Dancing with the DVLA’s (lack of) Customer Services

Did the same man who designed the M25 also decide to turn his hand to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA)’s customer services? That was the question running through my head today, glued to the phone whilst infinitely pressing keys to avoid the robot, speak to the human.

Let me explain why. I’ll try not to bore you.

I paid for my vehicle’s tax using the DVLA’s online system. You know. That new system from 2014 that signalled the death of the paper tax disc. The only problem is, it doesn’t work. I paid by direct debit for a monthly payment, the system decided to take a 6 month payment. Okay I thought – a little bug. So I cancelled the monthly direct debit (as a 6 month payment had already been taken) and got on with my life.

Right until the DVLA starting posting threatening letters, the scary sort in brown envelopes, saying that my vehicle wasn’t taxed. I apparently owed them £100 and if I didn’t pay the enforcement authorities said my vehicle could potentially be clamped and toed away.

The best bit? I received this letter on a Saturday. That precious day at the weekend when you’re still recovering from a stressful week. Even though the urgency of the letter demanded immediate reaction – the DVLA does not provide weekend customer support.

It gets better.

The DVLA have a Twitter feed. This @DVLAgovuk. So whilst I was cocking around with a phone, stressing that my vehicle would be imminently toed away. The DVLA had scheduled pointless uninspiring “so what?” tweets offering irrelevant advice such as:

No! I hadn’t lost my friggin’ driving license. Also, the chance that somebody would actually see that tweet, posted at that time, who had lost their driving licence and therefore would find value from that link just seems nonsensical. It’s clear that their Twitter profile is being run by somebody who clearly has no idea about social media. As a customer, it’s infuriating. There is just no customer support. Nothing. I tried. I tweeted.

It took 48 hours to get a reply – you guessed it, on a Monday. Just what is the point of offering social media support if you can’t provide weekend cover?

It’s clear that the DVLA’s internal setup is a complete mess:

  1. The social media department don’t talk to customer services on the phone;
  2. Customer services cold transferred my call to the debiting department, who had to hear out my case again;
  3. The enforcement team don’t talk to the debiting department, so believed my vehicle wasn’t taxed;
  4. Then we go back to the social media department, who didn’t bother following up with my case.

It’s a classic example of how not to do customer service. Sadly, it’s a common one. There is nothing particularly exciting or challenging about this blog post. It’s just another customer who has had a bad experience. Poor me. Boohoo.

We shouldn’t think like that though. The DVLA should build a system that works. Imagine that. Delivering excellent social media service – talking to customers and knowing who they are through every step of the resolution process.

Clearly the customer services person on the phone was all too familiar with my kind of case, “As you can appreciate sir. We deal with thousands of applications everyday. Things go wrong.” Err yeah, thanks.

My case got resolved eventually but only after plenty of stress, phone time and dealing with a disorganised system that didn’t know my case.

Only one month to go until the #MarsdenMarch!

It’s only one month until I take part in the Marsden March, an annual charity walk that takes place between The Royal Marsden’s Chelsea and Sutton hospitals. The purpose is to raise money for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity; my purpose is to get fitter.

You’re right. It’s not a run. It’s just a 14-mile walk. I’ve even heard from reliable sources that some people on route like quickly popping into local pubs (to only use the toilets apparently…) However, the athleticism needed for this walk seriously overestimates my cardiovascular performance – I’m hopelessly slow, unfit and completely unprepared.

So as per the official training guides I’m doing plenty of walking in preparation, mostly as part of my daily commute. Being a total geek I’ve enlisted the support of gadgetry. Having recently sold my Fitbit Flex, I’m now using Apple’s Health app.

Just look at these graph-tastic illustrations of my sporting progress. It’s frightening just how much data my iPhone is logging every second.

If you would like to support my charity walk then please donate here to my JustGiving page, where I’ll be walking as part of Team Goldsmiths (courtesy of my long suffering girlfriend.)

I would really appreciate any donations as the big day approaches. Anything. Even the smallest amount will help improve a life.

Preparing for the #MarsdenMarch, 10 weeks to go

“The activity for which you are registering (the “Event”) is physically challenging and pose a risk of discomfort, illness, injury, and even death. You need to be satisfied that you are physically capable of doing the Event without risk to your health or your life. We do not conduct health or fitness checks on entrants.”

Will I be base-jumping from buildings? Surfing with sharks? Bullfighting in Spain? No. I’ll be walking 14 miles on the Marsden March on Sunday 22nd March 2015. And I signed the above disclaimer knowing full well that my physical ‘condition’ needs a LOT of training.

The Marsden March is an annual charity walk (14 or 5 miles) that takes place between The Royal Marsden’s Chelsea and Sutton hospitals. It’s an exciting community occasion to raise money for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.

So many people have had their lives touched by cancer, directly or indirectly. Including myself, but thankfully I’ve never had to experience the stress or loss of a close family, friend or colleague to cancer. I’ll be walking as part of the Goldsmiths Team, of which my girlfriend is a member (for her second year).

As I said on the very first day of the year, I want to focus on charity. It’s so easy being selfish in life, and it’s time to give back to the world. However, in some ways this walk is a purely selfish endeavour to get fitter, as it’s much easier working towards a goal!

So at the end of each week I’ll be blogging about my #MarsdenMarch training progress. I’ll be eagerly following official training guides and be looking for support on social media too… please?

If you can, I would really appreciate any donations as the big day approaches. Anything. Even the smallest amount will help improve a life. As it’s still early days, Goldsmiths haven’t setup the JustGiving page yet… but it should be online in the next couple of weeks.

Let the training commence! If you are also blogging about your progress or tweeting it, do leave a comment below. I’ll follow you and ask silly questions.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Last weekend I visited the Tower of London, to see the major art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red; marking one hundred years since the first day of the First World War. All 888,246 poppies represent a soldier’s lost life during the war.

The placement of the artwork against the 948 years old Tower of London, surrounded by a modern city provides a sense of perspective; we’re here thanks to the service of brave men. Not just from the First World War, but from many wars since. Even in the bustle of city life, the memories that all the poppies represent provides serenity.

That’s why I took the below picture and highlighted the vivid colours of the art installation. We should always remember those who gave their lives for our freedom.

Tower of London poppies

10 Albums that have impacted my life

As a fun weekend post I thought it would be good to step away from the PR world, and instead focus on the thing that keeps me ticking: music. Those who know me in real life understand (or pretend to!) my enduring love for heavy metal. One of my favourite monthly magazines is Metal Hammer. Each month a different artist selects his/hers metal albums.

Today I’ve borrowed this idea. You can also see my latest listened to tracks on my last.fm profile.

The first album I ever bought was…BBGV1Cover
The Beach Boys
The Greatest Hits (1995)
I had an awkward, vaguely mum-themed, introduction to music. It’s fair to say that from this point everything either went up or down hill, depending on your view of my music taste!

The album I wish I’d made is…Midian
Cradle of Filth
Midian (2000)
It was also probably one of the first metal albums that I ever listened to. Dani Filth’s vocals were so clear on this record, chilling in places and the lyrics were beautifully crafted. It’s certainly not an album for everyone, but creatively if I had a band, it would sound a little like this album.

The album I break the speed limit to is…OSLAUGHT--VI-
Onslaught
VI (2013)
I saw Onslaught earlier this year at the 02 Islington Academy in London with my thankless girlfriend. As one of the pioneering bands behind thrash metal, I often think they are missed, shadowed behind the ‘Big Four’; Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica and Anthrax. I have the CD in my car… its powerful.

No one will believe I own a copy of…Album_Cover-The_Fame
Lady Gaga
The Fame (2009)
As one of the most ‘poppy’ albums in history, it’s an odd addition to my iTunes collection. I do feel for some of the lyrics though, regularly drawing comparisons between Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson (an ideal couple?).

The album I listen to when working is…Eparistera_Daimones_gatefold_LP_cover
Triptykon
Eparistera Diamones (2010)
Don’t read too much into this one. It’s a very dark album, with extremely sludgy guitar playing. There is something about it though that makes it a perfect writing aid. I saw Triptykon play at Bloodstock Festival this year and they were just brilliant live.

The album that should not be is…Metallica_-_St._Anger_cover
Metallica
St. Anger (2003)
Come on! Really? You can’t really blame Metallica for this album in their otherwise pure discography; the band was going through therapy. It has no solos, the drums sound absolutely awful and the lyrics are unimaginative. Creatively it was a disaster.

The best workout album is…440px-KreatorEndorama
Kreator
Endorama (1999)
If you enjoy jogging, be careful with this album. Its steady beat raised my pace by a couple of minutes and almost killed me!

A kid asks me what metal is, I have them a copy of…Metallica_-_Master_of_Puppets_cover
Metallica
Master of Puppets (1986)
Every child should listen to this album; it is such a perfect introduction to metal. Each track introduces a different take on thrash metal, from Battery to Damage, Inc. My favourite track has to be Leper Messiah; the lyrics representing the dangers of mindlessly following the claims of false prophets. Just staggering, a breath-taking album – I hadn’t even been born when it was released!

The album that reminds me of school is…Slayer-GodHatesUsAll
Slayer
God Hates Us All (2002)
Having attended a Church of England Primary School and a Catholic Secondary School, it’s fair to say some found this album a tad controversial. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed listening to it so much? Still, 12 years later I love this album. It’s a historic thrash metal album; listen to the track New Faith.

The best band to see live is…Are_You_Dead_Yet-_(album)
Children of Bodom
Are You Dead Yet? (2005)
I’ve seen CoB live twice and was left buzzing on both occasions. The crowd just get lost in the music, usually tossing each other over the security barricades! Of all their albums, this one has to be my favourite.

 

So yes, this post has absolutely nothing to do with PR, marketing or social media. It’s just fun. Which is what blogging should be about, fun. What is your favourite album?

 

Exploring Amsterdam for the first time

I’ve lived in almost abject fear of Amsterdam ever since boys from Sixth Form would boast about how they were arranging the dirtiest weekend away imaginable. Unfortunately, this seems to be the connotations Amsterdam evokes. Even the Immigration officer at Gatwick airport said with a smirk ‘Amsterdam? Have a great time away’ – okay, that doesn’t say much, but it was the tone in which he said it. We all know that in Amsterdam, prostitution is as legal as smoking cannabis. Two of the very activities that have personally put me off from visiting for a long time. Well, finally I’ve visited and this is what I thought about the destination.

It’s different, in every way
Last year I had a blogging adventure in Rotterdam which was wonderful, but everyone knows that Amsterdam is the city in the Netherlands that everyone wants to visit. So I appreciate the Rotterdam Tourism folk trying to convince tourists to fly to Rotterdam instead of Amsterdam, but for us Brits there really is no need. It was a mere 45 minute flight to reach Amsterdam Airport and if you really wanted to visit Rotterdam, just jump on a train and explore for a day. Although you’ll probably just end up staying in Amsterdam because the city is just a maze waiting to be explored. That’s if you can negotiate your way across the roads; dodging trams, bicycles, mopeds and cars that don’t always stop for the red light. Then you’ll probably end up falling into a canal! Simply walking about the city is a delight though.

Amsterdam canal cruise

IMG_0116

Unless you prefer to have a canal cruise through the winding city, which allows you to see some of the key tourist attractions from a different perspective. Noteworthy attractions for me were cruising past a multi story bicycle park with 2,500 spaces (it was full), seeing the different types of houseboats and the sheer size of the canal system. At one point we could see down a stretch of canal lined with dozens of bridges in front of each other.

For those who like shopping, you’ll find plenty of places to visit.

Amsterdam shopping

History is closer than you think
Before visiting Amsterdam I must admit, I wasn’t that fussed about visiting the Anne Frank House and Museum. I knew the queues would be big and after speaking to a couple who live in Amsterdam (sat next to them when watching Phantom of the Opera in London, early January) understood the museum ran on a sort of tourist conveyer belt system. You are shuffled through the house and connected museum, stopping occasionally to watch videos and when there are people-jams up ahead.

All I can say is, you must visit.

Anne Frank house
Anne Frank house

History is a lot closer than you think when you wander through the Anne Frank house. You realise just how recent the liberation of the Netherlands was and how dreadfully incomprehensible the tragedies of World War 2 were. This was reality, the left behind scribblings and pinups on Anne Frank’s bedroom wall makes that clear. The fear the family must have gone through is too unbearable to think about and the hopes they must have had to make it through the war unharmed.

You must visit the house.

I wasn’t able to take any pictures inside, which was a delight in itself. There is nothing more frustrating that having people standing in front of you constantly snapping away! The Anne Frank Museum is a key piece of history which everyone should visit if you find yourself in Amsterdam. I recommend visiting the museum later in the day, maybe around 7pm. The queue only took 45 minutes although be prepared to wrap up warm, the wind was freezing!

Red lights
I shuffled through Amsterdam’s red light district late in the afternoon, as the sun was preparing to set. As a bashful Brit I wasn’t too sure where to look and I felt the whole area was really hiding the true Amsterdam, the one that proudly showed itself off during the canal tour a day earlier. Prostitutes were exhibiting their goods in windows and tall men patiently stood outside the doors of live sex shows, waiting to welcome passerbys in. I didn’t stop walking – I didn’t dare, although couldn’t help overhearing one conversation.

“So, what is this then, a video?”

“No, this is live porn, the real thing.”

“Okay, what do we think guys? How much does it cost to get in?”

“30 EUR each. No discounts.”

People were urinating in the streets, although the area wasn’t nearly as sordid as my imagination. I’m sure after 11pm the area changes a lot, but in the afternoon is was okay. Quite safe to explore during the day. Although the Amsterdam Tourist Board will advise to visit as a couple or group.

I loved Amsterdam and it offered a nice breakaway from London. It’s worth visiting and the city is a lot more than red lights. In fact, 95% of Amsterdam is more than prostitution. Although you will see a lot of coffee shops! Perhaps that is why everyone is so friendly?

 

Pub, Rugby… Make-up?

I could be certain of two things whilst sitting inside the Anchor Bankside pub in Southwark last night. Without a doubt I was the only male watching the Rugby who didn’t have a clue what the importance of the game was or how the rules worked. The second, that I was the only guy wearing make-up.

Thanks to the winning streak nature of my girlfriend @kellyware6, we had won a chance for a makeover and photoshoot at Burlingtons Boutique. One of the high-flying professional Central London salons that prides itself on its young team of fashionistas and its evident client list of high-profile models and celebrities. It’s a day unlike any I’ve had before; I’ve always wondered what it would be like taking part in the London ‘fashion scene’ and yesterday I got a good taste of it.

© Burlingtons Boutique
© Burlingtons Boutique

When we arrived we were led to down some stairs to a place underneath the building, this is where the photography studios are. The locked doors, colourful patterned curtains and ambient lighting in places suggested subtlety. Not all people arrive here to play innocent; some choose to have photographs not intended to be seen by their parents! Photos on the walls showed loving families, suggestive models and business worthy poses. The variation highlighted the professionalism of the place, but that didn’t stop me feeling slightly apprehensive.

I’m not what you would call the fashion-type. Nor do I know much about the world which comes with it. Yes, I could roll off the names of a few models but that’s about it. Fashion or the accompanying celebrity culture has always been information that is incompatible with my brain. It’s a shame really because it’s that part of life which is just as instrumental as philosophy of the 20th Century – in many cases fashion made visible what only once lay as concepts in peoples’ heads.

Without a doubt the most disconcerting part of the whole photography studio experience was the hair and make-up. Obviously for a woman, this is the main reason you go. For men (although not all by any means) it’s a little bit different. Hair is something I hope to remember to merely brush in the morning and makeup… really? I had my eyebrows darkened slightly and straightened. Then make-up was used to bring the shine down of my skin (studio lights can be very bright) and the bags under my eyes were reduced (I tend to keep these tired or not). Throughout the makeup experience you get shown the products used which you can buy if you choose. Apparently some men do actually put a little bit of make-up on as a daily ritual. I’m not going to judge, I can see why some men may choose to do that. However, I’m quite happy with my body as it is – taking enough vitamins would probably cure any imperfections my skin may show.

Our photographer on the day was brilliant. Not only very comforting during the whole shoot, but instructed us very clearly and spoke candidly about what makes a good photo. Feeling rather flustered at the prospect of posing on a chair I uttered something sarcastic along the lines of “I’m just so photogenic”, to which he quite rightly corrected,

“What does it mean to say ‘they are photogenic’? Nobody is born photogenic, some are born that are able to portray a whole range of characters and those become models. If you’re a good photographer then anybody can become photogenic.”

After posing in a variety of different positions, with props in different studios, our session was over. It wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought and rather enjoyable. We got two free photos as part of our package, the rest we paid for – although not extortionate amounts in comparison to what we could have chosen. One of the photos resulted in a very ‘Dragon’s Den’ pose – perhaps one day it will be used as part of PR Week’s top 30 under 30? I can only hope.

Michael White Professional

Yesterday’s experience taught me three things:

1)    Some men do indeed wear makeup on a daily basis. I won’t, but I can see why some may.

2)    Some parts of the fashion industry are not nearly as judgemental as you may think. I cannot praise Burlingtons Boutique enough for our treatment and their staff’s expertise.

3)    Being pampered and posing in photography studios is actually quite fun. At first I wasn’t too fond of the idea but the results were brilliant.

Why aren’t more people talking about Dermandar?

Taking panoramic photos isn’t new but I believe sharing them socially is – I never see any of my friends post any. For over the last 10 months I’ve been playing around with an app called Dermandar which allows me to easily create panoramic photos by simply swiping my smartphone across a scene. Like with all panoramic functions, it can sometimes be quite difficult for the software (and human) to make sure each individual image is correctly aligned. However, once they are the results are quite stunning. Below is a photo I took on the top of Leckhampton Hill in Cheltenham about 8 months ago.




Apart from personal curiosity I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate Dermandar into digital public relations campaigns. As you can see, each shot can easily be embedded into a webpage (with both a flash and javascript option). For some of the tourism clients I do work for Dermandar could lead to some really interesting content.