What we come to expect

I had a remarkable experience at Woking railway station the other day. It shouldn’t have been remarkable at all; it shouldn’t even be the topic of this probably-not-going-anywhere post to be honest, but we’re here now.

My train had arrived at the station early (I know, and that’s not the remarkable bit) and having mis-directed myself towards the exit by walking up some stairs and then immediately down some parallel ones, the automatic gates failed to let me through.

They do that at most stations, actually. Despite having a perfectly valid permit to travel and break my journey at about 50 stations, no one has in the past 60 or so years managed to programme the barriers to respond to my valid ticket appropriately.

But despite the botheration caused both by the mis-directing directional signage and the automatic gates that required manual intervention, I was not much perturbed.

I quite enjoy work days where I get to head out of the office (whether it’s at home or in London) and see some of the frontline teams at work and it was quite a nice day too.

When you work in a support function like ‘comms’ it can be far too easy to become disconnected with what the business you work in actually does, and seeing some of the business end of the frontline is not only a nice reminder but also a nice change.

So in theory, and in retrospect, the conditions for the joke the chap behind the window in the ticket office was about to make should’ve gone down well.

Because earlier in the week my train ticket wallet had broken. It was no longer very effective at holding my ticket and although I’d soldiered on for a few days I jumped at the chance to get a new one – given the empty ticket office, two windows open, that Woking had gifted me.

“That’ll be ten pounds please” the stony faced guy behind the ticket window said when I asked. My reply something along the lines of “seriously?”

He nodded. I walked off. He shouted me back and, in the process of finding himself hilarious, handed me a new wallet.

“It’s surprising how easy it was to believe you though,” my instant reaction to him. And a couple of days later, it still is.

I’ve been through about three of the wallets over the 11 months I’ve had my current season ticket. It’s with me everywhere and goes in and out of its wallet 6 times a day, so it’s not surprising that they don’t last all that long.

I’ve even had to have the ticket itself replaced 5 times. Four because the magnetic strip stopped operating the barriers and once because the thermal print couldn’t cope with its regular thumbing and the ticket had become illegible.

But with every replacement has come some kind of tut, some kind of resentment at what I’ve been asking for: a working, £5,000-a-year travel ticket.

I no longer expect to arrive on time more often than I don’t, I no longer expect to have a comfortable seat (or a seat at all) and I no longer expect much info when things do go up the spout.

I’ve accepted that South West Trains can steal 19hrs and 40 mins a week of my life from me should they wish without sometimes even saying anything about it.

So it wasn’t at all surprising to expect that I might be expected to pay £10 for a cheap ticket wallet last week at Woking.

Perhaps it does say something about my mood, perhaps I need to get a sense of humour (and I’ve no problem with the guy making a joke, to be clear). But perhaps it says something about what I’ve come to expect, through experience, from the trains?

Photo credit: Theen … via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Content lessons from your primary school

For some reason I ended up browsing my primary school’s website the other day. I still can’t work out how I got there or what I wanted to achieve, but I came away with a lovely warm feeling of reassurance and I think there’s something we can all learn from it.

Primary school was awful, as I remember. I didn’t have many friends, and some of the ones I did weren’t really all that nice. But my Primary School itself was lovely, and I found myself drawn in by the site as if it were offering me a familiar pair of arms to cuddle.

I spent at least an hour browsing through pictures of events, looking closely at the rooms and trying to work out what had changed. Yes, the hall has new carpet on the stairs but no, the library shelves are still the ones which were installed when I was there.

Ignoring the 90s-style-web design through gritted teeth, though, the content itself and the way the school communicates online is pretty impressive.

I say that because having spent an hour or so browsing a site intended for people with a genuine interest in the content or needing to achieve something with no genuine interest or thing to achieve, I hadn’t been bored for a minute.

I’d browsed plenty of the pictures, yes, but I’d also found myself interested in the school’s healthy eating policy, it’s staff list (there’s no one I remember left) and reading about the last few big events they’d held in greater detail than I even know about some of the events I’ve attended recently.

The website had been talking to me, and it felt lovely.

All too often when putting together, or editing, the content for a website it’s easy to become too focused on keeping the information accurate, succinct and keeping internal stakeholders happy.

In working on a Children’s Services website built for parents recently I’ve had no end of conversations about whether the word is disabled or something else, whether it’s “maximise” or “make the best of” and the amount of time that’s gone into walking the delicate line between professional excellence and what is ultimately just good customer service has baffled me.

The quality of web content is as much about accuracy as it about how it makes the person reading the page feel but that’s difficult to remember. It’s not helped when the people with the knowledge are often not the ones producing the content and the people producing the content are trying to please a ‘client’ who isn’t one of the audience.

It’s very easy, because it’s the option of least resistance, to keep the people inside the organisation happy and not argue changes on behalf of the audience.

Becoming too tied up with objectives, getting the key messages in and keeping the influencers – the people who know the subject – happy it becomes easy to forget that the content has to make the audience feel a certain way, as well as keep them informed.

that it becomes easy to forget that the content that makes the audience feel best doesn’t really even have to say much.

Too tied up with the user journey and stakeholder engagement to remember that ultimately, the website is replacing a conversation with a person not a text book.

There’s something we can all learn from our primary school’s website. Go browse yours, and see what you might learn.

39 dwellings

Update at 4pm

Since I published this at 4am last night I’ve found out some new stuff. Firstly that the Telegraph also wrote about this picture , secondly that my guess that the flooding wasn’t actually quite reaching the part where development permission had been given might not be wrong and thirdly that my 4am brain remembered the stats wrong. Flood zone 1 has a 1 in 1000 chance of flooding rather than once every 1000 years. I’ve corrected the relevant bit below.

It’s hard to tell just how many tweets there have been about the flooded development site near Whalley in Ribble Valey just off the A59 but it’s fair to say it’s been a quite a few.

I’ve seen the picture pop up on an at least hourly basis over the last two days. I’d not have seen it as much had it not been Christmas, but it’s fair to say that the photo has been well and truly atomised. In fact, it’s been shared so well that despite a good hard look, I’ve not been able to find the person who originally posted it.

It’s a beautiful photo which is being taken as good, hard proof by many people who think we’re building on floodplains and bringing it all on ourselves. If I’d have seen the chance, I’d probably have taken the photo myself.

But just like anything else which seems to make a point but doesn’t quite provide enough detail, it’s been used for point scoring either against the local council – Ribble Valley District Council – for not doing its job properly and against developers for taking advantage of cheap land to screw over would-be property owners.

A59 Whalley Arches. I think this sums it up. Cheap floodplain land sold for development = massive problems #floods pic.twitter.com/j1PiGhLUq9— Ed Matthews (@mr_ed_matthews) December 27, 2015

@Energydesk @GreenpeaceUK As long as there’s money to be made, they’ll be built. Tory govt doesn’t care about people – cares about money— Alan Smith (@flanderosa) December 26, 2015

The tweets above sum up the general theme of what is being said. The photograph of the land, flooded and displaying proudly the permission it has for 39 homes to be built, is said to be a floodplain sold cheap.

One is left to assume, as one often is with these things, how such a thing might happen and so, obviously, rather than accept the facts as they weren’t being presented I wanted to know more.

In particular, I wanted to know more about its permission for 39 dwellings and just as I expected, the facts weren’t really all that hard to find.

To spoil the surprise: yes, someone did point out that the land had flooded before. To build the suspense back up again: it wasn’t anyone paid to point it out.

I do not live in the area nor have I ever even visited, so it’s probably worth saying that I’m working on the basis of evidence I can find on the internet, and the assumption that there’s not much land in Whalley near the A59 which has permission for 39 dwellings.

In fact, on the basis that there’s just one which matches the description, I think I’ve nailed it. The information below is just based on what I think I’ve found out. If you know better, let me know and I’ll be happy to correct it.

What I found out

  • The permission to build 39 dwellings is made up of three separate applications (and subsequent permissions). The first is for 12 new houses, the second for 10 (removing one of the previous 12), and the final for 18 further houses. Links to all three are below.
  • The Environment Agency were consulted as part of the planning process even where (it appears) that they were not required to be. In the second planning application, the Environment Agency explicitly say that the land is in Flood Zone 1 and does not require their input.
  • The land does indeed fall in flood zone 1 (which is where most land is, the lowest risk) but it is adjacent to flood zone 2 (with zone 3 being land at the highest risk of flooding). The A59 itself falls into the zone 2 area, as you’ll see from the map below and which seems to show the land that’s flooded in the picture as part of zone 2.
  • In the first planning application, the Environment Agency did ask the council to impose conditions on how groundwater was dealt with but this seems focused on ensuring the development doesn’t mean other land floods. The drainage system proposed for the site is changed as a result (and this is reflected in the second and third applications) in line with the conditions.
So, just to speculate a little…

Despite the irony of speculating when writing something which tries to put facts behind speculation, I’m going to make some ‘leaps’ here based on what I found.

I think it’s important to work out whether this photograph is a tragic example of bad luck or is, indeed, cheap floodplain land sold cheap for development.

Since the planning application isn’t from a big developer, the claim of developers looking to profit from building on cheap floodplains doesn’t seem to stack up much to me. If the current owners (and the people who got the permission, one assumes) are developers then why would the land be up for sale?

Equally, that the sign advertising the site which kicked all of this off is still there (suggesting it’s still up for grabs – although I’ve not checked) 8 months later it doesn’t seem like developing the land is that attractive.

Added to the fact that the RightMove ad implies that Bloor Homes has already had first refusal and it really is starting to seem like no-one is too keen to actually build on it.

So, cheap land perhaps – but only because no one seems to want to build on it, but flood plain? Well, according to the experts: nope. In fact, the land that has the planning permission isn’t even the bit that’s wet – it’s next to it.

It’s just a pretty picture illustrating a point many people believe. already. Just another reminder of the power of social media and its ability to reinforce the things you already thought.

Where I found my info

I say, you do

I’ve had a lot of trouble with couriers this week, or at least it’s felt like it, and it’s struck me that acting on feedback really is a bit more than just doing what customers say. For a good customer experience, you have to fix the problem instead.

In reality, I just had one problem – a parcel gone missing – but resolving the problem took two extra days’ waiting, three generally aggravating calls and four emails assuring me that Amazon wanted to be the ‘most customer-centric company in the world’.

That desire seems at best a stupid thing to say on emails only generally seen by the very customers you’ve pissed off, and at worst just a lie. Does Amazon really want to be the most customer-centric company in the world or is that just what they want to tell us.

I know that it’s a lie because this week an Amazon Logistics courier turned up at my flat to deliver something that wasn’t on his van. Which did show he was dedicated, but also that something had gone wrong.

The net result of the mistake was Amazon shipping six Dell monitors from Fife to Weybridge and four back from Weybridge to Fife, stopping on the way to drop the other two off with me, in Hampshire. Where I wanted them to be.

Mistakes and errors happen but I’m not sure being ‘customer centric’ does actually mean running some kind of Tour De England for Dell Monitors in my honour. Not least because I don’t even watch sport on principle.

When things go wrong, I don’t actually want anyone ‘taking this very seriously’ or even apologising for the mistake. They happen. I’ll live and you, call centre worker, don’t really care all that much. I’m fine with that. So why the farce of multiple surveys and despatching multiple monitors all over the place? To make me feel like you were doing something, I think.

On a similar note, I don’t think I understand why Royal Mail have gone to the effort of developing this page on their website to explain a problem rather than just fix it.

It’s the best example I’ve ever seen of a ‘customer-centric’ policy being implemented and yet it’s the worst example of caring about the customer experience. Doing what customers say isn’t solving their problems.

Waiting for my letter and pondering how I’d ended up in the mid 50s somehow waiting for messages transcribed onto paper and driven from one part of the country to another, I imagined the conversation that led up to that page being born.

“So, Bill thanks for coming to this meeting. We’ve not had chance to catch up for a little while and I have to tell you the emails have been mounting up. We seem to have a little problem with the tracking tool; people are telling us they don’t know what we mean when we say their parcel has been subject to an outward RDC Volumetric Acceptance.”

“Well that’s terrible, John. We really must sort that out.”

“Definitely. Yes, no. We really should action something ASAP. So a couple of the customer complaints have asked us to put up a page explaining what all these phrases mean. Do you think you could get that looked at and get Sam and the web guys to get it online by COP Tuesday? We’re really keen to put the customers at the centre here.”

“Brilliant John! I’ll get on it straight away. Thanks for calling me over for this chat. It’s been really insightful. We really do need to be doing more of this ‘explaining’ stuff to our customers. It’ll just make the whole experience more frictionless.”

I mean, would it really have been more effort to have changed what the website displays to make it seem less like having a tracked letter delivered required a degree?

Would it really have been all that expensive to get someone in Weybridge to pop the two monitors that had already headed down from Scotland back on a van to me, instead of on a van to Scotland to swap places with the four they were sending down in my direction?

There’s a big difference between customer-centric and doing what customers say they want.

Acting on feedback should be more than just I want you get but all too often it’s not, because they’re all too busy being customer centric to actually think of how to fix the problem in the first place.

Preparing to go car free

It disgusts me that I’ve now had a driving licence for eight years, just because of how old it makes me feel – but for eight years and seven months I’ve loved driving and now I’m preparing to give up my car again.

It’s the third time I’ve had to go own-car-free. First was when I went to University (a practicality), the second time when I started working in London in a job which paid me not nearly enough to live, let alone have a car and now I’m doing it again because I don’t want to spend all of my 20s in debt.

If this time is anything like the last two times then not having a car will have the same side effects. Any of these sound familiar?

1. I WILL BECOME THE LAZIEST PERSON YOU KNOW, AND I WILL NEVER SHOW UP TO THAT THING

I’ll avoid going places more than I already do because everywhere is suddenly far further away, trains only go places I don’t want to go and have timetables that make the trip impractical and I’m not getting a taxi because then I might have to talk to the driver

2. I’LL NEED A CHANGE OF CLOTHES WHEREVER I GO

The only time I’ll ever be arsed to go out is when it’s raining, and no matter how heavy it looks I’ll always assume it won’t be too bad. I will arrive everywhere with my hair flopped forward, hair product dripping into my mouth and my clothes more useful for putting out chip fat fires.

3. THE THREE POINT CHECK WILL FAIL EVERY TIME

I’m male. I have, and carry with me at all times my phone, my keys and my wallet. The three point check takes place when I first leave the house and every 30 or so minutes until I’m back home again, when I promptly lose all three without noticing.

The only way I can currently spot my keys through a quick pat on the outside of my jean pocket is because of my chunky car key. When it’s gone, I might as well be sedated because I’m going to spend three months freaking out that I’ve lost my keys.

4.MY LIFE WILL GET SHORTER

When you drive somewhere from here, it takes about 30 minutes. When you get a train from here, it takes about an hour and a half. Doesn’t matter much where you want to go – it’ll be further away.

Which means less time to do whatever it is that you wanted to do. So what’s the point? See #1.

Selborne to Alton

5. I WILL BROWSE CAR WEBSITES FOR THE NEXT FEW YEARS

Despite knowing my choice is for good reasons, it aint gonna stop me looking for ways to get back on the road. No longer having a car I’ll suddenly need to know everything about all of the cars that I’d like to buy.

The best tyre to buy for a Fiesta ST? Probably in my head by next week. 0-62 time of a Fiat 500 Abarth? Yup, that’ll be there too.

Just 15 months and 30 days to go.