Sunday, 30 January 2011

Headingley and the Scyre Ac

Do you know the story behind the Skyrack in Headingley? I reveal more in the Culture Vulture here

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Taking communication for granted

For me, communication is a vital part of any organisation. It never ceases to amaze me when companies get the basics wrong. I’m not talking about small companies on the whole, but companies who really should know better.

Sometimes it’s just a bug bear – the person who emails you from 5 yards away when it would be easier to talk. Other times it’s more serious.

Over the last three months I’ve had an issue with British Gas for a service which was spot on and well done. The problem? The communication was abject and showed a complete disregard for the customer.

I’m going to share the experience to highlight some of the pitfalls of communications as it seems to be a good case study of how things can go wrong and some advice on how to avoid these issues.

In late November I signed up to the British Gas Homecare service which offers free boiler repair and an annual service. Within a few days of signing up, I received a call and an appointment was made for 4th December. Here, the system was working effectively and well. An automated system had placed my enquiry in a queue and I was dealt with promptly.

The day before the appointment time, we experienced very heavy snow and, knowing my road, knew that British Gas would have to have a snow mobile to be able to get anywhere near my house. I telephoned British Gas and spoke to two different people. I was trying to cancel the appointment and rearrange for the next available date. As I’d been offered an appointment within a fortnight, I assumed this would not be too far in the future.

The first person confirmed I could get a reappointment, but it would be 27th December at the earliest. They couldn’t make the change and passed me on to the person dealing with the enquiry. The second person claimed there were no slots available for over a month and they could not give me a new date. They were incredulous at my suggestion that the engineer would not be able to get to my house and that the conditions in Leeds had affected any of their services. I was reluctantly given the option of waiting for the engineer the following day.

This shows two things. Different operators seem to have different information and that’s never helpful. Secondly, there is a problem with listening. Listening is an important part of the process and customers can be in a better position to know certain facts.
That evening I cleared out the cupboard under the stairs to ensure the engineer would have enough space and the next day I waited for my 8am-1pm appointment. I waited. And I waited. It was 3pm when I called British Gas. Failure to contact customers is unacceptable and the easiest way of losing trade. There is a saying “eat your frogs first” which means do the tasks that need to be done but you don’t want to do first, and your day will only get easier.

British Gas seemed not to have any information at hand and unsure what to say. The operator had no way of confirming what had happened and if the appointment was still going to take place, although this was doubtful. They blamed the engineer for not contacting me to let me know the situation. Twenty four hours later, I was now being told there were serious issues in West Yorkshire and emergency calls were being prioritised but I would be contacted to rearrange the appointment. The problem now is the company is in a crisis situation. They are getting a lot of calls but the systems have broken down and there is no understanding of what to do. This means they cannot advise the customer who just wants some help.

A couple of days later I sent a tweet annoyed that no-one had called me, as promised. I got a phone call from British Gas, or a call centre acting on their behalf. The person didn’t know anything about my situation but seemed to understand I had a customer services issue. On explaining the situation, the end of the conversation was” Oh! Right, erm there’s nothing I can do”. Again the machinery was working, picking up social media issues, contacting and trying to resolve. The issue was there was no help available and there were no slots available for an appointment.

The snow fell thick and fast and I thought it best to wait until the New Year to make an enquiry. I was sensible enough to realise they were having problems and it was an inconvenience I could have done without. A fortnight or so after the snow had gone, I called again. The advisor listened to my request for a new appointment and he said it was still busy but he would personally ensure I got an appointment within 24 hours.

Now over a month and half after my appointment had been cancelled, my main gripe is that I had made initial contact every single time and British Gas had not contacted me once. The operator said they were still making reappointments and those with a low priority call were being put to the back of the queue. Thousands of people were being affected, or so I was told. The policy was to NOT contact them as there were too many.

It’s great to be told your problem is being personally dealt with, a nice touch. But why weren’t the customers being told? It would take a day at most to draft a letter apologising for the situation and giving an indication of when normal service would be resumed. This was the biggest sin and preventable. I can only think someone was being a skinflint over postage costs.

A week past and the operator who said he’d ring me back in 24 hours had lied. Don’t give promises you can’t keep.

Finally, my boiler broke down a few days ago. I called and an engineer was sent out to my house within a few hours. I asked if my annual check could be done at the same time. I was told I had an appointment for mid February that I should be aware of. I hadn’t been aware of it. That said, it would be fine for the checks to be carried out.

So what are the learning points?

Listen so you can help rather than resorting to mechanisms
• The customer is normally right
• Be first to contact your customers when things go wrong; don’t wait for them to come to you
• Ensure everyone is delivering a consistent and accurate message
• Ensure the left hand knows what the right is doing
• Ensure that there are crisis management systems built in so when the proverbial hits the fan, at the very least you have a holding statement or position
• If you can’t communicate in your normal way, think how you can get messages sent out
• Don’t over promise and be honest about the situation
• Don’t lie

Were you affected during the bad weather? Let me know if I was the unlucky one or if you also suffered from poor service.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

The power of collaboration

I’m a believer that no one has a great idea. Good ideas only become great when they get passed around, discussed and improved on by several people. I am also a fan of the US approach to new technology where companies in the Silicon Valley share commercially sensitive intellectual property in order to fast-track their development and create new products.

There is a way of using twitter or a chat application to foster these ideas and share the expertise others that requires a little over an hour of time a month. It also has the added benefit of raising your profile, promoting your business and making you as thought leader.

I’m still surprised that twitter events aren’t more commonplace. I first came across #PRStudchat a while back. A US PR practitioner called Deidre Breakenridge created a forum for discussing the PR industry by encouraging students, lecturers and people from the industry to discuss issues relevant to them. Within the first few chats, contributions started coming in from across the globe going well beyond the group she had targeted. Since then, Deidre has had working trips to Europe, including the UK, based on the profile generated by #PRstudChat.

Other examples include #Edchat, channel 4s #twinge and #SN4BW (social networking for business women.

So how can I take advantage of this event? Like all things, the idea is simple, but you will require some leg work to get the initial idea off the ground. It also helps if you have something interesting to say yourself.

1. Work out who you want to talk to and about what.
2. Look for people may be key influencers. In Deidre’s case, getting the buy in from lecturers brought with it groups of students. You will also need a critical mass to make the first ‘event’ a success.
3. Think about when you want to hold the event and an appropriate name for the event. When is convenient for the people you are trying to communicate with?
4. Create a hashtag and check it doesn’t clash with anything else being used on twitter.
5. Raise awareness of the event using social media and direct marketing, asking for questions. Don’t keep the format too open ended as this will reduce the questions being set.
6. Create very simple rules so you can identify the question and possibly area of expertise.

How it works:
1. Add your own questions to the ones suggested, ordering them to create a theme/narrative for the discussion. You’ll need six to ten questions for an hour.
2. Start the event just before the advertised time telling people the ‘rules’ and format of the event.
3. Open with the first question, may be offering an answer to get the ball rolling. It might be helpful to get a few close friends/colleagues to add opinions or even play devil’s advocate.
4. Respond back to the discussions being created and/or to individuals.
5. When the replies dry up or 5-10 minutes later, post the next question and repeat.
6. At the end of the discussion, formally close the chat, thanking participants.
7. You may want to invite people to give feedback or take a quick survey using a tool like survey monkey.

By now you’ve had a valuable conversation, covering a number of areas and enabling you to understand whether your views fit in with or challenge your peers. As host, the valuable discussions reflect well on you even if they’ve been created by others. But there’s more you can do now the event is over.

The next day, harvest the comments by searching for the hashtag. Report on the discussion in your own blog, write a press release, newsletter or use the responses as market research. This expands the reach of the event and acts as advertising for the next event. Make sure you understand what a personal view is and what a corporate position of a company or individual is.

Over a number of months, you’ll develop a wider following and find people you’d never find any other way. Think how you can take it further to make the discussion fresh. You could create a ‘real’ event or even finding a sponsor

Just remember, not everyone is on twitter – particularly students – so you might need to explain twitter or how to sign up to a chat application. You’ll also need to ensure you have someone who can step in if you can’t host the event for whatever reason.

Image courtesey of

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Social Media Paradox or why SMEs have the advantage

I was having a discussion with a small business owner over the use of social media. His view was that it wasn’t worth investigating. His limited team couldn’t even start to compete with big business which has the resource to invest heavily in social media managers, operatives and agency support.

He felt it was pointless to even try as his best efforts could not match the inventiveness and scale of the campaigns he’s seen. The businessman had played around with some social media on a personal level but didn’t really engage heavily in it.

This approach led me to think whether this was true. It is hard to remember that only a few years ago, few businesses large or small engaged through social media and there was that window of opportunity where entrepreneurial spirit in the social media world allowed some small firms to rise to prominence.

Companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsico have gradually been shifting their massive advertising budget over to PR and online marketing campaigns. Look at a company like Dell sifting through social media data to continuously audit feedback and proactively eliminate customer complaints. Even government departments are spending vast amounts of money on ensuring their messages are being received and are monitoring how they are being discussed.

A company like Sony employs an agency to promote its activities in the social media world and its almost expected that a technology savvy company has integrated video, images and copy. Even the strict rules of the financial industry are being tested as banks, led by First Direct, are exploring how to best use social media tools to advise its customers and promote their products.

How could a small one man band operation compete with a promotion like Morphy Richards World Ironing Championships, for example.

If this were advertising or pure marketing, you might have a point, but there is a paradox with social media. The more successful you are at social media you become, the worse you are at social media. Whatever social medium you use, the point is to engage and interact with a community. Much of the work doesn’t even need to be done by yourself, as the community can do it for you.

Once you reach a critical mass, however, it becomes tricky to engage in the same way. Is it really possible to listen to the postings of 2,000 people in the same way you listen to 80? Can you respond to your followers in the same personal and well thought out way? Can you categorise your audience as neatly, ensuring you deliver to all of them.

The answer is no. There may even be a rise in the churn of your followers or an increase in spammers slogging up your social media accounts. With more people, there is a need for more time – and let’s remember it might not be your organisations raise en detra to use interact on the web.

The smaller firm doesn’t need to chase followers. They can establish a good core audience of loyal customers, suppliers and brand ambassadors. LEGO select a small handful of bloggers each year to review their products, and this tactic can work whatever your size.

I’ve always seen engagement as conversation in a pub, say. There’s a chap at the bar with a crowd around him, and he’s telling tall tales. The conversation might be entertaining, but the value is low. Two people can be having a business conversation in the corner planning an idea that will make them a fortune. Which conversation is more valuable? It’s a no brainer yet companies often get blinded by the numbers and miss the point. Would you rather one repeat buyer or a handful of one off purchases? Take the example of Millies’ twitter account in Leeds which ensures the family run shop remains distinctive and accessible to its loyal shoppers.

If you want to go big and escape the niche, there are examples of the SMEs that have gone big. Take Tailor Thomas Mahon and his blog, or Gary Vaynerchuk’s wine tasting videos. And how about the Creme Brulee Man and his twitter account.

If you’re still not sure whether to use social media to help your business, just join in, listen to your customers and engage with them. What’s the worst that can happen?

Image courtesey of

Friday, 7 January 2011

Panto: The art of retelling a great story

At this time of year, you sometimes have to watch when someone cries out “He’s behind you!” Even more so if you’re sitting in the front row of a theatre audience. We’re just past half way in the annual pantomime season, and it is hard to grasp that this is a particularly British art form that most other countries don’t understand.

Very few arts have been developed within Britain and this form of theatre is one of them. Over the festive period I’ve seen two pantos in theatres and a handful on television. But there is a perception that they are low brow and hackneyed. I think this view is unfair and there is plenty of life in this annual festival of fun.

The one advantage of the Pantomime is the elasticity of its genre. It encompasses everything from a tightly produced small ensemble cast to a largely improvised set and everything in between. To understand this a little further you need to understand the origins of panto.

The word Pantomime originally comes from ancient Greece but there it refers to a performance that “imitates all” as the words suggest. Even in English theatre history, the term originally referred to a low form of opera that imitated the real thing. However, the low opera did tend to retell familiar stories and it is this retelling that is important.

There has been a tradition of retelling stories over generations in Britain. Think of the Mummers’ plays or the Chaucerian idea of people sharing stories for entertainment. There isn’t just one version of Cinderella, its plot or even its characters. Probably the original pantomime, the story is a European legend that existed for hundreds of years before the pantomime was invented.
I imagine the 1870 Drury Lane version of Cinderella, possibly the first real panto, would be quite different to “Cinderella Rocks”, a local youth theatre group production being performed in Leeds this year.

The idea of a small footed beauty is believed to have its origins in China where women used to fold their toes back with bandages to give the impression of smaller feet. The Disney version has no Dandini and no Buttons. There are Cinderella ballets, Operas, books and films which are distinctly not Panto. It’s even believed that the “glass slipper” is a mistranslation of “the shoe of fun” – a slipper that allows the wearer to dance.

It is the retelling in a new form every year that makes it relevant to a new audience, evolving over the decades to reach new audiences since its creation in the nineteenth century. What makes the pantomime is a number of common features which can be overlaid on many a story, but even some of these common features can be absent. Aladdin at the West Yorkshire Playhouse had no cross dressing but it did have a dame.

The modern construct of the pantomime was heavily influenced by the musical hall. Many vaudevillians saw the panto as good seasonal work. Rather than two or three acts, the pantomime tends to run several varying scenes or skits together allowing for comedians, singers, dancers and magicians to do there “turn” even if it adds nothing to the story. A good pantomime is also interactive involving the audience and responding to the heckle.

It is also a form of art where the amateur production can be as good, if not better, than the professional production with the big cast. With few rules, the strength of the Pantomime relies on the satire, the gag writing and the relationship with the audience. Special effects can help a production but aren’t the heart of the performance. The panto will only die if it stays the same. We are no longer in the variety hall era and inspiration should come from the current. It should go back to the roots of imitating all whilst holding on to a good yarn that has survived the test of time.