The current snowy weather has exposed one of the most insidious aspects of how cheapskate companies have exploited the internet in the last decade or so — by outsourcing customer service to the customers themselves.

In normal circumstances, this can be quite empowering — rather than have to phone up a call centre or turn up in person the customer can cut out the intermediary and access information more directly. The classic example is travel — now everyone can access an airline or tour operator’s systems via the web rather than have to go into a high street travel agency. This also demonstrates why the internet isn’t really in itself such a paradigm-shifting technology — all it has really done is connect the devices that people use personally (computers and now phones and other innovations) with the commercial systems that organisations have been using internally to run their businesses since the 1970s or 80s.

In many call centre or customer service situations the person you interact with is really just there as a conduit to access the IT systems — and in the vast majority of cases this can be made user-friendly enough for a customer to do themselves over the web. And customers can now access information that previously wouldn’t have been cost-effective to pay employees to give out — like where exactly your train is meant to be on the line.

Even the likes of Twitter and Facebook aren’t really new — messaging services and bulletin boards have been in existence on private systems for decades.

Online shopping is an odd mixture between new technology and antidiluvian business processes — as Amazon and others have been discovering, parcel delivery is their Achilles heel. I’ve ordered Christmas presents from Amazon that, according to their whizzy, integrated tracking feature, have stayed in the Royal Mail’s distribution centre in Scotland since 9th December (12 days now).

No wonder Amazon tried to grow as big as quickly as it could because its basic business proposition is very unoriginal and easily copied — basically plugging web browsers into wholesalers’ catalogues. There’s little difference between Amazon’s bookshop and the old-style book clubs that offered members 4 books for £1 — just a more interactive catalogue.

Amazon has also set a very bad precedent in trying to handle all its customer service online. Phone numbers disappeared off their site as soon as they got big enough as a company to afford not to care too much about their customers. When they first started off in the UK around 1997, Amazon’s customer service was brilliant — I got several unsolicited free gifts. Try and contact them these days and all you get is some auto-generated reply and if you try and get something more personal you may be lucky and get an e-mail a few days later from someone in India with a very vague understanding of the problem.

In fact, every time I try to contact Amazon they annoy me so much that I don’t know why carry on using them. In fact I do — they’re cheap and their competitors, such as Waterstones, often can’t get their act together. I had a reading list of books to buy for a course and wanted to get them from Waterstones but their website kept being unavailable at the time.

Amazon has plainly gone for cost leadership and size — and if it’s customer service is irritating then it’s usually only some goods that have gone missing.

Plenty of cheap-skate companies inspired by penny-pinching, unimaginative managements have tried to use the internet principally as a means of cutting their own costs — thinking technology is a clever wheeze that would allow them to get the customer to do unpaid work that their own staff used to do. They can get away with this when processes are simple and straightforward but when things go wrong then this cynical attitude to the customer is ruthlessly exposed.

So airlines like BA have been encouraging passengers to use their own labour and materials to check-in and print out boarding passes so they can eliminate check-in desks at the airports and the staff that man them. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Willie Walsh and his band of asset strippers that an airline, unlike Amazon, doesn’t just dispatch packages — it transports people — and these people need information, require food and accommodation when delayed and become very upset when they don’t get either and are piled up in airport lounges like a pile of delayed mail in a sorting office.

Also, pointing people to the web to get information in emergencies is useless because companies, both for reasons of cost and security, only expose the simplest and most straightforward functions of their IT systems via the internet. In a shop or call centre there’s almost always an ability to over-ride the simplest rules on the system — to allow a discount or impose a refund for example — because the company has given someone the authority to act with that discretion. This can’t be done in a self-service way.

So for complex interactions with its systems, a company always needs to have staff — but, because the vast majority of sales can often come online, these staff are seen as a necessary evil as they incur cost rather than generate revenue. Therefore they try and employ as few as possible.

BA asking its customers to rebook online is plainly ridiculous for a customer-facing business — how can customers self-prioritise their needs — for example distinguishing between passengers stuck in transit at Heathrow for four days as opposed to tourists jetting off for a bit of winter sun? Also many IT systems that are aimed at customers don’t get updated quickly enough to reflect exceptional operational circumstances — Chiltern Railways (who are way better at customer services than most train operators) were running an emergency timetable yesterday that bore no relation to that on the National Rail website.

People make the most ridiculous claims about the internet and the web and say how much it has changed everything — in the area of customer service I’d agree that it has had a big transformational effect — for the worse.

A Nutty Report

The BBC gave huge publicity today to a study in the Lancet that supposedly compared the harm done inflicted by various ‘drugs’. As it was co-authored by Professor David Nutt and his ‘Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs’ it will be no surprise to anyone that alcohol is the worst drug by a long way.

It seems the BBC will jump in ecstasy to report any supposed scientific ‘facts’ about alcohol but most reasonable and scientifically literate observers should now realise that these neo-prohibitionists are overstating their case so much they’re now discrediting themselves.

How is it that they can  possibly equate the harm of alcohol usage with that of heroin and crack cocaine when the vast majority of the population of the UK use alcohol without inflicting any harm whatsoever on the rest of society? Because for the simple reason that more people use alcohol in aggregate.  What kind of scientific logic is this? When interviewed on Radio 2 today Nutt readily accepted the equivalent argument, based on his premise, that knives cause far more harm to society than guns — their ready availability might mean they are implicated in more crimes overall than guns but is that an argument for removing them from everyone’s kitchen?

There are valid points to be made about alcohol abuse and (proper) binge drinking but this study is such a lightweight piece of self-re-inforcing prejudice that it’s surprising that it ever got published in The Lancet. If I understand the BBC report correctly then it’s just a weighted model of the subjective opinions of a group of self-selected experts.

I wouldn’t like to live in a society where the numbers of people using crack cocaine and alcohol were reversed. It seems the last home secretary was right to dismiss Professor Nutt as he’s clearly a man with his own agenda. As a Daily Telegraph report from last year showed he is not without his own person interest in this debate — they report he’s working on a commercial alcohol substitute.

Of course, we wouldn’t expect the government to protest too much at shoddy statistical prejudice declaiming the evils of drink — they stand to cut a substantial amount of deficit by taxing our sin. It’s a shame that the actions of the likes of Nutt, by providing a supposed justification for higher duty, might cause responsible alcohol consumption in pubs to be endangered in favour of supermarket tinnies of wifebeater — but that’s what perhaps they’d like to see more of?

Know-Nothing Idiots

This could be applied to the England players as well but is more appropriate to all the idiotic pundits whose collective self-loathing of themselves and the country immediately emerges after the sort of disaster that England suffered yesterday.

People are queuing up on phone-ins and message boards to come out with garbage along the lines of England produces inherently technically poor players who are only motivated by money. Total bollocks. Admittedly, Capello committed professional suicide by selecting some poor (Johnson, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Milner, Upson), underconfident (Green, Carrick, Heskey) and unfit (Rooney, King) players — and in the case of Barry a combination of all of those. Capello also made some idiotic team selections and substitutions.

Nevertheless, players like Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard, Cashley Cole, Lennon and Terry (and perhaps some others) are the among the best players in teams that include players who have shone in the World Cup. Brazil and Argentina contain players who are good but not head and shoulders above those they have played with in the Premier League — Heinze, Tevez, Gilberto Silva — and some who weren’t even good enough for Man City — Elano, Ronaldinho.

To say England as a whole lack technical ability is rubbish. Everything about the performance was psychological. The players were mentally weak — capitulating easily because, for some reason, they lacked any confidence. The defence was nervous and panicky, sat way too deep and the midfield dropped back accordingly — leaving the two up front isolated. There was no organisation or leadership on the field and certain players have to be held personally responsible — Gerrard’s performance looked like panic personified — he hit about three shots from long range in total alarm at having the ball anywhere near the goal.

And anyone who thinks the appointment of that referee — who has past form for exactly the same ‘errors’ — was just unfortunate chance is either totally naive or, like almost all football journalists, part of a self-preserving conspiracy to maintain the illusion at all costs of results being determined solely by honest endeavour on the pitch.

Rabbits in the Headlights

Even the day afterwards, I’m stunned by the level of incompetence shown by England against Algeria. I’d watched the USA comeback against Slovenia and was encouraged that a win against Algeria and just a draw with Slovenia would ensure qualification provided Algeria could be beaten by two clear goals (more than they’d lost by to Slovenia).

I’d also thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the Hop Pole on Thursday night and watching the imploding France side being dismantled by Mexico. But England were even worse…

It’s difficult to think of a worse performance that I’ve seen by any team ever — even when non-league teams play Premiership teams in cup games or the champions of Andorra or Lichtenstein play in the qualifying stages of the Champions League.

For most of the match England could neither pass the ball nor retain it — countless times the Algerian players stepped in and dispossessed the likes of Heskey, Lennon, Lampard, Johnson and, worst of all, Rooney. There were also staggering displays of cowardice and loss of nerve — most particularly from Gerrard who a few times had the sort of opportunity that he regularly buries for Liverpool. Three of the team came from Liverpool — who’ve had their worst season in many years and lost a shocking number of matches. Surprisingly the right hand side of the defence was from Liverpool who conceded the third lowest number of goals last season and the left was from Chelsea, who shipped second least — Man Utd let in the lowest number which makes one wonder why Wes Brown was left behind. He couldn’t have been any worse than Carragher. Neither Carragher or Terry have any pace so they committed the classic England mistake of defending too deep and stretching the team. (How many offsides were there? Not many.) This leads to all sorts of sins, particularly defenders aimlessly hoofing the ball forward.

Barry played so deep as to be a sweeper so with Gerrard supposedly out left and Lennon isolated on the right we were left to Fat Frank to be the midfield — something that would be a challenge for him even in his Chelsea form. As it was, the game totally passed him by. He’s got to be dropped for the next match — accommodating this perpetual international level underachieved totally disrupts the team.

Rooney even said on television that he’d rather play as the only true forward and here was the proof he was right — Heskey was clueless — even popping up on the right wing at one point. Why? It’s typical of the media to try and build up Rooney as the villain of the piece for mouthing off about the fans. I tend to think fans should boo more, especially at England. They’re paying (a lot) to be entertained and the players should be reminded who pays for their over-lavish lifestyles — but at least Rooney was showing some frustration and anger. The likes of Fat Frank were just rabbits in the headlights. At least Gerrard admitted that England were crap.

Snogging BBC3, Avoiding 6 Music, Marrying Cynicism or Idiocy

Either the top BBC management are incredibly stupid or they’re trying to be too clever by half — and, quite possibly, they’re both. Why on earth do they think that axing BBC Radio 6 and the Asian Network is a strategic course of action?

By its charter, the BBC has to primarily cover public service obligations that commercial broadcasters arguably won’t undertake but it also feels it can’t be too elitist if it’s levying a regressive tax of £130 per household for its services. Interestingly, the range of programming on channels like Sky Arts and, to a lesser extent, Classic FM and many US cable channels like HBO shows that it’s possible to produce commercial broadcasting that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence. In fact the most crass, dumbest programming that can be viewed on any remotely mainstream channel (such as on Freeview) is BBC3 — inspiration of gems like ‘F*ck Off I’m Ginger’, ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid’, patronising rubbish snippets of news presented by ‘cool’ presenters who no doubt got the job through their father’s connections down the lodge, repeats of ‘Eastenders’, various programmes where people film their genitals for an hour, ego-trip hagiographies of BBC programme makers (‘Dr Who Confidential’) and where the only half-decent programming is destined for BBC2 anyway. It’s almost entirely absolute total rubbish but is considered inviolable by the idiotic BBC management as it’s targeted at the sacred Yoof market — people who the BBC commissioners completely fail to understand despite their obsessive pursuit of the demographic. You have to end up watching Stag Party Channel on Sky at midnight on a Friday to see anything equivalently witless to the general rubbish pumped out by BBC3.

So this expensive pile of insulting crap remains untouchable whereas a couple of cheap radio stations that serve less fashionable demographics are to be wiped from the schedules. I’m not sure what the Asian Network has done to offend the BBC management so much. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it but it appears to be a more public service orientated station than its untouched equivalent — 1Extra. This would appear from its publicity to be focused on the sort of music that Radio One provides quite a substantial outlet for and pirate stations in London even more so — and it seems to address a far narrower audience than something generic like the Asian Network. 6 Music falls down because it’s meant to serve those too grown up for Radio One (surely anyone over about 13?) and those not old enough for Radio 2 (over 35s apparently). I thought the targeting of those two stations was simpler — Radio One is for single people and Radio 2 for marrieds or equivalents (just listen to any dedication that comes in on Radio 2 — it always mentions a wonderful spouse).  At heart it’s a fairly serious music station, despite being hijacked by the egos of ‘look at me I’m a rising star’ merchants like George Lamb or that Lauren Laverne,  6 Music is playing the sort of slightly less commercial music that a public service broadcaster ought to play and the last thing that should happen is it to be closed down. Radio One is far harder to justify, as is Radio Two.

People have speculated the whole thing is a cynical exercise in creating a grass-roots movement to ‘save’ 6 Music — perhaps the BBC realised that the crass stations they want to preserve like Radio One and BBC3 wouldn’t generate such almost universal sympathy and goodwill? Yet, if they’ve been cynical enough to do this, they’ve only just drawn further attention to the rubbish that they’ve been too weak to consider touching.

All I can say is that they’d better not even hint that they’re threatening BBC4.

How To Clean Up Football

In the ultimate expression of Blair’s victim culture (C)Ashley Cole is apparently now feeling ‘victimised’ after Chelsea have threatened to fine him a whole two weeks wages (a paltry £200k for him) for tarnishing the club’s image according to the Telegraph. Someone close to Cole seems to have responded by ‘linking’ Cole with Real Madrid and Barcelona — the implication being, as he revealed in his autobiography, that Chelsea ought to be grateful that he deigns to stay with them.

He’s apparently upset that the club has supported Terry in his marital problems when he’s been fined. Terry appears to have got his wife’s backing (in public at least) whereas Cole can’t really be surprised that his high-profile spouse doesn’t particularly like being made to look a fool in public. He should also remember how he’s not exactly worked hard to cultivate respect from the public either — with his famously greedy reaction reported in his autobiography to being offered ‘only’ £55,000 a week by Arsenal.

Apparently Abramovic is not too impressed with Cole’s effect on PR.

Cole isn’t even particularly popular with Chelsea fans either. Most probably wouldn’t be sad to see the back of him. Maybe the the Premier League should consider how the wider reputation of footballers has been tarnished and fine clubs in this position with a points deduction. As it’s not a first offence for either Cole or Chelsea then a 6 points would be fairly reasonable.

Best Albums of the Last 30 Years?

‘My arse,’ as Jim Royle might say.

Radio Two listeners are having to pick the supposed best album of the last 30 years out of the motley list below. Maybe the list is selected from only the people who can be bothered to turn up to receive the award at the Brits? It’s difficult to imagine a bigger bunch of crap — who on earth shortlisted this rubbish? In many cases the album isn’t even the best that the artists concerned has made.

A Rush Of Blood To The Head – Coldplay: they might be a decent band if they got a singer. I thought ‘Viva la Vida’ was ok but most of Coldplay is pretentious whining — cock rock for middle-class students.

No AngelDido: this is actually a very good album and balances the pop influences of Rick Nowells (Stevie Nicks, Belinda Carlisle) with the trip-hop influences of her brother’s band Faithless. At least with names like Dido and Rollo, they had to admit they were posh — not kids off da street like most middle-class musicians. Because of inverted snobbery by middle-class music journalists the only people who were allowed to admit they liked Dido were those who had impeccably ‘street’ credentials — like Eninem, who knew a good tune when he heard one.

Diamond Life – Sade: this one is good too. It has the mark of a good album in that some of the non-single tracks are equally memorable as those that got in the charts. It’s got a lot of period charm.

Hopes And Fears – Keane: I don’t know anything about this one or Keane, in fact, apart from their song ‘Spiralling’ was ok.

What’s The Story Morning Glory – Oasis: a load of over-hyped, third-rate bombastic imitiations of Beatles tracks

No Jacket Required – Phil Collins: unbelievable — ‘Face Value’ was genuinely an album of its time with a single that has endured (even if the drumming gorilla didn’t save Cadbury’s). ‘No Jacket Required’ was loveable geezer Phil at his showbiz worst.

The Man Who – Travis: I’m the man who can’t remember anything about Travis, let alone their supposedly brilliant album

Rockferry – Duffy: OK but largely a throwback to the 60s in musical style — is imitating 40 year old music something that makes the best album of the last 40 years. At least it isn’t Amy Winehouse.

Urban Hymns – The Verve:I bought this on cd when it first came out, listened to it once and then never bothered again. Good opening tune but wasn’t it derived from the Rolling Stones?

Brothers In Arms – Dire Straits: like the Phil Collins selection, not their best album — they did some decent stuff a few years earlier but this is stadium formula bloat-rock.

Seems like whichever nerd put the shortlist together selected their favourite album (probably Keane or Travis) and then put it up against a load of other dross to ensure it wins — while milking Radio Two listeners for phone votes. It will be interesting to see how the women artists compare. I think anyone with any independent taste should organise a Rage Against the Machine campaign to make Dido’s ‘No Angel’ the top album of the last 30 years. It’s certainly the best there but that says everything about the competition.

I’ll try and think of my own list.

‘Shock’ Swearing — How Subversive?

The Facebook campaign to make ‘Killing in the Name’ by Rage Against the Machine the Christmas number one is another demonstration of the amazingly puerile applications of internet technology and a continuing reminder of the enduring collective idiocy of the human race. (Maybe it’s appropriate that this should be shown in the run up to Christmas — a time when we should reflect and take stock.) It’s also typical of the counterproductive type of demonstration that only serves to re-inforce the importance of what is being protested against. It brings further publicity to the X-Factor and will only make Simon Cowell even more money as all Joe’s fans go out and make sure they buy the record in case he’s in danger of not making number one. (Perhaps Cowell thought up the whole stunt?)

It also makes money for the band themselves. They seem to be stuck in a timewarp where they think swearing on live radio or television is some sort of subversive act. Since Bob Geldof’s famous rant during Live Aid, which surmounted the Sex Pistol’s famous swearing a few years earlier, there have been no barriers left to push — anything else is just gratuitous. Madonna’s swearing during Live 8 was just a cheap and nasty attempt to seem ‘edgy’ and ‘dangerous’ when, in fact, it was just a desperate load of bollocks designed to make a bit of money from doing something incredibly easy.

If people want to be subversive then do something that takes genuine effort and wit — not do something that anyone else capable of speaking in English could do. Also, those who want to demonstrate how radical they are should do something that has a bit of risk attached. Once upon a time perhaps swearing might jeopardise a musician’s career. Now it’s almost expected of them. Rather than swearing they should perhaps have a go at the real sacred cows.

BA’s Bum Year

In the old days before its management came up with wheezes like charging passengers for choosing seats and getting rid of food (see previous posting), British Airways used to make a profit in the period April to October while usually making a cyclical loss in the winter. The new management have taken the cyclicity out by ensuring the airline loses money in the summer too — to the tune of nearly £300m.

Perhaps the twin track strategy of destroying customer service and constantly antagonising its own workforce is a deliberate attempt to turn BA into a low-cost airline? There can’t be any other explanation for this wanton destruction.