Monday, 14 November 2011

The loyalty card that stretches loyalty to the limit

Membership sits at the heart of The Co-operative Group,” says the blurb. As a member of the Co-op, you get to “have a say” and enjoy a share of the profits. There are no nasty capitalist shareholders, which means all the more for the rest of us. In other words, the Co-op membership card isn’t just any old supermarket loyalty card – it’s a sign that you’re part of something special.

In October 2008, I sent off the paperwork for a Midcounties Co-op loyalty card. I was warned it might take a while, but when January 2009 rolled around and my card still hadn’t arrived, I prodded the membership department. They replied saying that there was no record of me on their system, but they could do the application over email. There followed an exchange where I tried to extract an apology for my four-month wait from the employee who was dealing with my case, a young man called Matthew Isoo. He steadfastly refused to either

a) apologise,
b) acknowledge that I was asking for an apology, or
c) use any punctuation.

In February 2009, my membership card finally arrived and I could start collecting points. As you might expect, a Midcounties Co-op membership card gives you points for spending at the Co-op, and those points turn into rewards. At the time I was living in a small village where the main food shop was a Co-op, so they were getting a lot of my money and I thought it would be nice to get something back. And without greedy capitalist shareholders, the Co-op can afford to give something back – oh yeah, I’ve done this bit.

So I carried on spending. Then one day I noticed that my points total had been reset to zero. All my points earned up to July 2009 had been converted to vouchers. I’d already seen how slowly the Co-op moves, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that those vouchers were scheduled to arrive during November 2009. But I’d moved house and I didn’t want the vouchers to go to my old address! I’d spent months and a lot of hard-earned cash accruing those points!

I contacted the Midcounties Co-op membership department to give them my new address. Yes, they could update the address on their system, and no, the vouchers hadn’t gone out yet. So, I said, since I’ve contacted you in time, you’ll be able to send them to my new address?

It took four days and two people to give me the answer “No.” But why not? I thought they might find a multiple-choice question easier to answer, so I suggested:
You can't send them to my new address because...

  1. The envelopes were printed weeks ago and have been sitting on somebody's desk all that time, and you can't possibly print a new envelope now.

  2. You need to go through your "security" procedures to confirm that I really have moved house and I'm not the victim of some master criminal who wants to steal my Co-op vouchers.

  3. Both of the above?

Lisa Hughes, Member Benefits Manager, replied:

When we do a voucher mailing it goes out to over 150 000 people. The actual printing and production of the vouchers, magazine and everything that goes in the pack take around 2 months. This is why we are not able to change 1 record in that file of 150k once the process has started.

If the vouchers have not reached you (not sure if you have your mail forwarded from your old address) by 14th December, please get in touch with us and we can arrange for compensation of the lost vouchers.

I responded:

So it's a little bit of option 1 and a little bit of option 3: your business processes are so non-agile and slow that you need two months' notice to be sure of getting the right address on an envelope.
I have set up mail forwarding from my old address, but your mailing is exquisitely timed to arrive in the one-day window between me handing over the keys to the house and the postal redirect beginning. All the other organisations on my long list for address updates were perfectly capable of updating my details in time for any future mailings, which is why I foolishly thought that even the Co-op might manage this. (My address update list includes the National Union of Journalists, which has thousands of members but still managed to update my details in time to send me the bi-monthly union magazine.)
Mind you, I must say it's nice to actually get a response to a query out of the Midcounties Co-op for once. But it says a lot about your business that it took over two working days to get a simple answer to a simple question, and that the administrator I originally emailed couldn't answer it himself but had to drag in his supervisor. Still, I suppose he's a lot more polite and competent than Matthew Isoo.

Nobody bothered replying to my little outbreak of petulance. I duly put a note in my calendar for December to contact them if the vouchers didn’t arrive.

Of course the vouchers didn’t arrive. I wrote to Customer Services again in mid-January 2010:

...You therefore asked me to contact you again for compensation if I hadn't received [the vouchers] by mid-December. Well, of course I haven't bloody received them; as you know perfectly well, they were sent to the wrong address. But you refused to send anything to my new address until I'd contacted you a second time to confirm this.
I am therefore writing again to ask you to please send compensation to the correct address...

Four days later, I hadn’t had a reply. I tried again, with an email that ended:

...Are you going to send my vouchers out or are you going to continue ignoring me and thereby force me to make a complaint?

Clearly the Midcounties team were going for the latter, because they ignored that email too. I waited until February, to be absolutely sure they weren’t just being slow. Then I found the personal email address of the Midcounties Co-op’s chief executive and emailed him with a more concise version of the whole sorry tale.

My email began

Are you aware of how bad your Member Communications team is?
and ended
Although I have spent plenty of money in your shops and accrued hundreds of points, I will never receive any reward for my loyalty because your staff were too incompetent to send my vouchers to the correct address and too lazy to respond to any of my messages. What, precisely, is the point of becoming a member of the Midcounties Co-op? It's been a lot of hard work for absolutely no reward.
I should make it clear that not once throughout this period have I received anything resembling an apology from any member of your Member Communications team. Nor have I seen any sign that they understand why I am frustrated with their incompetence.

That did the trick. Within hours I had a very concerned phone call from Di Bateman, the membership manager, and we had a long chat. She told me she’d been through the emails on the system and was appalled at what she’d seen. She apologised profusely and told me that as a result of my experience, they would be overhauling their systems to make sure that kind of thing never happened again. Matthew Isoo would be receiving “retraining” and there would be a new system in place so that an email never went unanswered for more than a set period of time.

She explained that my spending that year might not actually have been enough to qualify me for any vouchers anyway, but that someone should have explained this to me. They sent me a £20 Co-op voucher just to say sorry.

I was delighted. Delighted that I’d succeeded in getting this incompetent but ultimately well-meaning organisation to permanently change its systems for the better. Delighted that someone was listening, and she'd actually said sorry!

Sadly, the postscript to this happy tale isn’t so good. Summer 2010 rolled around and I still didn’t get any vouchers, which seemed odd given that I’d bought home insurance through the Midcounties Co-op as well as using their pharmacy and making the occasional grocery shop. I figured it was because we’d moved out of the village and were mostly doing our food shopping elsewhere.

Then summer 2011 rolled around and I still hadn’t received any vouchers. My husband, who shops there roughly as much as I do, received a nice bundle of vouchers plus a magazine. I was starting to get suspicious. Surely even if I hadn’t earned many points they would still have sent me the nice fluffy magazine, right?

In November 2011 I contacted the membership department again, just to confirm that they had the right address for me. My message ended:

I don't quite see the point of a loyalty scheme where I get absolutely nothing after three years of membership. Could you look into this?

They looked my details up on the system. And guess what? IT WAS MY OLD ADDRESS. After two-and-a-bit years, multiple complaints, a direct message to the chief executive and the overhaul of their internal systems, the Midcounties Co-op membership department still hadn’t actually succeeded in updating my address details.

They didn’t offer to compensate me for all the vouchers that have gone to my old address, though they did offer to send me the value of the most recent voucher issue – a princely £4.

That £4 is my total reward for nearly three years’ membership. It’s my reward for persisting with my membership application after they lost it. It’s my reward for spending almost all my grocery budget at the Co-op over a period of years. It’s my reward for using their pharmacies, for taking out their home and contents insurance (and renewing it twice).

Not really enough, is it?


  1. I fear that - as is often the case - such ill-feeling is aroused due to ignorance rather than malice.

    Every link in the customer service chain needs a degree of competency, and it tends to get applied more assiduously in more 'capitalist' companies (i.e. incompetents are given short shrift and made to leave).

    It seems - and this is more supposition than backed up with evidence - companies and organisations with a social conscience seem more capable of a shambles than multinational corporations, and the bigger they are, the worse it gets...

    I'm happy to be proved wrong..

  2. @cacophonyx

    I take your point about fluffy/ethical organisations often being more disorganised and hopeless than their lean, mean capitalist counterparts (though I could name a LOT of profit-driven multinationals who are just as incompetent). But as for "ignorance", I think once a problem has been pointed out to your organisation multiple times, you can't use ignorance as a defence any more. Poor systems for handling feedback? Yes. Ignorance/naivety? No.

  3. I have midcounties card that I tried to link with my new adress two addresses ago. Perhaps I should try again!

    Acacophonyx - I work for a fluffy / ethical organisation that is more organised and less hopeless than our lean, mean capitalist counterparts. Yes, I think it is a supposition based on anecdata.

    As we're in the business of anecdata, though, that's fair enough.

  4. Anecdata is a word of which I was hitherto unaware - I shall use it (more often than not about something I have done/written :D)

  5. 2013 ,,,,and my problems and concerns echo those above ,fact no one is interested in any form of help in this company ,am left wondering why become a member when there is no reward ,pointless ..

  6. I think once a problem has been pointed out to your organisation multiple times, you can't use ignorance as a defence any more. Compass Claims is a huge name which is providing insurance services in all sectors.