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Storm in a (free) teacup

Diplomacy. The art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.

I thought of this when an email from Waitrose arrived today.  I am no great advocate of being rude to customers.  Neither am I fan of sugar-coating the truth.  Customers aren’t as daft as businesses believe.

Which is fortunate, as Waitrose must think its customers are a bit slow on the uptake.  They’ve just sent an email to Waitrose loyalty card holders that seems to reveal a little corporate unease about the free tea and coffee they currently enjoy.

This email, headed ‘Enjoying your free tea or coffee’, should carry one of those little red government-sponsored tags that warn about too much sugar in things.  It’s so sugar-coated and faux-sweet that hysterically-laughing dentists are jamming the switchboards of every Porsche dealership in the country.

OI, peasant! Swipe yer ruddy card!

OI, peasant! Swipe yer ruddy card!

It starts:

“As you may know, offering a complimentary tea or coffee while you are shopping with us is one of the ways we like to say thank you for your custom.”

OK, a little over-sweet perhaps, but my fillings only hurt a little bit.  And that’s just from the “…like to say thank you…” line.  I’d not noticed any other ways you like to say ‘thank you’, Mr Lewis.  But we’ll let that pass.  There is better to come.

Get a bucket handy before you read the next line. Seriously.

“Just in the same way as a friend might offer a hot drink when you visit their home, we think it’s what a caring business should do when a loyal customer shops with us.”

Told you.  I’ll wait while you recover.

The case for the prosecution cites adjective overload, the inappropriateness of a domestic analogy to a national retailer and the sheer yuk of ‘loyal’.  But this is not the poor whipped Waitrose writer’s fault, I suspect.  A paragraph like this is so internally-focused it can only have been written by someone whose seniority outweighed their writing ability by a serious factor.  It must have been someone on the board.

“That’s why we’ve come up with this short guide to help all our myWaitrose customers make the most of the scheme and to remind you about scanning your myWaitrose card. We hope that through observing this free tea and coffee etiquette, we can continue to offer a complimentary hot drink each time you shop with us.”

I’ll hold off contacting Amnesty about the blatant torture of grammar, but “observing this free tea and coffee etiquette”?  Really?  I’m calling you on this one, Mr Lewis.  I know a threat with menaces when I see one.  I either give you my customer data or you deny me my free coffee?  Right?  And you thought that the old ‘hot coffee’ close would keep people in the shop for longer.  Fair enough.

And Mr Lewis is clearly serious.  He makes that clear in the next paragraph:

“…we will be asking myWaitrose members who wish to enjoy their free tea or coffee in one of our Cafés to also purchase a treat – such as a sandwich, cake, biscuit or piece of fruit. This change will enable us to continue to offer our customers the enjoyable service they expect.”

So no more nipping into the cafe, helping yourself to a Daily Fail and a freebie coffee and taking space that could be used by a proper, paying customer.  And since when was ‘a piece of fruit’ a treat, Mr Lewis?  Or a sandwich?  Come off it, old chap.

Once you’ve weeded out the weasel words, taken a geological hammer to the sugar coating and got to the real message, it looks like this:

“Dear Customer,

We’re sorry.  It was all a terrible mistake.  We didn’t realise that offering freebie tea and coffee would see us haemorrhaging profits like the French aristocracy in 1789.  The car parks are cluttered up with trashy old ’62 plate Evoques. There are people in training shoes and tracksuit bottoms calling the Partners “mate”.

It can’t go on.

For pity’s sake, we’re even giving away bean-to-cup to people who can’t pronounce ‘quinoa’ properly.  We’ve had to have our Financial Director resuscitated several times this week – and it’s only Wednesday.

This has to stop before we sink under a tsunami of free Columbian.

It’s simple.  Swipe your sodding Waitrose card – or get the butler to do it – before you help yourself to your free cuppa.  Or we’ll set the bloody dogs on you.  OK?

Yours, desperate for a way out of a very, VERY expensive customer perk but hoping no-one notices if we do it bit by bit,

Mr John Lewis”

The best writing advice. Ever.

Sixty four years ago today, George Orwell died from tuberculosis in a London hospital.  Not only was he – in my opinion – the finest writer in English, in Politics and the English Language he left scribblers some of the finest advice.

Here it is…

George-Orwell-at-his-typewriter

George Orwell, doing what he did best. Changing people’s minds.

 

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

– What am I trying to say?
– What words will express it?
– What image or idiom will make it clearer?
– Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

– Could I put it more shortly?
– Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

– Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
– Never use a long word where a short one will do.
– If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
– Never use the passive where you can use the active.
– Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
– Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

I shall be waiting at the bar in the Moon Under Water this evening with two pints poured ready.

The curse of sounding professional.

A while ago, I was amazed to get a letter from my bank telling me I was in credit on my credit card.  I came across it in an old file today – and it’s just as I remembered.

It was from a real person – Paula Stevens from Card Operations.  But it didn’t really sound like she’d written it.  Instead, it had that slightly remote, finger-wagging, milk-monitorish tone that banks sometimes unintentionally adopt.

Not a very good letter

It was also a bit convoluted:

“You may be unaware the bank requests you do not place your account into credit; this is stated in our Terms.”

I particularly liked the capitalisation of “Terms” – they must be ever so important if they need a capital letter. I also liked the implication of “You may be unaware…” – it’s always good to call your customers ‘unaware'; goes down well.

Instead, how about something like this:

“We’ve noticed you’ve overpaid your credit card account. Please call us and we’ll transfer your money to your bank account – or you could use it to start a cash or equity ISA with us…”

Simple. Easy. Understandable. And even an attempt to sell the customer something. Hell, why not?

But it got better…

“Therefore would you please contact us, supplying a UK sterling bank code and account number, so we may return these funds to you.”

I’m sure that Paula Stevens from Card Operations doesn’t speak like this. I’ll bet she’s good fun, enjoys a laugh, uses the word “money” more often than “funds” and would never call a customer “unaware” (although I’ll bet she thinks a lot of us are utter morons – and fair game, we probably are).

Why sounding ‘professional’ is a disaster

It’s not Paula’s fault. Somewhere along the line, someone’s told her she needs to sound ‘professional’.  In most businesses, that means sounding a bit like a cross between a robot and a traffic policeman.  Replacing short, everyday words with long ones.  Using too many of them. Nailing them together in sentences that stretch off into the distance with more clauses than Santa’s family.

It’s the difference between being literate and actually communicating.  The whole ‘sounding professional’ thing is getting in the way of being understood.  It’s no good being literate but ending up with stuff that communicates about as well as a page of Linear B.

The corporate process doesn’t help either.  Paula drafts a letter and it all makes sense.  It goes to her manager, who changes a few things, rewrites a paragraph and sends it on to her manager in turn.  She does the same thing.  Then the letter goes to the Compliance and Risk department.  They add in the various bits of required FCA wording – word for word – and change a few more things.

How professional is it when the poor old customer has a gnat’s chance of understanding the end result?

I know enough customer services teams to know that they’re not like this.  They give a big fat damn about their customers and doing right by them.  The customer service advisors who’ve come in on Christmas Day – off shift – to fix problems.  The ones who’ve got into their own cars after work, driven forms to customers’ houses and helped them complete them – on their own time.  Most people go into customer services because they’re interested in helping customers.

So – here’s a challenge… There are so many brilliant customer services people behind the bars of that opaque, jargon-ridden, convolutedly structured, difficult language.  It’s time they escaped.  I’ve started the first tunnel – who’s with me?

 

Three wheels on my wagon

Bikes have been part of my life since I first tried a friend’s 50cc Monkeybike at the age of 11.  I couldn’t wait to get a licence.  In Frome, there was an independent BMW dealer, Difazio’s.  I’d walk the 3 miles from home to stand and gawp at the unfeasibly swoopy-faired R100RSes, RTs and – finally, macho GSes in the window, vowing I’d have one one day.

Growing up in Somerset with a bike was joy.  Perfect roads, no traffic, plenty of country pubs.

Coffee on a table near a Jupiter motorcycle combo

Paradise.

As soon as I was 17, I bought my first – a metallic red Suzuki A100.  Lying flat across the tank, feet on the passenger footpegs, it would just about top 60mph on the Maiden Bradley straight. For £80 I’d bought my freedom and my first fix.  That bike took me everywhere, L-plates fluttering.

Thanks to the kindness of Cyril Fuller who managed to teach me to ride without killing myself, I passed my test.  It wasn’t much of a test then.  A ride around a windswept, February housing estate with the examiner watching from the pavement, finally stepping out with his clipboard to check my emergency stop.

It's Downton, dear, but not as we know it.

It’s Downton, dear, but not as we know it.

The A100 gave way to a white X7 Suzuki 250.  The press had acclaimed it as “the first ton-up 250″.  It was true – at least, the speedo said it was.  It was also the bike that taught me how to take engines apart and, occasionally, get most of the bits back together again.

Then, a mate clearing his garage presented me with a stack of oily boxes and two instantly recognisable pieces of white, swoopy fibreglass.  An R100RS. 

OK, it was in Trex White, but it was my dream bike.  All I had to do was build it.  For the next month, I lived solely on mugs of tea as I bolted and unbolted and fettled and begged bits from anyone who’d listen.  I was at least twenty years too young for one, but that was my first BMW.

Twenty five years later, I’m still riding.  Now, an R1100GS that’s heading for 60k on the clock – and a Ural outfit.  The outfit – a bike with a sidecar – is splendid for me.  I have all the ability on a two-wheeler of a frozen chicken.  The Ural’s sidecar not only carries a huge amount of stuff, it’s like having stabilisers.

It’s an addiction, a refuge and an endless joy.

Dialogue or broadcast? Where’s democracy going?

The way we communicate has always changed. We’ve discovered and harnessed new media time and again – all the way from cuneiform to computers. But the newest change is possibly the most powerful and is already starting to change the way we’re governed, sold to and employed.

Actually, that’s not quite accurate – yet. What the ‘social revolution’ has done is move communication from a broadcast, monologue process to much more of an obvious dialogue.  At least, in some places.  It seems that this council in the Prime Minister’s constituency has just about moved on from employing a town crier with a bell.  “Oh yez! oh yez! Hear ye!”

Encouraging local democracy?

Encouraging local democracy?

Communication between organisations, governments and businesses and those they serve has nearly always been on a broadcast basis. The politician has spoken, unchallenged apart from perhaps an interviewer, and people have listened. Or not.  The business has advertised and people have bought. The only ‘dialogue’ has been at the ballot box or the cash till.

Broadcast vs Dialogue

It’s all been about broadcast – the sender of the message simply sends and the grateful public receive. And broadcast is fine. There are times when it’s essential. But some of us have been talking for years about how broadcast has insulated those who govern and sell to us about how they really need to communicate.

Communication needs to be about dialogue. But one side of that dialogue – the reader’s – has been silent – until recently. That means corporations and governments have been able to speak and write almost as they liked. Today, corporates, organisations and local authorities and governments are still struggling with the democratisation of communication.

Out of their depth

It’s tragic watching them on Facebook; businesses shouting to an empty room about how great they are. Baffled MPs and councillors ducking under Twitter onslaughts. Local authorities wondering why they get social media abuse, not involvement from people in their areas.

People are interested – so how do we engage them?

It’s not that people aren’t interested. The growth in single-issue and local pressure groups shows that, in fact, people are MORE interested in politics, business, government and society. But they’re turned off by the way these organisations communicate with them. Just listen to almost any politician trying to defend herself on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions. It’s not dialogue – it’s blocking monologue. It’s not communication, it’s communication’s antithesis.

And it is rooted in a past where those in authority knew best. Now, those governed are as likely to know just as much as those governing. And they’re becoming much less shy about telling them so.

So, for the first time, communication really IS about dialogue. And the dialogue is showing that people aren’t interested in the big issues that the politicians are – they’re interested in the local issues that affect and hurt them. And they want to get involved.

Harnessing the power of dialogue for society

There aren’t easy answers about how government and business can involve these newly-articulate stakeholders, but, imagine the knowledge, information, wisdom, perspective and depth they’d tap into if they could harness social media’s potential for dialogue and did. And, bluntly, to achieve any sort of inclusive, progressive politics and commerce, they need to.

Aristotle, the web and modern citizenship

In early August 2011, the UK’s citizens got involved in politics in a very practical way.  They looted, burned and rioted their way across London, Salford, Manchester and Birmingham. Commentators will debate the reasons – and the ethics –  for years to come, but its clear that these were people who are not usually politically active.  We need to understand why and, at the same time, find ways to encourage them to be.  Without it, that August will not stand alone.

London riots, people in streets with burning cars and buildings in background.

Practical politics?

For Aristotle, being a Citizen is all about involvement.  Involvement in government, in decision-making, in the State.  Without active involvement in the decisions of the State, one was not a Citizen.

Modern thinkers, like Prof. Bruno S. Frey of the University of Zurich Department of Economics, agree.  Writing in Demokratische Wirtschaftspolitik, he says “We find that direct democracy is not only more efficient but it also makes people happier than in other countries.”  At the core of direct democracy is the concept of involvement.

Most of us cannot be involved, as Aristotle advocated, full-time in the State, so we  have delegated much of its running to civil servants and politicians.  But, as the decisions made at national and even local level become increasingly remote from us, we need to become involved again.  To take back the mantle of Citizenship.

We may believe we have chosen to delegate our Citizen roles, but in reality, many of us have simply abdicated them.  This leaves us disempowered, dispossessed and dissociated on the sidelines.  Once we’ve become sufficiently remote from any idea of civic life and Citizenship, what have we to lose by smashing a few windows, stealing a few TVs?

We now have the chance to get those roles back.  We need to, too. Because it’s only when we’re involved in the complexity of civic decision making that we understand it. We MUST become practically engaged in the decisions of Government again.We are better educated, more literate, more enabled through the internet than ever before.  So we have huge potential to be involved practically as Citizens.  Not through the binary, single issue protest of e-petitions and polls but with access to information and decision-making itself.

At the same time, rather than keeping us out, or fending us off, the State needs to use the internet to find new ways to let us in.  Practical, local, electronic democracy.

Imagine the power of the thought, initiative and ideas of 36 million citizens.  Imagine the innovations that are waiting to be unleashed at local level to resolve problems and remove controls.  All it takes is for the State to throw the switch from “broadcast” to “receive”.Through the internet we don’t just have access to information and a voice, we have the facility to once more become Citizens.  It will take a brave government – and a patient one – to harness that facility.  But the benefits for the party that chooses to change the way we are governed in this way are untold.

Dolores Umbridge. Now in charge of speed limit policy.

Speeding fines handed out by courts are hitting a new high.  In 2013, nearly 115,000 drivers waited while a magistrate looked down, wagged a reproving finger and dished out an average £169 fine and three points.  In 2012, failing to match the number on the stick to the number on the dial accounted for 56% of the 730,000 fixed penalty notices drivers received – and cameras provided the evidence for 84% of them.

If you haven’t had a speeding fine yet, your odds of picking one up are shortening daily.

Why?

The press today says it’s all the fault of new, digital cameras.  Sure, they won’t make things any easier for drivers – but the real problem is Department for Transport-imposed, artificially lower speed limits.  And you probably didn’t even notice.

Unless you spend your time poring over the intricacies of Department for Transport Circulars, you won’t have spotted one snappily entitled Department for Transport Circular 01/2013 crawling into the light of day in January 2013.  It changed the way drivers and riders use the UK’s roads for ever.  And it’s opened the door to a massive increase in speeding prosecutions. In fact, it criminalised hundreds of thousands of previously safe, law-abiding drivers at a stroke.

Van crashes into speed camera

Speed cameras save lives. Apparently.

That dull, dusty document is so full of weaseling that it would make Dolores Umbridge blush.  In true, Umbridgeian fashion, it starts so reasonably that not even the most petrolheaded speed junkie could object:

“Speed limits should be evidence-led and self-explaining and seek to reinforce people’s assessment of what is a safe speed to travel. They should encourage self-compliance. Speed limits should be seen by drivers as the maximum rather than a target speed.”

Then, it works its way through suggesting that drivers should be “encouraged” to drive below the speed limit as a matter of course, before sneaking the bomb in at point 35:

35. Mean speed and 85th percentile speed (the speed at or below which 85% of vehicles are travelling) are the most commonly used measures of actual traffic speed. Traffic authorities should continue to routinely collect and assess both, but mean speeds should be used as the basis for determining local speed limits.

Doesn’t sound terribly significant, does it?  Mean, schmean.  So what?  It’s actually the most significant change in road safety policy since the introduction of speed limits themselves.  Apologies for the history lesson, but the context is important…

Speed limits used to be set by measuring the natural speed of traffic along a given road in free-flowing conditions. You then assumed that 15% of the drivers were going too fast and set the limit at the 85th percentile. Limits were designed to reflect the idea that most drivers were responsible – otherwise why let them have licences in the first place?

The majority drove around the limit speed because, in effect, the majority set it.  Circular 01/13 put an end to all that.  And, in fact, even The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) advised against it.

It made limits so artificially low that nearly every road where the new limits have been applied feels too slow – like the limit is a mistake.  Drivers lose attention, drift off into reverie and cease being engaged with driving.  Failing that, they look for the first available overtake, tailgate the limit-limpet in front of them and lose their sense in a red mist of frustration overtakes.

That means – for most drivers – they now need to spend an excessive amount of concentration simply on limit compliance.  “Well, if they don’t speed, they won’t get a ticket, will they?” tut the prigs.  But when compliance and safety move so far apart, the limits become risible.  Today, sticking to the limit doesn’t make you safe, it makes you an oddity.  When I comply, I’m tailgated, flashed, hooted, overtaken on bends and with oncoming traffic.

More damaging; the better driver you are, the more the new limits punish you.  If you’re used to observing well ahead, planning your drive or ride and anticipating the actions of other road users, you might as well not bother.  You’ll spend more time thinking about what you cook for supper than the road ahead.  They’re so artificially low that you could climb into the back seat, have a quick snooze, make a coffee and still be back in time to brake for any unexpected hazards.

As a consequence, drivers and riders are losing respect for limits.  As they rollercoaster on a single road from 20 to 30 to 40 to 30 to 20 to 40 to 50 to (briefly) 60 and back to 30, they’re driving by a blizzard of numbers, up and down like an MP’s expenses claim.  It’s like paint by numbers; a bad facsimile of the real thing.  But very, very much more dangerous.

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