Wednesday, 13 October 2010


I went to the post office last week to send a parcel. Once the package had been weighed, measured and the value of its contents quantified, I handed over my money, got the stamps and expected to be on my way.
'Is that everything?' the man behind the counter asked.
'Yes,' I said, waiting for my change.
'Do you need to top up your mobile phone?'
'Can I interest you in a personal loan?'
'Open a National Savings account?'
At this point I said nothing, giving the ten pound note I had proffered an extra shove in his direction. He took the hint and gave me my change.

Yesterday, different post office, different staff. I'm sending off the Boy's passport application.
'Do you know we offer a "Check and Send" service for passport applications?' the lady says, eyeing up the envelope.
I smile and nod and put the envelope on the scales. 'Just the stamps please.'
'Can I interest you in a Post Office credit card?'
'Travel insurance? Currency exchange?'
Silence. I'm not biting. Finally she hands over my change. I give her a breezy smile, but inside I am sighing.

There was a phrase my mother and teachers were fond of using: Jack of all trades, master of none. I wonder when this piece of folk wisdom went out of fashion.

Many years ago, before Children, when I worked as a researcher in arts and media, there was a lot of talk about 'convergence' in the media industries. I didn't really understand then what that meant but, some fifteen years later, I see it every day. I surf the web on my phone, I watch TV on my computer. With all the data coming down the phone line, it sort of makes sense for BT to want to sell me TV data, and Sky to sell me telephony.

But elsewhere in the marketplace, it's all gone a little mad. I get my pet insurance from the supermarket. British Gas fix my electrics. Blockbuster are going to start selling the TVs and DVD players we need to watch their movies (although what you are doing in Blockbuster if you haven't got a TV in the first place is beyond me).

What I really want is people who know what they are doing, know their product, and don't have to send me to a call centre to answer every question. I had a problem with our new Sky box a few weeks ago. I've learned by experience that their technical support staff are charming, eager, and clueless. I know what they are going to suggest before they say it, and I will invariably have tried it already. This time, I went online first, found a Sky user forum where my problem was discussed, found the solution, called Sky and asked them to implement the suggested solution. They refused, had to go through their checklist. We did the checklist - and thirty minutes later, still not fixed. Then they tried my way - two minutes later, ta da. Problem solved. Yet I bet the next person who calls in with the same problem will get no joy. They won't make a note of my solution - it doesn't appear on the list therefore it doesn't exist.

But the backlash has started. We have a new fishmonger on our high street. The guy who runs it is pleasant and knowledgable. He provides recipes according to the fish he has got in that day, and sells all the ingredients too, getting the neighbouring greengrocers to supply the veg. Give him enough notice and he'll get you whatever fish you want, and tell you how to cook it. Perfect. I want fish - he sells me fish. Job done.

If he ever tries to sell me car insurance, though, I shall despair.

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