Why NHS Food Is Crap

One of the things you notice if you work long enough for large companies is that the quality of any given support service suddenly becomes a lot better if the people managing it are themselves users of that service.

When I worked in Africa, the senior management had their own company-supplied vehicles and drivers to take them to and from the airport; everyone else used a shuttle bus. With no senior management ever having to see what taking the shuttle bus was like, you can imagine the state of it.

You sometimes see a similar thing with travel departments. The administrative staff who work in them are usually local employees who generally don’t have to go on business trips in far-flung cities taking flights that leave at 7am. When you come to deal with them, this becomes painfully obvious.

Last week I saw somebody on Twitter complaining about the food in the NHS, and naturally somebody leaped in underneath to claim that this was a result of the catering being outsourced to private companies. There exists a mindset among some people that private companies cannot possibly provide a better service than public bodies because of the profit factor, the veritable planet of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. But in the case of the NHS the food really is terrible, at least from what I’ve seen and heard.

Thanks to a decade or so traipsing around oil and gas offices, installations, and construction sites I’ve seen a lot of mass-catering and it ranges from extremely good to absolute shite. In most cases the catering has been outsourced to one of two companies: Eurest (a subsidiary of Compass, which is British) and Sodexo (which is French). I don’t know if they supply the NHS with catering services, but I’d be surprised if they don’t. What I found is that the quality of food is dependent on two things:

1. Budget

2. Whether the management or the management’s close colleagues eat it.

One the first point, the budget is the difference between reasonable food and very good food. With the oil industry swimming in money until fairly recently, the food in the canteens was generally pretty good, and offshore it could be outstanding (the food on the Safe Astoria was superb, thanks to a Singaporean chef).

But it is the second point that makes the real difference. The one place in the whole Sakhalin II construction project where the food was absolutely woeful was at the transit camp in Nogliki, halfway up Sakhalin Island. As the name suggests, it was a camp set up for people to spend a night or two in transit between Nogliki, where the train from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk terminated, and the various construction camps that lay further to the north. Aside from a few poor bastards who were based there permanently, people were only supposed to be there for one or two nights, and it showed. I spent a night there between coming off the Lun-A platform and going to inspect the Piltun lighthouse.  The beds had been bought second-hand from the folk who dismantled the barracks at Auschwitz and fitted with dark brown sheets that were supposed to be that colour. Dinner consisted of a slab of grey meat and watery gravy by an Indian who told me that’s all there was. By contrast, the grub on the actual sites was excellent. Senior managers never, ever stayed at the transit camp.

The reason why the NHS food is crap is not because private companies are providing it, but because the people who administer the catering contract do not eat it. I’d be surprised if even the NHS staff eat it; if they do, they are low-level staff who don’t have much clout with the people in charge. Or perhaps the staff are fed in separate canteens? I don’t know, but the reason it is crap is because those who eat it have no influence over those who pay for it, and those who pay for it don’t eat it. If people want the food in the NHS to improve they should insist that the middle management eat it as well. It would improve overnight at no additional cost.

Of course, this is a long-winded version of Milton Friedman’s four ways to spend money, but it’s fun to spot examples of it in the wild.

Share

More Psychology than Economics

Years ago I worked as a banqueting steward in Manchester’s Victoria & Albert Hotel, which at the time was a Meridian (it’s now a Marriott).  A large part of my job was to wait the tables in the massive function room, which people would hire for weddings, conferences, balls, etc.  We didn’t do a lot of silver service thankfully – most of it was plated, meaning the chef and his team would prepare a hundred or more dishes on plates and half a dozen of us stewards would distribute them among the tables.  I never learned to carry more than four plates at once, but some people could carry six or eight.

When times were quiet and there weren’t many functions on I used to take the occasional shift in the restaurant behind the bar.  I can’t give you exact figures because I can’t remember them and inflation will apply, but the place was extortionately expensive.  In fact, everything in that hotel was one giant rip-off, and I expect – as I learned recently from a discussion on wi-fi prices in hotels over at Mr Worstall’s – the higher-end hotels rip people off because they assume it will all be submitted as a business expense.

Anyway, between the banquets and the restaurants I noticed there were a lot of complaints and food was being sent back, or we’d be collecting plates with uneaten food.  Chefs being chefs, they generally dismissed all this as the customers being heathens who simply wouldn’t know vegetables are, apparently, best served near-raw.  I was young then and still had a long way to go towards finding my place in the world, but nevertheless I was able to see what the problem was: it wasn’t that the food was bad, it was that we were charging too much for it.

We were charging a lot of money for the supposed privilege of eating in our fine establishment and enjoying food prepared by our top chef, and so customers’ expectations were sky-high from the beginning.  If the slightest thing was wrong they’d complain, and rightly so.  But if the same thing had been served up at a lower cost they’d have eaten it gladly.  I learned during my time in that hotel that when customers complain it is not so much about quality or price but of unmet expectations.

I experienced this myself when I checked into the Pullman hotel in Cologne some years back and found they charged for parking and wifi on top of the 250 Euros per night room rate (I was paying in Accor club points).  Now I know they are just ripping off businessmen but at the time I didn’t and I was incensed.  I could understand the Ibis in Heidelberg charging for wifi and parking because their room rate was about 70 Euro per night, but I thought the Pullman in Cologne was ripping me off.  I complained and to their credit they waived the charges in pretty short order.

This weekend I am going to Lille, just for the hell of it.  I have found a hotel which charges 200 Euros per night, and an additional 20 Euros per night for parking.  Reading the reviews, I see that a few people are quite pissed off by this extra charge.  Sure it reflects the market rate for parking in Lille city centre, but as a guest of a 200 Euro per night four star hotel, having to pay extra for parking grates a bit.  Again, it’s not so much the price but the feeling that you’re being fleeced; it makes you feel that you’re dealing with an outfit more akin to Ryanair than a luxury hotel.  I suppose these outfits must run the numbers and find the additional revenue compensates for the complaints and negative comments, but often I wonder how closely the management pay attention to these things.

It appears that British Airways does.  Via the ever-traveling Michael Jennings who posted this link on his Facebook page:

In the annual Investor Presentation to the City back in November, British Airways revealed plans to re-introduce Club Europe on UK domestic flights.

This is almost certainly linked to the introduction of ‘buy on board’ catering from next Wednesday.  BA’s biggest nightmare is that someone paying £7,670 for a fully flexible Club World ticket from Edinburgh to Tokyo decides to switch to a Middle East carrier or KLM because they are insulted at paying £2.30 for a cup of coffee on the connection.

And that’s exactly what would happen: if you’ve shelled out all that money and then somebody asks you to pay £2.30 for a cup of coffee between Edinburgh and London, you’d never fly with them again.  It’s not about the money, but the principle: people don’t mind spending money, but they don’t like being ripped off.  It’s more psychology than economics, in fact.

Share

Electrical Problems

Tell us your tales of utility company woe and how you overcame them.

asks James, and so I will.

Years ago I moved to Liverpool to take up my first graduate job, and – like a lot of people in their early twenties who have just left university – I was spectacularly naive about renting a flat (student flats are a joint effort and renting them seems to be a lot different from when you’re on your own).  My first mistake on viewing a shitty, 1960s icebox on the top floor of a dreary brick building with a flat roof was not laughing and walking away.  My second mistake was not recognising an Economy 7 heating system and knowing they are worse than useless.  My third mistake was seeing there was no sofa and assuming I had to buy one myself, instead of telling the agent the landlord needed to buy one.  You get the idea.

Anyway, in my hurry and naivety I signed for the flat and collected the keys, and arrived for my first night quite late on a Sunday evening.  I walked in and found there was no electricity.  Fumbling around in the corridor I discovered the meter which confused me somewhat.  It didn’t look like the meters I was used to: this one had a strange slot by the LCD display, and a button beside the slot.  I pressed the button and the lights came on, but the display then showed a 24 hour countdown.  The next day I called the electricity company and they said it was a pre-paid meter and I would need to “build up a credit rating over the next 12 months”.  I said this was ridiculous, I had a good salary and mobile phone, credit card, etc. but I got the usual “tough shit” from what passes as customer service in the UK.  Anyway, I found I had to buy pre-paid tickets from a newsagent.

Only when I went to buy them I found I first needed a customer card, presumably so the power company could assign the purchases to a particular account.  Without one I wasn’t supposed to be able to buy the tickets, but the newsagent sold some to me anyway and advised I get a card ASAP.  I also found out that buying electricity using pre-paid tickets was far more expensive than on a normal meter.  It is ironic, but being poor is very expensive, and one of the reasons why climbing out of poverty is so damned difficult.  There are probably reasons related to administration costs why pre-paid electricity is more expensive than metered, but I did feel like the energy companies were fucking over the poor on this score.  Also, the button I pressed to get 24 hours of electricity was an emergency measure.  They billed the consumption at twice the normal pre-paid rate.  You can imagine how the unorganised poor are clobbered by this.

Somehow I got the prepaid card quite quickly, but by then I had taken advantage of the deregulation of utilities to switch providers.  Within a few days a different company had done what the first one refused to and sent a man out with a normal meter who installed it, taking the pre-paid one away.  So the immediate problem was solved.

The trouble was, I never got a bill.  I waited a few weeks and then called them, and they said they’d sent a bill out.  I asked them to send another and they did, but I never got it.  What I think was happening was every time I called up, the zombie on the end of the phone would immediately ask “what is your postcode” followed by “what is the number of the address”.  Being a bit dense myself, I would give them the flat number, not the street number common to the whole block of flats.  The call-centre zombie didn’t have permission to say “what is your address” and so the same error was made each time I called.  Eventually I figured this out and went to the house just up the street where I thought the bills would have been sent, but nobody was in.  So I called them up again and put them straight.  Only no bill arrived.

I was in that place about six months, and I eventually walked away leaving several months’ rent unpaid because the roof was leaking, the washing machine didn’t work, and the agency and landlord had “all agreed” I needed to fix everything in my own time and at my own expense.  The younger of my two brothers, who was himself a landlord at the time, gave me some good advice: just stop paying the rent.  When several months had passed he gave me some more: why don’t you just fuck off?  So I did, moving back to Manchester, and mailed the agents the keys and never heard from them again.

But despite my best efforts I still never received an electricity bill.  I’d called them enough times and I have no idea why one never came, so I just forgot about it.  Then two or three years later, late one evening somewhere around 9pm, a man called my mobile with a practiced, aggressive opening designed to throw me off balance.  Before I could say more than hello he said:

“You have an outstanding balance on your electricity bill of two hundred and seventy pounds, could you please tell me when you intend to pay it?”

I’m sharp when I need to be, and knew immediately what he was talking about.  “No,” I said.  “That’s not right.  I pay my bill on a monthly direct debit.”

He had a weak hand, but he tried to play it best he could.  “This is for a property in Liverpool,” he said then read out the address.

“Nope,” I said.  “I don’t live in Liverpool, I live in Manchester.”  I wasn’t going to do his job for him.

“Could you confirm your name and address?” he asked.

“No,” I said firmly.  “I have no idea who you are.”

“Okay, but can you confirm if you lived in Liverpool?” he said.  He was clutching at straws.

“Nope,” I said brightly, lying through my teeth.  “Never lived there.  I live in Manchester, sorry.  Bye!”

And that was that, I never heard from them again.  My conscience was completely clear: I’d given them every opportunity to send me a bill in a timely manner, and they’d screwed it up.  I wasn’t going to get stuck for a bill – half of which probably wasn’t mine – because of their incompetence.  And I knew that if they knew my current address they’d have sent me a letter, and the guy calling me represented their last throw of the dice.  If I refused to cooperate there wasn’t much they could do, or if there was, then they were going to have to do it without my help.

Part of my intransigence came from the experience I had buying the sofa.  I bought it on credit and was expected to make a monthly payment of £50 by direct debit, only the money never left my account.  Six months passed and suddenly I got a threatening letter through my letterbox about non-payment of monies owed and court summons, etc.  I wrote them back explaining they’d fucked up and the money had never been taken from my account by the loan company, and without a sniff of apology or acknowledgment they just helped themselves to £300 which I was fortunate to have (I’d been setting the money aside).

So when the electricity company made a similar blunder, I thought screw you, I’ve done everything properly on my side, if you send me a bill I’ll pay it but don’t expect me to make your job easier by answering questions when somebody calls me out of the blue.  Shortly afterwards I moved to Kuwait, and whatever minimal chances they had of catching up with me I left at immigration.

Share

NatWest and Russia Today

There was a lot of fuss in the news yesterday about Russia Today – the Kremlin’s English language propaganda arm – having their banking services withdrawn by NatWest bank in the UK.  Leaving aside the point that NatWest is free to do business with whomever it chooses and is under no obligation to provide banking services to RT if they don’t wish to; and also leaving aside the fact that it would be monumentally stupid for any member of the British government or authorities to put pressure on NatWest to withdraw their services; take a look at the letter that was sent:

I think at this point I ought to say to Russia Today: welcome to British banking!  What, you thought you were a customer and ought to be treated with respect and in a manner of transparency laced with helpful dialogue?

As the kidz say on FaceTwit: lolz!

No, this is simply British banking as they treat all their customers: arbitrary decisions which tick some regulatory box or other sent out of the blue via curt letter and of maximum the inconvenience to the customer.  Usually there is no name appended and customers are simply informed of what has happened or invited to call a helpline where somebody on two rupees a day wearing (probably) an adult diaper will tell you there’s nothing they can do.

Not that I have any sympathy with Russia Today.  Not because of their output – which is abominable – but because banks in Russia are no different.  I’ve had a bank in Sakhalin ordering me to get my bank – based in Geneva – to write them a letter (in Russian of course) in order to address a “problem” with a single letter of a person’s name that was not transliterated properly between Latin and Cyrillic.  I was also told I couldn’t open a local bank account as a foreign resident: only my employer could open one on my behalf.  And forget about trying to get foreign currency transferred into a ruble-denominated account in a straightforward, sensible manner.  Vrach, heal thyself!

Apparently NatWest has now backed down, making their statement that the “decision is final” to be a complete falsehood.  RT has quickly learned what I did with British banks: make enough fuss and they’ll back down, every time.  The difference is us ordinary folk can’t threaten them with a nuclear strike.

Share

Hurrah for Comprehensive Education!

There is a furniture company in the UK which advertises relentlessly on Sky Sports, particularly during cricket matches, and earlier this year it looked as though they would be able to supply me with some items I was looking for.  They didn’t deliver abroad, but did offer free delivery in the UK, and so I could get them to deliver the goods to the premises of this outfit which I have used before to bring furniture from the UK to France (I can recommend them).

The cross-channel transport company quite reasonably asked what volume of goods I was shipping to they could give me a proper quote and reserve space in one of their vehicles.  Unfortunately, the furniture company don’t do what most furniture companies do and specify the volume of each item on their website, and so I had to email them and ask.

This turned out to be a difficult question to answer: apparently, they were unable to tell me unless I placed an order.  Alarm bells started ringing: could it be that I’d gotten involved with a company that puts 90% of its effort into sales teams and mass advertising, and 10% into delivering on its core services?  I was advised that I could place an order but not pay for it, and then ring them up (international call, of course) and get the information.  So I duly did just that.  The person who took the call sounded as though he applied for an entry-level position in a vegetable-packing plant and got turned down due to lack of intellect.  If he’d told me he’d suffered major head trauma in the past 24 hours but couldn’t get time off to go to hospital, I’d have believed him.  He told me he could see my order but couldn’t give me the volume because “only the logistics people know that”, and he thought they’d all gone home.  But he’d check.

After a few minutes he came back.  “Two point three centimetres squared”, he told me.  I sighed.  “Firstly,” I said “you have described something the approximate size of a cigarette lighter and I’m sure my furniture is a little larger than that.  Secondly, the unit will be cubed, as we are talking about a volume not an area.”  He replied with a voice that betrayed either a heavy cold, a hangover, or somebody holding his nose, “Well, this is what my computer screen is telling me.”

I finally got the information I wanted by converting his centimetres squared into metres cubed, but I never got the furniture: compared to his colleagues with whom I dealt with later, this chap was Employee of the Year.

Share

Getting beds delivered in France

Well, our beds got delivered.  Yup, a couple of professional, uniformed, well-groomed young men turned up in a Compagnie du Lit transporter – the one we’d heard so much about last time – and installed our beds without a hitch.

Heh.  Only joking.

What happened was a couple of Algerians turned up in a rented Europcar van, one of whom was in a foul mood.  Within 10 seconds of trying to get a giant mattress in the elevator, he started screaming that the elevator was shit, and the stubborn mattress corner that wouldn’t quite fit he tried to persuade in by booting it as hard as he could.  This is the mattress I’d forked out about 800 Euros for.  They appeared to be in a blinding rush, the grumpy one hurling bits of bed in the first room he found and then shouting at me for telling him it was in the wrong room.  He then got upset because I said if he drags that dirty plastic mattress cover across my wallpaper again I’ll kick him out and refuse to sign for anything.  The less grumpy one leapt in and said “Sorry, but my friend is very tired”.

Like I give a fuck.

No, they could not assemble the beds (as I’d been promised by the salesman) and no they couldn’t take away the packaging (as I’d been promised by the salesman) because they work for a different company and their boss had told them they could not and blah blah blah.  Get the fuck out of my apartment, and tell your friend to have a shower some time in 2015.

So there you have it.  If you go to the one of the largest, nationwide bed suppliers in France you pay a few thousand Euros up front, then they give you all kinds of reasons why they can’t deliver them at a time of your choosing making references to the “transporter”, only to discover they’ve awarded the delivery to a couple of angry Algerians who’d nipped down to Europcar the day before and hired a van.

The beds themselves are damned good, though.

(Oh, and before anyone leaps in and tells me how wonderful this sort of thing is in the UK, last month I ordered a small item from a British shop online.  They sent it to my office address in France only neglected to put my actual name on it.  My office building has about 3,000 people in it.  So the mail room handed it back to the UPS driver and it was never seen again.  It took several threats of disparaging reviews and blog posts to persuade the company that they were at fault for not putting my name on the delivery, and that they should send a replacement.

And I should also mention that Darty delivered a fridge and washing machine on the same day the beds arrived, and that went like clockwork.)

Share

Sympathy Level: Zero

I hope HSBC gets fined out of existence:

Britain’s biggest bank helped wealthy clients cheat the UK out of millions of pounds in tax, the BBC has learned.

Panorama has seen thousands of accounts from HSBC’s private bank in Switzerland leaked by a whistleblower in 2007.

They show bankers helped clients evade tax and offered deals to help tax dodgers stay ahead of the law.

HSBC admitted that some individuals took advantage of bank secrecy to hold undeclared accounts. But it said it has now “fundamentally changed”.

Not that I have anything against British citizens opening offshore bank accounts (I have two myself, as the article makes clear they are not illegal and there are genuine reasons for having one), nor do I think the whistleblower was performing any kind of public service (indeed, I think he should be filled in), and nor do I care for HMRC or anyone engaging in illegal tax evasion.

But what pisses me off beyond belief is the pompous, self-righteous posturing of British high street banks who make normal people jump through umpteen petty bureaucratic hoops at their own expense in order to carry out ordinary transactions or to open an account, all in the name of preventing money laundering or tax evasion.  Most of what they ask you to do (e.g. present a notarised copy of your passport) is at their own discretion, and not a legal requirement.  Yet this doesn’t stop some spotty twerp in a flammable suit pompously telling you “it’s the law” when you query whether it’s really necessary to take a day off work and visit a random solicitor just to submit a mortgage application form to a bank with whom you hold an account already.

However, if you’re some dodgy Nigerian with a suitcase full of cash, a Mexican drug cartel, or what is being called “a wealthy client” then it’s “step right this way, sir”.

Lock ’em up and throw away the key, bunch of fuckers.

Share

Buying Beds in France

We are in the process of buying an apartment in the French Alps, and in anticipation of getting the keys sometime in late February I visited an outlet of one of France’s largest bed suppliers.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hello, I’ve chosen two very nice beds for a total of 3,000 Euro and I would like to place the order right now. But can they be delivered in 3 weeks?

Salesman: 3 weeks?! Merde, that is too short! We don’t have the stock!

Me: Okay. So when?

Salesman: I don’t know. Maybe 5 or 8 weeks.

Me: Okay. Not ideal, but this is France and not the USA, so I guess I’ll just have to wait. So, see that bed there? Two of them, please.

Salesman: Oh, that one? Oh, that is an extra delay. We have problems getting that one.

Me: When?

Salesman: I don’t know…we would need to see. It is complicated.

Me: Okay, whatever. Complicated. As is everything here, it seems. So can we at least agree that it can be delivered on a certain date once we know it is available?

Salesman: Sure, yes.

Me: On a Saturday?

Salesman: Mais, merde, non! C’est compliqué! We have the transporter, and many deliveries, and you are not in Paris but a province, and….well, it’s complicated.

Me: So here I am with 3,000 Euros ready so spend *right now* on a product you have right there, and you can’t tell me when it will be delivered, you can’t deliver it on a Saturday, and everything is too complicated?

Salesman: Bienvenue en France, m’sieur.

To be fair, the salesman looked about two stages away from full-on suicide, and I did feel sorry for him.  And I did place the order, because there was a sale on and anywhere else would have given me the same story as it was exactly the same when I bought a sofa last spring.  On that occasion I ended up buying the one in the shop in order to avoid a 12 week wait.  Only you must pay the full amount up-front, naturellement.

The bed salesman called me back a couple of days later.  He surprised me by telling me they’d managed to find some in stock (seriously, this nationwide company is unable to check stock in real time from its sales outlets; they need to send a special request and wait a day or two) and could deliver them whenever I wanted.  But only on Mondays or Wednesdays.  Why only those days?  Because “you don’t live near Paris” and “the transporter needs to do other deliveries” and “it’s complicated”.  Bienvenue en France, indeed.

I am comforted by the knowledge that it would be no different in the UK.

Share

Why Competition is Good

Today I went into HSBC bank in Melbourne to open a bank account of the most basic kind on offer.  I didn’t expect much, having tried two or three times before to do the same thing in the UK, without success.  On those previous occasions, they raised objections within a minute or two of my saying what I wanted, and proceeded to reel off a load of bureaucratic hoops I’d need to jump through before they’d make any effort themselves.

Sure enough, the bullshit started quickly on this occasion.  They asked for my passport, then my UK driving license.  They said they needed the latter to confirm my address in the UK, even through I am resident in Australia (with a proper visa).  They asked for proof of address in Australia, which I gave them in the form of an invoice from the serviced apartments company from which I rent my flat (which is all inclusive, so I have no utility bills).  At this, the assistant pulled her face and asked if I could get somebody from my company to confirm this address.  I said I could, but the letter would come from me as I am the local representative of the company, and I set up the accommodation myself.  She pulled her face a bit more and went off to speak to her manager.  After a few minutes she came back with the expected “I’m sorry, but we can’t…” and invited me to write a letter to “HR” – who in my case live in Perth, have never met me, and could no more vouch for my residential address as they could the contents of my pocket.  I in turn invited them to call up the serviced apartments company and verify I was living there, but was met with another, wholly expected, “I’m sorry, but we can’t…”.  Even grudgingly accepting that there is a requirement to go through bureaucratic bullshit to open a bank account, it really grates that certain banks – HSBC being one of them – expect their customers to be the ones to negotiate it, instead of them.  Who the fuck is the customer, here?  So with that, I gathered up my documents and announced that I’d passed six or seven banks on the short walk from the office to HSBC, and I’ll try one of them.

So I did, and entered the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. I chose them because their merchant terminals generally accept my Credit Suisse Maestro card, whereas most others don’t (but that’s a subject for another post).  After a brief wait for somebody to see me, I was sat in a room opposite a helpful young lady on a computer and within 20 minutes I had a bank account number and details of how to access it online, with the password sent via SMS to my mobile phone.  Nobody asked to see my UK driving license, and I wasn’t asked to write letters to mythical HR departments a continent away to verify I hadn’t forged the invoice and was lying about where I lived.  Simply my passport, visa information, and contact details and away we went.  I was impressed.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why competition is good.  If one provider is shite, chances are a better one will exist nearby.  In a country where competition is badly missing in a lot of areas, its presence in the banking sector cheered me up considerably.

Incidentally, the reason I tried HSBC first was just to verify if they were as petty and shite as the other occasions I’d try to open an account with them, largely for the purposes of providing blogging material (bank-bashing never gets old around these parts).

And also incidentally, I noticed that all the people I dealt with in both banks were Chinese, and I don’t mean second generation.  The only “Australians” I saw were showing the customers which Chinese girl to go and speak to.  Read into that what you will.

Share