Wednesday, 20 July 2011

City-1 circle of hell

My bike was stolen.  This meant that I either had to walk the three miles into work or take the bus.

I tried walking - this is a slow process of returning myself to the fitness I had four years ago - but the three miles in and the three miles out in one day killed me the first time I tried it.  Yes, I know it gets better eventually, but I decided to return to the bus in the morning and walk back in the evening, for a short while, anyway. 

So, I'm back on the morning bus after an absence of about five weeks.  In the meantime, due to the withdrawal of government subsidy, as I understand it, the Cambridge City-4 has withdrawn all stopping on Milton Road.  I take the City-1, the bus travelling into the centre a spoke widdershins from where the City-4 used to go.  Here's a map.  People who would formerly have gone for buses going up and down the Milton Road are now walking that little bit further to the City-1 bus route, and this includes the kids whose parents have sent them to England 'for the summer'.

One of the reasons that Cambridge is so rich is the shameless trading on the Cambridge brand that goes on in the name of education; Cambridge is not the only city that does this.  Oxford also sells the 'Oxford brand'.  Anyway, there are a hundred and one language schools, all promising a very special education, all shovelling the kids in for a week or several weeks, parcelling them out to various homes in the suburbs around the centre, promising them a real English experience, taking their money and sending them home.  I'm sure the teaching is fine, but it all seems like a bit of a factory and (I imagine) a very profitable one.  Here's an example.  If you look at the bottom, there they are - the one to ten week summer courses.  Here's how much it costs the kids: Over a thousand dollars a week, including accomodation. 

I've just had a leaflet through my door asking if I want to host a kid.  I'd imagine that I'd get about a hundred pounds a week for that - the rest of the fees will go to paying for the teachers, the cost of the site on which the courses are held, the cost of the materials (how much does talking cost?), and the remainder will be profit for the owner of the language school.   It's likely that there are 15 - 20 kids in each class; that's close to $20, 000 ( and nearer to $25,000 per week if the class is around 20) for each class of kids. 

The teacher maybe gets mayb £600 - £700 a weak, if we're being generous. 

There are incidentals in hiring the teacher legitimately - NI, and possibly a pension - but these won't push the cost of the teacher over £1000 a week.  The exchange rate varies, but at $2.00 to £1.00 (and it's often fewer dollars per pound), that still leaves $23,000 to pay for the site and materials.  Very profitable, I'd imagine.

And yet, these English Language schools use the subsidised (or not-so subsidised) council transport to 'add value' to their courses.  How much of their profit does the council see?  Apart from the VAT on the money the poor kids spend in the shops and spent by the homes in which they stay (which goes to the government, anyway), none.

These kids get to travel on 'English public transport' from their 'lodgings' surrounding the city centres to their 'schools' in the centre, and they have to pay.  Typically, their first 'English' act is to get on the bus their first day here, and ask for a 'Megarider?' uncertainly, the uplift at the end indicating that this is the first  time they've said the word. 

The kid will then scrabble around for payment for this Megarider, usually producing a £20.00 note, not understanding why the bus driver looks frustrated and the people behind them in the queue are tapping their feet.  Very often, the kid will have a long and studious and 'responsible' discussion with the bus driver as to where they should get off. Meanwhile, the normal commuters are seething.

All of this describes things that we should tolerate.  They're kids.  They don't know what to do or what are the social norms.  They're unaware of themselves holding up a commuter route at commuting time.  They're in a strange land.  I've been at a bus stop when a bus too full to take passengers has whizzed past, and while the English natives looked a bit cross and cursed, the English language kids looked a bit worried; I chucked them into the taxi I'd called to get me into the centre on time.  It's what their parents would have wanted, or I would have wanted, had they been my children. 

What's happening now, however, with the killing of the Milton Road bus route, is that every morning there are about seven or eight English language kids at each bus stop for the City-1, meaning that each stop is extended up to five minutes while the driver sorts them out. Meanwhile, the passengers waiting at the next stop get more numerous in number, many of those at the next stop being English language kids, and the wait at the next stop increases, as do the cries for help.

Does the driver get any money for this help he gives the kids?  No.  He's more likely to be penalised for his bus being late.

Do those of his passengers who are ordinary commuters get anything to compensate them for their lateness to work and the overtime they will have to do to compensate?  No. They have to make the time up at the other end of the day.

I stress:  It is not the kids' fault.  They don't know what's happening, and actually they get more flack than they should from the other passengers for 'standing in the wrong place' (e.g. the stairs) or 'talking too loudly in a foreign language' (which is kind of thoughtless, but these are kids).

I do, however, think that the language schools are ripping these kids off, and making the rest of us (and the Stagecoach bus drivers) deal with problems that the language schools should be sorting out.  The lack of concern from the language schools causes these kids to be seen as an irritant, generally. Decent language schools, who really do intend to offer the kids a good experience, really should do something to stop these kids inconveniencing everybody else who uses the buses.

Firstly, I have *no idea* why the language schools are incapable of running their own buses through the various suburbs.  They only need to do it once or twice a day, and they'd be able to get the kids safely to the schools, reassuring the parents that they are being properly looked after.

If the language schools can't do that, they should be able to subsidise Stagecoach, and should be asked by the council to do so.  They earn massive profits, and are perfectly able to join together to run an extra bus or two around the crucial time in the morning around the months of June - August. 

Finally, if the schools can't pay for or run extra buses, there is one very simple thing that they could arrange to make life more amenable for those who share the public transport with the language school kids and give the kids a better experience.  I'm not being finicky here - traffic on the City-1 is at least double what it is the rest of the year between 7.45 and 8.45 a.m. when the language school kids are here, and at times the buses have been dangerously overloaded and taken double the time to get into the centre.

The language schools could send these kids pre-issued Megariders. Just that one thing, for all of its miniscule cost, could at least make sure that the buses stay on time, even if they are overloaded.  How difficult would that be?

I wish CCC would get some balls on this issue.  Make the language schools pay their way here, and give those kids (and those who share the buses with them) a better experience.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Fill em up dot com

Annifrangipani writes

"On Saturday we decided to drive to Nottingham, to celebrate my friend Julia's 30th birthday. So, a long car journey. It was her birthday on Sunday, which is the same as my partner's, so I thought it would be nice if we got a hotel room and then hung out in Notts on Sunday.

My week had been really horrible, so, when I booked on Wednesday via laterooms, I booked the Hilton. Pricey yes, but you get what you pay for, don't you?

No, you don't ...

Here's the email I wrote in complaint:

I made this booking at the Hilton Nottingham on 29th June for the Saturday night of 2nd July for two adults in a double room. On arrival to the hotel we checked and went to our room. It had only a single bed in it. We returned to the reception and they said we had been booked into a "three quarter room" and they would reduce the rate we had paid. I was perplexed as the bed appeared to be too small for two adults but the receptionist seemed convinced it was acceptable to expect us to share this room. We returned to the room and realised that this was not a three quarters bed, but a standard single and there was no way that a) we would be able to share it and b) why would we pay to share a bed less than half the size of our bed at home? Again, we went to reception and were informed that there were no other rooms for us and there was nothing they could do. It had been a long day, we were hot and tired and decided it would be simpler to just return home, rather than continue trying to find a room that was suitable. I did get my money back but obviously, we are very disappointed that we had to return home. People coming from greater distances would not be in this position and I don't see why we should have paid for an unsuitable room. Is this standard practice for the Hilton change? I am shocked that such a prestigious hotel chain have this policy and recommend you only sell rooms that can accommodate the number of people booked into it properly.

And here's the reply:

Thank you for contacting Guest Assistance in regards to your stay at Hilton Nottingham. Please accept my sincerest apologies for the inconveniences you experienced while at that property. I have forwarded your comments directly over to the hotel. It is Hilton’s policy to allow our hotels the opportunity to get involved to resolve any problems. Please allow 72 business hours for these matters to be addressed. "

My comment:

When people book through laterooms dot com, they're expecting what they buy to be what is advertised.  It's unacceptable to treat the people who use last minute websites to get treats that they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford as if they were lesser citizens.  Remember - these are often people on their way up.

Friday, 1 July 2011


I spilt tea over my laptop.  This wasn't your ordinary tea, though; this was your aspirational blackberry and ginseng tea, with extra ionic content.  I switched the laptop off immediately, but didn't realise, when trying to switch it on again the next day, that a blackberry-and-ginseng puddle of concentrated ions had gathered under the battery and not dried out.  I think that laptop's dead, now.

So, because, for various reasons I had been thinking about getting a new laptop, anyway, I went straight to Morgans, using the other laptop I have set up as a juke box that is / was (at the time) only a little broken.  Look.  I like computers and I like to have at least two working(ish) versions in the house at the same time.

Morgans came up trumps and I ordered the workhorse I was after; I really intend to keep it lean and clean this time.  Promisingly, the website said that the order would be despatched the next working day (this was to be Monday).  Happily, it would only cost £6.00 or so.  Worryingly, there was no way that I could indicate the day that I could be in, or indicate that I would like it delivered on a Saturday, even at extra cost.

So, I figured the laptop would be delivered on Tuesday.  I figured they would deposit a card, and they usually give you two attempts.  I could collect the card, then phone up and arrange delivery for Friday (that I already, fortuitously, had decided to take off).  That would work.

I cycled home, through the thundery Cambridge afternoon; no 'while you were out' card, and by this time the other laptop had gone into a state of sulk (which I have now coaxed it from, but that's another story) (Function F7; that's all I'm saying).  Never mind.  The plan to phone to arrange a second delivery on Friday is still possible, I thought to myself, and anyway Luther is on.

I arrived home on Wednesday to find two 'while you were out' cards on the doormat; one from Wednesday, and one from Tuesday that definitely hadn't been delivered on Tuesday.  I was furious. 

I emailed Morgan Computers to point out that they were employing a bunch of liars to deliver their stuff, and that one of the reasons I went to Morgan Computers was because of their demonstratable reliability and value for money; they were sort of blowing this if, for the sake of having a very low delivery fee, they employed a company whose ethics meant that a single person like me is very likely going to have to pay twenty quid or upwards in petrol and depreciation costs to drive to a depot 40 miles away to pick up the goods on what was otherwise to be a lovely day cycling into the Fen to look at the gravestones of some dead Americans because the employed company lies about how many deliveries it had made, and when, and that this would undermine their reputation.

Morgans, lovely people, emailed me back the next day (Thursday) to say "Very Sorry, we'll return the delivery charge", which ameliorated the situation somewhat, but not before I had been into the City-Link website to try and complain to them as well.

Firstly, when I looked for contact numbers on the City-Link website, or a way to complain, there was nothing at all.  The one number available sent you to a voice-robot, who insisted that I only had two options 1. to rearrange delivery and 2. to pick the parcel up from the depot.  I did try option 1., only to be told that I had already had my two deliveries, and so I had to pick it up from the depot; that I had no other choices. 

Obviously, I had had no such thing.  I had two cards delivered on one day, one puporting to be a card from the day before.  I was pretty furious at this point, actually.  This is possibly why City-Link has no complain button; it's scared of being overwhelmed with moans.  HOWEVER I had paid money for a service, and that service was not being provided.

I then inputted the delivery code to the website.  The tracking section showed that a delivery had been attempted on the Tuesday (it hadn't), and the Wednesday (when, presumably, the two cards had been delivered).  Strangely enough, it showed that the parcel had already been put onto a delivery vehicle for what I assume City-Link were trying to pass off as a third attempt at delivery (even though it was only the second attempt).

Because the website and the City-Link records said that I already had had my two delivery attempts, I was not allowed to opt for a third delivery attempt on Friday, when I would (probably) be in.  All I could do was to say that I would pick the parcel up from the depot.

Do you know of the eeriness and impenetrability of the Petersborough backlands that the City-Link depot calls home?  Be thankful that you don't.

Having strolled across the carless depot wasteland to find, eventually, the right hole-in-the-wall, I asked if I could make a complaint.  A very nice lady dashed away, and a rotund, jocular gentleman shortly took her place.  I explained the problem and that I thought that the driver in question may well have tried to deliver the first day, but had probably forgotten the card,  which was why he deposited two cards on the second dayt, but that was of no help to me as I had no notice of the first delivery, and that he was probably trying to do the right thing, with his third delivery, but that because of the way that the website algorithm worked, by this time, I was stuffed for arranging delivery on a day when I could be in.  He nodded, and said in a jocularly stern voice that he would speak to the driver in question.  I left, mollified that I had been taken seriously, but still very frustrated.

Because, you see, if the driver did make a mistake, forgetting to give me the card the first day, the City-Link systems are not set up to deal with a genuine (and probably all too-plausible) mistake by their employees.  Nobody is perfect.  A good company tries to ensure that makes don't happen by supporting their staff when they are new and making them feel secure enough so that they can admit mistakes when they happen, in the expectation that, as a result of the contract of loyalty, the staff make their best effort.

A good company certainly makes it possible for their customers to complain easily when normal circumstances have gone awry, for whatever reason.  City-Link appears to be doing none of these things.  I couldn't speak to anyone using the information given on the website and the delivery card.  I suspect that whoever delivered the two cards on the one day would like to have been able not to have appeared to try and deliver on the first day; his mistake locked me out of the system and make me unable to opt for a better date for a productive second or third attempt, and I suspect that he was unable to tell anyone that this mistake had happened for fear of being sacked.  Anyway, I ended up begging jocular gentleman not to sack this driver but rather to ask the management to take a look at their systems.

The point, or the moral, or something, being:  The systems for a company should be able to catch an individual employees mistake; the management of a company should not be so inflexible or inhumane as to prevent an employee admitting that they have made a mistake and allowing the company to deal with the results of that mistake, and the company should really have systems in place that make it easy for the customers to communicate with them; if that company has good systems in place and good employee / manager relationships then that company need not fear being overwhelmed by the information coming down any 'complaints' line.

City Link Fail: three stars out of five.  The excellent response when I asked to complain in person is what stops this from being a four or five star consumer FAIL.  City Link Website, however gets a five out five for FAIL.  Sort it out, delivery dudes.

The restless consumer

Hello.  This is a blog about consumer experiences.   If you want to let off steam about this Madison Avenue world, email me with your rant and your blogger or otherwise handles that you wish me to use for the post, and I will probably post it. I reserve the right to edit for readability; if you want something published unedited and it's unreadable, then I probably won't publish it.

I don't mean to sound forbiddingly stern, though! In truth, I'm nice and cuddly and if I have to edit I'll do it with velvet gloves. It seems to me that a blog with a whole bunch of consumer experiences published in the same place may provide some very useful anecdata for anyone browsing by, and that anecdata may end up improving our various services and industries. I'd really like people to email me with whatever they have.