Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Al Quaeda Training Day

Or so you would have thought.

We are dominated by Rules. Whether it's confusing parking restrictions, overzealous Governmental bureaucrats sticking to the letter of the Law or scumbags on Court asserting their Yuman Rites over and above the person they have just violated, Rules are everywhere, used and abused.

This post is prompted by someone unknown to me having a rant about the way that holiday companies yank up prices during holiday times.. Now, to me, that is on Page 1 of 'Economics for Dummies', namely Price = Demand divided by Supply. Increase demand and the price goes up. As a parent of school age kids, it grates, but as a Business owner, I have to see their point. Make hay whilst the rain falls less heavily.

You see that the problem lies, not with the Holiday Companies looking to turn a profit on 4% Gross margins, whilst the Airlines constantly turn the screw tighter, it lies with the Government, specifically Ofsted and the schools.

Ofsted sets the standards and the schools, wanting to shine, comply with them. One of these standards is attendance records of the pupils. If it drops, the school gets downgraded. As a result, the schools live in fear of the absent pupil and exert punishment on those that attempt to breach them.

Schools are so scared of Ofsted Stats that to get a day off school, you need a Death Certificate of a parent signed by three doctors,1 Magistrate and your MP unless you want your child's record folder to be stamped "Troublemaker" in red ink.
We asked for one day off to go to a 1st Cousin's wedding this term. You would have thought by their reaction that we'd asked to go on an Al Quaeda training day. We received back an A4 letter form the Head explaining that Voldermort himself would avenge any unauthorised time off.

This was my nephew's wedding. A one-off occasion, to which my children (his first cousins) were invited. Unfortunately, we're not all on Head Teachers' salaries and to meet the cost, it was held on a Thursday, which apparently reduced the price by 50% (Supply & demand again). If we'd have taken the kids, each would have had a black mark against the record (unauthorised absence) and we as parents would have been fined. As this was his first year in Secondary School we chose to not rock the boat. Apparently the fact that he scooped the Trophy for the best performing pupil in his year group that year held no sway. He would suffer with bad exam results and end up in some menial job for the Government. Ofsted Policy maker, for instance.

What a shame, no compassion, no flexibility and the kids miss out on a tremendously happy occasion through no fault of their own. Education is not just about learning from Teachers. It's the Birds, the bees, Social Skills and just enjoying being a child before it's too late.

One day, some liberated Head teacher will wake up and say 'Stuff Ofsted', we'll spit out well rounded pupils that may or may not cause the school to quite reach all these absurd targets".

It's the same with the Ambulance Service. The Government (some non-frontline Jobsworth) has decided that the targets for responding to the most serious of 999 calls are based on time of arrival, not patient outcome. Get there in 8 minutes and 1 second and the patient survives. Fail. 7:59, but the patient has popped his clogs. Wey hey, a pass! Anyone else see the absurdity in that?

It is so easy, from a distance to say 'No' and stuff up a project, an event, a Life decision. Let's toast those that take Richard Branson's approach - "Screw it, let's do it". Cheers.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Why does Yellow Pages still call me?

Once upon an Era, Yellow Pages was king. That doorstopper of a Directory dropped on my parents' doorstep once every few months, Trade vans prowled the streets with Find us in Yellow Pages'  on a bright yellow sticker on the back, semi obfuscated by 'Watford for the cup' and 'clean me' written into the grime.
Then a cat appeared on the scene. Thomson was his name, the cheeky upstart. The Virgin Atlantic to Yellow Pages' British Airways. Always thinner, but somehow trendier and more useful.
Then Tim Berners-Lee gatecrashed the game. His Internetweb thingy seems to have caught on. 'Google' is now a recognised verb and no-one uses Yellow pages any more.
Do they? Yellow Pages and Thomson are still around, but the tomes are thinner and - be honest - when did you last pick one up?
I cannot see why they still have a team of Sales Consultants to sell advertising space. OK, so they both have websites to complement the  Directory, but why not drop the Directories and Sales Staff? You have to move with the times and as many a bookshop has found out, mainstream printed media is declining as fast as Google's Tax bill.
Drop the hard copy and concentrate on online advertising - even then, competing against the Google juggernaut is uphill. You've missed that window. If Yellow Pages or Thomson had realised the power of the Internet, they could have made a great impact before Google came along and spoilt the party. Too late now.

What should we do? Get someone in your Business to advertise on every site going - but only for the free ads. Some sites have their SEO sorted and appear in Google, others don't, but with so many out there (the 'long tail') there is no point finessing it with paid listings. Google has, what is it, 80% of the Search market? Pay someone to get you results in Google, get a Business Tour to stand out and, if appropriate, use Adwords (but use an expert to prevent too much money being wasted).

Everything else paid for is just a waste of time. Don't believe me? What happened to QXL, the British equivalent of eBay? The number 2 auction site. Type it in. www.qxl.co.uk. It's now Danish. Would you try and sell anything on QXL? Would you try and advertise anywhere but Google? If you're thinking 'yes', then turn it around. When did you deliberately go to a non-google search engine to look for something? For 'you', read 'your customers'.
Yellow Pages Call Centre Staff. Move on. No-one pays for advertising in your catalogue any more. Why should they?

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Ten things to think about on Facebook

Ten eleven things to think about on Facebook

1. Hoaxers get a kick on seeing how far things go. Think before you share.
2. Do you really think Walmart, ASDA, Apple etc. are going to give away $50, £25 vouchers just for 'liking' a page? Nah. It usually leads to a survey site, skimming your personal info. Don't go there.
3. Asked by your friends to perform obscure settings changes because of perceived 'privacy' issues? See '1'
4. Not every one wants to play Cityville, Farmville, e-ville and the like. Honestly. Some people play Realville. Don't keep sending them invites if the first was ignored.
5. Warnings circulating about malicious programs. Hoaxes. Google the word facebook and the first line before sending on. Or check Snopes. How many genuine ones have you heard about on the news?
6. Check Snopes and/or Google, anyway for Facebook or email warnings. Usually hoaxes and, let's face it, if it was that bad, we would have heard it on the news first. We're too far down the food chain to be the first to know.
7. Be mean with any personal info you share.
8. Ever wondered why the ads on the right seem to be amazingly relevant to you? Reread point '7'
9. Did I mention that you should check a 'share' before sharing? Takes 10 seconds on Google or snopes.
10. Should you share this? Yes? No? Only to people that keep sharing stuff without checking its veracity first? I dunno, it's up to you.
11. (never could count). If you think this is aimed at you, that is a possibility, but it's not personal, more an attempt to reduce the tat to interesting stuff ratio. Happy 2013.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Business Principle II: It's good to talk

Years ago, when I was in my first job, I supervised a sandwich student during his placement year. After he graduated he joined us full time. 'Sharpy' was quite a character. On the short side but made up for it with by throwing himself into everything - from work to the Maltesers reject carton when we toured the Mars factory in Slough.

He would also talk to anyone and everyone and I'm sure his Facebook page lists more friends than most. His LinkedIn profile is certainly comprehensive.

To cut a long story short, he moved to the States and he is now a VP at ARM, a high tech design and manufacturer of Computer chips. This no doubt is due to his hard work but also talking and Networking like mad.

They say that most good jobs are not advertised and it's who you know, not what you know. By having a large 'little black book' of friends and associates, by being the first to buy a round or by bringing a wallflower into the conversation you will make friends and they will remember.

Be nice to everyone and make lots of friends at all levels from the cleaners to the Managers. Payback will come from unexpected directions.

When I had made a bit of money I decided to treat myself to a decent car. I don't usually scrub up and the salesman at the BMW Showroom obviously decided I was a tyre kicker and I was in and out in 5 minutes. If he'd spent that 5 minutes getting to know me more rather than prejudging, I might have walked out with a Beamer rather than the Lotus Esprit that I eventually bought.

Going back to my first job, there was another Graduate who confidently informed us one day that one should always ignore waiters the first time they approach your table. We stared at him incredulously. Firstly because it's terribly rude to anyone whatever their position in the world, secondly because by befriending him, you never know where it will lead (especially on return visits) and finally, everyone knows that one never criticises the service or food before it's all been served.

No idea what has happened to him. Somehow I doubt if he's a VP anywhere - unless Daddy's sorted it for him. OK, so personally I'm not VP anywhere, but I do run my own show and  talking to all and sundry has brought me many benefits over the years.

Next time: Make sure there's a drink in it for everyone.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Business Principle I - The Godfather meets the Water Babies

The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Mario Puzo's book and Cinematic hit - The Godfather - dealt with a fictional member of the Mafia - Don Corleone - head of the Corleone Crime family.

Not a good start for a Business Principle, but bear with me.

Don ran a number of 'businesses' to bring in the Lire, namely protection, extortion, gambling and union racketeering. All of which are extreme versions of legal enterprises and made to work by the threat of, or actual use of violence, but I am concentrating on a side to him that you see at the beginning of the book and one of the guiding principles of his operation.

The book opens with a party at the Corleone Household. The Don is in his study, receiving visitors one at a time, all with one thing in common, they need something from him. It may be a loan or a favour or some help retrieving something of theirs (say, an outstandig debt from a third party). One at a time, the Don receives them, listens to their request and either accepts or declines.

If he accepts, the request is noted and he arranges for it to be carried out. In time, of course, he expects this debt (monetary or otherwise) to be repaid with interest. This could be in a month, a year or a decade. When the Don himself needs something doing, he will check his book and find the most appropriate debtor. There will be Senators, Businessmen and women and people in high office with influence, all of whom are in his debt and all of whom know that a refusal will offend.

Now let's move this to a somewhat more legitimate business (as well as personal life). Whilst we do do things in expectation of an immediate-ish return (all businesses, profit making or otherwise do. Even Charities expect returns, albeit of the non-monetary type), sometimes we do someone a favour, not expecting a return. Holding a door open, baking a cake for a poorly neighbour, giving up your seat and so on. We don't expect reward, it's just something that we do. Occasionally, however, this act leads on to a reciprocation some time down the line. Do enough and the chances are high that something good will happen to you at a random point later (in the forelife, not the promised, but not provable afterlife, that is)

People remember things and if you help someone in a fix out or go the extra mile without expectation you will be pleasantly surprised one day.

About a year ago, I was working and a company that I was working alongside (but not for) were in a fix. They had a final deadline that day and looked like blowing it, so incurring cost overruns, loss of face with their customer etc. I knew what needed to be done and for the price of a bit of food to keep me going, sorted them out with a couple of hours work. I gave them my number in case there were problems the next day but they never rang.

Until last week, when I got a call out of the blue.

They were in a fix again, had remembered me and still had my number. I was booked, this time on a commercial basis and sorted them out. It should also lead to more work - they were over the moon with what I did and are already talking about passing regular leads on to me.

In my previous blogette, I mentioned Ryanair and its approach to Customer Service. Can you imagine anyone ever rocking up to Ryanair's check-in and saying "A friend of mine told me that you helped her out when she had a problem and she's eternally grateful. She suggested I try you". Me neither.

It doesn't always work, of course.Even Don Corleone knew that some of his 'favours' would never be repaid - the antagonist might die, move on or just not achieve anything worthy of repayment. That was the chance he took. Those that did repay, paid him aplenty. A good friend of mine has recently been 'stuffed' by someone she considered (past tense) a friend. She mentored him for months, getting him started with a business idea (coming up with the idea in the first place) creating material, pushing him and generally trying to get him running his own business. He has done, but in the process has cut her off like a displeased Downton Matriarch. No 'thanks', no appreciation for the work put in, no invite to the launch and certainly no financial contribution towards the hundreds of hours spent. She wasn't expecting much, if anything, in return but common courtesy would indicate an acknowledgement at the very least (Don's recipients were very grateful, of that you can be sure). Perhaps, down the line he could have fed her some new clients for her Training Company as a 'Thank You' and perhaps she could have fed him some clients the other way.

It's not going to happen. That's life and she'll move on. She won't stop doing people favours without any expectations of a reciprocation. Well, maybe just one person might be exempt. We have to live with that. You can be sure that he will not be as successful with that approach than he could have been if he had acknowledged the debt he owes her (and, in all likeliness, others).

Miss Bedonebyasyoudid.The Water Babies? Well, two of the fairies in the book by Charles Kingsley were Miss Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Miss Bedonebyasyoudid.
Be nice and do people favours, sometimes even helping out competitors at times. Trust me, you will be better off than if you didn't.
Next time. "It's Good to Talk"

Business Principles - some ideas

Everyone has an opinion on how to run a business, from Michael O'Learey's "Hook 'em with a low lead-in price, then charge breathtaking amounts for absolutely everything over and above the bare seat whilst not spending one unnecessary Euro" to James Dyson's and Steve Job's "Get the design right and the rest will follow" to John Timpson's "Upside Down Management - If you treat people well, it is blindingly obvious that they will do a good job" style where his hands-off approach devolves power and financial responsibility to local shop Managers.

In the same way, as customers of businesses, whether it's the local paper shop, a car showroom or even your local pub, we also all have our own opinions and we all know good and bad service when we encounter it. Phrases such as "Well, I'm never going back there, again" and "He was chatting to his colleague all the time whilst serving me" abound, as do "You've got to try this new place, the service was amazing" and "The Manager apologised for it being out of stock and brought a replacement round personally, the next day".

 I'm no exception and following (in due course) are a few of the principles that I abide to.

OK, I don't have the size of businesses and the Bank Balances that the aforementioned do, but I do run my own business successfully and have gained business using these methods, whilst being able to look myself in the mirror each morning.

If anyone else wants to comment on any of my principles or add any of their own, then I'd love to hear from you.

  • I will never travel on Ryanair simply because of its attitude to its customers
  • I am now on my second Dyson after believing for years that Vax was the way to go
  • 'Apple creep' is happening in the household and, although I baulk at the prices charged, I love the IPad and I can see a Mac book making an appearance when I have got the pennies together.
  • I have not had the need to visit my local Timpson's since I read John Timpson's Management book, but have a watch for repair just waiting for me to remember to take it in and get it assessed. If the service matches the principles of the book, I will be a very happy bunny.
So, onwards and downwards. Principle I - The Godfather Principle.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Eurodisney sucks - why extract so much money?

A rant. Apologies in advance

We went to Eurodisney this year. We took the Eurostar from Ashford directly into the Eurodisney resort, where we stayed at the Disneyland Hotel.

All of it was booked online in advance. I have come to accept the surcharge for Credit Card bookings for everything nowadays, although it does seem picky after I spend so much with them and I often use a Debit Card, which carries no surcharge when I think that the charges are unreasonable or I just feel like saving the money and there's enough in the bank.

Eurostar was just fine.No Debit Card charges and the booking went swimmingly.

Eurodisney wasn't so successful. Because of the value of the booking, my Credit Card provider, Capital One wouldn't accept payment, despite being well within my Limit and as it was the weekend, couldn't obtain authorisation, so Debit Card was called for.

As an aside, I have no issue with Capital One and would recommend them as I have been a happy user for years, now. They are tighter on security checks and I do get calls to validate occasional recent purchases to make sure everything is in order. I would rather it was that way round than have to wrangle over unauthorised transactions due to a cloned card. Oh, and they pay 1% cashback in January each year, just in tine for the Christmas spending. No connection etc....

Anyway....Eurodisney charges for Debit Card transactions. Why? It gets the money immediately, so no risk to them, interest can be earned by Eurodisney between then and the holiday and it's very much the exception than the rule. Does it really cost Eurodisney £14 to collect money electronically off me?

Yes, I know that £14 is small beer in comparison to the cost of the holiday, but it's still £14 of my kids' post-tax inheritance that's gone.

I have exchanged several emails with 'customer services' asking why they can justify this charge and have been stonewalled by them. 'It's the way it's done, here in France', 'It's in the Terms and Conditions', 'no, we have no intention of reviewing it', 'We're Disney, what are you going to do about it?'

Well, I'm sorry but Eurostar is an AngloFranco set-up and it seems to manage to not charge. I cannot think of any other company that I have used (On principle I would never travel with certain low-cost Irish Air carriers) that charges for Debit Transactions.

Just because 'we have always done it this way' and 'its in the Ts & Cs' is no excuse. You can't say We're Disney, tough'. Eurodisney needs to move with the times. It's the adults that pay for the holidays, not the children and if the adults are left with a sour taste in the mouth, they are less likely to suggest a future trip for themselves or recommend it to others. When I was looking at booking, the initial cost was similar to flying to Florida instead. By the time living expenses had been added, it would have been better, the weather would have been better and I'm willing to bet that Customer Service would have been better.

Goodbye Eurodisney
Speaking of sour taste, €5 for a can of Fanta in the minibar? €8 for a Hot Dog and a few chips? I thought about buying a furry Disney coat but decided that I'd been fleeced enough.