I need to connect with the work and my team and to understand what my team is about through the eyes of the customer and then to work with them to design and manage the work on the basis of what matters to the customers.

It sounds simple enough; I would love to find the time to have a go.

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog.