The Social Business

Category: Customer service (page 1 of 6)

Car hire companies: I’m not a cyclist – I’m your regular customer

We’ve not owned a car for around seven years now.  But that’s not to say I never drive – on average we hire a car around once a month.  Sometimes for weekends, often for holidays, and on the odd occasion for work.

It works well for us.  Neither of us routinely needs a car for work – and our journeys to work are pretty easily made on the bike or on the bus.  My son, whose seven years at school have coincided with those seven car free years, walks the 30 minute journey to school.

But a car is there when we need it.  Both for longer hires from car hire firms like Avis and Enterprise, and for shorter rentals, from our local car club – now owned by Enterprise too.

There’s lots that I like about organising how we get around in this way.  I like the fact that, by and large, we choose the most appropriate mode of transport for each journey.  So when walking makes most sense, we walk.  When cycling fits the bill, we get the bikes out.  Heading into town as a family?  The bus, usually.  Longer weekend journeys?  The train when it makes most sense (practically and financially) – and if not, a hire car.  A small, cheap car if it’s just us, and a bigger car or van if we need the extra room for bikes, Christmas presents or camping gear.

Compare that with what tends to happen when you own a car.  It’s sat there on the drive, waiting to be driven (some studies suggest they spend up to 95% of their life doing nothing).  So when you need to go somewhere, the car is the obvious choice.  It appears convenient, and it appears cheap.  £4.30 return for a 2 mile bus journey – or perhaps a notional 20p in fuel to drive?  It’s obvious what choice most people will make – even if the true cost per mile is much higher.

I would say that is one of the main problems with our current ownership model for cars.  Individual ownership makes traveling in a car the default choice for most journeys many of us make in cities – when, for some of those journeys at least, another mode of transport would be better all ways round.

So I’m hopeful that over time we’ll move away from individual ownership of cars – and move more towards a model where we “buy mobility”.  This is the emerging Mobility As A Service model where, easily organised via your phone, it’s easy to jump on the bus, book a taxi, pick up a dockless bike, hire a car for an hour, buy a train ticket – whichever mode of transport makes most sense for that particular journey.  In a small, low-tech, much-more-difficult-than-it-needs-to-be way, that’s what we currently do as a family.  And on balance, I love it.

But today I’m focusing on cars – prompted by a tweet from car hire company Sixt.

I’m not pretending I was “offended” or anything like that.  I just thought it was a poor piece of marketing.  In large part, because of what I’ve outlined above.

I am 100% their target customer.  I don’t own a car and spend over a grand a year on car hire.  And, in their eyes, I’m a “cyclist” – the customer group they’ve clumsily targeted.

But that’s where they’re wrong.  I am not a cyclist.  I am someone who wants to get from A to B, and I choose the most appropriate way to do that.  I mainly cycle precisely because for the majority of my journeys, (peak time commutes in Leeds)  it’s the quickest option.  I want to go faster.   Effortlessly gliding past queues of stationery cars and getting to work on time is the ultimate performance boost.

Yet I do need a car from time to time, and whilst I’m very happy with a lot of the service I get from the hire companies I routinely use (in particular the consistently excellent staff at Avis in Leeds),  it fascinates me that they don’t better serve the regular, “multimodal” hirer.  This clumsy piece of marketing points to a wider inability to make the most of a growing customer group.

For example, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve turned up a car hire places, on my bike, and asked where the bike parking is.   I find it bizarre that they seem surprised that someone, who, by definition, is in need of a car at that precise moment, may have turned up by another mode of transport.

If they thought it through properly, there’d be all sorts of other opportunities too.  More electric and hybrid cars are an obvious thing to think about.  Reviewing the classification of cars – and giving people the option of not having a diesel car (it’s still often sold to you as a premium vehicle – because of better fuel economy) could be good too.  As would not always assuming that an upgrade (to a bigger, more expensive to run car) is what the customer wants.  A bigger car is sometimes handy, but I’m buying mobility, not a mobile status symbol.  And don’t get me started on the hard-sell of Collision Damage Waiver insurance….

I care about this because I can see the enormous potential of easier access to on-demand cars, rather than ownership of them.  Our cities could be transformed if more of us chose the most appropriate mode of transport for our journeys, rather than routinely jumping into the car.  We could also stop wasting so much of our disposable income on an asset that sits idle more than half the time.  And I think there are big business opportunities for the companies that get their heads around this emerging market and serve it well.

Trust me – I’m a sharer

So we’re ten days into our car-free life.

Having said that, we hired a car for about five of those days, with it being half-term.  Good service from Enterprise – picking us up, dropping me off for my 930 meeting on Monday morning.  Why bother owning a car when you can rent one and then be chauffeur driven to your first meeting of the day?

It was interesting to compare renting a car with sorting out our membership of the local car club.  Joining the car club felt very modern and hi-tech – I applied online, then had a three way telephone call with the DVLA and the Club to check that I was who I said I was.  My smart card arrived the next day – and now a couple of cars are there for when I need them, about a 15 minute walk from our house.

Things were a bit different with Enterprise.  First thing to say is that their customer service was excellent – friendly and efficient. But the process leaves a lot to be desired.  Whereas the car club makes you feel like you’re making a sound decision, hiring a car makes you feel like this might not be such a good idea after all.

First of all you search the house for your paper driving licence and two recent utility bills.  And your passport.  Then you fill in all the documentation and they instil fear into you by suggesting that if the car doesn’t come back perfect they’ll take £600 off your credit card.  Unless, of course, you take out our ridiculously over-priced excess-waiver.  Oh, and if your partner wants to drive the car too (who’d have thought of that?) that’ll be an extra £10 a day.  Have a nice trip!

And it’ll be the same next time, find the documents, sign all the disclaimers etc etc.  Now, I understand there need to be some safeguards – I’m sure some shady people hire cars and get up to all sorts.  But maybe the big car hire firms could learn a few lessons from the new entrants to this market – City Car Club, Whipcar, BMW DriveNow and the rest.

Enterprise appear to making the assumption that you can’t trust your customers, whereas our car club seems to trust that most customers are decent people who will do the right thing.  So they rely on us to not leave the car low on fuel, or tell them if there’s a problem with the car.  Some people will abuse the system because some people can’t be trusted.  But they don’t build their system based on the assumption that you can’t trust your customers.  And, I’d like to think, when you make it clear to people that you trust them, they’re less likely to abuse that trust.

Trust is a key issue in what is increasingly called the sharing economy, or collaborative consumption.  And it’s one reason that I’m keen on sharing more and owning less.  I know I need to get better at trusting people – and I think relationships based on trust do us all good.  So if I lend my lawnmower to my neighbour who I don’t know very well, there’s a chance that he might run off and sell it on ebay.  But he probably won’t.  And by lending stuff to eachother we’ll get to know eachother better, and trust eachother more.  And my street will be a nicer place to live in.

So what’s that got to do with Enterprise?   Maybe they need to go beyond offering friendly customer service towards understanding this new breed of customer, and work out ways to trust us a little more.

No way to treat your customers

Money is tight in the world of social business.  Our city-centre office (which to be honest was a bargain – courtesy of this social enterprise) is no more. There’s just no slack in any of our contracts for anything that is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have.

So we hotdesk with fellow social business Angels Housekeeping, and I work from home a fair bit more.

Working from home has its advantages.  You save a fortune on coffee and sandwiches.  From a green perspective, I bet we’re wasting less food – any leftovers from last night’s tea tend to be recycled into a worker’s lunch.  And my commute up the stairs is pretty carbon free.  Although I’ll soon need a new pair of slippers.

But there are dangers too.  Not just daytime television.  But knocks at the door.  I had one such knock on the door yesterday.  Someone from Scottish Power greeting me by name.  Not my name – that of the previous occupiers.  He was in the area, just “checking up” on things, or something nice and helpful like that.  That’s when it all started to go a bit odd.  He told me that “they’d taken over supply of this area”.  Obviously this is ridiculous and I told him so.  He said that’s what he’d been told – and then he said that they’d become the main generator of energy for the area.  Clearly another load of nonesense.

I cut the conversation short. I was incredulous.  You hear about this kind of thing, but I never imagined that anyone would offer up such blatant untruths.  I tweeted about it, did a bit of googling and eventually ended up chatting to Trading Standards.  At one stage it sounded like they were about to send out a SWAT team to intercept him (they asked if “there is any vulnerability in the area”) but in the end they said they’d just pass it on to Trading Standards in Scottish Power’s home town, Glasgow.  I wasn’t to expect a follow-up call.

I didn’t think that was good enough to be honest.  The reason I was so angry about it is that we do a lot of work with older people’s groups – and they’re always telling us about older people’s better nature being taken advantage of by dodgy sales tactics.  I’ve seen it in my own family with double glazing and financial products.  Carefully crafted patter which disarms many of us – and in particular older people, but which has only one goal – a sale, whether it’s in the best interests of the customer or not.

I searched the #scottishpower hashtag on Twitter – and found out that Scottish Power had just announced that they were going to end door-to-door sales – but not just yet.  They plan to finish encouraging people to switch suppliers through door-to-door tactics at the end of November.

Consumer organisation Which? (of which I’m a member) picked up on my story and wrote about it today.  They’re following this up with Scottish Power and hopefully they’ll take some action.  To be honest I can’t understand why they can’t just end this practice now.  If it’s no longer appropriate on 1st December, I’d say it’s not appropriate today.  How many more people will end up on a tariff which is potentially not right for them – just in time for the winter – thanks to similar tactics?

I’m not a great fan of a lot of big businesses, particularly those that appear to be doing pretty well out of us at a time when most of us are feeling the pinch. But I’m certainly not in the “all big businesses that make profits are bad” camp.  But when, time and again, the big six power companies have been criticised for misleading sales tactics, I find it hard to understand why they don’t just sort themselves out.  Either, you might assume, they’re badly-run businesses (possibly) or they care about short-term shareholder value more than they care about their customers (that’d be my gut feeling).

Let’s hope I’m wrong.  Maybe they’ll show some leadership and end these sales tactics now, instead of waiting until the end of November.

Revive, and the Vision for Leeds

I went along to Revive Leeds this morning for the launch of the Vision for Leeds 2011-2030 – Our vision to be the best city in the UK.

More on the Vision later, but first a few words about Revive.  It’s an idea that’s been a long time coming – I chatted with someone there who was exploring this idea eight years ago, and someone else reckoned he’d been talking about it fifteen years ago.

Revive Leeds is a Re-Use Shop which is based at a tip (sorry, recycling site) in East Leeds.  It’s run by a Community Interest Company – which in turn is a collaboration between three well established Leeds social enterprises – Emmaus Leeds, St Vincent de Paul Society and Slate.

The idea – and it’s a good one – is that people can drop off stuff that can be re-used whilst they’re dumping other stuff at the tip.  As someone who despairs whenever I go to the tip at what people are throwing away, I’m delighted to see this up and running.

First impressions?  The shop is attractively laid out and has a good range of stock.  The stock was generally good quality.  I think there’s work to do on pricing – as a charity-shop regular I think some of the pricing was a bit on the ambitious side.  £10 for a second hand iron, £175 for a decent but unremarkable three piece suite, didn’t strike me as realistic.  But these things take time – and they’ll have had to second-guess who their customer base will be.  They’ll know better who their customers are in six months time – and I’m sure their pricing will reflect that.

It made me think of my visit a few years back to another Revive (unrelated) in Liverpool – part of the FRC Group.  They take stock primarily from their Bulky Bobs bulky waste collection service (which I notice has today been successful in the Big Venture Challenge) and sell it in their high-street shop.  Shaun Doran, who was responsible for Revive, was frank about they got it very wrong in the early years at Revive.  In short, they took little notice of who their customers were – who was walking past their shop front in that part of Liverpool.  Once they realised who they were really serving, the shop became more successful.

I liked their emphasis on quick turnover of stock – I can’t remember the detail but let’s say it was something like “Have an item for two weeks at full price, two weeks at half price, then move on”.  It’s important that customers see fresh stock regularly – it’s what keeps people coming back.  You might make a bit less on each item, but you’ll sell (and divert from landfill) a lot more stuff.

I also liked their pricing strategy – with different prices for products depending on whether you had just walked in off the street, were on benefits, or had been referred by a FRC partner organisation.  It sounds like a logistical nightmare, and could be a bit embarrassing for people if it was implemented poorly, but it seemed to work well.  The £175 three piece suite brought this pricing strategy back to me – who’s the customer with £175 in their back pocket?

But let’s not take anything away from the people who’ve worked really hard to get Revive Leeds up and running.  They’ve done a great job and I wish them every success.  And it’s been a long road.

Which brings me to the Vision for Leeds.  This was the softest of soft launches I’ve ever witnessed – I’d be interested to know why the Council has gone for this approach to launching the Vision.  At most there were 50 people there – perhaps 10 of whom were unrelated to the Council or to Revive Leeds.

I’ll be honest, I really struggle to get excited about long-term visions.  The ten minute video which accompanies the Vision (not online yet) is all very nice but voxpops with loads of people saying how great Leeds is (it’s friendly, it’s diverse, it’s a great place to do sport/learn/do business etc) just leave me cold.

But, let me try my best to suspend the scepticism.  There’s something quite refreshing in the idea of trying to be the “best” city in the UK.  As the Vision says:

“Not the richest or the biggest, but the best for all who live and work in Leeds – our children, our communities and our businesses.”

Maybe that’s something I can get excited about over time.

It’s worth reflecting on the story of Revive Leeds, alongside the Vision for Leeds.  Revive Leeds will hopefully do well, but we can’t wait another 8 years for the next great innovation.  The Councillor at today’s event was very proud of the Council’s collaboration with three local social enterprises – and that is undoubtedly a step forward.  But we have to get better – and quicker – at coming up with creative ideas which make a real difference.

And this is where things might just get interesting.  Leeds Council – according to this article by the Council Leader in the Yorkshire Post – seems to be opening up and suggesting that in the future it needs to become more entrepreneurial – for example by collaborating more with other organisations.

As someone who’s worked with the Council closely for a number of years, let me just say they’ve got a long way to go before I’d use the words entrepreneurial and Council in the same sentence.  But acknowledging that things need to improve is a starting point, at least.  The hard bit will be moving from nice words to messy practice.  Councillors and Council officers have a steep learning curve ahead of them.

My holiday romance

Back today from a great couple of weeks’ holiday – first in Northumberland, then in East Yorkshire.

I really felt like I needed the break. Lots of people have things far worse at the moment, both in terms of work and personal life, but as a small social business we’re by no means immune from the troubles we’re facing as an economy. No-one will tell you it’s much fun to do 20% more work for 20% less money, as I reckon we’re doing at the moment. I’m a believer in hard times bringing out the best in innovation – but there’s always a limit to how much more you can do with less. So it was good to get away for a while – no phone, no Twitter, no TV. Even the car radio packed in, seemingly in solidarity with my desire to escape from the world for a bit.

I didn’t think too much about work. But obviously when you’re on holiday you’re dealing with lots of businesses – places to stay, places to eat, things to do. It’s great when some of them inspire you, and we were lucky to find a few that we fell in love with this time round.

We camped overlooking Holy Island in Northumberland for 8 days at the Barn at Beal – recommended to us by social enterprise structures guru and Northumberland resident Geof Cox. The views were breathtaking and the service we received – as campers and as customers in their cafe – was spot on.

The Barn at Beal is a working farm – we camped at the side of a field of barley which was destined for Timothy Taylor Landlord – and they’ve done a fantastic job of diversifying and thus keeping the farm going.

The second week we stayed at Straw Bale Cottage – a cottage in Howden, East Yorkshire, made, as you might guess, from straw bales. It’s a bit of an interest of mine – you might remember me writing about LILAC – a strawbale development in Leeds. I was intrigued to see what it’s like to live in a strawbale house.

Firstly, there’s something quite exciting (at least for me) about a house that’s built from straw. But more than that there’s a warm, human quality to the way that the house is built – corners are slightly curved and imperfect where they would be perfectly angular in a brick built house.

And as you’d imagine, straw is a great insulator and the house soon warms up when you light the living room fire – the only heating in the house. I’d be interested to go back in winter to see how warm it is then, but you do get a real sense of cosiness.

Both places reminded me of my great admiration for entrepreneurs. People with a vision who put the hard work in to turn that vision into reality. Diversifying from arable production into tourism, or building a straw bale house, requires a level of risk-taking and commitment that I really admire, and I like spending my money with people like that.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a proper holiday if it didn’t involve a few commitments to do things differently when we got back home. A few of these have been forgotten about already. But the strawbale cottage got us thinking again about our own energy use. We’ll look into solar panels in more detail soon, but with the MOT, insurance and tax all due later this month, the time has come to decide whether we’re going to ditch the car. We’ve got our mileage down from 12000 to 6000 miles a year in the last two years, so it’s looking like it might make financial as well as environmental sense. More on that later this week.

Some thoughts on Start Up Britain

I’m not a great fan of fanfare.  Initiatives which get enthusiastic backing from people who tell me that they have the solution to this or that big issue tend to leave me feeling a bit uneasy.

So I watched with interest, and a fair dollop of scepticism,  the emergence of Start Up Britain, the entrepreneurship initiative which was launched today by a host of celebrity entrepreneurs.

That’s not to say that it won’t do some good stuff.  Just as I think that plenty of good will eventually come from all the debate around Big Society.  But I find myself feeling  sceptical about what I heard about today.

It doesn’t help that if you air that scepticism, as I did a bit, and my good friend Mike Chitty did a good bit more today on Twitter, you are immediately accused of having that terrible British disease, cynicism.  Such reactions are even stronger than normal when it comes to entrepreneurship.  We’re so terribly aware that we aren’t Americans – (after all Start Up Britain is modelled on a similar US scheme) – that we jump on anyone who isn’t whooping and doing enthusiastic high-fives when confronted by a bit of US style razzmatazz.  It’s easier to dismiss your critics than accept that they may just have a point.

I’m not a cynic, but I’m a sceptic, and I think that can be quite a healthy position, particularly if it’s informed by experience.  I’m sceptical about a lot of activity that takes place encouraging entrepreneurship.  That comes from first-hand experience of running businesses, succeeding and failing in business and supporting businesses – particularly start-up social enterprises.

We rely a lot on immensely successful, big scale, charismatic entrepreneurs to inspire the mass of people who are tentatively considering setting up their first business.  I can’t help but feel that there’s a mismatch there, and beyond the transient fuzzy feeling that you might get from hearing a good story, I’m not wholly convinced that such activities are all that useful for many people who are just starting out.

But this kind of thing clearly does work for some people.  Yet I think we forget that most businesses won’t be high growth, and they won’t be leaders in their market.  Of those that succeed, (a majority will probably fail – although I’m not sure that story was told today) many will be good businesses, keeping people in employment, serving customers well, but not setting the world on fire.  That, as far as I’m concerned, is fine – it’s the kind of steady, long-term business activity that we probably need more of.  Not everyone will be pitching to venture capitalists for £10 million to develop a world-beating brand.

So my point is that there are whole worlds of entrepreneurship which are a million miles away from the high-octane, celebrity-filled, soundbite friendly world of Start Up Britain.  And just as there’ll be lots of people who don’t respond to the kind of work that I do – the DIY Business Planning, the Ideas Circles and the like, I believe there are loads of people who, when offered a vision of entrepreneurship that appears to be about high-growth, big egos and fast cash, will end up feeling that setting up in business isn’t for them after all.

So we need different approaches, of course we do.  Let’s hope Start Up Britain (and yes, I accept it’s a startup itself, so it’s early days) encourages different approaches and values the small scale, occasionally mundane entrepreneurial activity alongside the high-octane stuff.

Let Start Up Britain also be a challenge for  those of us who perhaps have a slightly different vision of entrepreneurship, and who consider that there may be other ways to encourage more people to set up in business.  What does my city need?  A home-grown Peter Jones?  Or hundreds of people setting up good businesses, of different shapes and sizes, that fulfill them, serve their customers well and set down local roots?  I guess the answer is that it’d be handy to have both – but to have that I think we need to think more broadly about the messages we give out about entrepreneurship.

Social housing

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may well be fed up with hearing about my efforts to buy a house.

To cut a long story short, we sold our house in February and moved to a rented flat for what we thought would be a 6 week period whilst our house purchase went through. But, to cut more long stories short, that deal fell through close to completion, as did the next one. A few grand lighter, with blood pressure that bit higher, we’re no further on than we were when we started looking for houses last September. When they say buying a house is stressful, they’re not wrong.

What’s gone wrong? We’ve been pretty unlucky – both deals looked straightforward but both vendors then acted in ways which were anything but straightforward. The technical term is that we were shafted, twice. Some of that behaviour, I think, comes from the fact that the housing market is in a complete state. In the 11 months we’ve been looking, there are plenty of houses which have taken months and months to sell, or haven’t sold at all. Meanwhile, there are a handful which have sold within days. We’ve gone to closed bids on at least four houses – with each selling for above the asking price, in a supposedly depressed market. Dysfunctional doesn’t begin to describe it.

And what of our old friend the Estate Agent? Traditionally people haven’t been so keen on them largely because they make a fortune out of you whilst seemingly not doing a great deal other than drive around in souped-up Minis. Who couldn’t sell a house in a bouyant market, where all buyers believe that the worst that can happen is that they’ll move on in a couple of years, with a tidy profit? But how do you serve a market which is on its knees?

You don’t, as it would appear most Estate Agents believe, just carry on as if nothing’s happened. I have seen very little evidence that they have adapted at all to changing circumstances, other than the inevitable redundancies and closure of branches. I am not aware of much reflection on how they could serve their customers differently, in order to keep the market moving.

Here’s an idea for starters. Could they maybe be a bit more frank in how they describe a house? I know it’s a standing joke (“opportunity to stamp your personality = house is a wreck etc) but it’s actually not very funny when you spend hours looking round houses which, if you’d been given an honest appraisal on Rightmove, you wouldn’t have gone anywhere near. Estate Agents are obsessed with the outputs – aka viewings – so that they can show the vendor how hard they’re working. Maybe if they worked harder at understanding what buyers really want, and then tried hard to find people who were really interested in a house, then they may more likely achieve their desired outcome – a sale.

I have lots more ideas (I feel like I’ve undertaken in-depth undercover research into the housing market – there is nothing I don’t know now) but don’t worry, I won’t bore you with them now. But this is a classic example of where what we don’t need, in my opinion, is a social enterprise to enter the market. What we need is an Estate Agent that recognises that it could have positive social impacts – both in terms of happier customers and, potentially, stronger communities – if it was to start to think how it could really add value to an area.

I believe that to continue to have a role in an online world where the likes of Tepilo, Tesco and Rightmove will make the traditional Agent pretty redundant, they are going to have to think of how they can really make a difference to customers and to the communities in which they sell houses.

Stick to your knitting? Or take on a Scarf Shop franchise?

I’ve had a bit of a moan on Twitter this morning about some poor service we recently received from a third sector organisation. We booked a room for an event – and to cut a long story short they offered friendly but poor service. We did most of the running round to confirm the booking details, and then on the day they gave the projector we’d hired to someone else. Then, to round things off, they didn’t put enough postage on the invoice, so we ended up paying £1.14 for the privilege of collecting our invoice from the sorting office!

I’m interested in understanding the root causes of the poor service we received. I think there’s an issue about diversification and the need to generate income. I imagine the organisation in question started off years ago as a community development organisation, renting a room in a tatty corner of a council building in the neighbourhood where they grew up. And along came European millions to enable them to build a multi-purpose venue, which housed the work that they do and also gave them the opportunity to rent rooms to other people.

There’s no problem with that necessarily. And you can’t really argue that much with organisations which look to diversify in order to bring in various sources of income. But what if you don’t have the skills to compete in your new marketplace? Venue hire is a massively competitive market, and customers are very demanding.  To compete, you need to be good at what you do.

There’s a good argument to say that you should stick to your knitting. It’s tough though, particularly at the moment as funding streams dry up. It can be tempting to come up with bright ideas which will supposedly generate “free” money to keep you going.

The one that I’ve been asked to help with most is the community cafe which wants to expand into outside catering. The argument goes: “We can charge £5 per head for the kind of stuff we sell in the cafe for £1.50.”  True – to an extent. But it’s a whole different market – with different customers and competitors. That’s not to say that you can’t make it work. But it’s not necessarily the case that a community cafe can sustain itself through a Robin Hood strategy of selling paninis to office wallahs whilst offering cheese baps to the urban poor.

So what do I do about this? I work with people to help them to assess their ideas. Nothing particularly clever, and no scientific formulae to help us to understand whether a particular idea offers a chance to generate income. But we start by considering:

  1. Does this idea involve selling more of our existing services to existing customers?
  2. Does it involve selling existing services to new customers?
  3. Does it involve selling new services to existing customers?
  4. Does it involve selling new services to new customers?

The theory there is that there’s likely to be greater risk in developing a new service, and selling it to a customer group that you know nothing about. It may also require more resources in terms of time and money. That’s not to say not to do it – but grouping ideas like this at least gets people talking about risk – and their ability to take on new business ideas.

It’s hard to work out whether your idea is likely to generate income.  And unfortunately, the more outlandish the idea, the harder it can be to argue against it.  You can be accused of lacking vision.  But with money so tight, we have to try to find ways to help people choose the right way forward, instead of digging a deeper hole.

Are we naive to expect mutuals to be better than the rest?

At times of crisis it’s tempting to seek out the Big Idea which is going to make everything better.

There are many who believe that social enterprises are inherently better at delivering services to customers. The story goes that the social mission, combined with a lack of external shareholders to service, alongside an enterprising approach will result in happier customers.

It’s a compelling narrative. And I for one do believe that those three factors – clear mission, the absence of shareholders focused on the short-term, and a can-do culture can achieve big things.

But I think we need to be careful not to get too carried away. Social enterprises can have clear missions, can be focussed on customers rather than shareholders, and can develop an enterprising culture – but those three things can’t be taken for granted.

Allow me to indulge in a moan which does, nonetheless, make this point. I have been a happy customer of Yorkshire Building Society for ten years. But this year – as we sold our house and tried to buy another – their service was consistently poor. Without boring you with all the details, their two main errors were that they sent me the deeds for the house we’d just sold, and did the wrong survey on the house we were trying to buy. Our ID also got lost somewhere between our postbox and their mailroom, which may or may not have been their fault. And throughout, their new automated phone system was difficult to navigate, and I often ended up at the wrong department.

I’ve complained, and they’ve said they’re sorry but they won’t consider refunding any of the administration fees I’ve paid. My point is that their service was poor, and I paid fees for that service. I’m now taking it to the Financial Ombudsman, mainly because I’ve got no other option.

I chose Yorkshire because they were competitive – but also because they are a mutual. I tell myself that they’re better, and are likely to give me a better deal, because they don’t have outside shareholders to satisfy. I also think that being a member may be different to being a customer, particularly when things go wrong.

But am I just being naive? This article on Nationwide – another mutual – would suggest that mutuals aren’t immune from some of the customer-unfriendly practices of other shareholder-driven companies. And are we as a society being equally naive in assuming that mutuals and other social enterprises will do a better job than others at delivering services?

I believe fully that they can deliver better services, not that they always do. Obvious really, but as we hunt for ways to get ourselves out of the mess we’re in, I think we’re in danger of putting too much faith in one form of organisational structure.

Twenty five per cent

As I mentioned in my last post, we had to work hard to make sure our holiday money stretched to the end of our stay in France. Conveniently, for this story, £1 was worth around 25% less than it was last time we were in France. So the daily lunchtime beer in a cafe was out, replaced by a beer back on the terrace at the flat. The daily late-afternoon ice creams came from the supermarket, not the ice-cream parlour. It was hardly the 1930’s, but it wasn’t 2008 either.

So we changed our behaviour to adapt to our circumstances. The other time we did that was when Francis was born. We agreed that Antonia would take a year off. Again, handily for this story, that meant that we had to cut our budgets by around 25% (one salary lost for 6 months). We took advice from Alvin Hall, and tips from Martin Lewis. We worked out what money we would have, and set ourselves a budget. Most importantly, we went back to the cash economy. We agreed what we could afford to spend, and then took that cash out of the bank at the start of each month.

Handing over bank notes focuses the mind in a way that paying with plastic never could. It feels like real money, and gives you a greater sense of whether what you are about to purchase feels like good value, and is really needed. Anyone who gives you advice on how to spend less will tell you to start dealing in cash.

I’m fully aware that there are millions of people who are in a far worse position than me financially, for whom weekly budgeting, on far less money than me, is a painful fact of life. So my 25% cuts aren’t anywhere near as painful as someone else’s. But they are still significant – for me at least.

I’ve been thinking recently how (or if) I should work with organisations which are going to have to slash their expenditure by 25% or more. I enjoy a lot of the work I do. That doesn’t feel like the kind of work that’d be much fun.

But how could I help? I think that one thing I bring to my work is that whilst I’m driven by helping people to achieve social change, I’m also a realist and a pragmatist. I can separate the emotion of a social mission from the hard realities of the market. Maybe that’s one way I can help. Any discussions about budget cuts – particularly if there is a real/illusory desire to involve all staff – will be full of emotion, and rightly so. Trying to find a workable way forward in those circumstances will be very difficult. An outsider might be able to help.

Helping people to “think the unthinkable”, and challenge long-held assumptions, which have been sheltered from real life by the odd parallel universe that is the World of Funding, might be of use too. Could organised abandonment of that cherished, but less effective, project, be better in the long term than cuts across the board? And might it be worth looking at the way we work, and how we deal with our customers, to see where there is failure demand in our systems? In other words, demand (and therefore spent resources) that is only there because things aren’t dealt with properly first time. There is no one big idea which will help to cut expenditure less painfully, but I personally find the idea of failure demand pretty useful.

One thing is clear, any answers that I help people come up with won’t be my answers. Just as I don’t write business plans for people, I won’t be advising people on how to cut their budgets. But it might be that I can be part of something in Leeds or elsewhere where a group of organisations come together and share the burden of finding ways to continue to deliver change with less money.

If you have any thoughts please let me know by leaving a comment below.


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