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Be The Solution – Corporate Tweetings

I normally have a strong distaste for “motivational” expressions, witticisms, insights and the like; especially those sent down from above in the form of managerial nonsense.  I distrust them and often wonder who on Earth actually reads, believes and tries to live by them.

However, this week I have been reminded of the importance of one such little gem.  The gist of it is

Be The Solution, Not The Problem.

This maxim, this veritable pearl of wisdom applies especially to customer service environments, or when dealing with a customers problem.  It’s hit me twice this week; once including a good use of Twitter!


I recently ordered Sky HD for my apartment, but the engineer was unable to put a dish up on the gable end of my building (right next to an existing dish) because Sky have changed their rules on laying out long ladders on the ground and “flipping them” up against the wall. However I can get a single feed from a communal aerial socket.  This leaves me with half working Sky+, I can only watch & record one channel at a time.

I like Sky and prefer it to Virgin Media and am minded to keep it, but it feels a little unfair to be paying full price and only getting half the service.  I emailed Sky customer services and suggested that if they gave me my HD package for free, or at least reduced, I’d keep my subscription rather than cancelling it as I am entitled to do in my cooling off period.

To me this makes good sense for Sky.  They’ve spent some money sending out an engineer and providing equipment.  At full price they would get £35.25 from me a month.  If they gave me the HD pack for free this would be £25.  If I cancel they get £0 and have lost money installing it.

The response I got was clearly from a foreign call centre and simply restated my problems with additional explanation of how Sky+ worked.  No solution, or even a direct answer to question.  I emailed back and asked for an answer from someone who understood what I was saying.

I got a flat refusal.  It was “Sorry, no can do, cancel if you want.


This morning I saw a friend beating up Sky Customer Services (@skyhelpteam) on Twitter, so I thought I’d have a moan and ask if they wanted to retain my custom; expecting the same “No, cancel if you want; we’re not giving you discount.”

Not what I got.   They didn’t address the issue of discount, but they have offered to get another specialist engineer out to me to try and get a dish up.

It’s really refreshing when large companies with millions of customers take the time to use Twitter in such a way.  It must be more efficient for them too, as I haven’t tied up a call centre for 10/15 minutes explaining; the 140 character limit keeps it succinct.

Who knows if he or she will be able to get the dish up, but I am very impressed with Sky for at least trying to offer a solution.  I really hope it works, as I’d rather have it working than discount… but if it doesn’t and I can’t get discount I’m a little more likely to stay with them because of one little act of “can do.”

Apply some “can do” to your life today!

An Aviator Passes.

It’s with a very heavy heart that I read reports this afternoon that one of the Red Arrows has crashed, and the pilot hasn’t survived.  The Red Arrows are a true credit to The Royal Air Force and are nothing short of absolutely awesome to watch — it’s impossible to describe just how skilled these aviators are.

I’m a happy chap if I can keep my airspeed and height within the standards expected of a newly qualified commercial pilot (which I am not, but no harm in aiming high) — these guys and girls fly fast jets at almost 4x my speed, often only inches apart.  It’s a real treat to watch.

I have had the privilege to see this years Red Arrows (part of the team changes every year) twice.  Only earlier this week they overflew my home town and my son had to ring me straight away to say he’d seen them again; and wanted to know why they had no smoke on – I was 150 miles away; but this gives you an idea of how inspirational they are; my 3 year old adores them.  I haven’t the heart to tell him one has crashed.

My thoughts are with the pilots family, friends and his colleagues; it’s always awful when a fellow pilot passes, especially when flying.  Rest In Peace.

Flying West

Capt. Michael J. Larkin 

I hope there’s a place, way up in the sky,
Where pilots can go, when they have to die-
A place where a guy can go and buy a cold beer
For a friend and comrade, whose memory is dear;
A place where no doctor or lawyer can tread,
Nor management type would ere be caught dead;
Just a quaint little place, kinda dark and full of smoke,
Where they like to sing loud, and love a good joke;
The kind of place where a lady could go
And feel safe and protected, by the men she would know.

There must be a place where old pilots go,
When their paining is finished, and their airspeed gets low,
Where the whiskey is old, and the women are young,
And the songs about flying and dying are sung,
Where you’d see all the fellows who’d flown west before.
And they’d call out your name, as you came through the door;
Who would buy you a drink if your thirst should be bad,
And relate to the others, “He was quite a good lad!”

And then through the mist, you’d spot an old guy
You had not seen for years, though he taught you how to fly.
He’d nod his old head, and grin ear to ear,
And say, “Welcome, my son, I’m pleased that you’re here.
“For this is the place where true flyers come,
“When the journey is over, and the war has been won
“They’ve come here to at last to be safe and alone
From the government clerk and the management clone,
“Politicians and lawyers, the Feds and the noise
Where the hours are happy, and these good ol’boys
“Can relax with a cool one, and a well-deserved rest;
“This is Heaven, my son — you’ve passed your last test!”

Adderbury 10k

Recently I’ve sort of taken up running… it all started last year when I voluntered to do a 5k run in aid of Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance.  Prior to this the furthest I would run is to the bar, or the car.    This year I upgraded it to a 10k and took part again in the Heroes Run.

It turns out it’s actually not a bad form of exercise this running lark – so I have vowed to keep it up.  My friend Matt joined me on the WNAA 10k, and vowed the same.  In order to ensure we actually did this I entered us into the Adderbury 10k run, which is organised by Adderbury Running Club; and took place on Saturday 9th July 2011.


I’d been out running a fair bit in preparation for this, but had totally failed to take into account the increase in difficulty posed with it being a cross country run!!  We were up and down hills, over styles and through kissing gates like nobodies business – we were only 3k in and absolutely shattered…. it felt like we’d already ran the same distance as the WNAA run.  Just look at the profile graph from my run logging app (MapMyRun):

Addebury 10k Height Profile
Addebury 10k Height Profile

We ploded on, and after a couple of spells of walking made it well past the 5k marker, but it felt further.

When 10k isn’t…

Adderbury 10km Route
Adderbury 10km Route

It turned out when we finally got to the end and I looked at my mapping app it was in fact 11.8k we’d just ran and not 10 at all.  Doesn’t sound a lot, but it’s almost a  20% increase on a course which was at least 50% harder than any other we’d attempted to date.

It turns out that some of the route markers had gone missing so our “following the crowd” plan had led to the course being longer.

That said, we had made it – despite more walking than we had wanted.  We were both sweaty and had muddy legs from the off road running.   It took us so long (1:30) that some of the half marathon runners were over taking us on the last kilometre and finishing their 13 miles across the same terrain in less time than it took us pair to do 6!

They were brilliant encouraging though… every one of them who over took us said something nice: “Well done lads, nearly there.” etc.  Was really nice.

It turns out today that we didn’t quite come last – 1 person finished the 10k after us.

As we finished the heavens opened, so we made a swift exit after collecting out t-shirts and having some water!

It was a good challenging morning though, and at least we did it.  Thanks to Adderbury Running Club for organising it – but we’ll probably just be sticking to more road-runs in future…  like perhaps the Summer Sun 10km at Moreton Morrell in August.

Super Complaints & Interest Rates

So, the consumer group Which? is to make a “super complaint” to The Office of Fair Trading about retailers (mainly low cost airlines) levying high charges for using a debit or credit card to pay for goods, and for often adding this at the last stage of the purchase process which makes it hard for consumers to compare prices.

The crux of the complaint, if we take Ryanair as an example (because I have a love / hate relationship with RYR),  is that they charge a flat £5 per passenger, per flight for paying by any means except a prepaid master card; adding £40 a holiday for a 4 person family and you don’t find out about this until the very last stage in their booking process. Which? suggests that this is high, and the time at which you are aware of it is late.

There Is Cost

Running a small business I am very aware that there is a cost to processing card payments, and this cost has to be borne by the customer somewhere.  Most high street retailers bare this cost out of their normal profit margin, but a lot of low cost retailers itemise separately, arguing they are just passing on a cost extra to the product itself.

Which would be fine, if they weren’t then hiding profit margins on top of it.

We currently process credit cards through HSBC Merchant Services, who charge us £0.38 for a debit card transaction, or 2.8% for credit cards.   Taking an example from Ryanair again, I just checked their website: a return flight for 4 from Birmingham to Alicante is £439, plus £40 “admin fees.”

If I paid by debit card this would add £39.62 to their profit, or £27.08 if I paid by Credit Card (£12.92 being 2.8%).  It doesn’t seem fair on the face of it, and it looks devious that they hide it until the last step.  Ryanair incidentally are not alone in this practice and they also argue the charge is to cover the entire cost of the transaction including their website etc (clutching at straws!).

The Banks Role.

What interests me more is that no-one is questioning the role of the banks in all of this, specifically where a credit card is involved. Why do the bank need 2.8% from the retailer?  Why not a flat fee like Debit Cards?

The banks will claim that they are using this to offset the risk that the retailer fails to provide the goods or services and a reclaim is made by the card holder; but this really must be such a minute fraction it can’t possibly account for the whole 2.8%.

This is at at time when the average interest rate on a credit card has risen to 18.8%, yet the bank base rate is 0.5%.  The banks, through their mouthpiece – The British Bankers Association – have put forward even more tenuous excuses than Ryanair can manage.  The BBC cover it well here.

I would suggest that they are trying to “cream” both ends of the transaction, by making money from the merchant at the point of purchase and then from the card holder at the point of payment.

Real World Example.

My brother, who runs a small independent motorcycle workshop passes on the 2.8% credit card charge to customers, but absorbs the debit card fee.  It’s amazing how many people will instantly swap to a debit card when faced with a credit card surcharge.

He’s not making any money by passing this charge on, and the instant swap by the vast majority of customers says to me that he is being charged for allowing the banks to make money by financing the customers payment. Afterall, they have the money in a debit account; but they’d rather pay by credit.

Seems to me that when Which? refer their super complaint to the OFT they should be asking the OFT to look not only at the price and transparency of these charges, but whether the base charge by the banks is fair too.

iOS 4.3, Personal Hotspots & O2

Those of you that follow Apple will have noticed this week that they released iOS 4.3 to developers – iOS being the operating system which runs the iPhone, iPad and AppleTV.  While there are a number of tweaks in the latest beta release there are two main features which have been widely publicised:  AirPlay for Video and Personal Hotspots.  I want to discuss the personal Hot Spots, because I was excited enough about this to go and download the new version of iOS straight away…

What is Personal Hotspot.

MiFi Hotspot
MiFi Hotspot – You’ll still need one.

Personal Hotspot will allow you to turn your phone into a wireless network, and connect up to 5 devices to it to share it’s 3G data connection.  It will become a sort of MiFi.  I am interested in it because I currently carry around (and pay for) a 3G mobile broadband dongle so I can use my laptop if I am away from WiFi, and this would do away with this as I could just connect my laptop to my iPhone’s Wireless Network.

This is a feature which the iPhone needs to keep up with a number of Android handsets which already have the WiFi hotspot capability.

I currently pay 3 £15 a month for 15Gb of data through my dongle, although I rarely use that much.  I am allowed 500Mb of Data on my O2 iPhone tarriff, so I expected to pay a bit more to allow more data using the hotspot feature.

Tethering & O2 Bolt On.

Sure enough, to use the Hotspot feature your iPhone has to be enabled for tethering – which requires a bolt on from O2.  Further research though suggests it is a terrible value bolt on.  O2 want £7.50 for 500Mb a month.   So to get the same allowance I have from 3 I would have to pay £225 a month.    A complete and utter rip-off – now I remember why I never had it in the first place.

To make things worse Android users can already use their inclusive 500Mb allowance through their WiFi hotspot without having to pay anything extra.  Oh, and 3 offer “all you can eat data” on their iPhone tarriffs (although it does make reference to not using phone as a modem)…

… are O2 trying to cripple the iPhone? They need new tariffs before this feature goes public (estimated March), or it is an expensive feature which Android users get free!!

Banks: Their Own Worst Enemies.

The Big 4
The Big 4

This is a real tale of just how stupid banks can be.  It involves one of the “Big 4” high street retails banks in the UK and me.

Winding Up.

I had a limited company which I had wound up, it had a loan with ‘BigBank’ – which was paid by means of a standing order in to the company current account with BigBank. The only reason that the current account existed was for the payment of this loan, because BigBank refused to take the money by Direct Debit from anywhere else and wouldn’t allow a standing order direct into the loan.  Stupid.

So, every month £175 went into this account and £175 went out automatically; to the point I had almost forgotten about it except for the money going out of my account every month.  As the company had been dormant for so long I asked my accountants to wind it up – which they did.


Obviously BigBank has an electronic link to Companies House, and as such froze the account.  So the £175 standing order in to the current account was returned to me.  Yet they still paid the loan, leaving the account £175 overdrawn with no agreement.  Which they charged £30 for.

I immediately rang my bank manager and explained what I thought had happened, and he concurred.  As there was a few months left on the loan I offered to repay it immediately, and the £175 balance on the current account; but no fee’s.   He said he’d get that sorted, and thanked me for calling.

He rang back later that day and said that he couldn’t do it because the system wouldn’t allow him – the account was frozen.  I asked how I could repay the banks £1,100 – “you can’t” was his reply.  What??  I was told I would have to wait for their recoveries team to get in touch, but he would ask them to do that promptly.


Another month went by and they took the £175 again, and added another £30 charge on; before I finally got a flurry of letters from BigBank.  One of the letters was a formal demand for repayment of £11,000 – the full amount of the loan which now only had a little over £1000 left to repay.  Two of the letters referred to my personal guarantee on the loans of a company I had never even heard of.  Total and complete system failure.  Remember I just want to repay what’s owed.

I replied to their letters with a complaint stating that I was very unhappy at having to wait for letters rather than just repay what I didn’t contend was owed, then I received letters demanding repayment of £11,000 in 21 days, and then letters demanding repayment of someone else’s loan.  They just weren’t organised at all.


I got a letter back apologising and asking me to call to arrange repayment of £1010 (they’d taken the fees and extra interest off) within 21 days else they would instruct solicitors.  They were now threatening me!! I rang them and explained what had happened, they seemed to think this was normal.  I told them under the circumstances I was prepared to offer them £750 to settle the account.

To my surprise they accepted.  So, instead of having £1100 three months ago they have accepted £750 – they have done themselves out of £350.

No wonder they are state owned – if I let people who wanted to pay, pay only 68% of what they owed me, 90 days after it was due I would be out of business sharpish too.

Wonga. Wronga?

Today I had the television on in the background while I did some chores around the house and an advert for Wonga caught my eye.  Wonga is a loan company who specialise in relatively low value, very short term loans.  It wasn’t the product which caught my eye – but the eye-watering APR of their products: typically 2689%.  Yep, 2689%.  Wow!

I tweeted about how this was nearly 100x more than my (fairly high APR) credit card.  It turns out that Wonga have a rep on Twitter – WongaWoman.  She replied and explained that their loans are v short term, so I thought I would do a bit of research.

They have a page on their website which is dedicated to explaining why their APR looks so ridiculously high. It goes in to detail about how APR is an annual indication, and that they feel it is unfair to use an annual indication as a comparison, when essentially the products (theirs & a standard loan) aren’t the same.  I sort of agree, but they are obliged to state their APR because of the law, and it does show that if you borrowed this money over a year it would be incredibly expensive.

Credit where it’s due.

To their credit they are very upfront about how much it costs to borrow their money (they give a total repayment figure before you take out loan), and they seem a robust responsible lending policy which sees the amount available to you rise as you use the service.  They are also filling in a gap in the banking sector where the big retail banks don’t operator.  In addition they make a donation to a poverty fighting organisation (Kiva) for every loan they process.  They have one numerous industry awards too by the looks of it; and given their response it’s not like they are trying to hide.

Extortion or Bad APR?

In the wake of the credit crisis many questions were asked about the lending practices of the banks, and more about “payday” loan companies and similar.  There was even moves by several members of parliament to put an absolute maximum APR into law, they cited sample APRs which were not dissimilar to the rate which Wonga charges; and they called it extortion.

Is it really Extortion, or is APR just not a good comparator for these type of loans which do have a different feature set and audience to traditional bank loans?  If we did have a law to stop extortionists and it were to be based on APR how could we still allow legitimate and upfront businesses like Wonga to operate?  Or should we allow lending with such high APRs…

Good News For Pilots?

But not in Europe!

For several years now there has been a massive slow down in pilot recruitment, I am talking mainly fixed wing because they make up the most of the market.  This has been brought about by the aftermath of 9/11, and then the global economic downturn.

Getting a job as an airline pilot is a very hard game for what is known as an ‘ab-initio’ pilot (someone with no experience) at the moment, because there is a glut of pilots with experience who are out of work.

The normal “route” to a commercial flying job in the UK / EU (and this holds true for rotary too generally) is to get your private licence, hour build, do your exams for commercial, get your commercial licence, hour build, get your instructors rating, hour build, get a job with airline!

This costs an awful lot of money, and some airlines (generally the Low Cost operators) have been making it harder with some questionable employment practices involving agency employment and loans etc; and by making new pilots pay for their own type rating onto large jets (Boeing 737 / Airbus A320) – and they have been able to get away with this because there are more potential pilots than jobs.

Times, they be a changing.

Pilot Training
Get One While You Can!

Last week Boeing released some research, which is covered by the BBC, suggesting that over the next 20 years the airline industry would need to recruit 500,000 new pilots (and another 450,000 engineers too) to support the developing demand for pilots from Asia, especially China.

The even better news (for pilots and wannabe pilots) from Europe & USA is that Boeing thinks its unlikely that Asia will have the infrastructure in place to train these pilots themselves and so will have to recruit from abroad.

Recruiting pilots from “western” countries has been a hallmark of growing aviation markets; they like to bring in the experience and then use that to develop their own people.  I have flown with airlines like Emirates, for example, who often have an ex-pat Captain and a local First Officer as crew.  This works out well, because knowledge is passed on and over time I am sure the local pilots will rise to be Captains.

So… it could be a good time to get into flying?

Sample Tax Disc

Tax Discs – Not Worth The Paper They’re Printed On

A couple of things have got me thinking about this antiquated piece of paper lately.

For those reading from abroad I should first explain that a “tax disc” is a round piece of paper which is displayed on every vehicle in the UK, to show that the Vehicle Excise Duty (road tax) has been paid for that vehicle, and when it expires.  In cars it is displayed in the bottom passenger side of the window, and on bikes it is affixed to the vehicle somewhere.

Not needed…

This post was prompted by the fact that when I was recently stopped by the local police they totally failed to notice that I wasn’t displaying one.  Obviously, I have paid my tax – however the tax disc holder fell off my motorcycle within 10 miles of owning it (it was badly affixed).  The dealer is supposed to have replaced it, and that is my defence to the crime of “failing to display a VED disc.”

Now, the two traffic police officers could have failed to check for it because it’s almost technically impossible for my bike to not be taxed owing to the fact it is less than 1 year old and you have to tax a motorbike for 1 year when you register it.  (There is the technical possibility I have sent it back for a refund I suppose!).

More likely though, they knew my bike was correctly taxed (and insured / registered etc) before they even stopped me because the ANPR camera in their car had read my registration plate and checked it on the Police National Computer.  So they didn’t need to look for it.  Making it pointless.


Why can’t we do away with this unsightly piece of paper in my window and the expense of printing them (they have some anti-counterfeiting features), distributing them and replacing them every year.  I renew my car tax online, and will do the same with my bike – the government database is updated immediately.  Even if I chose to tax my car at a Post Office the government database is updated overnight – then I am given a disc and a receipt.  Would a receipt not be enough?

We could even opt in to have the reminder sent by email – perhaps with a paper reminder if you failed to re-tax by the due date (just in case).

Oh, and if you do let the one you have expire and don’t tell the DVLA you have taken the vehicle off the public highway then they will use their electronic records to send you an automated £80 fine, in addition to the duty remaining payable.  They’ll even take you to court if you continually fail to pay.

So, if we can buy one electronically, the police check them electronically, and DVLA enforce the actual duty electronically,  why do we need them?  You can even check yourself online – if you know the registration and make of a vehicle you can check on the DirectGov website as to the status of that cars tax.   I just can’t see a reason for keeping them?

The Exceptions.

VED Exempt
VED Exempt

The other thing which got me thinking about it was the exceptions to the regime.  You very rarely see them, but vehicles being operated by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Custom’s are exempt VED, and display a special disc.  I saw one of these in Leamington about a month ago on a vehicle being used by the UK Borders Agency (they had a sticker in window asking not to be clamped too!!).  These would be very very easy to fraudulently copy if you were so inclined – but of course there’s no point, because the database would still show your car as untaxed.  Police would stop you, and DVLA would still fine you.

Then there is the farce of police vehicles, ambulances, fire engines and historic vehicles – none of which are subject to VED, but all of which has a piece of paper renewed every year in the front window.  Quite literally a total waste of money.

There you are then, if the new government wants a quick easy saving then how about not printed and distributing 34 million pieces of paper each year!?

HI Air

Don’t Airlines Normally Have Aircraft?

The BBC recently ran a story entitled “The Worlds Youngest Airline Boss at 17” – and it obviously caught my eye.  It’s a short video about a young man called Joseph Hayat who has set up Hayat International Airways.  While I don’t want to berate what this young man has achieved, but it is clear to me he is considerably better at courting the media than he is at running an “airline.”

The BBC really let themselves get had in here.  Hayat International Airways is not an airline.  It owns no aircraft, leases no aircraft, employs no pilots, has no Air Operators Certificate – oh and also has had no passengers. Or Customers.  By their own admission.

What it is, is a charter broker.  A middleman between an aircraft operator (with an AOC, an airline) and someone wanting to charter an aircraft.    Surely it is obvious it’s not an airline, and certainly does not operate “International Airways.”  What Mr. Hayat has done is set up a website with some pictures of planes & get some media interest; and very well done he has too – it’s certainly raised his profile.  I hope it doesn’t pan out as another Varsity Express – the over ambitious talk of a young man!

I would love to write more about this, but I am off to become the worlds youngest boss of a bank (admittedly I don’t yet have a banking licence, any money or any customers – perhaps the BBC can help me?).