Monday, 14 November 2011

The loyalty card that stretches loyalty to the limit

Membership sits at the heart of The Co-operative Group,” says the blurb. As a member of the Co-op, you get to “have a say” and enjoy a share of the profits. There are no nasty capitalist shareholders, which means all the more for the rest of us. In other words, the Co-op membership card isn’t just any old supermarket loyalty card – it’s a sign that you’re part of something special.

In October 2008, I sent off the paperwork for a Midcounties Co-op loyalty card. I was warned it might take a while, but when January 2009 rolled around and my card still hadn’t arrived, I prodded the membership department. They replied saying that there was no record of me on their system, but they could do the application over email. There followed an exchange where I tried to extract an apology for my four-month wait from the employee who was dealing with my case, a young man called Matthew Isoo. He steadfastly refused to either

a) apologise,
b) acknowledge that I was asking for an apology, or
c) use any punctuation.

In February 2009, my membership card finally arrived and I could start collecting points. As you might expect, a Midcounties Co-op membership card gives you points for spending at the Co-op, and those points turn into rewards. At the time I was living in a small village where the main food shop was a Co-op, so they were getting a lot of my money and I thought it would be nice to get something back. And without greedy capitalist shareholders, the Co-op can afford to give something back – oh yeah, I’ve done this bit.

So I carried on spending. Then one day I noticed that my points total had been reset to zero. All my points earned up to July 2009 had been converted to vouchers. I’d already seen how slowly the Co-op moves, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that those vouchers were scheduled to arrive during November 2009. But I’d moved house and I didn’t want the vouchers to go to my old address! I’d spent months and a lot of hard-earned cash accruing those points!

I contacted the Midcounties Co-op membership department to give them my new address. Yes, they could update the address on their system, and no, the vouchers hadn’t gone out yet. So, I said, since I’ve contacted you in time, you’ll be able to send them to my new address?

It took four days and two people to give me the answer “No.” But why not? I thought they might find a multiple-choice question easier to answer, so I suggested:
You can't send them to my new address because...

  1. The envelopes were printed weeks ago and have been sitting on somebody's desk all that time, and you can't possibly print a new envelope now.

  2. You need to go through your "security" procedures to confirm that I really have moved house and I'm not the victim of some master criminal who wants to steal my Co-op vouchers.

  3. Both of the above?

Lisa Hughes, Member Benefits Manager, replied:

When we do a voucher mailing it goes out to over 150 000 people. The actual printing and production of the vouchers, magazine and everything that goes in the pack take around 2 months. This is why we are not able to change 1 record in that file of 150k once the process has started.

If the vouchers have not reached you (not sure if you have your mail forwarded from your old address) by 14th December, please get in touch with us and we can arrange for compensation of the lost vouchers.

I responded:

So it's a little bit of option 1 and a little bit of option 3: your business processes are so non-agile and slow that you need two months' notice to be sure of getting the right address on an envelope.
I have set up mail forwarding from my old address, but your mailing is exquisitely timed to arrive in the one-day window between me handing over the keys to the house and the postal redirect beginning. All the other organisations on my long list for address updates were perfectly capable of updating my details in time for any future mailings, which is why I foolishly thought that even the Co-op might manage this. (My address update list includes the National Union of Journalists, which has thousands of members but still managed to update my details in time to send me the bi-monthly union magazine.)
Mind you, I must say it's nice to actually get a response to a query out of the Midcounties Co-op for once. But it says a lot about your business that it took over two working days to get a simple answer to a simple question, and that the administrator I originally emailed couldn't answer it himself but had to drag in his supervisor. Still, I suppose he's a lot more polite and competent than Matthew Isoo.

Nobody bothered replying to my little outbreak of petulance. I duly put a note in my calendar for December to contact them if the vouchers didn’t arrive.

Of course the vouchers didn’t arrive. I wrote to Customer Services again in mid-January 2010:

...You therefore asked me to contact you again for compensation if I hadn't received [the vouchers] by mid-December. Well, of course I haven't bloody received them; as you know perfectly well, they were sent to the wrong address. But you refused to send anything to my new address until I'd contacted you a second time to confirm this.
I am therefore writing again to ask you to please send compensation to the correct address...

Four days later, I hadn’t had a reply. I tried again, with an email that ended:

...Are you going to send my vouchers out or are you going to continue ignoring me and thereby force me to make a complaint?

Clearly the Midcounties team were going for the latter, because they ignored that email too. I waited until February, to be absolutely sure they weren’t just being slow. Then I found the personal email address of the Midcounties Co-op’s chief executive and emailed him with a more concise version of the whole sorry tale.

My email began

Are you aware of how bad your Member Communications team is?
and ended
Although I have spent plenty of money in your shops and accrued hundreds of points, I will never receive any reward for my loyalty because your staff were too incompetent to send my vouchers to the correct address and too lazy to respond to any of my messages. What, precisely, is the point of becoming a member of the Midcounties Co-op? It's been a lot of hard work for absolutely no reward.
I should make it clear that not once throughout this period have I received anything resembling an apology from any member of your Member Communications team. Nor have I seen any sign that they understand why I am frustrated with their incompetence.

That did the trick. Within hours I had a very concerned phone call from Di Bateman, the membership manager, and we had a long chat. She told me she’d been through the emails on the system and was appalled at what she’d seen. She apologised profusely and told me that as a result of my experience, they would be overhauling their systems to make sure that kind of thing never happened again. Matthew Isoo would be receiving “retraining” and there would be a new system in place so that an email never went unanswered for more than a set period of time.

She explained that my spending that year might not actually have been enough to qualify me for any vouchers anyway, but that someone should have explained this to me. They sent me a £20 Co-op voucher just to say sorry.

I was delighted. Delighted that I’d succeeded in getting this incompetent but ultimately well-meaning organisation to permanently change its systems for the better. Delighted that someone was listening, and she'd actually said sorry!

Sadly, the postscript to this happy tale isn’t so good. Summer 2010 rolled around and I still didn’t get any vouchers, which seemed odd given that I’d bought home insurance through the Midcounties Co-op as well as using their pharmacy and making the occasional grocery shop. I figured it was because we’d moved out of the village and were mostly doing our food shopping elsewhere.

Then summer 2011 rolled around and I still hadn’t received any vouchers. My husband, who shops there roughly as much as I do, received a nice bundle of vouchers plus a magazine. I was starting to get suspicious. Surely even if I hadn’t earned many points they would still have sent me the nice fluffy magazine, right?

In November 2011 I contacted the membership department again, just to confirm that they had the right address for me. My message ended:

I don't quite see the point of a loyalty scheme where I get absolutely nothing after three years of membership. Could you look into this?

They looked my details up on the system. And guess what? IT WAS MY OLD ADDRESS. After two-and-a-bit years, multiple complaints, a direct message to the chief executive and the overhaul of their internal systems, the Midcounties Co-op membership department still hadn’t actually succeeded in updating my address details.

They didn’t offer to compensate me for all the vouchers that have gone to my old address, though they did offer to send me the value of the most recent voucher issue – a princely £4.

That £4 is my total reward for nearly three years’ membership. It’s my reward for persisting with my membership application after they lost it. It’s my reward for spending almost all my grocery budget at the Co-op over a period of years. It’s my reward for using their pharmacies, for taking out their home and contents insurance (and renewing it twice).

Not really enough, is it?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Can't buy me love: Groupon says it will return my money.

A follow up to this: After a further week with no watch, no communication from Groupon and no refund, I wrote to them again, yesterday, asking for a refund and pointing them at my last post.

Here's my email:

I have had no reply from you further than this email (apart from an automatically generated 'tell us about our customer service' form). You can imagine how I replied.

I have not had a watch from South Lane.

Please return me my money forthwith. This will be the amount I paid for an express delivery voucher (£13.60) plus interest plus payment for the time I have spent on this so far (about three hours at £20 per hour).

You may be interested in this website on which I have related the details of this interaction up until last weekend:

Yours faithfully

Online Blogger

I have just now recieved an email from the Slightly More Important Minion:

SMIMinion, Nov-06 16:29 (GMT):

Dear Online,

Thank you for your response. I would like to sincerely apologise for the trouble that you have experienced as a result of purchasing this deal. This is obviously not the kind of experience we wish our customers to have when they make a purchase from our site, and I have forwarded the issue to all involved parties - informing us of what happened will, I hope, help us to ensure this doesn't happen again.

I do understand your frustration with this situation; you have paid for an item and would of course expect it to arrive within the designated timescale, and I can only reiterate my apologies that this has not been the case.

As explained in our previous correspondence, we are not involved in monitoring the dispatch processes of the individual companies with whom we feature deals. This is because we feature deals with thousands of different companies, and it has never been part of our operations to manage them in this respect.

This, as pointed out previously, is stated in our terms and conditions which you have admitted to not reading. The terms and conditions offered by Groupon are in place to protect both our customers and the partners we work with, and we do recommend that prospective Groupon customers read these thoroughly before making a
purchase from our site.
Given the circumstances, I am happy to process a full refund of the £13.60 which you paid to us for the voucher. This has been implemented immediately and you should receive the money back into your bank account within 5 working days.

Kind regards


So, kudos to Groupon in that they have, finally, agreed to return the money that I paid to them for goods that I didn't receive.

There is no acknowledgement, however, that getting this money returned has taken me time and effort and Groupon have offerend me no compensation for my time and effort, either.  I'd like to remind you all that all I have had back from them is the money that I paid for goods that I didn't receive. 

All I have is exactly what I started with, minus a few hours of my time and a fair few calories burnt in crossness. 

It shouldn't have taken two weeks for Groupon to decide to give me my money back - my money, not Groupon's money - and I think we should all heed the T&C, as advised by the SMIMinion; if you buy a voucher from Groupon for the purchase of goods from a different website, you are not guaranteed the delivery of those goods, and Groupon will say that they are not obliged to chase the other website for you, and you'll have to keep emailing them with increasing levels of crossness, to get that money returned.

I think they were obliged to return my money, which is why they finally did return it, when I pointed out that I had written the story of the non-delivery of the watch and Groupon's refusal to do anything about it, and published it. 


But thanks, anyway, Groupon.  Now please take me off your mailing lists.

EDIT: I have now been emailed by the SMIMinion, very politely informing me that I have been removed from the mailing lists without me having to remove myself, in response to the comment made above, on my blog. 

To be fair to Groupon, I need to record this example of excellent customer service - so thank you.  There's not many companies that respond so quickly to requests on blogs.

It might now be a good idea if Groupon tried to introduce the same quick response time to emails complaining about the non-receipt of goods and asking for money to be reimbursed.  One step at a time, though. 

Time to draw a line under this.  I'm really not into baiting the underlings.  I suspect, if you dig deep into Groupon's hierarchies and structures, most of this debacle can be traced back to a lack of support,  a lack of training of people hired to deal with cross customers such as myself, possibly an insecure work place so that people feel scared to escalate issues, and too much work for the customer service people in a company that is expanding too fast.   That still doesn't excuse the T&C, though, but at least we all know what they mean, now.


Sunday, 30 October 2011

The kind of thing that money just can't buy

Sometime around the middle of September, I joined Groupon by mistake - you click on one facebook ad, and then suddenly you're a member, sort of thing. I wasn't terribly happy, but had read some stories and the emails were easily deleted. So I decided to wait for a bit before classifying the emails as junk mail.

And then I needed a watch, and there was a watch to be had on Groupon,
a bright, shiny, plastic watch like a giant boiled sweet, and I wanted it in red because nothing spells impending senility like wearing a giant, plastic, bright red boiled sweet wrapped around your wrist. This watch, from a site called South Lane, was something like £34.00 originally, but I could get it for £12.00 if I bought a Groupon Voucher, and if I paid something like £13.60 for express delivery, I could get it even quicker.

Now a saving isn't a saving if it makes you buy something you wouldn't buy anyway, but I needed a watch. So I dutifully signed up - I can't remember ticking a T&C box but apparently there is one, now, anyway, and received my voucher code by the end of that day. I can't remember the exact day that this was, but I rushed along to the South Lane website and, eagerly and chirpily and merrily and all other sorts of ilys, entered the voucher code; code not accepted.

I tried again and again.  I decided to phone Groupon. "The code doesn't work!" I wailed. Silence. "Hello?" I asked.

Eventually the young lady came back to tell me that the codes hadn't been uploaded yet and that I should wait and try again. Retrospectively, I realise that the lack of care was a harbinger of things to come.  I waited and tried the website again the next day or that evening; no luck. Eventually, I forgot about it. 

A couple of weeks later - on 10th October, to be precise - I remembered the voucher plus code. I went to the website, the voucher code was accepted, and I was sent an acknowledgement email. I replicate that email underneath. Notice how the date of the acknowledgement email is clearly present, at the top.

Order ID: XXXX
Date Added: 10/10/2011
Order Status: Complete

1x Red Lane (Red Lane) 39.00€

Order Totals
Coupon(F3A2DADB7E) -41.99€
Sub-Total 39.00€
Flat Rate 2.99€
Total 0.00€

To view your order click on the link below:

Please reply to this email if you have any questions.

Remember, I'd paid for Express Delivery. OK, so I was buying the watch rather later than I originally intended but I still wanted it NOW! Giant boiled sweetie watch, water resistant to 30 m, what's not to die for?

On the 18th October, with no watch having arrived, I replied to the email as instructed above, with the following. The original email was addended, as shown underneath. Note that the date of the original email is still clear:

Dear South Lane

I have not yet received this watch - I was under the impression that buying it with the express delivery option meant that I would get it quite quickly. I wanted it as a birthday present for myself, and my birthday is tomorrow. What now? Do I need to take this further?


Online Blogger#

On Mon, October 10, 2011 11:27 am, South Lane wrote:
> Order ID: XXXX
> Date Added: 10/10/2011
> Order Status: Complete
> Products
> 1x Red Lane (Red Lane) 39.00€
> Order Totals
> Coupon(F3A2DADB7E) -41.99€
> Sub-Total 39.00€
> Flat Rate 2.99€
> Total 0.00€
> To view your order click on the link below:

> Please reply to this email if you have any questions.

Quite clear, don't you think? Unfortunately, after the automated response, I heard nothing further from South Lane, and to this day, have not heard anything from them. So, there's a company to avoid. 

Now, that's the last time I'm going to print the whole of an email including preceeding emails, but you must imagine each new email getting longer and longer, with all the previous emails underneath.

Having heard nothing from South Lane, I decided to try Groupon. I've paid money to Groupon, and this money has disappeared into nothingness. I'm not going to spend more money hanging on the telephone to South Lane, trying to get someone who will answer; Groupon has taken money from me and they clearly have a contract with South Lane, so I'll ask them for help.

So I sent this email to Groupon on Saturday 21st October. This is actually three days after I first sent the email to South Lane, not two as stated in the email:

Dear Groupon

I ordered this watch from South Lane, using a voucher bought from you,some time ago (ten days). Your advertisement for this order said that delivery would be in seven days. I have not had the watch. I have sent the email beneath to South Lane two days ago, but have had no reply.

I'd like my voucher money back please, or the watch delivered, with the express delivery money given back to me, ASAP - which would mean by the end of next week.

Yours faithfully

Online Blogger

and underneath were the two previous emails, just as shown above. 

I recieved an automated reply, and then, on the Sunday, this email back from Groupon:

Re: [Fwd: Re: South Lane - Order XXXX] (ticket #1047396)
Minion X, Oct-23 17:44 (BST):

Hi Online,

Thank you for your email.

It states on the website that the express delivery is a wait of 7 working days. As you redeemed your voucher on the 18th of October, it is still within the expected delivery time. The 7th working day will be the 27th of October.

If you do not receive your item in this time then please reply to this email.


Minion X

But I had written to SouthLane on the 18th and ordered the watch on the 10th (and it would have been earlier had Groupon actually uploaded the codes timeously) - and seven days for express delivery? Surely that's not right. Still, not going to argue with that, but I was pretty miffed that the Minion X hadn't even taken the time to read my email properly, and had assumed that I was lying, or making a fuss about nothing. It was pretty clear from the addended emails that I had made the order on 10th October.

So I replied, pretty crossly, with this:

Please reread the emails attached.

I redeemed my voucher on *10th* October, which is why I wrote to them on 18th October.

I am not impressed by your reply, in the slightest.

Please make sure that I get the watch by the end of next week, with the extra I have paid for express delivery returned to me, or refund in full.

Thank you

Online Blogger

That seems pretty clear to me. I mean, not only have I not had the watch I've paid for, I've definitely - even by Groupon and SouthLane's strange definition of 'express' - not had the express delivery, and I think I'm actually well within my rights to ask for my money back. I paid the money in good faith. I'm being fucked about. OK, it wasn't a huge amount of money to me, but that's not the point. 

I get no answer from Groupon for a week. South Lane have still not replied after ten days. On Saturday 29th (no watch had turned up in the meantime, and meanwhile, I've just gone off the idea of this bloody, bothersome watch) I received this email from Minion X:

Minion X, Oct-29 12:17 (BST):

Hi Online,

Apologies for the confusion, my system states that the voucher was redeemed on the 18th.

I am in no position to make sure you 'get the watch by the end of next week' as we have no information on orders being processed and have no hand in posting them.

As you have paid extra for express delivery and they have not honoured this, you should contact them regarding a refund on postage as it was paid directly to them.

I urge you to keep trying to contact them

Minion X

Right. This is way past my deadline, anyway - which is why, I suspect, she's replying now. 

Let's have a think about what she's saying here.

First of all, there's that gobsmacking claim (in light of later claims that they don't know anything about what's going on at South Lane) that her system lists the voucher as having been redeemed on the 18th.  The only way that got into her system was when she put it into her system as a result of not reading my first email properly. 

Secondly, she wants me to carry on badgering South Lane for a return of the money I have paid to Groupon via credit/debit card. How, exactly, are South Lane going to return this money? All the financial exchange they've had with me is to check that I have entered the code of a coupon for which I've paid another company - Groupon - good money. 

Furthermore, if Groupon are representing themselves as an agency for bona fide coupons from various businesses, I think that they probably do have some influence over SouthLane via their contract with them. And I think that I have a contract with Groupon, because they're the people I have paid money to. 

Imagine my face.

Very cross.

I replied with this:

Dear Minion.

I paid the money to you. It is Groupon with whom I have the contract.

Groupon has another contract with South Lane. If you are willing to pay me (I will bill at £20.00 an hour) to pursue South Lane in order to make sure that they honour their contract with you by sending me a watch by 13th October (three days after the order was placed), then I am willing to do so.

I am taking advice from my legal friends on how to take this through the small claims court. I will also be making this story public.

Right now, as you have completely failed to honour this contract, I would like all of my money returned, please. If I have to spend any more time chasing you through the courts I will also be billing you for that time when I make the claim.

Yours faithfully

Online Blogger

And yes, throughout the week, various people have been giving me advice on how to take something through the small claims courts; a good starting point is here, for those of you who might be thinking of doing something similar. It's not so much the amount of money involved, it's more the principle of the matter. More on this in a bit. This blog, by the way, is me making the story public; and it's taking me over an hour to write. So I'll be billing them for that time when I go to court.

Anyway, the threat of legal action, or publicity, resulted in a very quick (by Groupon standards) reply. Within a couple of hours, I'd received this from a slightly more important Minion:

SMIMinion, Oct-29 15:17 (BST):

Hi Online,

Thank you for getting back to us.

As stated in our terms and conditions on our website, it is the responsibility of the merchant, and not Groupon, to provide the services or products as advertised in the deal. Thus if you have any queries regarding your order or have not received it,
then as stated by my colleague, you will need to contact the partner directly. Groupon simply offers a platform for other companies to promote their goods and services and therefore we are not involved in the dispatch of any products offered by our partners, and are unable to access their systems to track orders for you. Apologies for the inconvenience.

I have, however, passed your order details on to our partner managers, who talk to the partner on our behalf. The partner managers will investigate the situation, and we'll email you if we have any new information.

If you don't receive an email in the next week or so, or if you have any questions, just let me know by replying to this email. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Weekend Customer Services Manager

Right. OK. Deep breaths.

First of all - as I state right at the top - I can't remember being asked to do ticky-box for terms and conditions, but a friend went in and tested the Groupon website, and apparently they do ask you to agree to terms and conditions at the point of sale. I didn't read the T&C of course - who does? And if I had, I certainly wouldn't have agreed to the conditions which the Slightly More Important Minion is implying above are the standard Groupon conditions.

Because, what Groupon is saying here in effect is that they are not guaranteeing anything at all in exchange for your money. You're just giving them money. You may or you may not get some goods after some time, but if you don't, it's nothing to do with Groupon, who don't have to do anything about it. I think I'll just repeat that in a slightly larger font size, and emboldened:

This is what Groupon claims its terms and conditions mean:

What Groupon is saying here in effect is that they are not guaranteeing you anything at all in exchange for your money. You're just giving them money. You may or you may not get some goods after some time, but if you don't, it's nothing to do with Groupon and they don't have to give you the money back or do anything about it.

Are we all clear on that? Does Groupon seem like such a good deal now?

I most certainly haven't received the 'Express Delivery' for which I paid Groupon with my credit / debit card, and Groupon 'may' see what it can do to help me get the money back. OK, it's only a couple of quid, but, as I say above, that's not the point.

I still haven't heard anything from South Lane, by the way, so they are clearly a very shoddy outfit, but it is Groupon who has the contract with them. I hear that Groupon gets to keep 50% of the money you pay in these too-good-to-be-true money-off deals, incidentally.

Having taken legal advice from those friends of miney who have law training, it seems that Groupon may be on fairly dodgy ground claiming that, as the agent for South Lane, it bears no responsibility. This is why I will probably end up taking this to court. I'd be very interested in comments from other lawyers as to the solidity of the Groupon defense, here.

If Groupon is on solid ground here, and it can abrogate responsibility for when someone for whom they are acting as an agent fails to fulfil the contract, then I think we should all be clear on this. It's a giant confidence trick, and passing money over to Groupon does not guarantee you goods in return.

I will, of course, update this blog with future events, such as an apology or refund from Groupon or South Lane, should such a thing happen.

Oh, and to top it all, the day after I recieved the email outlining the fact that Groupon are not actually responsible for anything they sell you, I get this:

quest #1047396: How would you rate the support you received?

Hi there,

We'd love to hear what you think of our customer service. Please take a moment to answer one simple question by clicking either link below:

How would you rate the support you received?

You can copy the following URL into your browser to rate:


If your query is still not fully resolved, we kindly ask that you reply back to the original email exchanges you have had with us rather than in your feedback comment. This is to help us ensure a speedy resolution.

I expect you can imagine my response to this.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

And we go cruising to entertain ourselves

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

And you're not gonna reach my telephone

Kate Griffin writes:

We bought our first house in summer 2009. I’m a freelancer who does a lot of work from home, so I wanted to get the internet working before our move date. But you can’t shop around for internet providers until you’ve got the landline up and running, so I wanted to get the landline sorted well ahead of time. The first step was to ring BT and ask them to remove the “stop” on the line placed there when the previous owner cancelled her TalkTalk account.

18th August: I rang BT and asked them to remove the stop on the line. The guy I spoke to asked when we were planning to move, and when I said mid-September, he worked very hard to discourage me from getting the line up and running straight away. He said that the stop on the line would only take two working days to remove, so I should ring up the week before moving and get it sorted then.

We argued for a bit: I said that in the past, it’s taken weeks to sort out the removal of a stop on the line, so I wanted to get it sorted well in advance. I also didn’t see why I should have to put “ring BT” back on my to-do list and go through the palaver of ringing them again – why couldn’t they just do what I was asking? But he was very persuasive and I was ill, recovering from a virus. He confirmed that a working line was already in place at the new property, so I reluctantly agreed to ring back nearer the time.

9th September: I rang BT again to arrange unstopping the line. Suddenly the story changed: the person I spoke to said that there was no line at the property after all, and that we would need a new line to be installed. This would incur a £112 installation fee and it might take a couple of weeks to get a date for installation.

I hit the roof, furious that I’d been tricked into delaying getting this sorted. The nice lady I spoke to agreed to waive the £112 installation fee to compensate for the inconvenience. She also gave me an installation date of September 16th, sooner than I’d expected.

I would need to be there on the day to let the engineer in. Could they give me a time? No, but the engineer would arrive “between 1pm and 6pm”. So I would potentially have to wait for five hours in an empty house? Yes, but if I handed over my mobile number they’d do their best to text me with a more accurate time. In the meantime, I received a letter confirming that they would waive the installation fee.

16th September: I left home at about noon and caught the bus to the new house. At this point there wasn’t any furniture and most of the downstairs was uncarpeted, so it wasn’t a fun place to spend lots of time, especially with nothing to do. I did a bit of cleaning, then sat on the bedroom floor reading a book of ghost stories.

16th September, 3pm: I’d been waiting for two hours and wondering when I’d get the promised text message giving me a more accurate time. I was getting hungry because I’d forgotten to bring any food with me, so I dashed out to the local shop and then spent half an hour worrying that I’d missed the engineer during the five minutes I was gone.

16th September, 4pm: I’d been waiting for three hours. I tried to ring BT on my mobile (no landline, remember?). The recorded message warned me that the cost of doing this would be extortionate. Lovely! When landline problems are the main reason for people to ring you, making your phone number expensive to ring on a mobile is a kick in the teeth to your customers.

16th September, 6:30pm: I’d been waiting for five and a half hours, leaping up at the sound of every vehicle I heard, and nothing. I got a lift home from my husband.

16th September, evening: I got home, rang BT and asked why the hell they hadn’t sent an engineer round on the agreed day. The answer? Apparently we already had a line in the house, so he didn’t need to visit the house to install anything. He just flicked a switch at the exchange to get the landline working.

I asked why they couldn’t have just told me that, to save me spending an entire day sitting in an empty house and missing out on paid work. I got apologies, but no satisfactory answer. I asked if they were planning to compensate me for lost earnings. No, of course not.

That might have been the end of it, but a week or so later we received a bill from BT. A bill including a charge of £122.50 for installing the line.

That’s right. £122.50 for installing the line, even though

a) they’d promised to waive the fee for installing the line;
b) they didn’t actually install any line.

Shortly after the bill arrived, someone from one of BT’s Indian call centres rang me in response to the complaint letter I’d already written. I’d asked for compensation for my wasted time, as I’d turned down paid work to sit in that empty house. What did he offer? You guessed it! He offered to waive the already-waived fee for the non-existent work.

No, I explained through gritted teeth, you have already waived the fee. I have a letter in my hand confirming that I wouldn’t be charged for the work, and given that the work never took place, you’re on doubly shaky ground trying to charge me for it in the first place. It is not a generous gesture to go through the motions of waiving it again.

The man I spoke to clearly didn’t believe me. Although I had a letter proving the fee had been waived, there was nothing on his system to confirm this and as far as he was concerned, I still owed the money. As for the little matter of the work never having been carried out, well, that was irrelevant as far as he was concerned. I still owed them £122.50 and they were being very generous in letting me get away with not paying it.

We argued back and forth for some time and he kept repeating that there was no way I could receive any compensation over and above the very generous offer to waive the installation fee. I said I would be referring my complaint to Ofcom. Suddenly he felt the need to consult his line manager. After the brief chat with his line manager, he offered me three months’ free line rental, on the understanding that I would accept that as compensation and not take the matter further.

I agreed, because by this point I was sick of the whole thing. My case will no doubt be recorded by BT as one where the complaint was resolved to the customer’s satisfaction. It didn’t go to Ofcom, so for the purposes of their self-reporting, I’m a happy customer.

My comment: 

I had a very similar experience with BT when moving house in 2007.  I have moved house three times since then and it's been OK, but my heart palpitates and my hands get sweaty when it's time to sort out the telephone line because of this one experience.

At the time, one of the friendly engineers from BT (the people they send around, eventually, are usually lovely) told me that the problem was that BT is split into departments internally and they don't communicate with each other.  As you can see, this results in some pretty horrendous experiences and an awful lot of time wasted and salary lost.  There's no need for it.

edit2add:  I am having a nightmare of a time trying to add a reply to the first comment underneath.  I post this blog under one name; I am on google+ under another name as they require real names.  Both names are linked to the same googlemail account.  Whenever I try to post a comment, logged into blogger, I am required to say under which ID (facebook, open ID, etc) I wish to post - I choose 'google account' and it tells me that I am not logged in.  When I try to find someone to report this too, I am shuffled off into irrelevant faqs (last update for an issue similar to mine: May - and they say they are trying to fix it 'very soon').   The google+ 'report issues' isn't working, either.

Perhaps this is a sign of blogger and google + being about to go to the wall.  Anyway.  This will shortly become another consumer rant.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

City-1 circle of hell

My bike was stolen.  This meant that I either had to walk the three miles into work or take the bus.

I tried walking - this is a slow process of returning myself to the fitness I had four years ago - but the three miles in and the three miles out in one day killed me the first time I tried it.  Yes, I know it gets better eventually, but I decided to return to the bus in the morning and walk back in the evening, for a short while, anyway. 

So, I'm back on the morning bus after an absence of about five weeks.  In the meantime, due to the withdrawal of government subsidy, as I understand it, the Cambridge City-4 has withdrawn all stopping on Milton Road.  I take the City-1, the bus travelling into the centre a spoke widdershins from where the City-4 used to go.  Here's a map.  People who would formerly have gone for buses going up and down the Milton Road are now walking that little bit further to the City-1 bus route, and this includes the kids whose parents have sent them to England 'for the summer'.

One of the reasons that Cambridge is so rich is the shameless trading on the Cambridge brand that goes on in the name of education; Cambridge is not the only city that does this.  Oxford also sells the 'Oxford brand'.  Anyway, there are a hundred and one language schools, all promising a very special education, all shovelling the kids in for a week or several weeks, parcelling them out to various homes in the suburbs around the centre, promising them a real English experience, taking their money and sending them home.  I'm sure the teaching is fine, but it all seems like a bit of a factory and (I imagine) a very profitable one.  Here's an example.  If you look at the bottom, there they are - the one to ten week summer courses.  Here's how much it costs the kids: Over a thousand dollars a week, including accomodation. 

I've just had a leaflet through my door asking if I want to host a kid.  I'd imagine that I'd get about a hundred pounds a week for that - the rest of the fees will go to paying for the teachers, the cost of the site on which the courses are held, the cost of the materials (how much does talking cost?), and the remainder will be profit for the owner of the language school.   It's likely that there are 15 - 20 kids in each class; that's close to $20, 000 ( and nearer to $25,000 per week if the class is around 20) for each class of kids. 

The teacher maybe gets mayb £600 - £700 a weak, if we're being generous. 

There are incidentals in hiring the teacher legitimately - NI, and possibly a pension - but these won't push the cost of the teacher over £1000 a week.  The exchange rate varies, but at $2.00 to £1.00 (and it's often fewer dollars per pound), that still leaves $23,000 to pay for the site and materials.  Very profitable, I'd imagine.

And yet, these English Language schools use the subsidised (or not-so subsidised) council transport to 'add value' to their courses.  How much of their profit does the council see?  Apart from the VAT on the money the poor kids spend in the shops and spent by the homes in which they stay (which goes to the government, anyway), none.

These kids get to travel on 'English public transport' from their 'lodgings' surrounding the city centres to their 'schools' in the centre, and they have to pay.  Typically, their first 'English' act is to get on the bus their first day here, and ask for a 'Megarider?' uncertainly, the uplift at the end indicating that this is the first  time they've said the word. 

The kid will then scrabble around for payment for this Megarider, usually producing a £20.00 note, not understanding why the bus driver looks frustrated and the people behind them in the queue are tapping their feet.  Very often, the kid will have a long and studious and 'responsible' discussion with the bus driver as to where they should get off. Meanwhile, the normal commuters are seething.

All of this describes things that we should tolerate.  They're kids.  They don't know what to do or what are the social norms.  They're unaware of themselves holding up a commuter route at commuting time.  They're in a strange land.  I've been at a bus stop when a bus too full to take passengers has whizzed past, and while the English natives looked a bit cross and cursed, the English language kids looked a bit worried; I chucked them into the taxi I'd called to get me into the centre on time.  It's what their parents would have wanted, or I would have wanted, had they been my children. 

What's happening now, however, with the killing of the Milton Road bus route, is that every morning there are about seven or eight English language kids at each bus stop for the City-1, meaning that each stop is extended up to five minutes while the driver sorts them out. Meanwhile, the passengers waiting at the next stop get more numerous in number, many of those at the next stop being English language kids, and the wait at the next stop increases, as do the cries for help.

Does the driver get any money for this help he gives the kids?  No.  He's more likely to be penalised for his bus being late.

Do those of his passengers who are ordinary commuters get anything to compensate them for their lateness to work and the overtime they will have to do to compensate?  No. They have to make the time up at the other end of the day.

I stress:  It is not the kids' fault.  They don't know what's happening, and actually they get more flack than they should from the other passengers for 'standing in the wrong place' (e.g. the stairs) or 'talking too loudly in a foreign language' (which is kind of thoughtless, but these are kids).

I do, however, think that the language schools are ripping these kids off, and making the rest of us (and the Stagecoach bus drivers) deal with problems that the language schools should be sorting out.  The lack of concern from the language schools causes these kids to be seen as an irritant, generally. Decent language schools, who really do intend to offer the kids a good experience, really should do something to stop these kids inconveniencing everybody else who uses the buses.

Firstly, I have *no idea* why the language schools are incapable of running their own buses through the various suburbs.  They only need to do it once or twice a day, and they'd be able to get the kids safely to the schools, reassuring the parents that they are being properly looked after.

If the language schools can't do that, they should be able to subsidise Stagecoach, and should be asked by the council to do so.  They earn massive profits, and are perfectly able to join together to run an extra bus or two around the crucial time in the morning around the months of June - August. 

Finally, if the schools can't pay for or run extra buses, there is one very simple thing that they could arrange to make life more amenable for those who share the public transport with the language school kids and give the kids a better experience.  I'm not being finicky here - traffic on the City-1 is at least double what it is the rest of the year between 7.45 and 8.45 a.m. when the language school kids are here, and at times the buses have been dangerously overloaded and taken double the time to get into the centre.

The language schools could send these kids pre-issued Megariders. Just that one thing, for all of its miniscule cost, could at least make sure that the buses stay on time, even if they are overloaded.  How difficult would that be?

I wish CCC would get some balls on this issue.  Make the language schools pay their way here, and give those kids (and those who share the buses with them) a better experience.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Fill em up dot com

Annifrangipani writes

"On Saturday we decided to drive to Nottingham, to celebrate my friend Julia's 30th birthday. So, a long car journey. It was her birthday on Sunday, which is the same as my partner's, so I thought it would be nice if we got a hotel room and then hung out in Notts on Sunday.

My week had been really horrible, so, when I booked on Wednesday via laterooms, I booked the Hilton. Pricey yes, but you get what you pay for, don't you?

No, you don't ...

Here's the email I wrote in complaint:

I made this booking at the Hilton Nottingham on 29th June for the Saturday night of 2nd July for two adults in a double room. On arrival to the hotel we checked and went to our room. It had only a single bed in it. We returned to the reception and they said we had been booked into a "three quarter room" and they would reduce the rate we had paid. I was perplexed as the bed appeared to be too small for two adults but the receptionist seemed convinced it was acceptable to expect us to share this room. We returned to the room and realised that this was not a three quarters bed, but a standard single and there was no way that a) we would be able to share it and b) why would we pay to share a bed less than half the size of our bed at home? Again, we went to reception and were informed that there were no other rooms for us and there was nothing they could do. It had been a long day, we were hot and tired and decided it would be simpler to just return home, rather than continue trying to find a room that was suitable. I did get my money back but obviously, we are very disappointed that we had to return home. People coming from greater distances would not be in this position and I don't see why we should have paid for an unsuitable room. Is this standard practice for the Hilton change? I am shocked that such a prestigious hotel chain have this policy and recommend you only sell rooms that can accommodate the number of people booked into it properly.

And here's the reply:

Thank you for contacting Guest Assistance in regards to your stay at Hilton Nottingham. Please accept my sincerest apologies for the inconveniences you experienced while at that property. I have forwarded your comments directly over to the hotel. It is Hilton’s policy to allow our hotels the opportunity to get involved to resolve any problems. Please allow 72 business hours for these matters to be addressed. "

My comment:

When people book through laterooms dot com, they're expecting what they buy to be what is advertised.  It's unacceptable to treat the people who use last minute websites to get treats that they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford as if they were lesser citizens.  Remember - these are often people on their way up.

Friday, 1 July 2011


I spilt tea over my laptop.  This wasn't your ordinary tea, though; this was your aspirational blackberry and ginseng tea, with extra ionic content.  I switched the laptop off immediately, but didn't realise, when trying to switch it on again the next day, that a blackberry-and-ginseng puddle of concentrated ions had gathered under the battery and not dried out.  I think that laptop's dead, now.

So, because, for various reasons I had been thinking about getting a new laptop, anyway, I went straight to Morgans, using the other laptop I have set up as a juke box that is / was (at the time) only a little broken.  Look.  I like computers and I like to have at least two working(ish) versions in the house at the same time.

Morgans came up trumps and I ordered the workhorse I was after; I really intend to keep it lean and clean this time.  Promisingly, the website said that the order would be despatched the next working day (this was to be Monday).  Happily, it would only cost £6.00 or so.  Worryingly, there was no way that I could indicate the day that I could be in, or indicate that I would like it delivered on a Saturday, even at extra cost.

So, I figured the laptop would be delivered on Tuesday.  I figured they would deposit a card, and they usually give you two attempts.  I could collect the card, then phone up and arrange delivery for Friday (that I already, fortuitously, had decided to take off).  That would work.

I cycled home, through the thundery Cambridge afternoon; no 'while you were out' card, and by this time the other laptop had gone into a state of sulk (which I have now coaxed it from, but that's another story) (Function F7; that's all I'm saying).  Never mind.  The plan to phone to arrange a second delivery on Friday is still possible, I thought to myself, and anyway Luther is on.

I arrived home on Wednesday to find two 'while you were out' cards on the doormat; one from Wednesday, and one from Tuesday that definitely hadn't been delivered on Tuesday.  I was furious. 

I emailed Morgan Computers to point out that they were employing a bunch of liars to deliver their stuff, and that one of the reasons I went to Morgan Computers was because of their demonstratable reliability and value for money; they were sort of blowing this if, for the sake of having a very low delivery fee, they employed a company whose ethics meant that a single person like me is very likely going to have to pay twenty quid or upwards in petrol and depreciation costs to drive to a depot 40 miles away to pick up the goods on what was otherwise to be a lovely day cycling into the Fen to look at the gravestones of some dead Americans because the employed company lies about how many deliveries it had made, and when, and that this would undermine their reputation.

Morgans, lovely people, emailed me back the next day (Thursday) to say "Very Sorry, we'll return the delivery charge", which ameliorated the situation somewhat, but not before I had been into the City-Link website to try and complain to them as well.

Firstly, when I looked for contact numbers on the City-Link website, or a way to complain, there was nothing at all.  The one number available sent you to a voice-robot, who insisted that I only had two options 1. to rearrange delivery and 2. to pick the parcel up from the depot.  I did try option 1., only to be told that I had already had my two deliveries, and so I had to pick it up from the depot; that I had no other choices. 

Obviously, I had had no such thing.  I had two cards delivered on one day, one puporting to be a card from the day before.  I was pretty furious at this point, actually.  This is possibly why City-Link has no complain button; it's scared of being overwhelmed with moans.  HOWEVER I had paid money for a service, and that service was not being provided.

I then inputted the delivery code to the website.  The tracking section showed that a delivery had been attempted on the Tuesday (it hadn't), and the Wednesday (when, presumably, the two cards had been delivered).  Strangely enough, it showed that the parcel had already been put onto a delivery vehicle for what I assume City-Link were trying to pass off as a third attempt at delivery (even though it was only the second attempt).

Because the website and the City-Link records said that I already had had my two delivery attempts, I was not allowed to opt for a third delivery attempt on Friday, when I would (probably) be in.  All I could do was to say that I would pick the parcel up from the depot.

Do you know of the eeriness and impenetrability of the Petersborough backlands that the City-Link depot calls home?  Be thankful that you don't.

Having strolled across the carless depot wasteland to find, eventually, the right hole-in-the-wall, I asked if I could make a complaint.  A very nice lady dashed away, and a rotund, jocular gentleman shortly took her place.  I explained the problem and that I thought that the driver in question may well have tried to deliver the first day, but had probably forgotten the card,  which was why he deposited two cards on the second dayt, but that was of no help to me as I had no notice of the first delivery, and that he was probably trying to do the right thing, with his third delivery, but that because of the way that the website algorithm worked, by this time, I was stuffed for arranging delivery on a day when I could be in.  He nodded, and said in a jocularly stern voice that he would speak to the driver in question.  I left, mollified that I had been taken seriously, but still very frustrated.

Because, you see, if the driver did make a mistake, forgetting to give me the card the first day, the City-Link systems are not set up to deal with a genuine (and probably all too-plausible) mistake by their employees.  Nobody is perfect.  A good company tries to ensure that makes don't happen by supporting their staff when they are new and making them feel secure enough so that they can admit mistakes when they happen, in the expectation that, as a result of the contract of loyalty, the staff make their best effort.

A good company certainly makes it possible for their customers to complain easily when normal circumstances have gone awry, for whatever reason.  City-Link appears to be doing none of these things.  I couldn't speak to anyone using the information given on the website and the delivery card.  I suspect that whoever delivered the two cards on the one day would like to have been able not to have appeared to try and deliver on the first day; his mistake locked me out of the system and make me unable to opt for a better date for a productive second or third attempt, and I suspect that he was unable to tell anyone that this mistake had happened for fear of being sacked.  Anyway, I ended up begging jocular gentleman not to sack this driver but rather to ask the management to take a look at their systems.

The point, or the moral, or something, being:  The systems for a company should be able to catch an individual employees mistake; the management of a company should not be so inflexible or inhumane as to prevent an employee admitting that they have made a mistake and allowing the company to deal with the results of that mistake, and the company should really have systems in place that make it easy for the customers to communicate with them; if that company has good systems in place and good employee / manager relationships then that company need not fear being overwhelmed by the information coming down any 'complaints' line.

City Link Fail: three stars out of five.  The excellent response when I asked to complain in person is what stops this from being a four or five star consumer FAIL.  City Link Website, however gets a five out five for FAIL.  Sort it out, delivery dudes.

The restless consumer

Hello.  This is a blog about consumer experiences.   If you want to let off steam about this Madison Avenue world, email me with your rant and your blogger or otherwise handles that you wish me to use for the post, and I will probably post it. I reserve the right to edit for readability; if you want something published unedited and it's unreadable, then I probably won't publish it.

I don't mean to sound forbiddingly stern, though! In truth, I'm nice and cuddly and if I have to edit I'll do it with velvet gloves. It seems to me that a blog with a whole bunch of consumer experiences published in the same place may provide some very useful anecdata for anyone browsing by, and that anecdata may end up improving our various services and industries. I'd really like people to email me with whatever they have.