Customer Services – A dedication to those at the “front end”

The phone rings, rings and rings again. There’s a pause and the feeling of anticipation grows throughout your whole body – and then the sound of Bach’s “Orchestral 3rd Suite in D” reverberates through your ear and rebounds off the inside of your brain. Your head is currently empty of all thoughts other than the immediate issue you have  – “your internet is not working”,  “you have received an over-estimated gas bill of £10000” or the fact that your cold water tap only produces the sounds of a “babies fart” and not the customary clear “nectar of life” that it is supposed to deliver. Your temperature rises, your hands sweat and your heart pounds – “for “fucks sake” you shout down the phone – are you really expecting Beethoven to cease conducting his amassed musicians to answer your enquiry – I think not!

How many times of have our hopes and aspirations for a quality customer service been doomed from the outset–from the point that we actually attempted to raise our query.

“We are here 24hrs a-day to answer your call” – that’s if you can actually get someone to “answer your call”.

“I’m sorry we are experiencing an unprecedented high volume of calls currently, please try later” I like this one as it is normally as a result of you already trying to make contact and getting a similar message earlier. So you have set your alarm clock for 3am and got up to ring again. Obviously the same idea that 1000 other people chose to do at that very same point in time.

However my blog is not directed at those nameless Businesses who have no qualms in taking our money off of us on a regular basis and then provide a staggering appalling to service to us in return. I want to focus on the millions of people who are at the front end of our wrath – those actually working as “customer service” representatives.

Bad customer service is certainly “bad for Business” – any business. If your business has a monopoly it sometimes is not that easy to take direct action and go elsewhere. We need electricity for instance – so we have to go to an electricity supplier. Nobody is going to convince me that there is anyone of them that is reliably better than the other at customer service. We all have had good and bad experiences with many of them – and if you haven’t, consider yourself lucky.

Having worked in the Water Industry for many years I can assure you that 99% of the people who contact us either want something, or want to complain about something. The call that goes:

 “I thought I would contact you to thank you for my recent bill, it’s a very good deal and I hope you have a wonderful day”, doesn’t happen regularly, if at all.

I once took a call from a lady on a Sunday afternoon to complain that she had no ELECTRICITY. When I explained that she had contacted the Water Company she responded with “yes I know, but I can’t get an answer from the electricity company”. On another, a night shift, I received ten calls from the same lady who was convinced that the government was poisoning the whole country through the water supply, and what was “I” going to do about it!

On a regular basis we often find ourselves as individuals, either expecting someone to deliver a service to us, or actually having to provide a service to someone who has high expectations of us. Of course those two events are often computed separately in our brains. When we are expecting a service form an individual or a Company we apply a different set of criteria on the merits of those expectation to what we apply when the boot is on the other foot.  How often do we find ourselves trying to justify what we haven’t done with such responses as:

“Yes, I’m sorry but I will get to it shortly”

“I wasn’t in yesterday”

“I had to take the dog to the vet”

“Our engineer has gone sick”

For many, the applying of differing standards or expectations comes naturally, when it comes to the providing of a service.

It is frustrating for us all when the service we receive falls short of our expectations. The reality of course is that many organisations cannot provide the service we expect for financial reasons, for others it’s a choices of a different kind.

What aggrieves me more is the degree of criticism that is continually directed at those staff in customer service roles, many of whom are good hard working individuals, who often find themselves with little or no  support. I have been there when individuals have been reduced to tears by the abusive comments received via the end of a telephone. Calls made by people who have no concept of who they are directing their venom at. The worse kind of abuse is that which is directed as a result of gender

“I want to speak to a Manager”.

“But, you are talking to a manager sir”

“No- I want to speak to a man!”

It has been a privilege for me to work with some fantastic ladies in my career, at all levels. I have never believed for one moment that gender is relevant in the workplace – however competency is.

If companies want to provide a high level of customer service then they need to invest. I’m pretty pissed off with this general concept that we can “make efficiencies and improve customer service at the same time”. Especially when “make efficiencies = headcount reduction”.

So this blog is dedicated to the millions of people working in customer facing roles. In particular it’s a tribute to those staff who I have worked alongside over many years – all of us trying to meet the expectations demanded of us, and sometimes, just sometimes – managing to do that.

White Collar-Blue Collar (A further extract from the forthcoming “Memoirs of a Retiring Utility Worker”

During a Company “Town Hall Briefing” in 2017 I was asked to comment on, what at the time was believed to be by some, a “perceived” difference between the way Operational and Office staff were being treated. My response at that time was “that whether there is actually a difference or not can be subjective, however, the important point was that if operational staff believed that they were being treated differently, then there actually is a problem”. What was more worrying for me at that time was that many of the operational front-line managers weren’t supposedly aware of the fact that this perception existed – which for me was of a bigger issue.

All through my employment there has been at times an underlying issue around the relationship between Depot, or operational staff, and those that worked in the offices. Whilst the physical barriers relating such things as toilets and restaurants have been removed – this under-current seemingly still remains. Back in the 1970’s the Directors had their own Dining Room at Head Office, and were served by waitresses. For many years Head Office had the use of a barber on the top-floor!  On the unlikely occasion that you would have to attend there, and occasionally as an electrician you did, then you would be required to remove your overalls before entering the building. At Christmas an entourage of Directors would tour the Depots to wish the “underlings” Seasonal Greetings, and offer them a cigarette or indeed a cigar. What is interesting about this is that I don’t think for one moment those people at that time believed that they were any better than anyone else. Certainly the Company’s General Manager for many of those years was well regarded by all. Yes he was well spoken, and he certainly commanded a lot of authority, but he was approachable and a good communicator. So the question has to be asked – what feeds these apparent divisions?

There is no doubt for me that a lot of the problems are caused by individuals who, by way of their action or influence, continue to feed this perception. What is more of a concern, is that if there is acknowledgement an issue exists, why is it that so many decision makers find it impossible to deal with . The failure of any Business to address a problem like this actually feeds the  notion that people from differing areas are actually  being treated differently.

So when it comes to these perceived differences, what is fact and what is speculation, or myth? We have come a long way from the 1970’s era where manual labour was portrayed as the vocation of the “working class”, dedicated to the aims and ideologies of the Labour Party, and perceived to be the victims of persecution by the “ruling classes”. Our modern operational workforces consist of a wide range of often intelligent, articulate staff who, are well educated and are, quite rightly in some cases, very opinionated. Yes, of course there are still the odd remnants of the old rear- guard, resisting change at “all costs”, but they are few. I see this change as an important part of the discussion  – as we now need to understand that this operational, “shop floor workforce”, see themselves as equals to those who are office based, managers or “white collar”, and quite rightly expect to be treated as such.

Forty years ago front-line managers had often worked themselves up through the ranks, and having worked hard to get there were going to ensure that there was a very clear division between them and the one’s they left behind. Many senior managers, were professional Engineers, and used to being addressed as “Mr”. Everyone at that time accepted the status-quo, as if it existed for some divine reason, and served as some purpose.

Of course, we now see more and more people entering senior management positions with degrees or other professional qualifications. Their route to the top, whilst through hard work I’m sure, is not as it previously used to be, which was often from the bottom up. If I am being really honest I often find myself at times resenting the interference of those who are less able or experienced to deal with a “people issue”, but consider themselves more qualified based on their Education. Do we really have to refer to the “book of best practice” to deal with some of the fundamental problems that employees have? Have we really lost our ability as human beings to be compassionate, supportive or understanding when listening to each other’s issues in the workplace?

During a conversation I was a party to last year the issue came up regarding the apparent unwillingness of some of our staff to do additional planned work on a weekend. “I don’t know what the issue is”, I was told. “We pay them overtime don’t we?” The concept that many of our lowest paid operational staff will jump every time someone says “double-time”, has long gone. They too have partners, wives, children and grandchildren – their time with them is as precious as everyone else’s – regardless how much your monthly salary is.

It clearly has to be accepted that there are significant differences between the work being done by many employees. That difference is at is greatest when you compare staff working in a fixed location to that of a mobile workforce. There has to be a realisation of these differences between all parties. Operational staff need to be realistic with some of the issues they raise; not understanding these basic differences only undermines the issue when true injustices are occurring.

It’s for each of us to think hard about what we actually feel and then to consider whether our behaviours reflect what we actually do think.

 

“Tales of Zion”

Tales of Zion

A number of linked events have triggered this, my latest blog. However I think it’s worth mentioning first that creation of this “blog” was in-part, an element of my retirement planning. I enjoy writing, and firmly believe that keeping yourself mentally active is as important as physical activity, as you put those years of continued employment behind you. So the blog provides me with an opportunity for me to recall events, to pass comment on a variety of topics, but more importantly keep my grey cells active. Anyway, back to the linked events:

zion

As you will be aware (if you aren’t you soon will be) I was born and raised on Bedminster Down, at the time a reasonable sized largely Council Estate in South Bristol. Note the use of the words “on Bedminster Down”; you lived “on the Down” – not “In the Down”. You might live “in” Highridge or in Headley Park, but those brought up in my area were “Bemmy Downers”. I picked up from Facebook recently that there was a plan to look at the viability of starting a Historical Society for Bedminster Down – the route of this being the now vibrant Zion Community Café and Event Space, on Bishopsworth Road. This was once the Zion Methodist Chapel – many years ago frequented by yours truly, and the rest of the Lewis Family. Then, during last week I received a phone call from my good friend Barry Lovell, now a resident of the USA. Barry and I have known each other since we were five years of age. We spent ages on the phone yapping and recalling events from our past. One of those stories touched on our time together in the scouts, which leads me on to:

Zion, the former Chapel that served the needs of the Methodists on Bedminster Down, and it’s surrounding area. Not as grand as its  Church of England  counterpart St Oswald’s, that stands a half a mile down the road in Cheddar Grove – but nevertheless still a very important part of the community of Bedminster Down. John Wesley started the Methodist Church in the 18th Century in an attempt to being change to the Church of England, and ended up creating an autonomous Church instead.

Photo Courtesy of Zion Cafe

The Chapel sat proudly on the main Bishopworth Road, with just Brian Dyers Fruit & Veg shop separating it from its adjoining “School” Hall, where we all attended Sunday School, and where the 266th Zion Methodist Scout and Cub Group held its meetings. We went to Sunday school every Sunday afternoon, and often either a Morning or Evening Service in the Chapel on the same day. Once a month was “Sunday Parade” and a time for all the Scouts and Cubs to attend. Dressed in our uniforms we would line up before all trooping into the Chapel together, unless of course you had the honour of “carrying the flag”. Being a Flag bearer was a tremendous honour. The troop’s neckerchief was in two parts – the only one of that type in Bristol at that time. Two coloured triangular cloths of “Scarlet” and “Old Gold” (as they were called) folded together in such a way as to create a narrow band of colour down the edge. It was placed around your neck in such a way to present a triangle of cloth at the back of your neck with the apex pointing in a line down between your shoulder blades – and held together at the front with the traditional “Scout woggle”.

Generations of families attended Zion and were the stalwarts of the Chapel for years. The Steed’s, Lovell’s, Withers, Smith’s, Merryweather’s, Kews’ Hall’s, Hasell’s – with many of the families linked by marriage. On Sunday evenings in particular you could see a parade of people walking out of the surrounding roads of Ilchester Crescent, Lewis Road, Eastlyn Road and from either end of Bishopsworth at the time approached 6pm – all attending the Evening Service.  One of the most popular Ministers being the Rev Malcolm Beach. In those days there was a dedicated Minister for Zion. These weren’t “fire and brimstone” services – they were just ordinary Church Services similar to the thousands of others that occurred every Sunday during the period.  Many, many years later I attended couple of Sunday Services at the Counterslip Baptist Church, near my home. This wasn’t some “re-connection to God” on my part, more a case of a parent supporting his children who were members of the Boys Brigade at that Church. The Pastor at Counterslip was Nigel Coles, who I knew through our children. Unfortunately on the second occasion I went Nigel wasn’t in attendance and they had a lay-preacher there.  He ranted on in true “fire and brimstone” style, and when he then decided to pick on divorcee’s I fully expected that a flash of listening was going to shoot though the sky and strike me dead as a mortal sinner. I didn’t go back. Anyway, I digress from my memories of Zion.

I always thought the inside of Zion Church was impressive. Entering the front door you could go left or right, downstairs or even upstairs to the balcony that went around the complete inside of the church, joining together at the choir stalls at the far end, which sat above the pulpit. Entry to the choir stalls was from a side door at the back of the Church. Most Sunday evening the Church was packed – upstairs and downstairs. The more people that attended the longer the collection would take. The minister would announce “we will now sing “Hymn XXXX”, during which the collection or “offerings” would be taken”. At which the appointed people, (who did have an official name), would stand up and start passing these blue bags around. They would be passed up and down the aisles before being returned to the collector. As kids, when it passed through your hands you would drop in the coppers you had been given by your parents for the collection. The smart one’s managed to develop the art of sliding the bag from one hand to the other and on to the person next to them, clearly indicating that they were donating, but not releasing the money – which they then spent on sweets as Mrs Bryant’s (where Cardill Close now sits) opposite the Church, the following day. (No Sunday opening in those days). (I suspect the modern day equivalent is the passing around of a “contactless card facility” and you just swipe your card across the top)  I knew the words to “Oh Jesus I have Promised” and “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” off by heart – they were traditional Methodist Songs. The ultimate honour would be being asked to deliver a reading from The Bible, delivered from the pulpit at the front of the Church. You would walk, as the congregation hushed, up the aisle to the pulpit, climb the steps and then “deliver the Reading”.

Sunday school was very much “as it say’s on the tin”. Bible study – accompanied with the traditional hymn singing for the young, “How did Moses cross the Red Sea” and “Bringing in the Sheaths”.  How did Moses cross the Red Sea? Well apparently he stood at the banks and spread his arms and the sea’s parted  – allowing him and thousands of other Israelites to cross (very much like James Corden does in his  current TV advert to  move the sheep blocking his path.!)  before returning the sea to normal drowning the Egyptians that were following. You see – I did pay attention at Sunday school! Of course there was the annual Sunday school outing to Weymouth. This could be your only “holiday” as a kid. One day out to the seaside with everyone from the church – two coaches full of parents and kids hoping and “praying” it didn’t rain. There were no motorways or dual carriageways – it was a three hour journey. The return journey at 6pm from the Swan Car Park, which  hosted at that time the Weymouth Amusement Park. If you got back to the car park early enough there might be time for a ride on The Wild Mouse (pre Alton Towers) if your parents had any spare money. The return journey was very often interrupted with a toilet stop at Castle Carey, where you could get Fish ‘n Chips. Little sister Deb suffered from travel sickness and would spend the journey both ways with a bucket lined with a plastic bag on her lap. Apparently sitting on newspapers was a good cure for travel sickness at that time – but it didn’t work in our Deb’s case. The School Hall would be used for the standard fund-raising functions for many years – Jumble Sales, Christmas and Easter Fare’s.

I attended Cubs on a Wednesday night at 6.30pm if we were lucky Dyers would still be open and Brian would bombard you with his squashed tomatoes from over the wall. If the Hall wasn’t open one of us would run down to the Caretaker, Mrs Hall to get the key. Akela was Joyce Blackmore, her husband John ran the Scouts. We went camping, I had a whole host of “Badges” that wee sewn on to my green cub uniform – I became a “seconder”, a “sixer” in the Cubs, and yes eventually the Leader of Hound Patrol in the Scouts. We only had two patrols Hounds and Squirrels (that’s where my later life obsession of squirrels comes from) – we weren’t a large Troop – but we were dedicated. At The World Jamboree in Torquay in 1966 all attending Troops had to build an ornamental gatehouse to their site – we built a perfectly sized replica of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge in bamboo – and won of course. This was the same jamboree when the parents of the attending lads were invited for the day. Why do I remember it so clearly? Well, when a number of mums turn up, including  Edna Osbourne, Bett Hall and my mum, and cook everyone a roast dinner using a metal biscuit tin  on a camp fire  as an oven it’s something to remember ! (Metal Biscuit tins – this was a world when biscuits were often bought loose. They were sold on shelves behind the counter a bit lick “pick and mix”. As a kid you could buy a “bag of broken biscuits cheaply). When chatting to Barry he reminded me of the Camp we did at Woodhouse Park. It was a competition – destined to fail. We had to make the custard – we produced what we have referred to since as “shit and sugar”, and it was despatched over the adjoining fence.

Weddings were regular events at the Chapel – if you attend there, you usually got married there. The only other option was the Bristol Registry Office in Quaker Friars, which is now a Raymond Blonc restraint. Yes, and of course there were funerals. I attended my first ever funeral at Zion – that of Colin, Shirley and Andrew Jones, who tragically died in the Swiss Air Disaster of 1973. If you know Zion Chapel I’m sure you can imagine the difficulties of a triple funeral taking place there.

The Churches of Zion and St Oswald’s both had Youth Clubs for years – this was the period before the establishment of the Boy’s Club in its new premises. Both Scouts troops were impacted by the Boys Club. When the Zion Scouts/Cubs closed many years ago I attended a service in the Church where the Troops Standards (Flag) were handed back – for good. It was the last time I visited the place that had provided myself and many others years of “spiritual guidance”.

Sadly the Church Hall was turned into flats years ago but Zion, whilst no longer a place of religious worship, is a vibrant Community Event Venue and Café. Zion was originally an ancient Jebusite fortress in the ancient City of Jerusalem.  It seems to me that Bedminster Down’s own “Zion” is doing what it has always done – proving a service to the community it resides in.

 

Five weeks and counting?

“Not long now then Andy?”

“No, five weeks today”

“Counting the days?”

What does that mean “counting the days”? It seems to insinuate that I have a great big clock or timer somewhere that is ticking down the weeks, days, hours and minutes until I leave. In fact, I do have a “countdown to retirement app “on my phone, that I put on at Christmas (probably against Company Policy), but I gave up looking at it some time ago.

I had an exit interview this week. Interesting really, as you could argue “why do you need to conduct an exit interview with someone who is retiring? But of course, the world is somewhat different now than it used to be, I don’t have to retire! No, the days of you being ceremoniously “oiked” out the door at 65 years of age are long gone. Nowadays, it’s about personal choice and of course “performance”.

We now have an appropriate IT system to record these processes, and we have the benefit of the dreaded “drop down box”. Where we used to have two boxes for “sex”, male or female, we now have more than two (I assume). “Sexual orientation” (not part of an exit interview I would stress) – loads. Quite correctly we attempt to capture accurately the wide and quite diverse attributes that we all have, when it comes to collecting personal information. “Retiring” seemed to appear in a lot of the drop down boxes I saw.

I have never doubted for one minute that my decision to leave is correct. It was based on a single assessment of “do I believe that I could undertake my role to the level that is required, and cope with the level of commitment, pressure and stress that went with it” going forward. Once you accept that there is little you can do about changing any of those issues, and then the choices become much clearer. You either find another position or, if you are at an appropriate age, retire. Retirement is an option, but not the only one. So perhaps the enquiry should be less of a statement   “so you are retiring then?” but,  more of a question, “why are you retiring?” I enjoy working, more importantly I enjoy the daily engagement with fellow human beings, of different ages, roles and responsibilities. I fully understand how much I will be miss these people, some of which I have known for a very long time. BUT – I reiterate, I have never ever doubted my  decision.

I was recently looking at a book called the “The Story of Bristol Waterworks Company, 1939-1991”. It was written by Alan Hodgson, who was the Company’s Principle Administration Officer until his retirement in 1988. Full of great information about the Company but for me it lacks one very important ingredient– and that is in regard with references to the “people” of the Company.

For me the real strength of Bristol Water has, and continues to be, its employees. I have benefited from being involved with the Company over three distinct periods, and in numerous roles. I have experienced the highs and the lows, and like many others, have views on the issues that have, and continue to challenge us. However, over this career I have never ever felt for once that I was “alone”, that there was nobody I could turn to for help or assistance. Even when working on my own, on nights in the Operations Room – where you could go twelve hours without seeing or speaking to another human being, there was always someone at the end of a phone. There is this unique part of the DNA of some of our employees that still believe passionately that we will always be local Water Company serving the needs of a local community – and, as individuals are very much a part of the community it serves.

So my memoirs  will focus very much on the “non-engineering” element of the Company. It will focus on the people, the characters, the culture and of course the social and business changes that impacted them all.

And finally, an extract from the (hopefully) forthcoming  “Memoirs of a Retired Utility Worker”

Chew Stoke Pumping Station was reputed to be haunted. Folklore suggests that one of the Farmers that owned one of the farms that are now under Chew Valley Lake decided to come back from beyond the grave, and his spirit survives within the pumping station that sits beside the lake. Bert Gregory, who worked as an M&E Administrator when I joined, used to work on shift at the pumping station. He used to tell stories of doors opening and closing on their own, and bizarrely – spanners and other tradesman’s tools flying through the air. According to him the worst area was the workshop that sits at the end of the pump hall. Unfortunately the men’s toilets are at this end of the building – and a number of individuals have been “spooked” in the early hours of the morning whilst attending a breakdown at that pumping station. I never went there on my own at night!

It’s important to remember that this was the mid to late 1970’s; everything was different to what it is now. I am not going to attempt to justify or indeed condemn some of the activities that went one – but what I will do is attempt to give a true reflection of that time.

Jim (not his real name) was a “character”. He smoked Dunhill cigarettes, lit by a Dunhill lighter and could eat six cream cakes in one sitting. One of the most bizarre experiences I had of working him was as follows:

Jim was divorced and was in a relationship with a girl in Shirehampton whose father had a Taxi Business. Jim arrived one morning at work in a very smart jacket with a “private hire” badge on his coat. We were given a job at Dry Hill, Portishead, and off we went in both vans, well that’s what we should have done – but Jim decided he would take his car.  At about 11.30am Jim announces that he had a “fare to sort”, and off he goes. He returned mid –afternoon, after fulfilling his “taxi obligation”.

 

Been a tough week – but only seven to go.

Relationships can be a painful experience at times. Sometimes it is apparent that things are drifting apart, and you are powerless to stop them.  Those dreams and ideologies that were planned for the future seem a distant memory. It started off well, we were both full of endeavour – this was going to be true partnership in every way. We would share the good times, and discuss where things may be going wrong. This was going to be new start for both. Both parties had been involved in previous relationships, some had gone well, some hadn’t. There were scars to heal and importantly – there were “dependents”!

The issue of dependents is always going to be difficult. Some of them would get on and others wouldn’t. The “parents” are pulled in opposing directions at time, what comes first – loyalty to your partner, or loyalty to your “offspring”.

How long can both parties endure the pain? There is an undercurrent of mistrust – what is the other “party” up to. What do they really think; can either party continue to trust what the other says?

Someone has to make a move but the risks are high. What if they have read all the signs incorrectly? What if the other party is purely reacting to what the other one is saying or doing? Who is right – and who is wrong?

You stand on the brink – you’ve been here before. You remember the pain, the angst and the damage that was done last time. Are we all prepared for history to repeat itself?

A story of two individuals – no. Partnerships are not always about two individuals- sometimes it is much bigger than that. Either way the stakes are often high – and the damage can be irreversible. However, the one thing that all partnerships rely on is trust – when trust goes the basis of any relationship is apt to go with it.

Sometimes making the effort to make things work is still the better option and sometimes it probably isn’t,

Lunchtime – and why salad is the best option!

They sit, all three of them within a metre of one another. Two smart sophisticated specimens, shiny, smooth – no handles, knobs or dials. Beautifully aligned and stacked neatly on top of one another. The third one sits alone to the right, a little like the “lad that doesn’t fit in”. It has an aging look, rugged with producing dials, Billy “no mates”.

I take my place in the queue, desperately wanting my reliable friend on the right of me  to become available. The person at the front of the queue approaches the sophisticated duo with confidence. He presses the front – the door opens smoothly. Then the problems begin – he places his dinner inside. He closes the door – the digital display doesn’t move. A timer counts down – but nothing else happens. I stand behind him smiling – I’ve been here before. My friend on the right becomes available. This solid dependable soul mate who has served my need for many years – yes, a microwave that you don’t need a degree in computer operations to use.

Now if someone could only ensure that I don’t have to spend another week doing a tour of the building to get hot water…………!

Dealing with Change” (Extract from the forthcoming “ Memoirs of a simple Utility Worker”)

Change – oh I have seen plenty of that! Dealing with change can be a daunting prospect, especially when it’s of a personal nature and it’s out of our control. There is nothing worse than being on the end of an enforced change without any hope of influencing it. We can often see ourselves as “victims”, without hope. I have seen the impact of change. I have been impacted by the decisions of others – I have seen at first hand the damage that can be caused. A broken relationship, a loss of trust, the feeling that nobody understands your point of view. You turn in all directions but get no answers from those around you. Friends seem unable to grasp the magnitude of your turmoil – you fall ever spinning in to a deep sea of despair.

We spend a lot of time at work. It is often reputed that we see more of our colleagues than we do our family. A loss of trust in any relationship can be difficult to deal with or indeed repair – regardless with its work related or not.

Over recent years I have seen a significant degree of changes in the workplace, and yes, I have been impacted by those changes. What continues to frustrate me is the seemingly inability of Businesses to understand and plan for the impact of change on its workforce. And my criticisms go right to the top of the food chain – to the Board Room. Dealing with change or “managing change” still remains one of the biggest challenges for any organisation I’m sure. However, fully understanding the impact of change on a workforce and planning for it still remains an issue that many organisations want to either ignore  or bury it completely – even when it continually bites them on the ass.

On re-joining the Company in  1989 I was returning to a Business vastly different to the one I had left ten years earlier. However, I was a different person.  As I near retirement I have had recent conversations around that decision and the impact on my workplace pension. “Of course you have broken service haven’t you, look at the pension you would have had if you hadn’t left”. Yes, that is factually correct – I would have had continued service of forty-two years. But, there is no doubt that I wouldn’t have got to the position I currently hold if I had not left. And it’s here that I have a quandary. My prospective on life and on work changed dramatically during the period I was away. I fully recognise and endorse the fact that Business’s need to change, to adapt to an ever changing market place. The Water Industry is a highly regulated Utility, many would argue too regulated, but with constant pressure being put on it by the Regulator – not changing or adapting is not an option. So, too many of the friends that I have who are “lifers”, who continually fight against change I am sorry, our opinions differ. The issue for me is the way change is introduced and on what basis.

Our failure to communicate changes properly through an informed dialogue with those affected will result in a disengaged workforce – and will impact the business outputs. What is fascinating about this is the fact that many issues could be avoided if we “communicated properly”. And yet in this fantastic world of technology, with every type of communication tool available we have at our disposal the one we fail to use appropriately – “our voices”.

I like working with people. Of course I wouldn’t say for one minute that managing people is easy – it’s not. All of us our different, we can react differently to a variety of situations – that what’s puts us aside from machines. Whilst one person needs a supporting hand another needs firm direction. When introducing change in the workplace there need to be careful assessment of the impact, considering the needs of all.

The recent BREXIT vote has shown us quite clearly what happens if those at the top fail to fully recognise the issues of the “masses”. Too many re-organisations are designed by external consultants before being endorsed by a Board Room full of Directors who lack any connection to the hundreds, sometimes thousands of employees who work for them. I am not saying for one minute that as employee’s we should be in a position to “veto” the decisions taken in the Board Room. What I am saying is that it is ludicrous to think that Directors of Business’s don’t engage their staff more before they embark on some of the radical changes that are being put in front of them by so called specialists who have no connection to the Business itself.

Having being engaged in the management of staff for some seventeen years I have of course had my critics, from below and from above, you shouldn’t go into the management of people with any ideals of winning a popularity contest that’s for sure!  However I do think that understanding the issues facing your workforce, both as a team, or indeed on occasions as individuals, is an essential requirement of the role you have. How you can you motivate them, improve performance or address their concerns if you have no concept or understanding of the issues they face? Implementing changes that leave many of your employees completely disconnected from the organisation they work for will impact performance. I have heard many times over recent years that “we shouldn’t be concerned at the increased turnover of staff – it’s healthy for the Business”. There is no doubt that the introduction of new blood into any organisation is good. New people with new ideas, who are prepared to challenge the status quo is healthy. But some organisations, which rely on a specific skill set that is often only learned during the employment, need a core group of key staff to provide the service the customers expect, and have been promised. When a significant number of those key staff starts leaving the service you are providing is put at risk.

Whist not subscribing to the notion that those nearing retirement should be allowed to “ease off”, as a thank you for their long service and commitment to the organisations, I found it a bit ironic that the biggest challenges I faced as a manager was in that very same period. Working and supporting colleagues that were being impacted by change over the last few years has been hard. I shared their frustrations, their anger and of course their relief if they survived. Some didn’t survive, and exited the Business.

Yes we have changed – but to what?

“Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers”: Tony Robbins

1974 – Daily Life at the Depot (a further extract from “The Memoirs of a Simple Utility Worker”

As embarrassing as it seems looking back, what is undeniable is the amount of wasted unproductive time that occurred during those first years in my new job. The day began with us all getting our work from Dave or Bert, finding out which vehicle we had been allotted, and if we had a fitter’s mate  setting out – to the café! There were two café’s that were the favourite haunt of Bristol Water staff at that time, Ray’s Café by the City Ground in Ashton Road, and  Norman’s, which was on the A38 just past the turning to Barrow Gurney. Most days the road outside Rays was full of Bristol Water (and British Gas) vans. Ray would stand behind the counter shouting out the orders to his long-suffering wife whilst pouring dark brown tea from a huge teapot that seemed constantly requiring refilling.

“Egg on two with a splash” and  “One hard sausage” were all versions of the culinary delights that could be found at Rays. At Christmas he would have a bottle of sherry on the counter for all his beloved customers to thank you for their continued custom. On occasions  there was “a purge”, and a Bristol Water Foreman was dispatched to log the registration numbers of the vehicles parked outside,  “bollockings were given”, then the whole process reverted to Normans Café – and off we would go again. The ridiculous thing was that after availing yourself of your breakfast at a local café you made your way to your first job, and of course when 10am arrived you stopped for your morning tea-break!

Both Bedminster and Kingswood Depots had full working canteens, Millbrook and Cheddar didn’t. At Bedminster you could get yourself a packed lunch in the mornings at a reasonable cost, and if you happen to be in the Depot at lunchtime then a full lunch menu was available. There were around three/four staff working in the canteen at Bedminster. Whilst not being able to recall all their names – Beat Powell was in charge for many years. Beat had a slight turn in one eye so you were never sure when she was speaking if she was talking to you or the person next to you. Daisy McAddam, lived in Kings Head Lane, smoked like a trooper and was the grandmother of two lads I knew at Bedminster Down Boys Club, Dave & Alex Plenty. And then there was Lily, Joyce Norton and finally Anne Drew who took over from Beat when she retired. Anne was a great character and made a divine bread-pudding from all the left-over bread.

As previously stated this was “Unionised Company”, and there were rules. For instance, if you travelled over three miles from your Depot you could claim “lunch money”. This was on the basis that you were unable to benefit from the subsidised lunches that were available at Bedminster or Kingswood. I think the money might have been two shillings and sixpence, or 12.5p in new money. Barrow Treatment Works, as it was then known, is just over three miles from Bedminster Depot. So you could legitimately drive yourself back from Barrow to Bedminster for lunch. The problem was that to do this you would need to leave Barrow before 12.30pm to ensure there was a lunch available and you wouldn’t return until at least 1.15pm – which extended the “lunch break” time considerably and really wound up Bert.

The most bizarre thing that happened in relation to lunch money was that at some point the Company decided that the rules were unfair on those working out of Cheddar and Millbrook Depots as they didn’t benefit from a canteen – so they decided to allow them to claim the allowance regardless of the distance restrictions. This infuriated the Trade Union Stewards at Bedminster and Kingswood so much  that we all went on “strike”. Now I have to say it’s without doubt the shortest strike I will ever be involved in – lasting probably two hours. All the Union Stewards (I represented the then EEPTU) were summoned to Head Office Board Room, where the General Manager “blew a head gasket” and basically ordered us back to work.

The Trade Union movement had a stranglehold on a lot of Industries during the 1970’s it wasn’t until that Water Utilities strike of 1981 that the balance of power would be re-defined, and as such changed d the way that certainly Bristol Water would operate for ever.

Some examples – unlike modern standby arrangements where staff make themselves available to be called out from home during “out of hours” periods, when I first joined Bristol Water there was a different standby arrangement. M&E staff were not on standby at all – which meant any breakdowns went to the same individuals – more on that later. However, the repair crews were on standby. The standby consisted of them being available in a Standby Room at the Depot between 16.15 and 21.30 on an evening. The room was called the “standby room”. Now for a quite a period of time the standby room at Bedminster was at one end of the covered yard on a mezzanine floor. Every Friday morning Jim, from one of the Unit Teams, would go around the depot selling tickets to the Friday night “film show”. Whereupon at around 5pm Friday nights many staff would gather in the Standby Room to watch porn films.  I had never seen what was commonly called “blue films” at that point, so one Friday evening myself and my buddy Tim Fowler, got our tickets and made our way to the film show. We stayed to long – about ten minutes. The details of what we saw in that ten minutes would not be appropriate to record, not even now. There is one further bizarre story that relates to these films shows. It goes that the room was full of the usual suspects this one Friday night when the Police came across a burst main locally. Rather than ring Bristol Water they decided to call in to the Depot, as they were aware of the standby arrangements. The door to the standby room opened and their stood two Policemen who apparently said “sorry to disturb the film boys but we got a burst main, could you come and repair it when it ends”.

On other occasions the scenes in the Depot used to resemble an episode of “Fools & Horses”, as individuals  wandered around selling decidedly dodgy goods, from electric tools to cigarettes and towels. One character apparently used to go to South Wales and buy stuff from shops that was on offer in multiple buys. He would then bring them back to Bristol, split them up and sell them individually. Cigarettes and Cigars that had somehow found themselves walking out of Imperial Tobacco were popular if you smoked. Again, there is a story of a very Senior Manager at the time being questioned by the Police in relation to some dodgy cigarettes that had obviously been “procured” from somebody at the Depot.

One of the more genuine routines that occurred was the collection of the Christmas Club Money. John Williams, who was a Chlorinator, would do the run on the Friday after pay day collecting from those who wanted to save for Christmas. No matter how much you could offer he would take it, and then in the weeks before Christmas you would get your savings back. We trusted him implicitly with our money, and he never let us down.

So this Depot could be a thrive of activity for many reasons, some of them actually not connected in any way with work.

 

Extract from “The memoirs of a simple Utility Worker”

It was a Friday, why any Company would want you start work on a Friday I have no idea – but this Company did at that time.  .

Just years four years earlier I had  commenced an Apprenticeship with the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board) as an Electrical Fitter, serving most of my apprenticeship at the Portishead Power Station, around ten  miles from Bristol. This was the 1970’s when the Trade Unions were at their strongest. At Portishead a Tradesman didn’t leave the workshops to do any work unless he had a Fitters Mate to carry his tools. Coming out of my “time” as an apprentice I was offered a post on shift at Portishead – I took the job, fully aware that it was a challenge for any apprentice to get a start as a Tradesman. Companies didn’t have to offer you positions – but within the CEGB any vacancy had to be offered first to any apprentice coming out of his time. My opportunity came because Barry Helps, a fellow apprentice who was a couple of months older than me, turned down the opportunity to take the job – and he left Portishead on the day his apprenticeship was completed.

The move on to shift was a challenge – being the only Electrical Tradesman on nights for not one, but two Power Stations, Portishead “A” and “B”. So when Jess Bacon, a member of the Ladies Group at BDBC (Bedminster Down Boys Club) made me aware that there was a vacancy for an Electrician where she worked, at Bristol Water, I decided to apply. It was based at their Bedminster Depot on Bishopsworth Road, a five minute walk from the family home. I was interviewed by a gentleman called John Taylor, and offered the post the following day.

And so commenced my love affair with the local Water Company – Bristol Water. The year was 1974, and it was January. Fast forward to January  2018, some 44 years later and I’m preparing to call it a day and joint the list of the “retired from full-time employment”. My journey with Bristol Water has stemmed some forty-three years. Between  1974-79 and 1989 -2018 as an employee, with a ten year gap in-between, during which I was either self-employed or in a Business Partnership (M&E Services), and undertaking a significant amount of work for-Bristol Water.

To say that I have seen significant changes in Industry and more importantly within Bristol Water through that time would be the preverbal understatement. This is a memoir that hopefully captures those changes but importantly relates those changes through the stories and experiences of my time as an employee.

The Retirement Decision

“What are you going to do when you finish?” I have no idea how many times I have been asked that question in recent months, but it’s a lot. I have no idea how others have ultimately come to the decision to retire from full-time employment – but, my decision is of my own making. The fact that I have never considered it being the wrong decision over the last nine months or so would seem to indicate that  it was the right one – time, of course will tell.

There is no hiding the fact that the “emotional” impact of that decision has hit me a couple of times over the last few weeks. Since September 1969 I have spent my working day in the company of others. My two stints at Bristol Water, totalling some thirty-five years intersected with ten years in Business – as a Contractor. In making my decision  to retire I didn’t for once consider the question of “what will do afterwards”. My decision was sole based on my ability, as an individual, to perform at the level that I needed to do in the role that I was in. At nearing sixty-four years of age (which I was at that time), there was no doubt that the pressure, the stress and the responsibility that went with the role had the potential to impact my health, if it hadn’t already done so. Of course, we would have to manage on less money – but what is the good of money if you didn’t have your health. My Dad worked until he was seventy – he was in perfect health. Like others he probably thought that he was indestructible, and if he didn’t provide the service to the customers he had serviced as a Building Contractor for over thirty years then who would ? He died some six months after his seventieth birthday – leaving my mother finically comfortable, but without the heath to enjoy it.

Nobody should ever think they are irreplaceable in any workforce – history tells us that “gaps are soon filled”, colleagues move on – it’s all a question of them “having to”. When colleagues say “it won’t be the same without you”, many of them do mean it. And of course, it won’t be the same – for you. I have often argued that a part of manager’s role was to ensure that nobody was irreplaceable, that there were no human single points of failure – and that if you weren’t there then everything would go on as normal. And if that becomes a reality then you can leave with a smile – job done.