29 April 2009

A letter to Waterstones

I'm not even going to start to apologise for my tardiness in updating the blog. We know that it would be empty and meaningless. We also know that I'll promptly not write anything new in another month, so it would be doubly-pointless.

Instead, I present, for your viewing delectation, an email that I just fired off to the popular bookstore Waterstones.

Whenever writing a letter of complaint, I like to spice it up a bit with some humour. After all, if you work in an office somewhere dealing with complaints all day, it's probably a really dull and thankless task. If, in the course of my rant, I can make someone smile, then it can be counted as 'a good thing' and thus my karma is re-balanced, making up for all the small children I trip up, and cats that i kick.


From: rablenkov@googlemail.com
To: service@waterstones.com
Date: Wed, Apr 29, 2009 at 6:31 PM
Title: Site Feedback

Good evening,

I'm sending my comments to this address because I'm unable to find a feedback option on your website. If this isn't the right address, I would be most appreciative if you could forward it the correct person.

Whilst whining about my dealings with Waterstones on the popular social-networking application 'Twitter' I was approached by a charming chap called Adam who, so he said, represents your company. He was very eager to help but, due to the 140-character limitations of each 'Tweet', I didn't attempt to vent my spleen at him because, frankly, it wouldn't have given me the satisfaction that I hope to gain from this lengthy e-rant.

My feedback relates to your website and, hopefully, will indicate why I am seriously considering taking my custom elsewhere in future.

Recently, I was given a couple of Waterstones gift cards as, well, gifts. I bought a couple of books in-store and was later a tad annoyed to find that I could have made a significant saving by purchasing them online. However, one lives and learns and it would be inappropriate for me to blame my failure to shop around on either you or your company.

Encouraged by the opportunity to save a few pounds, I ordered some items online. I received an email stating that the order had been received and then, a couple of days later, another email saying that the items were being despatched. Unfortunately, there was no further email to confirm that the books had arrived at my local branch, so I had to make a number of daily phone calls until they were available, then go and collect them.

Suggestion #1 - Send an email to the customer to tell them when their book is available for collection.

After a few more orders, I was relatively pleased with the service.

However, on 16th March I ordered a book called 'No Surrender: My Thirty Year War' by Hiroo Onoda, a man who refused to believe that the war was over and hid in some mountains for three decades until persuaded otherwise. Regardless of whether he was the most dedicated soldier in history, or simply "a bit of a nutter", I rather fancied reading his biographical account of eating ants and living in a tree.

Sadly, my 'customer experience', as I believe it is called these days, was less than satisfactory. The money was taken, my order was accepted, and I received an email confirming this. Then, to my surprise, I received another email a little while later informing me that the item was out of stock and a special order was being placed with the publisher. I was rather annoyed by this as I wasn't informed at the time of ordering that the item was unavailable. Indeed, if I had known I would have gone elsewhere, Amazon for instance, to make my purchase.

Suggestion #2 - Let customers know before the point of purchase that the items they've ordered aren't available. Amazon can do it, why can't Waterstones?

Being a man of great patience, I decided to sit and wait for my book to become available. After six weeks of waiting, I hadn't received a single email updating me on the status of the item. I shall repeat that to convey the full weight of the matter. Six weeks without a single email. Six weeks. Three fortnights. A month, and then another half a month. An eighth of a year. Obviously, I was doing other things in the meantime, like working, eating, watching DVDs and sleeping, so my days weren't entirely wasted, but six weeks is still a long time to be without in-depth information on the day-to-day habits of a man who chose to spend most of his time sitting in mud, polishing his rifle and scoffing raw snakes.

Suggestion #3 - Update customers, perhaps on a weekly basis, as to the status of their order. Even an estimated date of arrival would be something, but no contact at all is ludicrous.

I cancelled the order but had to wait an additional day for the money to be deposited in my e-wallet. I then ordered two more books; both volumes of the collected short stories of J.G. Ballard. Sadly, I experienced some difficulty in using the funds in my e-wallet because the instructions weren't particularly easy to make out at first glance. Additionally, the 'help' section of your website is not particularly, er, helpful. Eventually, however, I was able to make the purchase.

Along came the email confirming my purchase and then, a short while later, along came the email telling me that one of the items was out of stock and on special order. I don't profess to be a sophisticated man of eclectic tastes who regularly buys rare and out-of-print books, so I can only assume that I've just been unlucky in choosing items that the publishers don't have anymore. I shall have to bear that bad luck upon my shoulders and move on. It shall be my cross to bear.

Bizarrely, although one volume is unavailable, the other volume, which I assume is available, has been placed into some sort of literary limbo. For nine days now it has said "Goods have yet to be received from supplier". Are they holding onto one volume until the other is available to save on postage? Has the second volume gone missing, falling down the back of a cupboard somewhere and nestling in the dust? Maybe we'll never know. For now, my order exists in a strange state of quantum flux - neither available nor unavailable, the Schrodinger's Cat of publishing.

Suggestion #4 - If part of an order is unavailable, why not just send the part that IS available?

Now, I hope you don't think me some sort of blithering internet idiot, tapping away at his keyboard one finger at a time, tongue sticking out the side of his mouth, squinting myopically at the screen and hoping that the magic pixies in Santa's giant book factory are doing their work properly. I've carried out a variety of transactions on numerous different sites, HMV, Play.com, Amazon, and many, many others. But my experience with Waterstones online has not been particularly wonderful and certainly doesn't fill me with that nice, warm ready-brek glow of satisfaction that other retailers have managed to give me. The site, to put it frankly, is clumsy. It should be much more instinctive in its set-up, one screen leading you effortlessly to the next, help topics arranged in a pleasing and easy to navigate fashion for those poor lost travellers who find themselves stumbling around in abject confusion.

Instead, I have to trawl through an unpleasant user-interface and, whenever I encounter a problem, click my way to a sore finger and cluster-headache before, finally, chancing upon the information I need. So, my final suggestion, although an admittedly complex and potentially prohibitively expensive one, is:

Suggestion #5 - Redesign the website, from the bottom up. It really is pants.

I hope that these suggestions are useful. I really think they could vastly improve the fabled 'customer experience' of which I spoke earlier.

I certainly look forward to hearing back from a real human being with a personality, hopes, dreams, and a logic-based reasoning process, as opposed to the standard "Thank you for your comments and your continued custom. Your opinion is important to us." If I do receive a response in the latter vein, then I may have to assault the keyboard of my laptop until the 'E' breaks, and you wouldn't want that on your conscience, would you?

Oh, before I go, there are a couple more suggestions which just occurred to me but didn't fit easily into the body of this rambling, long-winded email. I have tacked them on at the end as an addendum. Consider them as 'special bonus suggestions', a bit like Easter eggs on a DVD.

Lots of love,

Dan Leonard

Bonus Suggestion #1 - Have a feedback box, where customers can moan at you without resorting to email or, God forbid, a letter.

Bonus Suggestion #2 - Allow customers to check the balance of their gift card online. Do I really have to go in-store to do this? It's 2009, for the love of all things holy.

9 April 2009

The Cassandra Complex, Wired UK and More Mortal Remains

I simply cannot be trusted to write blog entries on anything even remotely resembling a regular basis. It isn't necessarily anything to do with my commitment, dedication or self-motivation, but rather my constant wavering journey between 1) thinking I have something worth saying, and 2) thinking I have nothing of interest to impart whatsoever. In the spirit of conscious denial, I'm writing this anyway. Buggeration to the lot of you.


Got back from Cardiff yesterday where I spent a pleasant few days involved in work activity. I'm a security advisor by day, but am unable to name my employer due, rather obviously, to security reasons.

It was, on balance, a positive few days but I do get a little frustrated by the apparent inability of people to understand the basic concepts of security no matter how hard I try to explain them.

For instance, a question that I'm often asked is this: "We've got security guards on the front door and a lock on the office door, so why do we need to lock our papers away?"

"Well," I helpfully reply, "security is all about defence in depth or, if you prefer, the 'onion skin' approach. It's important to have layers of security protecting a particular asset so that if one of those layers fails or is ineffective against a certain threat, there will be other layers in place to provide continued protection."

They look at me blankly.

"Here's an example. If someone forgets to lock the office door, then an opportunist could get into the room and would then find a lovely selection of sensitive documentation strewn about the place. That would be a failure to protect the asset."

Glazed looks of incomprehension punctuated with the occasional nose-pick or arse-scratch.

"Don't forget, of course, that not only do we have to try and reduce outside threats, but also inside threats. It's widely acknowledged that approximately 80% of theft is committed internally. In other words, by people who actually have a right to be in your work area."

"What, like the cleaners? But aren't they security cleared?"

"Yes, they are security cleared depending on where they work, but that doesn't provide protection, it is merely one layer, a single countermeasure. We need to make sure those other layers are in place. Security clearance doesn't mean that we can trust that person implicitly with every piece of information we have. It's merely a general indication."

The blank looks resume.

"And remember, it isn't necessarily the cleaners that steal things. There are lots of other people who may have access to the office - the security guards, maintenance men, IT specialists and, of course", I take a deep breath, "your co-workers."

The blank looks dissolve into puzzlement, anger and incredulity.

Yes folks, when you explain to a roomful of people that their colleagues may want to steal things, they don't take it particularly well.

"Would you give your ATM card and PIN to a colleague and trust them with all your money? No, probably not. So why would you leave sensitive customer information, which they have no need to see, on your desk overnight? Treat assets as if they were your own personal property."

By this time, it's too late and the damage is done. Certain people finally understand it, but there is a stubborn hardcore who absolutely refuse to buy into what I'm telling them, even though it's common sense, purely because I'm part of management and, therefore, a demonic mouthpiece for "The Man" who clearly has no idea how things operate in the real world.

Sadly, they've never seen the scores of security incidents that occur nationwide across our organisation on a daily basis. If they did, then maybe it would open their eyes somewhat.

This, my friends, is the Cassandra Complex in action. I know the risks, I know the reasons for the countermeasures, but nobody is quite prepared to believe what I say.


See this it what happens when you don't follow simple security procedures. An Assistant Commissioner for the police gets out of a car holding a secret document, the media snaps a photo of him and are able to identify the contents of the document, and a major operation is temporarily put in jeopardy.

It really can be the most simple of errors which fucks everything up.


Recently bought the first issue of Wired UK, a magazine about, well, The Future.

It was a good read, but I can't help feeling slightly disappointed in it. I was expecting cutting edge technology, rampant futurism, an in-depth examination of future society, future psychology and future interaction. And yes, although those things were present, they seemed to be in relatively small numbers and sandwiched between articles on how to make the perfect espresso and what Sackboy would look like if you stripped off his skin and looked at his internal organs.

It seems that the magazine is trying to be everything to everyone, but only succeeds in looking a little bit confused and uncertain of its identity.

Also, it has a rather strange, visually busy format which means that sometimes you look at a page and just don't know where to start with it. Almost as if they've modelled the look on a webpage, with clusters of information here, there and everywhere. I still think it's a rather good publication though, so shall persevere with it anyway.

Oh, and according to page 36, Twittering and Steampunk are 'tired', and blogging and zombies are 'expired'. Great, so four things that I actually rather like are now unfashionably twee and deserving of nothing more than hearty guffaws and smirky finger-pointing. Bastards.


Mortal Remains update.

The meeting last Saturday was a big success. I sat and explained my new script structure, the plot points, the new characters, the new central location, etc, and both of my writing partners really liked it. One of them, Mike, is the original author, so his stamp of approval was excellent. The other, Simon, is not directly involved in this rewrite but his opinion is always gratefully received. A few suggestions were made, much discussion ensued, and it was a hugely successful evening.

Simon, incidentally, seems to want to move into writing for television, which is a career path that I'm not particularly interested in. However, I think he'll make a good fist of it. Indeed, I fully expect that he'll probably be the first one of the three of us to gain some commercial and critical success. I just hope he remembers his friends on the way up the ladder. And by 'remember' I mean buy us some beers with his extravagant BBC pay-cheques when his boat comes in.

So Mortal Remains is now underway and I must begin the painstaking process of transferring my basic structure into actual scenes, ideas, snippets of dialogue, etc, and sort the whole wretched mess into something that resembles a logical journey.

Time to crack out the index cards and put some serious thought into how the hell I'm going to make this work.


By the way, Tweetdeck is a bit fucked. Just downloaded an update which now gives me the functionality to put my tweets on Facebook, which I rarely use, and now the damn thing keeps crashing.