A few weeks ago I suggested that the private sector might adopt one of two strategies to deal with the recession. Many will rise to the challenge by living with smaller margins and trying even harder to keep their customers happy. Others, especially those with an effective monopoly, will be tempted to squeeze the customers until the pips squeak.
Sadly, I have so far seen more obvious evidence of the latter than the former. There was my experience of Virgin Trains charging three times the cost of my advance ticket because I got a train half an hour earlier than the one I had booked. The first estimates the RSA has just been given for a big building job from contractors (who must surely be desperate for work) are clearly exorbitant – mind you, the Society has such a long record of being ripped off I once concluded that every tradesman in central London must have a special RSA rate!
Then this week I have entered the swirling vortex of despair that is Scottish Power customer services. I won’t go into the detail of my problem, suffice to say it involved four occasions on which someone had to spend the whole day sitting in a freezing cold flat waiting for Scottish Power to fail to turn up to reconnect the supply. The bit of SP’s call centre that I needed to speak to is permanently engaged and everyone I spoke to from other parts of the call centre met my suggestion that they help with the shocked and self righteous determination of a Rabbi refusing a cocktail sausage.
The final indignity was when I managed to locate the bit of SP’s website for customers to e-mail complaints only to be told that my detailed and carefully drafted complaint had ‘timed out’ and I would have to start again. If a public sector organisation had offered this combination of incompetence and insouciance I would have been on to my MP.
In despair I sought help from a third party. But, first, it turns out that OFGEM no longer deals with individual customer complaints. Then the nice but rather embarrassed man at the Energy Ombudsman told me that they couldn’t intervene until the customer had completed an eight week complaint acceleration process with the power company and then it would take a minimum of eight weeks before the Ombudsman investigator would complete their own process of inquiry. The answer that came when I suggested that a sixteen week process might be designed expressly to deter any but the obsessed or deranged was a blast from the past: ‘you might say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment’.
These are terribly tough times for business, many will go to the wall through little fault of their own. But companies that still have a market need to rise to the challenge of providing even better quality and value. Those who choose another route and try to pass all their pain down to the customer deserve to be exposed.
The recession poses a question to businesses. In the face of declining demand do they work even harder, cutting margins and providing a great service to attract customers in a buyers’ market? Or do they adopt a slash and burn policy of making money wherever they can regardless of the longer term consequences for their brand. Of course, companies with monopolies will be more likely to adopt the latter approach – Virgin Trains being a case in point.
Last week I was forced to cough up three times the pre-paid cost of my train ticket from Manchester to London because I caught a train 30 minutes earlier than the one I was booked on to. There was no lack of unreserved seats on the train I caught and, had there been, I would have been happy to stand. Indeed, given that the pre-ordered ticket was reduced price I would have accepted paying some kind of inconvenience fine. But for Virgin the issue isn’t fairness – it is screwing the passenger. This may be why the ticket inspectors treat those who are on the wrong train (there were three in my carriage alone) as if they are fair dodgers.
What is really galling is that while Virgin is charging me £48 for my minor misdemeanour of travelling I am unable to get any recompense for Virgin’s many failings. Late trains, closed buffets etc. This morning on the way to Birmingham I was next to an overactive heater. To avoid expiring I was down almost to my underpants by the time we reached New Street. I have little or no choice but to use Virgin and to pay even more to do so next year. But in a classic Taylor act of impotent rage I will spend the rest of life avoiding any other product with the Virgin brand.
Yesterday was just one of those days. I was booked to chair a fringe meeting for the New Statesman at lunchtime and so I got to Euston in good time for the Manchester train. That’s when it all started to go wrong.
The train ‘wasn’t ready’, which, given that Virgin had presumably had since Saturday night to prepare it, was hard to understand. When we finally did board, the train was chronically overcrowded.
Then there were three announcements from the buffet (or ‘shop’ as it is now called) one to say it was opening late, another to say it couldn’t take change or credit cards, and a third to say it had closed down due to ‘unforeseen’ problems.
The train then stopped and we were told it would arrive over an hour late. But at least something was working; the air conditioning in our carriage was set so high that people were scrabbling around in their luggage for woollies.
I arrived in Manchester far too late for my meeting, but in time to run to the Piccadilly Sports Bar and watch the last five minutes of my beloved West Brom losing to Aston Villa.
Thoroughly grumpy and miserable I walked the streets of Manchester. Eventually I found a pub with the Chelsea / Man United game, but distracted by the match I accidentally picked up someone else’s drink at the bar. As the rather large person in question was remonstrating me Chelsea equalized, an event in which I could immediately tell he somehow felt that I, as a Londoner, was implicated. I beat a hasty retreat.
Of course, I could have gone to the conference, but ever since the Observer printed a tendentious piece two weeks ago suggesting I had been appointed to advise David Cameron I have been getting funny looks from my old comrades.
Eventually it was time for the RSA World at One fringe meeting at the Radisson Hotel. The room was packed and hot and the audience having to be patient as we had pushed back the start time by half an hour to accommodate David Miliband.
Our first speaker was supposed to be Ben Page from IPSOS MORI but for reasons best known to them, the Social Market Foundation had taken his pass and despite my pleadings were utterly indifferent to the fact that he was stuck outside the security cordon with minutes until our meeting.
As the minutes ticked away Ben kept phoning to say the police were getting increasingly suspicious of his story and he was starting to worry about the prospects of a full body search. At this point I snapped, losing my temper with various SMF staff and bellowing (mild) obscenities in front of several rather startled members of the Cabinet.
Eventually I tracked down the pass, and Ben and I ran up five flights of stairs to a meeting room so hot that it could only have felt tolerable to anyone who had just stepped off the super-cooled 08:35 Euston to Manchester.
Ben was a star and entertained everyone with his slides showing the contradictory nature of public opinions. I started my short commments, but RSA and WATO staff were frantically waving at me to inidcate that the Foreign Secretary was ten… no fifteen… no five, no ten minutes away so I slowed down and extemporised.
After 25 minutes, which ranged over my life at the RSA, Number Ten, the Labour Party, and Bootham Street Junior School I dried up, so we had to move to questions. At last after very enlightening exchanges about how to canvass in Mitchum, the design of leaflets and engaging with your local park, Mr Miliband showed up looking relaxed and commanding.
After he had made a few comments Martha Kearney started to quiz him, presumably aware that we were by now running well over time and that several people were showing signs of heat exhaustion. But the conference delegates had been well briefed, so the moment Martha mentioned the leadership issues she got drowned out by a combination of booing and the soft clump of expiring bodies falling to the carpet.
So that WATO could get something to tape for today’s programme there was no choice but to overrun, anyway, we couldn’t get out of the doors until all the people on stretchers had been carried to safety.
Suddenly I realised I had fifteen minutes to get the last train back to London. There was no choice but to run. As I sprinted past a Cabinet minister, I can’t be sure, but I think she murmured ‘that’s right Taylor, you can run, but you can’t hide’.
I made it to the station with two minutes to spare. As I sat down in the carriage my body was steaming, my shirt was soaked, and there was sweat running in rivulets off my forehead. ‘Ding Dong’ went the announcer ‘Welcome to the 20:10 to Euston. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the air conditioning will not be working on this journey.’