A Tale of Two Companies

I sing of two companies, one founded 166 years ago, the other taking off ten years later. In between, Queen Victoria came to the throne so these are seriously long-established concerns.

But my theme is customer service, not history, and my considered view is that one of these companies deserves to survive, the other to go under.

The other week I needed a new umbrella. Umbrellas and I have a chequered relationship: I’ve had many over the years – mislaid, left on trains, stolen, broken – usually broken. Whether it’s climate change, or changing perceptions, or just where I live, the winds seem stronger than the ones I grew up with. Or the umbrellas get weaker as the policemen get younger. Either way, they break at an alarming rate. The more I pay (and believe me I’ve paid a lot), the quicker they snap.

Which led me to the door of the company (hereinafter referred to as ‘the wonderful company’) James Smith and Sons, established in 1830:


The wonderful company (photo: Alan the Wordsmith)
It’s in Bloomsbury at the bottom end of Gower Street. It’s been there as long as I can remember and just about everyone has gone past it thousands of times, but it looks a bit forbidding so I’d never been in. Until the other week.

A word now about the other company (hereinafter referred to as ‘the dreadful company’): Post Office Insurance. I’ve used them for home contents and annual travel insurance for a few years now. Generally it’s been painless, generally good value for money, generally easy to deal with. Until the other week, when my travel insurance needed renewing.

I received the renewal notice, as usual. There was no new quotation, just a number to ring. I rang it. First you get a recorded message of over two minutes. Do they know how long two minutes is when you’re waiting to speak to someone on the phone? You know how long so I won’t bother to say. The message is designed to ensure you know how full of pitfalls and exclusions their product is and how, whatever happens, if they refuse to pay up it will all be your fault. Why, I was wondering after less than a minute, should I buy this? After 90 seconds I had heard enough warnings to wonder why anyone would be silly enough to think about taking on insurance at all. After two minutes death from old age was advancing and I was beyond caring what they offered. I wonder whether you can take out insurance against this kind of thing.

The message was written by a lawyer (if I’m wrong about this they can sue me) and recorded by a nice lady who had been made to sound like a machine. Defying the odds, I survived long enough to get through to an actual person – having been warned (again, of course) that calls may be recorded for training and quality purposes. I hope this one was.

That’s enough of them for now. Cut back to me stepping – diffidently – over the threshold of the wonderful company. I was clocked immediately by a pleasant little old man (PLOM) who looked as if he wanted to listen to me. Nervously I explained that I could only manage a fold-up umbrella that fits in a briefcase, because I leave the big ones on trains. I didn’t get the expected look-down-the-nose because the wonderful company is not that kind of company. With just the right kind of can-do smile he introduced me to a polite younger colleague (PYC) who within half a minute of listening to my requirements was showing me three possibilities.

Cut back to the dreadful company. The real person I was now connected to went through her script in an I-speak-your-weight voice that put me on edge all by itself. Having established that nothing had changed over the past year and that I wanted exactly the same again, her machine calculated this year’s premium at 20% higher than last year’s. Pointing out that neither inflation, nor my age, nor my medication had increased by 20% over the past year, I asked for an explanation. Miss I-speak-your-weight (MISYW) listened in silence, presumably following her script.

I have to tell you this in stages otherwise I am liable to get angry, which is not good for my soul, or violent, which won’t be good for you. So let’s cut again to the wonderful company, where PYC is explaining – all by himself and without a written script – the features of the three options, one of which is handmade on the premises. He reviews them helpfully and recommends the one he thinks best meets my needs. It is the strongest, is not the one they make themselves, and happens to be the cheapest of the ones I am looking at.

Back to MISYW. The reason for the increased cost? “That’s how it is.” My question was obviously a bit much for the script, so I repeated it. “That’s just how it is.” Well, I had got an extra word out of her, but still didn’t feel entirely confident. I said I would shop around. She was silent. I ended the call.

Ten minutes later I had secured exactly the same cover using the Saga website which, even if it makes me feel old even to say their name, worked smoothly and offered me a price substantially less than I had got out of MISYW. So now I am officially a Saga lout. But an insured one, which must be a good thing.

Final stop at the wonderful company. PYC is in full sail, explaining about their on-site repair service, the two year guarantee and how to look after my new purchase: it has certain needs to keep it happy. He gives me a little plastic bag to put it in when it gets wet, pointing out that its cunning design (they think of everything) conceals even where I have been shopping. Establishing that I am ready to leave, PYC gets to the door ahead of me, shakes my hand and holds the door open, PLOM beaming agreeably in the background.

Old fashioned? Yes. Pleasant surprise? Yes indeed. Would I go back? You bet. Would I recommend them? Yes yes yes. Is it the only way to do it? Of course not – but a lot of other companies (see above, under ‘dreadful company’) could learn the lessons: everything James Smith and Sons does is transferable to the electronic environment, especially its attitudes towards prospective customers.

They will survive, for ever if I have anything to do with it. The Post Office? Just stick to the day job which, nice guy as I am, I will say you continue to do remarkably well.

By the way – I know you’re dying to know whether the umbrella has actually worked during the alphabet soup of named storms that’s continued through this winter. Reader, it has.

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