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Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Farnham Public Debate: Voting Reform

On Tuesday 9th November the Farnham Humanists are hosting a debate on voting reform.

Admission is free and given the coalition promise of a referendum on Alternative Vote (AV) - likely to be held in May next year - this public event should be well worth attending.

The advertised start time is 8pm and the debate is to be held at South Farnham School, Menin Way, Farnham GU9 8DY.

Biographies on the principal speakers can be found by clicking here.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

News Management, Baby Cam and the IFS Budget Report

The Institute of Fiscal Studies bills itself on its own website as Britain's leading independent microeconomic research institute.  The website also goes on to proclaim: We don't have politically motivated sugar daddies.

I have just one simple question: why would an independent research institute with no political motivation choose to release a politically sensitive report to the media under embargo for release on or after 12:01am this very morning?

Some government data such as school league tables and other complex data sets are released under embargo to give news outlets time to digest and present a complex data set to the public, yet most embargoes are just a simple PR tool to maximise press coverage by timing the release of the story.

Baby Flo Cam Under Fire Already

The news management of this story irked me, but it was this Tweet from UNISON head of press Mary Maguire which got me so mad - I just had to blog it!
I'm a bit lost for words.  Maybe I don't need to say much more about the left claiming the Camerons engaged in news management by naming their baby Florence the day after it was born, the baby not being due until next month and all that...

@JamesFirth

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Ungrump

I've spent enough time complaining about bad customer service over the years so I thought it was about time - in a My Name is Earl-esque way - to bring some balance by writing about some positive experiences.

(And no, fellow cynics, I don't have an interest in any of the companies listed in this post!)

British Telecom (!)

Yes, this will surprise many! A company who upset me over the Phorm debacle, forcing new contracts on people, introducing a bizarre rolling contract with auto-renew, billing me after I left their business broadband service and then threatening to sue me over the unpaid bill when actually they owed me money... All these things I've not forgotten, but I got a pleasant surprise when I recently called to complain about a service I felt I'd been unfairly billed for.

I was only on hold for about 5 minutes, which isn't actually that bad and I was forewarned of "heavy call volume".  Not only was I offered a full refund but the first person I spoke to on the first call dealt with the entirety of my grievance.  No transfers between colleagues in different (countries) call centres, no "wait till he threatens to leave before we offer him a solution".

The person who answered the call listened, understood, apologised, and provided the best solution I could hope for.

Is the much-improved customer service a sign of change at BT?

Trail Finders

We've used Trail Finders to book most of our recent holidays and have been impressed with all aspects of their business.

The company specialises in tailored holidays, giving you the convenience of a package with pre-arranged transfers, flight connections and scheduling that "works", with the added freedom to create your own itinerary.

The level of service received from UK agents and oversees "reps" is impressive, plus to date we seem to have landed some impressive accommodation, free upgrades, rooms with superb views etc.

I like their business model. Support calls are often directed to agents in high street shops rather than call centres, meaning you get to speak to someone who hasn't spend the whole day drenched in artificial light jockeying calls from miserable customers.

Typically we find their prices are perhaps £15-30 more than the cheapest online deal, but what we get for this relatively small sum in terms of service, reliability and holiday experience hasn't so far never failed to impress.

BE Broadband (BeThere.co.uk)

Running a small company I'm less bothered by the size of monthly subscription charges than I am at lousy internet performance and bad customer service.  When there's a problem I need action within a reasonable time frame and I don't have the time nor patience to deal with disparate and fragmented call centres as I recently had to bear with Orange (disclaimer: other telecommunications companies are available which suck at least as much as Orange).

BE have a web support service where your messages and support requests actually make the recipient's inbox and, from my experience at least, get actioned in a reasonable time frame.

I buy their pro package and get excellent download speeds with an "up to" 2.5Mbps upload.  I typically get just under 2, which is handy as I upload a lot of data to my own and clients' servers.

Although £21.97 /month (incl VAT) is relatively expensive for home use, as a business service it's cheap as chips with speedy customer service and fantastic performance.

GiffGaff

I'd never heard of this virtual mobile network operator until I started looking at trimming the amount I spent on service charges for mobile phones and mobile data.  I used to have a business mobile, a T-mobile Web'n'Walk business service at £17pcm (+VAT) and a personal mobile.

Whilst I can't fault T-mobile on 3G performance or customer service, £17/month - a bargain in 2007 - is too much to pay for occasional use of a standby data connection.

Mainstream operators are now clambering to provide pay-as-you-go data services around the £10/month mark, which is fine for a laptop but once you start with a smartphone I find you get stung on call and/or text message charges.  Reasonable deals are available on contract, but doing the maths over the contract lifetime it's still cheaper to buy your handset - any handset - if only I could get a reasonably priced SIM-only package.

Enter GiffGaff, who use the O2 network and for a measly £10/month offer "unlimited" internet ("commercial" use prohibited, whatever that means in reality) "unlimited" SMS and 100 minutes of talk time.  Bigger packages are available, all on a pay-as-you-go basis with no contracts, and currently all are half price!

Additionally, going back to the problems from call centres and shocking levels of customer service observed at some mobile operators, GiffGaff like BE (see above) and my chosen utility company, Scottish Power, rely on the web for customer service contact.

This seems to be a great approach at driving down costs and increasing customer satisfaction but I worry that this approach excludes some sections of society from accessing the best deals without the inconvenience of visiting a cafe or library to access the internet in order to access customer services.


@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Walls have ears... And soldiers have memory sticks

You can listen to my musings contained in the post below on the Pod Delusion, around 18 minutes in (but the whole show's well worth a listen):



Walls have ears... And soldiers have memory sticks

The publication of tens of thousands of field reports from Afghanistan  last week by Wikileaks is proving more controversial than the whistle-blowing websites so-called collateral murder video.

This despite the absence of a so-called smoking gun revelation - and without a high-impact video.

Collectively the leaks suggest a far higher civilian casualty rate than previously revealed - and paint a picture of progress very different from the official version of events

Open or Censored?

But what interests me about this leak in particular is not only the fury from Washington and unprecedented rhetoric against Wikileaks – some actually calling for the extraordinary rendition – read kidnap – to face justice in America of founder Julian Assange, but also the moral questions raised by the publication of raw data that could potentially identify intelligence sources, putting real lives at risk.

As someone ideologically opposed to most forms of censorship this got me thinking about the balance between free speech – the right to publish leaks and other human rights such as the right to privacy and the right to life itself.

How would I feel should my financial records leak from my bank or Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and wind up being published on the internet?

For some the risk of embarrassment is replaced with a real threat to their personal safety should a leak involve police records - lists of informants, suspicions of abuse or spent criminal convictions – which could lead to revenge or vigilante attacks.

But do I really find myself arguing for censorship or government control? Do I trust one's elected representatives will remain sufficiently upstanding not to fall into pits of self-interest and hide shameful truths and malpractice in order to further their own political and financial interests?

The moral dipoles

Rejecting censorship and allowing free and open access to information invites the inevitability that both Good and Evil information will be available. Optimism, or is it naivety, makes me believe Good will prevail – and the overall impact on society will be positive.

So In applauding Wikileaks for the previous release of the collateral murder video (clearly in the public interest with no risk to civilian informants) I must accept that such releases comes part-and-parcel with the irresponsible - in my opinion - disclosure of 75,000+ field reports from Afghanistan.

Such moral dipoles permeate the internet. Open access to user-generated art and culture comes with pornography; humanitarian, charity and volunteer causes sit in cyberspace alongside right-wing hate forums and terrorist training materials; child protection organisations : child abusers.

Do we really understand the implications of truly free speech in the data age? 

Although often miss-attributed to Voltaire himself, probably the most famous quote on free speech was penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography The Friends of Voltaire "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

But we are now in genuinely uncharted territory. Whether or not Voltaire said these actual words of merely believed the principle which they summarise, the French army of the 18th century was never overly concerned about leaks of classified datasets via the internet.

I feel Powerful yet simplistic summaries like Hall’s don't do justice to the new moral questions raised by our ability to gather, store, analyse and widely disseminate vast quantities of information.

In addition, Society now must deal with a blurring of the line between speech and publication. We may treat our use of Twitter, Facebook and internet forums as speech, yet there’s a global reach to each word spoken and a [semi-] permanent and searchable record of most "conversations".

Balance

Rights to free speech must be viewed in balance with the rights of others, such as their right to privacy and freedom from persecution.

As highlighted earlier with my concerns about leaks of personal data, claiming an inalienable right to publish information as an extension of the free speech argument clearly risks prejudicing the rights, freedoms and even the safety of others.

So instead of continuing to equate free speech with releases of leaked data and “defending to the death” these rights, is it now time to acknowledge a new era and re-evaluate whether established philosophies hold when dealing with gigabytes of data in place of spoken sentences and printed word.

Yet I'm not arguing we should simply abandon the views of past great liberals thinkers as some, perhaps many - whilst not quite foreseeing the internet - had predicted an age transformed by the ubiquitous availability of books and knowledge.

Public interest and trusted credible intermediaries

Wikileaks and similar websites raise questions society has never previously had to face. Decisions about what constitutes public interest were once handled in private in the newsrooms of more traditional print and broadcast media.

Such publications are able, through established reputation, to strike a balance between public interest and the need to withhold sensitive information - often their credibility allows reporting of such stories without a need to publish the details.

What surprised me with this most recent case is that Wikileaks actually worked with such trusted news outlets up-front, yet published the bulk of the raw data regardless.

I take issue in the case of the war logs not from their leaking but from their near-raw publication, so what motivated Wikileaks to break from their established modus operandi of verify then publish? What lead them to work together with The Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel - all of whom carry sufficient credibility to break this story without publishing the actual leaked data?

Was it solely in order to handle the 15,000 withheld "sensitive" reports, or just a smart PR move?

An imperfect force for Good

On balance and despite reservations I still feel that leaks, and, importantly, the potential for leaks, acts as a force for Good. Yes the situation is not perfect, but there are few absolutes in life - I feel inclined to support Wikileaks' stance even though the recent leak left me in a deep moral quandary.

Civilian lives in Afghanistan might be saved in the long term even though the lives of informants could be in jeopardy because of this leak, since the pressure from those at home in the US and UK outraged at the true civilian death toll may force a change of strategy - which may otherwise not occur, here saving lives.

Public leaks can prevent further leaks. The logic goes that if a soldier is able to leak sensitive information to the media it's clearly also plausible that data is being leaked covertly to the enemy, the army being none the wiser.

It's unforeseeable that the US Army and other partners won't now already be taking steps to improve data security.

Publicity, trust, responsibility and the natural moderation of joint enterprise

But Is Wikileaks a renegade organisation, and does the organisation hold an immense power which could be "misused"?

Sure - there’s the potential for future "mistakes" - i.e. damaging revelations which don't strike the right balance between public interest and personal protection.

But despite the media hype, Wikileaks is not a one man show. It relies on goodwill and joint enterprise, public trust and support, and it's this reliance on the public which ultimately acts as a strong moderator of power.
Without public support the website is impotent. To achieve impact, revelations must be published on a site which attracts substantial mainstream visitors and whos authenticity can be trusted.

A reliance on joint enterprise simply for the geographically distributed trans-jurisdictional “bulletproof" hosting and mirroring means a massive coordinated abuse of power is less likely to happen, just as the use of social networks for publicity leaves the online community to act as a filter.

It's just a website!

Wikileaks - it's just a website, and the nature of the internet means those who disagree with the principles by which it operates can create a rival: a counterbalance.

And, as a news source, it's a relative newcomer and just one amongst many thousands.

Absolute power

In the furore surrounding one particular leak it’s easy to over-emphasise the potential for harm but it’s also important to remember that leaks, and, importantly, even just the risk of a leak, usually acts as a force for Good.

Whilst several commentators have argued that certain difficult aspects of life and in particular warfare should be delegated by the people to their elected governments, I don't share their view that public oversight of our armed forces should be limited to scrutiny of the information government chooses to release.
 
The ability for any one individual to blow the whistle provides a backstop and serves as a reminder to everyone that power over others does not come without boundaries.

@JamesFirth

Monday, 2 August 2010

The mobile phone industry is still bonkers


Orange and customers
don't mix?

In 2002 during a management training course I was taught the old premise that every penny spent on fire protection saved a pound (or was it a hundred pounds) on fire-fighting and recovery, and that this should serve as a lesson when dealing with customers.

If this theory holds then surely the whole mobile phone industry is collectively insane.

Clearly there is strong competition in the UK mobile services market; so why has the competitive market failed - at least given my own experiences - to drive an improvement in customer services?

Is this really the best capitalism has to offer?

Over the 13 or so years that I've owned a phone, an almost-annual tradition has emerged; a tradition I've come to dread:- dealing with whatever company I find myself with in order to strike the best deal or obtain a PAC code in order to transfer my number.

Stressful elements include the time needed to get through to a person able to improve the initial paltry offering, explaining the same facts to several people on the way, and the sheer pettiness shown by the phone companies at times - in stark contrast to the deal eventually struck.

On the occasions I've made up my mind before calling that I simply want a PAC code in order to move my number, I embark on the process with a resignation that there's probably going to be 45 minutes of my life I'll never get back wasted on a process that should be possible to complete in seconds over the internet.

Very little has changed and I don't understand why companies still prefer to rely on fire-fighting through freebies and enticements in order to appease customers whose frustrations stem from poor customer service.

Phone companies seem to be wasting relatively large sums of cash dealing with fires started by their own staff and systems.

My experience today dealing with Orange in the UK must surely go a fair way towards proving that just a few more pence (per customer) spent avoiding some customer service snags could save deploying the industry-standard fire-fighting technique (a bundle of freebies) costing approximately £50.

Orange UK's ability to wind me up at every juncture over the last 4 days ended up costing them:
- 1 free "spare" Nokia handset delivered to my door
- 1 free 3G SIM card
- 6 months free voicemail access
- £10 free top-up

UPDATE 3-Aug-10: Phone arrived in under 24 hours but SIM card arrived without the promised £10 credit and did not get me a 3G connection. After 90 minutes trying to contact Orange I gave in and finally demanded my PAC.  What looks like my PAC code came by text amidst a bunch of 20 (TWENTY) blank texts.  Make of this what you will!

All this was offered despite me being a no-ties pay-as-you-go customer, which makes me question whether techniques such as this represent an efficient model for customer service, and if not, what is the cost to the end customer in terms of higher call and service charges?

So why did it all kick off, and how could Orange have avoided this?

For various reasons I find myself in possession of:
- An orange pay-as-you-go SIM that won't let me access 3G data services (but is linked to my primary mobile number)
- O2 and T-mobile pay-as-you-go SIMs that will let me access 3G data services but not linked to the phone number I use every day
- A nice new Android phone

Friday: Message sent to Orange via the "contact us" option after signing into "My Account" on the Orange website. Note: no website facility to request PAC code or request SIM upgrade etc - seemingly entirely reliant on call centres.

Saturday: Receive an email: "message cannot be delivered - will retry" - odd, since I sent my original message via a form on their website. So many technical concerns with this method of message delivery I won't even start!

Monday 9am: checked the Orange website. No option to request a PAC code, no option to request a SIM upgrade.

10am: call in at the Orange shop in Farnham. They advise me to go home and phone Orange customer services and be offered a free SIM upgrade.

11:45am: Call placed to Orange customer services. Mildly outraged by the announcement that I would be charged a one-off fee for calling customer services (this alone was almost enough to make me want to change networks), I was further aggravated by:

a.) Being placed on hold

b.) Appalling abrasive on-hold music (what happened to Brahms?!)

c.) Being told by the customer services team that I needed to talk to sales, call transferred after a small additional wait

d.) Being told by sales that I would be charged for a 3G SIM, at which point I asked for my PAC code to change networks (the smart choice, given my experience to date) and was told I needed to be...

e.) ... transferred back to a customer service representative! After another short time on hold I could hardly hear the guy speak due to a very faint line - not great for a telco - and after struggling through security questions, I was told - you can probably guess - that I needed to be transferred to another department!

12:15am: I'm now speaking to a customer retention representative. I was quick to point out that I wanted to leave Orange, so why wasn't I speaking to a "here's your PAC code" representative?

At this point I need to apologise to the kind lady who clearly spends her whole life dealing with sarcastic comments from people like me who've spent what feels like a lifetime trying to sort out something which frankly should not be this hard to sort out.

But there's a clear lesson: these shenanigans not only cost me quite a bit of my own time, but given that surely I can't be the only person in such a situation, customer helplines are probably needlessly clogged up with frustrated customers.

On one hand any company can attempt to save money by "streamlining" their front line services, using lower-ranking staff to attempt to deal with standard queries by offering standard services.

But when this streamlining only serves to exacerbate customer frustrations then surely it's time to question whether it would not be better to simply connect each customer to a person qualified and authorised to deal with a wide range of customer problems?

Surely this approach would not only reduce the total number of customer-hours handled across all call centres, but also help present a more positive image to the customer.

At the very least, the company should attempt to ensure the range of "standard services" offered by front line staff closely match their customers' needs:

When there's clearly so much competition in a market, under what circumstances would a mobile phone company want to charge an existing customer for a replacement SIM?

It really should have been so simple...

Friday: receive an email from Orange, new SIM is on the way (or option to collect from shop)

/or/

Monday: Orange shop offers SIM upgrade over-the-counter.

/or/

10:45am: Call answered, SIM upgrade offered.

@JamesFirth