Thursday 27 February 2014

Dating sisters and the art of customer service

This post was written yesterday and has been uploaded this morning via the free wifi connection at Kirkwall Airport. God bless Highlands and Islands Airports!

This was to be my inaugural blogpost from our new home, after weeks of traipsing around various wifi-enabled establishments like some sort of itinerant bard. Perhaps you detect from the doom-laden tone that everything has not gone swimmingly in the internet connection department?

At the beginning of February, as soon as we had confirmation of access to our new home, I contacted our telephone and internet provider (they’re very well-known, but let’s call it Maureen*) to transfer our account from the rented cottage to Tense Towers 2. Maureen was only too happy to oblige, but was a little downhearted to have to inform me that we would be required to change our phone number. I had expected this, for although the distance from one property to the other is less than six miles, and with few houses in between, it is across three stretches of water.

Undaunted, I pressed on with the arrangements, but the next hurdle floored me. As we were moving to a new property and required a phone line and broadband connection, the lead time for the installation would be sixteen working days. I distinctly recall the reason, “The engineers cannot book it any sooner, just in case there any problems to sort out. They need this delay to ensure that the installation goes ahead on time.”

Now I had it on good authority from the builder that he had not only laid the cable from the house to a post adjacent to the nearest telephone junction box, but he had also contacted the local engineer to let him know. So sixteen days seemed a little excessive. I asked if there was any mechanism for shortening the process if cancelled appointments became available, but Maureen dashed my hopes by informing me that the engineers worked for her sister company, let’s call her Ophelia, so it was not possible to liaise directly.

To my mind, if two companies share the same root or ‘surname’ and are a leading communications organisation, that is just pure obfuscation and a poor excuse to be wafted in the direction of a customer.

So there we had it, a sixteen working day wait. That’s over three weeks in old money.

A few days later, the local engineer phoned me, out of the blue. I had a brief frisson of excitement as I thought perhaps he was going to tell me that never mind what Maureen said, Ophelia would see me right, but sadly not. The call was just to confirm the location of the property, as he recalled the conversation with our builder. So far, so positive, but Ophelia stuck to the party line as regards reducing the lead time for connection.

Four days ago, I received a text message reminding me (it’d been so very long, you see) that an engineer was going to call today. And again yesterday, another text message reminder, to make sure that I was available between 8am and 1pm today for the engineer to call.

Now, I must admit that I have never been on a date with two sisters at the same time. If you don’t believe me, you can ask Our Lass or either of her sisters. However, there was a sense of keen anticipation this morning, Wednesday 26th February 2014, Internet Connection Day. I was up and dressed earlier than normal, breakfasted, dishes washed up and the garage cleared to allow access to the cable where it entered the building. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting Maureen and Ophelia bang on the stroke of eight o’clock, neither of them sound like that type of gal, so I busied myself with hanging a few paintings and prints in the lounge. But when one o’clock came and went, I realised that I had been well and truly stood up. The realisation was a hammer blow, which at least meant one more picture hook nailed to the wall.

So, stood up. They never call, do they? Nope, no explanatory phone call, no text message. There might possibly have been an email, I suppose, but I had no means of discovering if that was the case. At one thirty, the Royal Mail postman delivered the mail. Conveniently, it included a leaflet from Maureen, or possibly Ophelia, which explained how to set up my new broadband.

That hurt.

With a heavy heart, I picked up my mobile phone and dialled the customer service number that would connect me to a plethora of recorded messages and menu options, all guaranteed to raise my blood pressure further, which is surely not the point of a helpline? One message even informed me that to save time and expense, I could log onto a website to solve any number of problems. Not this one, sunshine.

Eventually, I reached an actual voice who, although she was called neither Maureen nor Ophelia, did her damnedest to help me out. Apparently, Maureen’s computer system showed everything was good to go, so my Good Samaritan would have to check with Ophelia’s system to see if that was where the problem was located. OK, I said, but could you call me back as I’m probably being charged a fortune for this call? Sadly not, that was against policy, so I was left hanging on the line, whilst investigations continued.

When my telephonic angel returned, she was the bearer of bad tidings. Yes, there was a problem. No, I wouldn’t be receiving a visit from the engineer today. It turned out that sometimes sixteen working days lead time isn’t enough which, frustrating though it is, I do understand. Stuff happens, unforeseen problems crop up, I know this as, until very recently, dealing with this kind of thing was my line of work.

But what I fail to understand, and so have absolutely no sympathy with the companies involved, is the chronic lack of correct information being relayed to the customer. It transpired that it had been known that the connection would not go ahead on the agreed date, but it seems that Maureen and Ophelia had taken a vow of silence and not passed on the bad news. Not only was I fed incorrect information by blasé text messages, the one snippet that should have been given to me was singularly absent. This is a perfect example of how to mismanage customer expectation.

Bless her, my little helper did try to smooth the waters, with a promise of £10 credited to my account to make up for the missed appointment. But that is quite an insult in itself. Not enough to act as any kind of deterrent to Maureen or Ophelia to mend their ways and, at best, a miserly £2 per hour for my time. Shoddy, very shoddy.

Sadly, we have to wait for another week and another appointment to be connected to the outside world. Meanwhile, I return to my technological tramping like some nomad of the electronic ergs, a peripatetic blogger, lost in cyberspace.

To all the lovely ladies called Maureen or Ophelia, please accept my apologies, I do not mean to cause offence or to denigrate your beautiful names. It just seemed to help the flow of the blogpost to give the telephone and internet provider a more personal face. And if you’ve got wifi, would it be ok if I popped around, please?

*Maureen? Come on, older readers, you must remember the actress? And her eponymous character in an advertisement for this particular company?

Sunday 23 February 2014

And the Anser is... ?

I think the last three months have finally caught up with me. All that packing and unpacking, moving and moving again, house husbandly duties and work to find. I ache all over and my head is pounding. To be fair, that last symptom may well be related to my first beer in ages and the inevitable one pint hangover.

The one positive note this morning was a flock of about 250 Greylag Geese in the field over the road.

Though my eyes didn't appreciate the thought, I made them scan the flock with binoculars, just in case there was a straggler of another species loitering within the group. After several left to right and right to left passes, I eventually spotted a solitary Pink-footed Goose grazing with the Greylags.

There was a lot of traffic (for here!) using the road, as the local church service was about to begin. The geese were pretty jumpy because of this and even just gently opening our front door, a proportion of the flock took to the air. I did manage this image with my phone though.

Wednesday 19 February 2014


Whilst unpacking some of our belongings last week, ploughing through box after box of assorted detritus from a Life Mess Ordinary, I re-discovered a treasured gift which First Born had thoughtfully brought back from her travels around the world during her gap year.

This item was specifically from New Zealand, where they don’t take kindly to non-native alien life forms running riot and creating havoc for the indigenous wildlife…

OK, a little out of the ordinary, but not too weird.

Several cardboard boxes later, having moved on to populating the bookshelves, I happened across this particular book…

Hmmm, there’s a theme developing here, isn’t there?

Sure enough, that night we journeyed into town to see the musical Cats, as performed by the Kirkwall Amateur Operatic Society (KAOS) in the new Orkney Theatre, at the Grammar School, which all things considered, seemed in direct adherence to the interconnected and holistic nature of all things*.

The local paper featured an article on the show's run.

Musicals aren’t really my bag, but we had a thoroughly pleasant evening, enjoying a fantastic production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of T.S. Eliot’s classic book.

*OK, that last bit is from a different book and to be fair, as he regales us in The Salmon of Doubt, Dirk Gently “doesn’t do cats”.

Friday 14 February 2014

No joke!

It is said that there is many a true word spoken in jest.

Well, I was almost able to prove that this is so...

Remember this photo of our front garden from the other day?

The caption read 'Front garden, masquerading as a wader scrape'.

Several days later I took the following shots...

OK, now concentrate on the dry stane dyke (translation: dry stone wall) and the field beyond, which is just over the road.

Not just 1...

but 2 Snipe!
Middle photo from lounge window, last photo from front door. Brilliant!

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Relocation, relocation, relocation

Apologies for the break in service. Things will continue stutteringly as signal permits until such time as BT connect our new home to the rest of the world.

Following the successful completion of our house purchase, our furniture arrived from storage a few days later. Our Lass's glee upon being reunited with her belongings was positively heart-warming. This was a good thing, as the boiler refused to fire up, due to running out of oil before we could arrange for more supplies.

Yeah, oil, eh? The current trend in Orkney is for air or ground source heat pumps. A noble and environmentally-friendly option. However, the construction of our new abode commenced before this fashion kicked in, which means an oil burner it is. At least it's a condensing unit, so should be more efficient than previous generations of boiler. The house is well insulated, too, and we're hoping for smaller energy bills all round.

The house is situated near the top of a low hill, looking out across Scapa Flow to Hoy. A minor road runs along the front aspect. To the south west, across a small field, is a large farm. To the south and east, are several other dwellings, one still under construction. To the north, is a patchwork of small fields and the distant hills of West Mainland. But to the north west is a view taking in most of Scapa Flow, with glimpses of Burray, South Ronaldsay, Flotta, Hoy and the Orphir coastline of Mainland. The plot of land which surrounds it is the archetypal blank canvas, though I would caution against imagining it as a large, white and pristine sheet of paper...

Front garden, masquerading as a wader scrape

Rear garden, with potential for livestock?
The first task in the garden, once it's dry enough to wander onto without fear of losing your wellies, is to begin planting hardy shrubs to provide shelter for other vegetation. Fortunately, we have a copy of 'Kiss My Aster', a book written by Amanda Thomsen and as recommended by biobabbler. Meantime, small, green, non-descript shoots are emerging into the light, so we'll soon know what's under all that mud.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

TT2 - Day 2

Late yesterday afternoon, we finally received the great news that our house purchase had completed satisfactorily. A mad dash ensued, across the Barriers and up to Kirkwall, to collect the keys, before the solicitor's office closed for the day.

So it was dark by the time that Our Lass and I were able to rendezvous at Tense Towers 2 and explore the, as yet, blank canvas that will be the backdrop to our future in Orkney.

Today I was able to carry out a few shakedown checks and some snagging, before Our Lass flew back to Mainland from a day spent on a nearby island. As TT2 is near the top of a low hill, it means that it has unlimited access to the Orcadian weather. It is also located close to a farm, so there's an amount of 'agricultural' aromas on offer, too. Perhaps those gale force winds will be useful, after all!

However, it was most pleasant to be on site for our first TT2 sunset.

I am looking forward to monitoring the sun as it edges northwards along the western horizon, on the way to Midsummer, before creeping back again through the Autumn.

This is the view from our front door, looking across Barrier Number 1 and Scapa Flow, towards Hoy.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Water, water, everywhere?

Today, 2nd February, is World Wetlands Day.

I imagine that your viewpoint on this might be different if you live here compared to your thoughts if you live here. Or, perhaps, they are two different effects of the same problem?

In Orkney, the biggest problem these last few days has been coastal flooding, due to exceptionally high tides coupled with strong winds. At least yesterday there was less rain and we saw some sun. Our Lass and I pottered around the West Burray loop. From the cottage, we began the walk along the single track road that goes to the western end of the island. Normally, from there, we can see the narrow causeway, or ayre, that connects Burray with Hunda. Not yesterday, there was only a thin tell-tale line of white water to reveal where it was. Then our route picked up a farm track that skirts around the hill of Muckle Wart and heads back eastwards to Burray Village. The water pouring off the hill was making good use of the track too, as the previous days' rain responded to the gravitational urge to be at one with the sea.

The thin white line

We briefly encountered a different kind of flow as we tramped through the soggy fields. A flock of sheep thought our presence meant food, and they milled around and along with us for several minutes before they finally figured out we were not going to provide a meal.

As we regained firmer ground and another single track road, we could see huge waves in the distance, as the North Sea crashed into the beach alongside Barrier Number 4. A quick check with our binoculars also revealed that the surface of Water Sound was above the level of the Burray pier.

Our return route took us over the hill of Little Wart, a vantage point from which we could watch waves, driven by a strong south easterly gale, colliding into Barrier Number 2 between Glimps Holm and Lamb Holm. The spray was spectacular, at least from this remove, but I guess that wouldn't be your dominant emotion if you were driving across the causeway. In addition, the same violent sea was smashing into the recently-repaired defences of Graemeshall Road on Mainland, a picturesque and seaweed-strewn portion of the route between our current abode and our new home.

Back at the cottage, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast and watched the wildlife feeding in the fields below the garden. With the high tide making the shore a no-go area, waders were thronging to these pastures to search for tasty morsels in the soft ground.

Curlew, Numenius arquata

The Curlews are often accompanied by a flock of Starlings, their different beak length and feeding strategy allowing the two species to comb the same area without competing over food resource.

Obviously and conversely, the low tides are out of the ordinary too. For the past few days, we have been able to see sand in Echnaloch Bay, as the water retreats further than normal and exposes more than just rock. This phenomenon has brought new visitors, not only a small increase in the number of Oystercatchers, but also a few hardy folk searching for 'spoots' or Razor Clams, on the normally hidden beach.

It's encouraging to see wildlife and humans sharing a sustainable resource.

Saturday 1 February 2014


I'm not sure if it is a word, 'unrant', but it is as important to praise when things go well, as it is to chide when things go wrong. So, credit where credit is due (intentional pun).

The Tense Towers sense of humour has been known to fail on a few select occasions, most significantly in relation to personal banking. This has been the subject of several ranty blogposts (here and here) and has necessitated the sweeping up of the expletive equivalent of dust bunnies from the corners of the room.

However, in a fortuitous turnaround of events, my bank had something of an epiphany. It helped me with a problem and saved me money into the bargain, and so received excellent and positive customer feedback. I know! I'm still not sure I haven't just dreamt it.

As you may be aware, we're in the process of buying a house. Much thought and deliberation has gone into sifting through the pros and cons of all the various contenders for the title of 'Tense Towers 2'. Old or new, town or country, sprawling vistas or sheltered from the weather? After lots of angst and plenty of humming and hah-ing, we've 'chosen' the one Our Lass likes best. She was correct about the original Tense Towers, so her record is impeccable.

This week, after an amount of estate agent-induced inertia, we were suddenly informed that we had 24 hours to complete. As we had been asking for some kind of notice period to allow us to put the necessary funds all in one place, this was... less than optimal. Firing up my pc, I transferred some money online from a couple of savings accounts and into our current account to make up the necessary funds to purchase our dream home. As these were two different financial institutions, I then checked our account to see if the amounts had come through [drums fingers and stares at screen]. Of course they hadn't, we all know how this works.

However, after I had logged out, but was still on the bank's website, a little window popped up asking if I needed any help. Eh? I looked around. Who? Me? Uncharacteristically, I decided to respond to the unsolicited request. Following on from some fact finding about what we were trying to do, the Good Samaritan at the other end of the pop-up window informed me that I could transfer up to £100,000 a day from our account, online, in seconds, for free, in instalments up to £30,000. No BACS (free but annoyingly slow), or CHAPS (fast but expensive), just simple, instantaneous transfer as part of the Faster Payments Service. This was a revelation.

Luckily, we had enough in the account, due to the sale of the original Tense Towers, to forward the daily limit amount across to our solicitor. A quick email proved that the system worked and I was buoyed up by that fact. But the remaining funds that were now stuck between the two banks were a real problem. The next morning I checked if the money had come through. Nope. A call to the support line of the originating bank confirmed my worst fears, they were still using BACS and the transfer could take between 3 and 5 days.

Next, I contacted my bank to ask when they thought they might have visibility of the transactions. Astonishingly, I was connected to the same representative as the previous day, which convinced Our Lass that our bank has a staff of one. Again, he proved to be a Good Samaritan, reassuring us that we wouldn't have to wait for even 3 days, let alone 5. The bank would see the funds by midnight and I would then be able to forward them from our account and on to our solicitor, without waiting for the next working day.

So this morning, I was able to finish paying for our new home, on my debit card, instantaneously, without incurring any charges, and all from the comfort of the sofa.