Happy? Just be happy to be miserable

November 16, 2010

The government’s proposal to launch a happiness index has prompted a lot of earnest debate and online chatter: How do you measure happiness? What makes people happy? And why, anyway, is the government concerned with how we feel?

David Cameron has said in the past that he is interested in gauging the country’s GWB (general wellbeing) as well as its GDP, admitting that there is more to life than money. It is a point-of-view shared by that indefatigable happiness peddler, Ken Dodd who, with unfortunate irony given a trial for tax evasion, sang:

A wise old man told me one time
When you go to measuring my success
Don’t count my money count my happiness

The launch of a national happiness survey reflects a growing belief, highlighted in several books such as The Spirit Level and Affluenza, that although people in the developed economies are increasingly more prosperous and enjoy rising living standards there has not been a corresponding increase in feelings of wellbeing.

My father says unashamedly, almost proudly, that he has only ever been happy once in his life. It wasn’t the day he got married, or even on first seeing his baby sons. No, it was when as a child he was walking to school and was stopped by another boy not wearing his uniform who enquired where he was going in his school blazer on a Saturday. The realisation that he had an unexpected day off was, for him, sheer bliss.

The Greeks preferred to take the long view of happiness: “Call no man happy until he is dead,” after which the complete ledger of joys and sorrows can be properly calculated. Although exactly how the personal perceptions of the recently deceased could be gleaned for a national census on wellbeing needs thinking through.

Woody Allen in happy mode

Personally, most days I tend to share Woody Allen’s rather lugubrious take on happiness in the film Annie Hall. “I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.”

Of course, such a view wouldn’t make David Cameron happy.


“Hey customer, are you talkin’ to me?”

October 19, 2010

A relentless focus on customer experience has guided the rise and rise of Apple to the point where it is now poised to become  (by market capitalisation) the most valuable company in the world. According to CEO Steve Jobs: “You have got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology – not the other way round.” The marriage of an enjoyable user experience with a series of sleek, super-desirable products has turbo-charged the fortunes of Apple over the last decade, which is today worth north of US$274 billion.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Travis Bickle needed work on his telephone manner.

I could not help comparing Jobs’ words with my recent experience as a customer of Sky. (Rest assured, I do not intend to risk extreme somnolence in my kind readers by detailing my many calls to Sky’s customer care team, their inability to resolve the issue or even offer a satisfactory explanation of why the matter was taking so long). But the problems with customer service begin, in my view, with the disconnect between what companies promise and what they deliver. This is what Sky says about itself…

Because we never forget that Sky is a choice, we put customers first and work hard to earn their trust. We make our products affordable so millions can join in. And we back it all up with a commitment to exceptional customer service.

‘Working hard’, ‘trust’, ‘putting customers first’ and ‘a commitment to exceptional customer service’. Such platitudes are the hyperbolic furniture of web welcome pages and marketing materials of most modern companies. Unfortunately, they can ring hollow when set against a disappointing customer experience.

The sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the terms “emotional labour” to describe how employees working in face-to-face roles (Hochschild considered flight attendants) or in contact centre settings are required to cultivate a warm and empathetic persona which is intended to create a positive emotional state in the customer. Such employees should “speak as if you are smiling” and to ‘act’ out an engaged, cheerful and helpful manner. They are expected to do so while remaining thoroughly professional at all times. Sociologists distinguish between ‘surface acting’ (the affectation of empathy) and so-called ‘deep acting’, which uses techniques similar to those employed by method actors, such as Robert De Niro, and is more emotionally draining.

I do not know whether Sky customer service people employ surface or deep acting techniques but, whichever it is, they failed comprehensively to evoke a positive emotional state in this caller. But at least I will know to remain polite at all times should I ever have need to call in the future. You really don’t want to make Travis Bickle angry.

Integrity must be the new message from the top, says Sants

October 13, 2010

At the risk of infuriating Andrew Marr, I intend to commit my thoughts to a blog on the subject of corporate ethics. No, this is not my rumination on a firm with headquarters in Chelmsford, but on the thorny issue of business integrity.

Gekko says that greed is good and now it's legal

Gordon Gekko is back in British filmhouses in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps with Michael Douglas reprising the role of the unprincipled slash and burn moneyman.

In the new film we see an unrepentant Gekko in the days of boom before the recent banking bust celebrating the fact that “greed is good and now it seems it’s legal”. According to the film’s director Oliver Stone, individuals like Gekko have passed their date stamp, sharp suited dinosaurs who have been replaced by the major banks and the hedge funds: “They are the big players now…the money’s too big.”

With impeccable timing, in the same week of the film’s UK release, Hector Sants, chief executive of the Financial Services Authority, addressed the issue of corporate culture and ethics in a Mansion House conference speech, and how in the banking industry a company’s value system was critical in shaping the behaviours and judgments of its people.

Management, he said, had a critical role in determining the culture of an organisation and setting the direction and tone of a company so that employees made the right decisions. He then posed some questions that should be asked about ones firm:

  • Do management model good behaviour, i.e. make their values ‘live’?
  • Do management articulate a clearly understandable strategy?
  • Do management offer guidance and training to assist in good decision-making – for example, on ensuring the fair treatment of customers and effective risk management?
  • Do management incentivise good behaviour and deter poor behaviour and how?
  • Do management encourage the required diversity to facilitate challenge to ‘group-think’?
  • Do management articulate their vision of the right culture? (Linking the brand of the institution and its culture)

These questions should not be asked as part of a box-ticking exercise; the company culture must “ring true and be consistent with what the firm does”.

This is not always the case, he said. Some of the causes of the recent crisis were rooted in the behaviours of firms and organisational cultures. And, worryingly, some senior managers had evidently failed to learn the lessons and were repeating their mistakes as if in defiance of Einstein’s definition of insanity (doing the same thing again and again in expectation of a different result).

Companies that fail to act with integrity and to ensure good behaviour is part of the lifeblood of their organisation face regulation, he warned. He could have added that they might also find themselves the subject of Mr Stone’s next cinematic opus.

Posh nosh and French polish – giving brands a makeover

February 25, 2010

So Greggs the bakers is getting the Eliza Doolittle treatment. The high street snackerie famous for its pies, pasties and pastries has announced that it’s going posh to broaden its appeal. The bakers, which began life in the North East in the 1960s, is giving its London stores a makeover – wooden floors and moody lighting – to tempt its target white-collar customers into tucking into this week’s flavoursome star buy sticky toffee muffin or lunching on a steak-filled pasty and yum yum combo.

The firm’s chief executive, Ken McMeikan, says the changes will enhance the buying experience of all customers from “barristers to builders” as the company competes against the likes of Starbucks and Pret A Manger.

Of course, Greggs is not the first brand to attempt to refashion itself. Skoda, once the object of mirth among car drivers, was taken over by Volkswagen in the 1990s and, while cleverly satirising its own image for nerdiness, carefully built a reputation for reliability and affordability. Skoda now tags itself “the manufacturer of happy drivers” and boasts that 98 per cent of Skoda owners would probably recommend them to a friend. We are presumably expected to skim over the word ‘probably’, but you get the drift.


A still from the visitBlackpool campaign.

It is not just cars and shops that can get the sort of facelift that would make Mickey Rourke envious. Blackpool, once the go to destination for hen parties, is now billing itself as a cultural hub, must-see visitor attraction and conference host for the working classes. It has done so in a very imaginative and witty promotional video that applies some French polish to a destination which now attracts 13 million visitors a year.

According to Natalie Wyatt, Head of visitBlackpool, the aim of the video, which shows a young French woman waiting listlessly in a restaurant, was to encourage visitors to take a fresh look at Blackpool and highlight the resort’s attractions.

She said: “We have received many positive comments from journalists, visitors and locals and I am certain that our increased visitor numbers are thanks, in part, to new visitors coming to try a spot of ‘otpot and a glass of champagne after viewing the ad!”

Champagne and ‘otpot – sounds like a new menu option for Greggs.

Will ‘Toyota Man’ decide the election?

February 18, 2010

Remember Mondeo Man? Much derided and a feature now of our urban dictionary, he has been credited with helping to swing the 1997 election in favour of Labour’s Tony Blair. A Conservative voter by instinct, Mondeo bloke was a 30-something, middle-income family man, who identified with the new-world aspirational vision articulated by New Labour.

Psephologists searching for the successor to Mondeo Man believe that Motorway Man could hold the key to this year’s general election. Typically living in new homes in corridors close to the major motorways, these voters are young, probably a childless couple, and drive extensively for their middle manager sales jobs. With many of these voters living in marginal seats and encumbered by traditional party loyalties, they are being wooed vigorously by the Labour and Conservative political machines.

But I wonder whether there is not another voter constituency that is being completely overlooked? To maintain the vehicular theme, I will call him Toyota Man. Of course, it doesn’t have the alliteratively pleasing quality of those other voter groups, but I believe it successfully suggests a person who feels that the whole system has failed and let them down, who believes they are owed an apology which is only grudgingly offered and given the choice again would probably have chosen something completely different – the colour of which is immaterial.

I expect the local party activists are zeroing in on Toyota showrooms as I write.

Responsibility has dropped out of fashion

February 3, 2010

After telling his famous lie to Parliament, Jack Profumo devoted the last 40 years of his life to helping at a hostel for the homeless in the East End of London. It was his way of seeking to take responsibility for a lapse of judgment and personal failings.

How different things are today. Dr Rajendra Pachhauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change says he will not apologise for a fallacious claim made in a report by his organisation that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035“You cannot expect me to be personally responsible for every word in a 3,000 page report,” he tells the Guardian. True enough if the mistake was of molehill proportions, but we are talking about an XL cock up here. According to the panel’s own description, the glaciers form the largest body of ice outside the polar caps and act as a reservoir serving the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra river systems that support millions of people living in South Asian countries. A statement issued by the IPCC says the wider conclusion of the report is robust but it “regrets the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance.” Were these people not told by their mathematics teachers to show their working out?

Last week at the Chilcot Inquiry, Sir Michael Wood who was the chief legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when the decision was taken to go to war with Iraq explained to the panel why he did not resign over his doubts about the legality of invasion. His colleague Elizabeth Wilmshurst did resign as a matter of conscience because the proposed course of military action amounted in her view to “a crime of aggression”.

Sir Michael said he had been expecting that question and argued that resignation was a matter of personal conscience and, besides, he didn’t actually have to defend the decision to go to war personally. The logical consequence of this argument is that you can do what you want if you think you will never need to answer for it. Sir Michael retired in 2006.

And today Toyota has been embarrassed into making an apology over the recall of millions of its vehicles over an apparent fault with the accelerator pedal on certain models. And the best Miguel Fonseca, managing director of Toyota GB can come up with is to say he is sorry for the concern felt by his customers. As grudging apologies go this is a corker.

Still we live in hope that the Chelsea and England player John Terry will make a full mea culpa, forsake his £170,000 weekly wage and start slopping out at a soup kitchen near Cobham. Watch this space.

Hare’s trigger fails to fire on bankers

January 26, 2010

A visit to the theatre last night to see David Hare’s The Power of Yes which examines the causes and exposes the villains of the financial crisis was well timed; banker bashing is in full swing.

Earlier in the day the city minister Lord Myners articulated public outrage at the banks’ failure to act with due penitence after receiving state aid and promised regulatory reform to prevent a similar collapse happening again. Meanwhile, President Obama is squaring up with the titans of Wall Street who have trousered millions in bonuses.

courtesy of Metro newspaper

What was really in those boxes?

The play opens with the narrator – an actor who takes on the role of Author – explaining: “This is not a play. It is a story.” And the story is compelling. The audience learns about the Nobel prize-winning economist who created a formula to remove risk from the market in ‘options’ and the growth of the financial services in the UK to the point where it accounted for 9 per cent of GDP. We learn more about sub-prime, what was really in those boxes being carried by Lehman Brothers’ staff from their offices on the day the firm went bust and how Fred ‘the Shred’ Goodwin was groomed to be nice for a media appearance.

Drawing on interviews from important players in the banking industry who saw the events unwind first hand, the play moves briskly and employing an Author figure to ask the questions the public would want asked is a clever device. The play attempts to provide some answers. The Author as Hare tell us that the current crisis represents the death of an idea and the invalidity of the much-spouted wisdom that capitalism is self-healing and works for the benefit of all members of society. The pay-off lines are left to the George Soros character who says that while the bankers reap the benefits of capitalism they rarely pay the price of failure.

But Hare, perhaps surprisingly for a left-leaning polemicist, seems reluctant to pull the trigger on capitalism. He hesitates to come out and declare greed is not good, instead saying that it is fallible and that it got it badly wrong this time. There is only one short section of the play which offers an insight into how ordinary people are struggling with debt caused by the crisis. As a result, I am afraid the play lacks real emotional punch. I left the theatre with answers but not the anger I expected to come away with.