Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Passing of Paper

Smash logo and brand identity
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I follow quite a few legacy publishers on Twitter and suffer from the not infrequent urge to block them as I stare, open-jawed, at their attempts at what they clearly think is 'marketing'. Where most self-published authors have worked out, often by trial and error, that 'buy my book' doesn't work, publishers are frequently to be found out there using Twitter as a broadcast medium.

My least favourite of an ugly bunch are the guys who have clearly logged into Twitter for their daily session ("Dave does Twitter from 4-5pm, then goes through the slush pile") who then retweet anything nice said about them or one of their authors. To the luckless recipient of this gold, a timeline suddenly packed with retweets of breathless praise for Dave's publishing house, event or client's book until Dave runs out of RT cruft. At this point, if you're really unlucky, you'll get Dave asking you what's your favourite colour or what book changed your life as he practices his 'engagement' skills.

The example that flashed across my disbelieving eyes last night, however, took the proverbial biscuit:


It ticks every 'shit use of Twitter by a publisher' box I can think of. What, you mean if I pre-order this book and send you proof that I have, indeed, placed a pre-order, you'll actually send ME a real whole honest-to-goodness PDF file containing chapter one of the book I can't read yet? I am SO grateful! I can't begin to thank you! Really! A whole chapter one of a book I just paid for but can't read as a crappy, bitty PDF (like the ones torrent sites serve) just for little me? Squee!

These are just a few examples of how legacy publishers are struggling to get their heads around marketing, promotion and distribution in a post-paper world. We're not quite there yet, of course - there's still a lot of papery stuff around. But anyone not habitually wedded to a paper-based business model can see that the consumption of ideas, information and narrative on mushed-up dead trees and bleached old knickers (paper) is moving to a diverse and often inter-connected ecosystem of devices with blinding speed. 

When we are using those devices, we are not pleased to be 'disrupted' and, in a device-centric world, the publishers' ability to use their market power - sales teams stocking retailers - is minimal. They're no better off than the rest of us. The Internet, as we have been seeing since 1995, is a great leveller.

The idea that there is value in selling information encoded in a 'book' or indeed any other conventionally printed product now belongs in a Cadbury's Smash advert. When was the last time you looked at a paper map? 

I fondly recall driving across Scotland in 1988, following a printout from Autoroute 1.0 and picking up some hitch hikers who, when they found out I was following a computer programme around Scotland, became very nervous indeed and wanted let out early. They clearly thought I was a madman. It's taken a while, sure enough, but the paper map today is (along with the dedicated GPS device, incidentally) a thing of the past. 

The ability to contextualise information based on a layer over the 'real' world is incredibly powerful. It's why Google has invested so much in building that layer with Earth, Streetview and the like. Apple is rumoured to be making a huge play in 'Augmented Reality'. 

Not only are we consuming information about where we're going totally differently, we can clearly see around the corner a world where we won't care where we're going. We'll just tell the car to go there and it'll tell us how long it intends to take and then provide us some entertainment of our choice as we travel. It'll probably be plotting to kill us, but that's another kettle of fish.

Newspapers are clearly in the throes of another aspect of the movement of information online. In their case they're having to struggle with the reduction of value in two ways - the loss of revenue from people buying papers and that of advertisers willing to pay to reach those readers. The problem becomes one of scale - the news gathering resource and reach of a quality newspaper is expensive - and when you devalue the good through information ubiquity, you lose the ability to pay for large teams of journalists. 

Who will custodiet custodes, then? Smaller teams working more efficiently - but also a slew of copycats, content farms and repurposers. Quality content has to fight harder to cut through the rubbish. It's messy out there, but there's one thing that's certain - nobody's interested in print anymore - and the revenue models for print don't translate online, the scale doesn't work at cents per click. Not only do you not have the resources for big newsrooms, presses and distribution networks, you arguably don't need them.

Print books are a good whose price is set entirely on its own inefficiency. The cover price of a book consists entirely of percentages based on the cost of print - including the author's royalty and distribution. A tiny proportion goes to editorial costs. Oh, and profit. Let's not forget profit. An author is remunerated on a percentage of the revenue generated by the book as, indeed, is a distributor - the latter gets a whopping 50% of cover price. 

You could perhaps see how publishers would be wedded to this model - it has been thus for the past century or so. That's the way we do it around here, see?

When you go online, you not only rip out the costs of print and distribution and sales returns/stock loss but you also tear down the sales network publishers have depended on for so long. Bookshops are dead, sales are taking place on platforms the publishers don't own, control or influence. And so that most passive of sales environments (the long shelves packed with attentive soldiers of stiff-spined papery joy, the tick of the clock, Mildred sitting behind the till, reading and leaving you to have a nice, long browse) has been transformed into an online nightmare of conflicting shrill demands for people's time and attention.

In this brave new world, publishers no longer offer the significant scale they used to. Even the media they retain privileged access to are less powerful. Physical book retail is on a massive decline, despite constant announcements by 'the industry' that ebook sales are under pressure. These are mendacious and statistically skewed to an amazing degree - and they're quite poignant, in their way. 'It's going to be okay, chaps, you'll see' - that brave last sentence nobody quite believes, but they're all grateful for as they all walk into the hail of enemy gunfire.

The one thing publishers had to offer authors was scale. Scale of marketing, distribution, recognition. That's a product of marketing. Rip out the sales channel and go online and you've got some serious problems on your hands unless you can get your head around building serious online scale. Legacy big-hitters like JK Rowling or Neil Gaiman have made the leap and brought their audiences online with them and have massive reach on platforms like Twitter.

Publishers haven't. And they really don't know how to do it. They can't believe they need to do it. And they won't resource to do it properly because they're still clinging on to that last log in the sea.

Or, as an old pal once said to me (of literary agents, but never mind, it fits today's legacy publishers too), "They're like eunuchs in the Ottoman court. They see it happening all around them; they know what it is that's happening. But they're totally incapable of doing it for themselves!"

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Great Emirates Laptop Ban

Abu Nidal
Abu Nidal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is notable that the UK, in slavishly following the 'security advice' of close ally the USA, has not included the UAE and Qatar in its version of the great laptop ban. It takes no great stretch of the imagination or cognitive leap to infer that this ban has a commercial implication, working as it does directly to the detriment of the three global airlines operating a 'feeder flight' model out of the UAE and Qatar.

The biggest threat to the three is a loss of business class travellers, probably the only people who will lose out significantly. While it's great for parents to provide kids with tablets to keep them entertained (those of us without children clearly think this is just bad parenting, but that's quite another kettle of marmosets), Emirates' much-lauded ICE entertainment system offers films, music, games across literally thousands of channels. The big hit comes when you lose that precious work time.

The solution appears to me to be blindingly simple - and if EK moves fast enough, they could get in a massive media hit out of this one. Buy in 100 Chromebooks, 600 Lenovo Ultrabooks and 300 Macbook Airs. Load them with MS Office. Provide them on loan to business class passengers (they could be booked at time of flight booking or even online check-in) who can bring a USB memory stick (or, if they forget, be offered a complimentary little red Emirates one) to bring/save their work on. To be honest, most these days work with online resources anyway, so could log in using any machine. The machines would be cleaned (both hygenically and data-wise) after each use. The IT stuff could be handled by EK subsidiary Mercator, already (quietly) one of the world's great software and services players.

Catch the current news cycle and you've got the solution in seconds. It might not fit everyone's needs, but it'll comfort many - and I think catch the public imagination, too. In the face of a mean-spirited and dubious use of security as protectionism, EK could show it's the customer who comes first and they're willing  - as always - to go the extra mile.

The ban is, of course, quite loopy. For a start, UAE security and civil defence is way better than US security. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are major international hubs and trusted by tens of millions of passengers each year. Their security procedures and capabilities are best practice. And there's nothing to stop a terrorist flying a bomb from Paris or St Petersburg - the idea that only Arab airports could be the source of a threat is as risible as Trump's Muslim ban. Which targets, it should be noted, different nations to the laptop ban.

Not that I, for one, am in any rush to go to the US. I have stamps in my passport showing a lifetime's travel around the Middle East and no desire whatsoever to stand there having some jerk in a uniform shouting at me and asking to look at the contents of my laptop.

This whole thing about making us dance around airports in our socks and ditching Masafi bottles because they could be bombs (presumably the water bomb is these days considered a credible threat) has long rendered me sore amazed. The IRA's last bomb on the UK mainland weighed a metric tonne, was packed in a lorry and blew out the heart of Manchester, doing £1 billion of damage. The concerted and sustained terrorist campaign waged by the IRA against the might and weight of the UK's civil defence and military over thirty years compares rather oddly to the threat posed by a bunch of bloodthirsty yahoos in Toyota pickups. It's what prompted me to write A Decent Bomber in the first place - that odd juxtaposition of the threat from today's water-bomb terrorism to the constant destruction wreaked in the skies by the IRA, PLO, Abu Nidal, the Red Brigade et al.

We have never been so constrained by, or constantly reminded of, the threat of 'terrorism' as we are today. And the credible threats have never been so slight - particularly when set against the efficiency of modern security apparatus. You might argue that we're safe precisely because that apparatus has stopped us bringing water bottles or unscanned heels onto flights, but in travelling outside the UK I have noticed nobody else out there is really bothering that much. And it'll be interesting to see if the rest of the world believes in the credible threat of a weaponised Kindle being stored in the hold rather than being used to read on a flight...

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Unbearable Lightness Of Not Writing

English: Erik Pevernagie, painting. Representi...
English: Erik Pevernagie, painting. Representing the opposition with lightness of being (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm not writing.

I'm not editing or marketing, either. I'm not planning, plotting or playing with a new MS. I started a new book but it's come to a sort of 'meh' point and I've put it aside while I do other things. I've scribbled a few short stories and other things, but nothing really significant.

It's mildly embarrassing when you meet people who know you only as a booky person, because they invariably (and perfectly politely) ask what you're working on at the moment and 'I'm not really, I've just sort of got nothing right now that's floating my boat' sounds wrong.

But it's God's honest, guv. I see no reason to force things and the new project is nowhere near qualifying for that excellent advice that saw me race to get A Decent Bomber done, 'Finish!'

I'm glad I'm not under contract. The agent/publisher would be nagging, reminding me an MS is due in next month and I'd be going spare about it, wracking my brains to force words onto the screen as I write in the certain knowledge that it's not really what I want to do or, indeed, what I want to write. And, by extension, that it's not really quite good enough to put my name on it and be proud of what I've done. I'd hate that.

It's not like it matters, of course. As we speak I languish in complete obscurity as a writer, so my lack of a new project is hardly going to have the NYT worrying about the future of literature.

In fact, it's something of a bonus. There's a certain sense of relief at not having characters bumbling around in my head all the time, not worrying about getting that next scene down or being niggled by a piece of dialogue. I've been doing more cooking, ambling about on the Internet and going out at weekends to rediscover bits of the Emirates. It's amazing how you get blasé about living somewhere as downright wonderful and exotic as Lalaland.

And no, I've not been posting here very much. I realised the other day that this silly little blog of mine will turn ten years old next month. That's pretty venerable. I suppose I shall have to celebrate in some way.

In the meantime, I'm enjoying the, well, lightness of not writing...

Friday, 3 March 2017

How To Self Publish Your Book In Dubai. Or Anywhere Else, For That Matter...

I just thought this was more fun than the EAFOL logo, to be honest...

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is once again upon us. Yup, that was a year right there.

I'm doing  workshop on how to self publish in the UAE, although you'd be able to use the info to self publish in Copenhagen, Watford or even, to remain topical to our peregrinations last weekend, Kathmandu.

I'm also doing a Q&A panel session on publishing, apparently which seems to have become an annual event confirming me as the UAE's poster child for self publishing. Which is all very nice, but I'd honestly rather be talking about censorship, selling books, telling stories, spies in the Middle East or the region's troubled relationship with narrative fiction, building a sense of place in novels, terrorism in fiction or a number of other aspects of my booky life. Hey ho.



What do you get for your Dhs 250? Well, you get to be shouted at by me for two hours. You'll also learn about editing, cover design, page layout, formatting your core manuscript, file management, rights, ISBNs and copyright, dealing with the National Media Council and booksellers in the UAE, printing books and mounting to sites like Amazon - as well as ebooks and Kindle, Apple, B&N and other online outlets. Then we'll also explore book marketing and promotion, online marketing, using dashboards and other booky sales stuff.

In short, a grounding of all you need to know to publish your own book effectively, to the highest possible quality and directed at the widest possible audience. Not bad, eh?

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Kathmandu: The Green Eye Of The Little Yellow God

English: Durga, Kathmandu, Nepal Español: Durg...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There's a one-eyed yellow idol
to the north of Kathmandu;
there's a little marble cross below the town.
And a broken-hearted woman
tends the grave of 'Mad' Carew,
while the yellow god forever gazes down.

He was known as 'Mad Carew’
by the subs at Kathmandu.
He was hotter than they felt inclined to tell.
But, for all his foolish pranks,
he was worshipped in the ranks
and the Colonel's daughter smiled on him as well.

He had loved her all along
with the passion of the strong
and that she returned his love was plain to all.
She was nearly twenty-one
and arrangements were begun,
to celebrate her birthday with a ball.

He wrote to ask what present
she would like from 'Mad' Carew;
they met next day as he dismissed a squad.
And jestingly she made pretence
that nothing else would do
but the green eye of the little yellow god.

On the night before the dance,
'Mad' Carew seemed in a trance
and they chaffed him,
as they pulled at their cigars.
But for once he failed to smile and he sat alone awhile,
then went out into the night beneath the stars.

He returned, before the dawn
with his shirt and tunic torn,
and a gash across his temples dripping red.
He was patched up right away
and he slept all through the day,
while the Colonel's daughter watched beside his bed.

He woke at last and asked her
if she'd send his tunic through.
She brought it and he thanked her with a nod.
He bade her search the pocket,
saying, 'That's from "Mad" Carew,'
and she found the little green eye of the god.

She upbraided poor Carew,
in the way that women do,
although her eyes were strangely hot and wet.
But she would not take the stone
and Carew was left alone
with the jewel that he'd chanced his life to get.

When the ball was at its height
on that still and tropic night,
she thought of him and hastened to his room.
As she crossed the barrack square
she could hear the dreamy air,
of a waltz tune softly stealing thro' the gloom.

His door was open wide,
with silver moonlight shining through.
The place was wet and slippery where she trod.
An ugly knife lay buried
in the heart of 'Mad' Carew:
'twas the vengeance of the little yellow god.

There's a one-eyed yellow idol
to the north of Kathmandu;
there's a little marble cross below the town.
And a broken-hearted woman
tends the grave of 'Mad' Carew,
while the yellow god forever gazes down.

(J. Milton Hayes)

This is my way of saying we're off to Nepal. Who knows what we're going to find... 

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Another Sharjah Shipwreck


Cometh the storm, cometh the shipwreck. It's happened almost every year for a few years now, although we missed out last year. It seems like every time there's a decent storm around here, some poor mug ends up beached on the sandy Sharjah or Ajman corniches. I don't know what it is that attracts them to this particular stretch of sand, but it does.

They're currently digging up the beach along Sharjah's corniche, installing what looks like a drainage system. Absent any explanation whatsoever, we can only conjecture it's to support further hotel development (Boo!) on what is a much-loved stretch of public beach used every weekend by thousands - unless they're going to expand the corniche road, known locally as Muntaza Road. We can only hope they're going to put the beach back neatly the way they found it.

There was absolute chaos on Friday night as a combination of roadworks and rubberneckers who'd heard there was a beached ship to stare at brought traffic to a standstill on the beach road and all the roads that feed into it. The police were trying to impose some sort of order on everything, with the wind still doing a pretty good howling impersonation and the sea still dangerous. Earlier in the day, the wind was so strong out to sea, you could lean back into it and not fall over.

The name of the beached boat looked like 'Hira', which would make it an 867 tonne offshore supply/anchor vessel sailing under a St Kitts and Nevis flag, although this is by no means certain - there's also a Turkish Hira and an Indian one, neither of which look anything like this one. Another time I read it as 'Hide' but couldn't find anything under that moniker. It's firmly stucked in the sand in the shallows a hundred yards or so away from the beach proper. There's nothing about it in the news, which is odd as The National and Gulf News have both made much of past beachings.

Anyway, by Saturday pretty much everyone had got over it and the crowds had thinned. It's still out there, presumably waiting for a high tide, a tow or Godot. You can imagine the poor captain calling the owner: 'Hi boss. I've got got good news and I've got bad news.'

Monday, 23 January 2017

The Second Router

English: A Cisco Systems ASM/2-32EM router in ...
This is a Cisco router in 1987. Today this device is the size of a Higgs Boson bla bla bla. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A 'rooter' routes network traffic but the implacable march of Americanisation has us calling it a 'router' as in the Rout of the White Hussars. And, living in a house with thick concrete walls, we found ourselves in need of extending our increasingly ubiquitous home network. For suddenly our lives are filled with Apple TVs, bluetooth speakers, iPads in every corner and a burgeoning collection of laptops. Sitting at the centre of all this stuff, like a spider in the centre of a web, is Alexa the Amazon Echo.

The trouble was upstairs. The distance and concrete mass was simply too much for a nice, simple wireless repeater, what we needed was a second router up there so we could stay connected to the source of all cat memes in our sleeping hours.

In order to extend your network with a second router, you run an Ethernet cable from the primary router to the secondary location (in our case upstairs) and then all you have to do is configure the second router. This is a process no normal human being should have to go through, involving hooking up the router to a PC, rolling up your sleeves and getting under the bonnet. It's not nice in there, I can tell you. Not having been under a bonnet in many, many years, I found myself struggling. Quite what someone who hadn't spent their lives around computers would make of this stuff, I really don't know.

It sort of boils down to this, in case you're interested: you need to turn off any DHCP settings and switch the router to 'fixed IP', then give the router a different IP address to the primary router. So if your main router is 192.168.1.1 (which most are these days), you call this one 192.168.1.2. You need to switch the router to 'access point' or 'bridge mode'. You should change the channel, too, unless like us your house is built like a Peenemunde bunker and contains huge wireless free zones. Having done all this, you plugs the Ethernet cable into the Internet 'in' plug and Robert is your father's brother. This process should be documented somewhere in your router manual, but it's usually not 'up front' for some reason.

While you're doing all this, you should probably change the default password on your router (all routers have 'admin' as their default password, like all dogs are called Malcolm*). It's amazing how many people don't. And write the new password down somewhere you'll be able to find it easily in a couple of years when you've finally got over the trauma of configuring routers. Again, it's amazing how many people don't.

Why, oh, why this stuff still - after all these years - doesn't just plug in and work out of the box is beyond me. When we're running around talking about the age of AI and the wonders of IoT (Internet of Things. It's linking pencil sharpeners and hairdryers to the Internet so they can talk to your Amazon Echo. Why? Don't ask.), to find the most basic building blocks of domestic networks still require hard configuration and demand people get to grips with IP addresses, channels and network settings is beyond belief.

Never mind. Battered, bloodied and bruised, I sorted it out in the end and now we can gently fry ourselves in high frequency radiation upstairs as well...

*This was a gag in, admittedly crap, TV comedy 'My Hero', which starred the admittedly brilliant Ardal O'Hanlon as Ardal O'Hanlon. It tickled us for some reason, and led to us taking to constantly calling The Niece From Hell's Jack Russell terrier - which she had Christened 'Holly' - Malcolm to the point where poor Holly even answered to Malcolm. The dog was soon cruelly abandoned by said niece and, mentally scarred for life, was sent to a foster home where nobody calls it Malcolm any more.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Fake Plastic News

English: A set of online ads featuring fake ne...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There's an awful lot of talk about fake news online, a background rumbling that occasionally erupts as indeed it has this week. We have all enjoyed the controversy surrounding the US intelligence dossier that purportedly places the future President of the land of the free and home of the brave in a Moscow hotel room watching gleefully as a number of ladies of dubious reputation perform vengeful lewd acts involving micturating on a bed previously used by the previous President of the LOFTAHOFB.

The fun thing about the story, which is more than likely total bunkum, is how deliciously fun it is. Liberal America would just love to believe it. So would most of us, no?

The trouble is that it's getting very hard indeed to sift the wheat from the chaff. But fake news is nothing new: we've always been rather surrounded by it. Was King Richard III really a vile, drooling hunchback who murdered two little princes? Probably not, but we've been just a tad under 500 years late coming to that conclusion. At the time, the spread of rumour was mostly by word of mouth - Gutenberg had only just invented the printing press and printed his celebrated bible - and so it was word of mouth, together with a wee dose of Shakespearean bile a hundred years later, that was to seal Richard's poor reputation.

Gutenberg's press - and pretty much every innovation in media and communications since - merely accelerated the process.

Richard was just one of a million historic examples of fake news, many of them classic examples of history being written by the victor. Sitting in Dubai, the issue of the Al Qassimi 'pirates' comes to mind - opposed to the invading British, they were quickly labelled brigands and pirates and so, for a good hundred years, the whole area was happily referred to as 'the pirate coast'. My own novels have often played with the idea that my freedom fighter is your terrorist and vice versa.

From Gutenberg to the Internet we see the rapidly evolving role of news media - from the invention of the 'newspaper' through to the era of press barons and the dominance of media by politics and big business. Idealistic journalists have constantly found themselves challenged by repressive forces, from political interference through to commercial censorship, our media has represented a combination of people telling truth to power and power telling lies to people.

We used to depend on those solid journalists and their editors to help us better understand the world around us from an informed viewpoint and we were, up until pretty recently, happy to buy whatever narrative they decided to shape for us. If we suspected any interference behind the scenes, we tended to gloss it over. For our media and governments would never tell us porky pies, would they? Our government, after all, governs in our name, does it not? Represents us? Why, then, would they lie to us?

It's not just governments, of course. Big business loves fake news. Advertising and PR agencies have long placed fake news stories in media. You can spot the weasel words, 'studies say' and 'most folks agree' are just two of many sure-fire signs that studies don't and most folks wouldn't. Palm oil, gun lobbies, Israeli settlers, big pharma selling GMOs to Africa - you name 'em, they've been manipulating news by seeding untruths and obfuscation disguised as surveys, research and expert opinion.

As the Internet has whipped the news cycle into a news cyclone, we have seen the erosion of trust in 'mainstream media' and politics become a dominant force in our society. Last year's two most savage political upsets were arguably driven by public anger and disaffection with politics, following on from the waves of disaffection which washed around the Middle East and made their way to Europe with the riots in Britain and Occupy Wall Street in the US. We've seen growing disaffection with big business, too. That wave of disaffection has moved with blinding speed because of the Great Networks of our age.

In the face of that disaffection, our media has been failing - plummeting revenues and the slow death of print have led to staffing cuts and a growing pressure to keep up with the twin-headed Gorgon of Twitter and Buzzfeed. We need clicks, boys, and we need them fast - realtime if you please.

If you want to see the result of this dual pressure to make old media models perform in the new media age, you only have to wander around the Daily Mail, the world's most popular news website. It's not a terribly edifying experience, especially if you believe (as I do) that we tend to get the media we deserve. The difference between the Mail's mainstream content and the stories in the 'Taboola' tabs is getting frighteningly slim. Real 'news' is starting to mimic fake news.

Making it all worse, alongside these pressures we have the very nature of the Internet. Ubiquitous, always-on, filled with people, animals, trolls and lice and all their spurious motivations and agendas. What would have been irrefutable proof in Richard's day (a letter, say) or Nixon's (a tape, say) is worthless today. We can Photoshop images, edit sounds, manipulate documents and fake testimony.

We can harness the news cycle and network effects to put untrue stuff out there and by the time anyone's got around to saying, 'Wait, what?' it's too late. Site X has run it, sites A-W have picked up from site X in the relentless rush to harvest those early clicks and suddenly the whole Web is full of the Spurious Thing. You can probably correct Site X, but that's about as far as you're going to get in terms of actually slipping a cork in the bottle. By about now you've got yourself a nice little hashtag and you're the talk of the town.

But this all has just democratised demonisation. We've always had fake news. It used to be the preserve of the wealthy, powerful and the victors. Now spotty Herberts in tenement bedrooms can do it. And there are companies out there who are harvesting clicks by the million by intentionally creating alarmist rubbish and pushing it with 'clickbait' headlines. Filtering the truth from the fake these days can be a bewildering game. And most people couldn't be bothered.

Which is, to be honest, a worry...

Monday, 2 January 2017

That British Airways Belfast Customer Experience

Tails of British Airways Jumbos lined up near ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sometimes an organisation's priorities are all too evident in the way it comports itself. Let's be clear here - comportment is what you do, not what you say.

Some of the most egregious customer service behaviours I have seen in my professional career have been on the part of organisations which spend a lot of time and money broadcasting their customer-service values and claiming they put the customer first.

These have mostly been Middle Eastern banks and telcos, which tend to pay a lot more money pushing 'we are customer-centric' messages than they do on actually helping customers in any way. This common attitude to 'customer experience' has always confused me, to be honest. It tends to have made its way from the analogue to the digital world, BTW - these organisations under-invest in UX, search and content compared to old-fashioned one-way communication efforts and still tend to consistently confuse outreach for broadcast. And they tend to see public relations as a way of managing and obfuscating their failures rather than as a positive force.

Critically, the pain resulting from this behaviour rarely gets felt by the management taking the decisions on where to allocate resources - the customer-facing front line is stuffed with minimum wage drones who have no escalation path. Rather than listen to them, the company will issue customer opinion surveys direct to customers which invariably result in initiatives to squeeze more out of the drones rather than drive any fundamental change in behaviour.

In the case of an airline like British Airways, it's understandable that the big expensive flying machines are what matters most. You'll claim it's all about the people, but that's not really the case (comportment, remember?) - the money's in the capital equipment and shifting that equipment around with optimal efficiency (slots/routes/lading) is the ultimate key to success.

When things go wrong, for instance when your home airport is closed through fog or any other circumstance, the operational challenges can be immense. Suddenly you face the collapse of the carefully stacked house of cards that is your optimal routing/resource utilisation. Minimising time to recovery is key and, despite your loud protestations, customers tend to be one of the great inconveniences to this process. They have a nasty tendency to be where they're not supposed to be and fail to be quite where you'd like them to be.

They get, in short, in the way.

When we arrived for our scheduled flight from Belfast to find the usually minimal check-in queue was a long, snaking affair stretching almost out of the airport door, we were puzzled. We'd not been keeping up with the news - too busy doing Christmas - and found out from friends online that there had been flight delays at Heathrow due to freezing fog. British Airways - which had our email address and contact number - hadn't reached out to advise of any delays or issues.

The queue wasn't moving and there was nobody from BA 'working the line' and telling people what was happening. The boards showed later flights to LHR than ours that day had already been cancelled, which had us trying to call a friend we knew was connecting from BHD through LHR to DXB later on. Clearly her travel plans were already scuppered, even as ours still held out a dwindling prospect of hope.

After an hour or so, a tannoy advised us that check-in was slower than normal and assured us that 'we would be processed' as soon as possible. This would be my first piece of 'customer experience feedback' to British Airways. Processed is not, as eny fule no, a 'feel-good customer experience' word.

A long time later, we were duly processed and went through security to the departure lounges. We were on the 15.05 flight and watched the 12.05 flight departing shortly before we were due out. There was clearly a delay in the offing here, but we took heart on not being cancelled. Minutes later, the tannoy rang out - our flight was cancelled and we were to collect our bags and a 'rebooking form' from the baggage area.

The rebooking form was an A4 sheet being handed out by harassed looking baggage handlers who assured me that they had no information beyond the form, didn't work for BA and weren't responsible for anything. Repeated requests to speak to someone from BA were ignored or refused. The form itself had been knocked up in an annoying, hard to read 'handwriting' style font and carried a wrong number for the call centre and the instruction to 'call between XX:XX and XX:XX'. As the primary instrument of communication to passengers of a cancelled flight, it was pretty shoddy and almost utterly useless. At this stage the BA app and website were equally useless, showing the flight as either still departing or delayed. There was no rebooking option available on either platform. The British Airways call centre was dropping calls with a message that they were too busy to talk to us.

We hired a car and fled back to Newry for our unscheduled night's layover. By the time we arrived down the road (it's an hour's drive away), the flight was no longer showing as cancelled, but as delayed to 6am the next day. After 30 minutes on hold, we finally got through to the call centre, clearly managed at a distant location, which could only confirm the delayed flight or refer us back to BA.com. Because your flight is delayed and not cancelled, the message was clear, rebooking isn't really an option.

With no information other than this, we had no option but to get up at 3.30am to arrive at the British Airways check-in at Belfast City - both officially and fondly known as George Best - in time to present on time for the revised 6am flight. Once again, a long, long queue and no BA staff on hand. Getting to the front of the line, we learn BA1417 is a 'free' flight - a plane is on the tarmac surplus to requirements and they'll fill it as soon as possible and get it off when they can. As it turned out, this was finally to be at 5.30pm that day.

In all that time, BA staff were notably absent. Information and updates were just as sparse. Throughout, our fellow travellers were anxious and unsure how to act in the total absence of information, given no option but to hang around and wait for the next reluctantly divulged snippet. Families, old people, kids and all - confused, concerned and effectively marginalised - were all systematically kept in the dark.

The overwhelming theme throughout this whole process was the lack of communication or concern for the messy carbon-based life forms which British Airways claims sit at the very centre of their business. The BA app was less than useless, the website poorly structured and lacking in any useful information, transactional capability or interactivity - especially given the circumstances. The BA Twitter team pushes out platitudes but there's little empowerment on show here - they had as much information (or as little) as we did.

BA's only attempt at 'customer communication' was a badly formatted letter packed with errors and carrying no useful information. There was no proactive outreach, no attempt at interactive person-to-person communication or 'Customer Experience Management' (at one stage the Twitter team told me they'd share my comments with their 'Customer Experience Managers' which had me in stitches and, to be honest, rather fed my Twitter output for a while. I managed some 100 tweets in all, a flow of admittedly somewhat therapeutic scorn that eventually drew the attention of the dear old BBC).

It was clear time after time that BA staff had knowledge of the developing situation which they were not prepared to share with their customers. BA.com was often updated before any communication was attempted with customers waiting in the lounge, while staff would only offer information in response to direct questions - literally, if you didn't ask (pointedly), you didn't get.

We couldn't face a long haul flight directly after the BA debacle and so re-booked our subsequent flight with Emirates. It took 5 minutes using EK's website.

BA followed up the whole frustrating experience with a customer experience survey yesterday (twice, for some reason), which actually just confirmed my views of them as an organisation. Did the pilot serve us well? Was he proactive? Chatty? Good at making us feel warm and welcome?

I don't care, BA. That's not his job. His job is to drive the thing effectively and safely, not to make up for your lack of investment in customer service by bantering and pandering to your ill-served customers.

I'd like to think they could learn something from this: listen and perhaps even consider changing their behaviour as a result of the feedback. But they won't. British Airways didn't learn a thing from the Eyjafjallajökull debacle, which cost us four days of BA-induced hell back in 2010 - because every single awful lack in communications and customer care or customer experience management evident then was evident now.

So much could change and for a relatively small investment. Because an organisation is judged not on how it acts when everything's going as expected, but how it acts when the extraordinary happens. British Airways' performance in the face of the extraordinary has been consistently, arrogantly, infuriatingly sub-par.

All it would take is reviewing British Airways' operations from the customer's point of view. It's a serious suggestion - it so clearly hasn't been done, ever.

Meanwhile, my abiding takeaway is that a 'Customer Experience Management' team is employed by this company.

God forbid. What do they do each day?

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Oh noes! Here Comes COMPLIANCE!

English: Postage stamp of Umm-al-Qiwain (UAE),...
The cold weather's here alright, but this is just silly...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I was ranting on Medium the other day about the Evils of Conformity but there is a much darker, brooding evil stalking my life right now. Compliance.

As an Ancient Expat, I deal with a number of financial institutions. Some look after my company's money, some my own money. Some act in a number of ways to impair my access to my money (not that I'm giving HSBC a long, hard stare at this point, you understand) while others are entrusted with our plans for jam tomorrow.

The times they have been a-changin' for some time now. I remember walking into the Bank of Ireland in Thurles waving a wad of UAE Dirhams and asking the teller if I could please change them into Irish Punts.
'Of course,' came the answer. 'What are they?'
'They're UAE Dirhams.'
'Is that right? Is that what they look like? Well, I never!'
And they were then duly changed at the prevailing rate.
I swear it's true. Nowadays they'd have to take all my biometrics, my DNA and a snapshot of my current mind-state before they'd even talk to me.

Try telling a British financial institution - one that's happy enough to take money from overseas but clearly make no concessions to an environment that's different to the UK - that you only have a PO Box number. That even though they put up street signs on your sand road a few years ago, nobody uses them. Particularly since a lorry knocked down the sign on the corner a couple of years back and nobody's replaced it.

We need two utility bills, they trill, addressed to your home address. Except they aren't, here. They're all addressed to our PO Box. All our statements and other financial institution correspondence comes to our PO Box. Nobody uses our physical address, nobody. If you HAVE to find us, for instance to deliver Lebanese food, you get talked in from the Sheraton Sharjah.

Since my first visit to the wonders of the Gulf in 1986, I have found my way to innumerable meetings 'Past the second water tank after the Herfy on Sitteen Street, turn left and we're below the ALICO sign' although I must pause to point out that all directions given to locations in Abu Dhabi are followed by 'it's really easy', words which strike a chill of fear into my heart because they invariably mean 'You're going to die trying to find us.'

The British Embassy doesn't certify documents anymore. The Irish Office in Dubai will, for Dhs60, certify a copy of a passport but really wants an Irish connection and isn't too happy about doing my Brit passport. Getting two hours away from work to trot off getting documents legally translated and certified is, oddly enough, not very easy. I'm actually busy. And that certification of identity doesn't help with the old physical address thing, either.

It's been plaguing me. Everything I try isn't quite good enough. The electricity bill gives my area as a different area to the other document. Try as I might, I can't get 'em to understand that Muntaza and Rifa'a are the same thing. They might even be Fisht or Heera, depending on your mood and desire for geographical granularity. Any physical address given simply doesn't matter anyway. There is no standard, there is no infrastructure that relies on or requires physical addressing. And when a utility goes askew, we have to go to their office and bring the chap back to our house because they'd never find it otherwise. Oh, unless they want to cut off the supply when they suddenly and miraculously know precisely where we are. Quick aside - the other week SEWA cut us off for non-payment when we'd paid. 'Why didn't you knock first?' we asked, getting the immortal response, 'Because people hit us.'

We have an Etisalat location ID, but as far as I can tell even Etisalat doesn't use that. The wee plaque affixed to our villa displaying it is actually most used by local gas companies and AC repair men to wedge their stickers and business cards. Even the tenancy contract (legally translated and certified, natch) is no good as it only refers to me because it's in my name rather than joint names because we're in the UAE and that's just how it is here, right?

Nope.

In impotent fury, I point out our money was good enough to take in the first place. They opened the account. Why now, with each new shift in pottiness, am I faced with fresh swathes of idiocy dressed up as 'compliance'?

'Yes, yes. We understand. Nevertheless, we need two immutable and incorrigible proofs of your residence address signed in wet ink by a bearded ocelot. And then stamped, signed, sealed, translated, attested, fumigated and duly immolated.'

Bastards.

From The Dungeons

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