Joia Shillingford: Venomous bonus bashing risks causing a further deterioration in customer service

Money Comment
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The Independent Online

I just can't wait for all this bonus bashing to end.

Not least because of all the tosh that is spoken in the same breath. To listen to most commentators, the UK is a nation of universally hard-working people, except for bankers who are lazy, incompetent and getting money for nothing.

It may be convenient for politicians to go along with this fiction but it simply isn't true. Of course there are lazy, incompetent bankers. But almost every day, I come across examples of workers in other industries, who devote almost as much time to avoiding work as to doing it.

There are all sorts of techniques. A popular one is: "If it's not on the internet, we haven't got it." That's the attitude of many employees, who see their job as telling you to look on the internet after you've gone to the bother of phoning them.

They do not seem to realise that you've gone to the bother of calling them either because you can't find what you want on their website or because you're not near the internet or because you'd simply prefer to deal with them by phone.

On Friday, it was the turn of a public-sector employee to ask me – after I'd been transferred to her by a colleague – "are you on our website?". Well, actually, no. When I gave up and asked if she could give me the address for the relevant bit of the website, she suggested I look it up on Google. I couldn't get personal service, such as help with what I was looking for, but I did finally manage to persuade her to give me the correct URL (or internet address).

On the same day a colleague working in the media claimed she could not fact-check something because "there are no internet cafés in Canterbury" and suggested I do the fact-checking myself on the internet.

Another popular excuse for unhelpfulness is to take refuge in the Data Protection Act. One company told me they have a No Name policy so could not put me through to a person who worked alongside the person I wanted, who was out of the office. I said "OK well can you just put me through to the colleague, I don't need the name." To which the call centre worker replied, "no I can't do that because we have a No Names policy".

Then there is buck passing, though here my example IS a bank. This was the case with NatWest – where boss Stephen Hester recently turned down his bonus. I called them following a letter from them about a business account on which I'm a co-signatory. After 20 minutes, I managed to speak to someone who deals with business accounts, who then said "you need to talk to corporate". They could not tell me what was the difference between business and corporate. Corporate spoke to me for a few minutes but said I needed to talk to my relationship manager.

But the relationship manager refused to take my call – no reason was given when I asked for one and I have never dealt with him or her before. Then I was offered the opportunity to speak to complaints.

I said, well OK, I don't mind speaking to them but I would really rather have the problem sorted out. Now I am dealing with a very helpful woman in the bank's northern call centre who is obviously doing the work of at least three buck-passers.

Maybe it would be better if, as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg suggested, bonuses or shares were more widespread and potentially available to all employees with clear, measurable criteria.

This policy works at John Lewis, as he pointed out, and my fear is that if bonuses are removed as a way of remunerating staff, customer service in the UK will get even worse.

Barclays Capital was the latest organisation to shrink its bonus pool (by 32 per cent), leaving average employee bonuses at the investment bank at £64,000.

Golden skirts

Last week Mark Thompson, the boss of the BBC, apologised for not having more older women on TV. Surely, instead of an apology, he could just rehire some of the top female presenters the organisation has overlooked over the years. I'd be happy to be able to watch Moira Stuart, Anna Ford, Angela Rippon, Selina Scott et al.

Surely nothing says "I'm sorry" like giving someone their job back.

Moreover, it would chime with the latest government "Golden Skirt" thinking that Britain should not waste its female talent and that the boardrooms of FTSE 100 companies should be at least 25 per cent female by 2015.

Woes of low-paid workers

The BBC's Newsnight recently covered the plight of low-paid supermarket workers who still need government benefits to top up their income. There is something wrong here and, as part of the reform of the welfare system, the Government should look into this.

I can't help agreeing with the anchorwoman Kirsty Wark that maybe the supermarkets pay so little because they know employees can top up with tax credits and housing benefit.

The sad thing for these workers is that all the bonus bashing in the world won't mean they get a penny more in their pay packets. Envy does not make anyone rich and isn't good for business, or for Britain.

Julian Knight is away

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