Better the evil we know

October 2009

At a time when the banks are back in the news for making unimaginable profits (or at least unimaginable a year ago) and those that supposedly took the ‘risks’ to make these profits are being paid unimaginable bonuses again that apparently outrage the Jones’ and the Smiths next door, it’s worth reminding ourselves of what the same outraged people actually think when it comes to their high street bank. Just over two months ago, Marketing Week published revealing research which showed that despite our now unanimous distrust of the big banks, very few of us were prepared to break ranks and join non-financial services businesses now offering financial services – e.g. Tesco or O2.

The research showed that over 65% of respondents would not consider taking financial products from the supermarkets or other non-financial brands. What’s more, and from a separate piece of research by Morgan Stanley, only 8% of consumers would definitely or be very likely to switch their account to a different provider.

What does this tell us? Well at a top line only (the research is far more detailed than outlined here) it tells us that consumers, despite their current distrust and deep cynicism about the banks they have their account with, aren’t prepared to change because they take a relatively conservative view about the sector. So in other words I might trust Tesco a whole lot more than I trust Lloyds TSB, but would I switch my bank account to the former? Probably not.

But before the big banks take an even more complacent view about their market and its customers, it’s worth noting that a good chunk of those surveyed grew up in a generation when trusting your bank was the same as trusting your parents – different rules apply to both compared to much of who and what we trust in life. But whilst my daughter might trust me at the same level as I trusted my parents, I very much doubt that she, or other 22 year olds, will have anything like the same deep-rooted loyalty to a high street bank. In other words, it will take more than even the recession-causing incompetence of the banks to make me switch to a non-financial services provider, but someone 30 younger than me? I think that’s a rather different matter.

In praise of the Post Office

Well that might seem a rather odd headline given the hugely damaging events (not just to the Post Office but to the economy generally) currently unfolding in the form of strikes, but actually what I want to do is praise the quality of service (or at least when the workers aren’t out on strike).

In last month’s comment I blasted BT for incompetence and a fundamental lack of customer service. A month on I can report that both that incompetence and lack of customer service continues unabated with a letter from a company collecting debts for BT saying we owe them £28 (which we don’t) and a broadband service which runs at dial-up speed (literally) and having to wait one week to have this apparently simple problem sorted remotely (it’s not like they had to come to our home).

But back to the Post Office and why this is relevant to my BT x-rated horror story: The BT situation meant, certainly when we were left with no BT line at all for four weeks, that we had to resort to rather more traditional means to run our business. One of these manifested itself when a design agency working for one of our clients wanted to send me 24 pages of artwork. “How can we get it to you if you don’t have broadband” they asked. “Print it off and post it” I replied. “But won’t that take a few days to reach you now you live in northern Scotland?” (We do live in Northern Scotland and have done for 8 weeks now – the start of the BT fiasco.) “Well give it a try” I said “you might be surprised.” So the envelope was posted in a small village in Lincolnshire that afternoon and, just as I hoped, the postman was handing it to me the very next morning. ‘Big deal’ you might be thinking? Well given, logistically and operationally, what’s involved with getting an envelope from deepest Lincolnshire to our house in the Scottish Highlands – and all for the cost of a few first class stamps – I think it’s pretty darn impressive (for the record, because I checked, it even involves a flight into an RAF base up here…).

A one off? I don’t think so: Having sold my old Nikon SLR system on eBay (yes people really will pay good money for old film cameras…) I packed it all up and took the parcel down to my village post office. Addressed to my eBay purchaser in Cambridgeshire, it duly arrived the very next morning – and all at a cost of under £12. That’s fantastic value for a great service.

So how about the current union action, what this means to the future of the Post Office and indeed the great service they’ve been giving me? I fear the worst. It doesn’t of course need the wisdom of my monthly comment to point out the sheer lunacy of the union action. However, perhaps what I can do – which perhaps the media can’t in the fear of offending viewers and/or readers – is point out some of the obvious facts behind it: Now I don’t know any people who work in postal sorting offices, but I have met a few postman in my time. My view of them? Generally very decent and hard working people – as you’d need to be to do such a job and in all weathers (in particular where we live). But ‘very decent’ doesn’t necessarily mean very bright and not being very bright just might mean that you could be susceptible to being lead down the proverbial garden path. Enter the mindless union leaders with little more than an outdated political agenda.

You’ll follow my train of thought here so no need for me to delve deeper with my theory, but it did occur to me – and today in fact as the news broke that the strike was to go ahead tomorrow – that what would a postal worker do for work if, as a result of the pointless industrial action, he or she lost their job? Stack shelves at the local supermarket? Clean tables at the local McDonalds? Probably ‘no’ to either, but not because these unskilled jobs were better or worse than sorting or delivering post, but more that half of last years’ graduates have taken such jobs because there’s little else in the job market for them.

I deeply hope that the dispute is settled and very much sooner rather than later, but I somehow fear that we’re seeing the beginning of the end. Of course the Post Office will survive in one form or another, but will it still sufficiently be in tact in a few years time to come to my rescue when BT can’t provide a proper service (the line is now up and running but who knows what they’ve got in store for us in the future…)? I fear not, which really would be a tragedy for such a great business – and indeed a great brand.

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