What’s been cooking?

Lots of different cooking activity lately, from which I have learned that you can do what you like with granola but you need decent sized flakes of desiccated coconut to make successful coconut macaroons. Seriously. I made extremely sweet coconut soup and even when I decided that treating it like cake mix and baking it in cases might work, it was still a bit wrong. Don’t go there.

Becky’s granola by way of Nigella who got it from Andy in Connecticut

I’ve started making my own granola, based on a Nigella recipe but with reduced sugary elements because just the thought of fruit compote + syrup + honey + sugar makes my teeth itch. But it’s kind of fun to mess around with the ingredients, and it means I get to skip the raisins (I have never understood the dependency of breakfast foods on raisins) and use what I prefer instead.

Today’s recipe was:

  • 225g oats
  • 60g white sesame seeds
  • 60g sunflower seeds
  • 60g light brown sugar
  • 125g whole almonds (I’d have preferred pecans with the maple syrup but didn’t have any)
  • 3 tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp runny honey
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1/2 tsp Maldon sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • optional apple sauce or compote of choice
  • 125g dried apricots or dried fruit of your choice. I mean, I suppose you could use raisins. Freak.

Mix it all up, bang it in the oven on a couple of baking trays and leave it for about 20 mins or until golden brown. I will say that because I don’t put so much liquid in, the granola doesn’t clump as much as you might prefer. I don’t care, so I don’t worry about it, but if you do then throw in some apple sauce or similar.

Once it’s out of the oven and cool, add in the fruit. Don’t do what I did first time and bake the fruit with the rest of the mix, because then you end up with fruit that is caramelized if you’re lucky and plain old burnt if you’re not:-)

Store in airtight jars and you’ve got a couple of weeks’ worth of breakfast. At least you get to start every day with a sense of achievement/smugness, before everyday working life beats it out of you.

Gluten free lemon meringue cake

I made lemon meringue cake to take into the office and it destroyed productivity for the entire morning. The whole cake was gone by 10am and my colleagues were on a sugar rush like kids at a party. This cake has now become the benchmark by which other baking is measured, although probs best if we don’t tell senior management about it.

So far, so good but it’s my friend S’s birthday in a couple of weeks and she is gluten intolerant. So, today I’m practicing a gluten free version, which means I’ve basically made up the ingredients for the sponge layer based on limited knowledge and guesswork. I even looked up the point of bicarbonate of soda so I knew whether I needed to keep it or not.

Lemon meringue cake is basically a fancy sandwich cake. The biggest problem I had with it was maintaining the structural integrity of the top layer of sponge + meringue while maneuvering it into position. I don’t particularly like the texture you get with gluten free flour and I don’t think it’ll be stable enough to hold together during that process, so I’m going with almond flour.

For the full on gluten version, it’s off to Nigella again.

Here’s what I’m trying as the alternative ingredients list, we’ll see what happens.

  • 125g butter
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 150g almond flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
  • 1 lemon
  • 4tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp milk
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  • good quality lemon curd
  • 150ml double cream for whipping

Lemon curd

Just in case this post isn’t hitting enough middle class keywords, I made my own lemon curd yesterday, specifically for use in the lemon meringue cake. It it is ridiculously easy, to the point that I’m kind of embarrassed I haven’t done it before.

  • 4 unwaxed lemons, juice and zest
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 3 eggs + 1 egg yolk
  • 100g butter, cubed

Put the lemon juice and zest, sugar and butter and melt in a bowl over a pan of lightly simmering water. Usual caveats about bottom of bowl not touching water apply. Stir occasionally until all the butter has melted.

Meanwhile, lightly whisk the eggs. Once the butter has melted, slowly whisk the eggs into the lemon mixture, keeping it all over the heat. Leave to cook for 10-13 mins, stirring occasionally, until it’s thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Leave to cool, again stirring occasionally, then spoon into sterilized jars. Keep it in the fridge.

[I sterilised my jars by washing them in boiling, soapy water and then baking them at 170C for 20 minutes].

The not so much Venn diagram of overlapping interests

Me: This book [The Nether World, George Gissing] is great. Well, depressing, but very Zolaesque.

Him: ?

Me: Zolaesque. Like Zola!

Him: ??

Me: He was a 19th century French writer, wrote about ordinary working people. Wrote a book set in a department store that was very good, it got made into a TV series.

Him: Kind of like a French Mr Selfridge?

Me: I don’t know, but I doubt it because Zola could write.

***Interlude***

Me: Who’s that?

Him: Ice Cube

Me: ?

Him: He was in NWA

Me: … a… band?

Him: They founded hip hop so not really just a band, no! [Shakes head in despair].

 

 

A tale of two customer experiences

It’s become axiomatic that companies with good customer service are winning at business.  Good customer service is a double edged sword in retail, though. It creates a virtuous circle for the companies that practice it; but it also contributes to the vicious circle for those that aren’t hitting the benchmarks established by their competitors. Customers, after all, mostly don’t just decide in a vacuum how they think they should be treated. Expectations are accreted over time, based on all the interactions and micro-interactions with companies along the way. Occasionally, a company will be so blindingly good that the bar will jump higher; more likely, they’ll be so astoundingly bad that customers are left scratching their heads in bewilderment and saying ‘But I don’t understand. Surely they must have heard of John Lewis?’

I think there are basically two types of companies: (1) the ones that want you to buy stuff from them; and (2) the ones that want to sell you stuff. There is a subtle, but important difference here, and it’s defined by the perceived balance of power in the buying relationship. Companies in category (1) understand that the power lies with the customer, and so they have to woo you and be nice to you, and then you’ll buy stuff. Companies in category (2) think you’re there for their benefit, and, in some strange way, that they’re owed your business.

You can’t always tell the difference until things go wrong.

In the spirit of ‘bad things come in threes’, I’ve been suffering from a recent attack of customer service. Setting aside Vodafone, who are heavily invested in setting the bar at subterranean levels, I couldn’t have set up this comparison better if I’d actually planned it. Two separate purchases, from two separate companies. The common denominator is the courier, Hermes; the differentiator is how the companies have dealt with Hermes’ failure to deliver.

I’ll start with the good, but coincidentally what follows is the true order of events…

Boden

I order online and got all the usual confirmation and despatch emails from Boden. Then I got all the usual tracking emails, plus an email from Hermes saying that they’d delivered the parcel to my letterbox. I was at work at the time, and didn’t really believe this because my mailbox is a slim metal box on the wall and you can’t fit much in it. Still, enterprising deliverers have stuffed parcels through the catflap before now, so I returned home expecting to find something.

Nope. Zilch.

Ok, well, maybe Hermes had dropped it with my neighbours and I’d catch up with them at the weekend.

Nope. So I emailed Boden. Them being Boden, I’d had previous good experiences to go on, so went in with a reasonable degree of confidence that they would sort out this issue. No problem, no question, yes it looked as though the package had been delivered but obviously if I didn’t have it they would resend it. Via a different courier. Could I confirm that would be ok? I could. Package sent, Royal Mail stuffed it through the catflap a couple of days later.

Conclusion

Mild irritation with Hermes, but Boden sorted it. Overall win for them, ongoing good impression maintained. In the light of the Bad Experience below, I think this is because Boden’s basic assumption is that their customers aren’t out to rip them off. Boden started life online and they get it; presumably the percentage of customers who are ripping them off with fake claims for lost packages is minimal. Whereas, the gains from providing spot on customer service far outweigh any losses caused by them giving their customers the benefit of the doubt.

Now, let’s look at the bad experience.

House of Fraser

I got the usual confirmation email, and then an email saying that the package had been despatched, and that tracking emails would follow. They didn’t. Days passed. No further word, until I got a second email telling me my package had now been despatched. Eh? Nothing showed up.

I web chatted with House of Fraser. Now, because I’ve just had the exact same situation with Boden, and it’s been well resolved, my expectation is that this is going to be easy and painless. I started off pretty neutral about House of Fraser themselves. I haven’t shopped online with them before, so I didn’t have any past experience to go on. The website is pretty dated but they’re one of those older, slightly tired, high street stores, so that’s sort of what you expect.

House of Fraser, it turns out, operate to different, much lower standards. According to their records, Hermes had delivered the package about a week ago, and got a signature for it. This puts alleged delivery two days before the second despatch email. I said they hadn’t delivered here and what signature, and what about that second email? They’d have to go check with Hermes, they’d do that right now. Then the stupid satisfaction survey popped up and in clearing that I lost the chat window.

I chatted with someone else, who confirmed that her colleague was following up with Hermes and they’d get back to me in 48 hours. Eh? No, at this point I’m fed up, just cancel the order. Can’t do that, it’s been delivered. We have to investigate and then we’ll get back to you within 48 hours.

It is at this point it becomes clear that attitudes to the problem differ. In my view, House of Fraser, or their minions, have screwed up and need to sort out the situation, a la Boden.  However, in their view, I’m likely to be lying so I can score myself a free bag to sell on Ebay. The risk of House of Fraser potentially losing out trumps the fact that I’m now down both £135 and a new bag.

Twenty-four hours later I receive a somewhat inarticulate email saying that they’ve checked with Hermes (no idea what the conclusion of that conversation was) and that, within a further 24 hours, they’ll be sending me a declaration form. Eh? I can print this out, sign it, scan it and email it back to them. Because that isn’t a shitload of unnecessary hassle. No clue whatsoever as to what the proposed resolution of this problem will be, or in which millennia. This is online shopping, people. In digital time, glaciers have been born and moved, species have evolved and died and my patience has long since expired with them.

Conclusion

This situation remains unresolved, but at this point it hardly matters. I’m sure that after jumping through further yet to be defined hoops, I’ll get my refund. I no longer care much about the bag I attempted to buy, because it’s shifted from being an ‘I just got my bonus’ treat to ‘Bloody hell, that was a right load of hassle’. Way to take the fun out of shopping, guys! So they’ve lost not only this sale, but the next one, because I had my eye on a suitcase as well. This experience just cost House of Fraser £300 more or less immediately, plus an undefined amount of future expenditure.

I will pause for thought with future online purchases from any company using Hermes as their courier. For a start, they can’t find my address (ask the postman); then, they apparently lie about it. Seems to me I’d be setting myself up for another load of hassle that I don’t have time for.

I wil have money to spend on a new bag, and guess where I’m looking? Boden.

Update:

OMFG. Hard though it is to believe, this situation is still dragging on. House of Fraser have now sent me the form to fill in, and then investigation takes 7-10 days. Or, to put that in digital terms, an epoch. There is a day of elapsed time between each email. When I reply, well within business hours, it’s the following day before I get a response, thus making email communication uncommonly slow and frustrating.

I’m trying to get them to get a manager to call me, so I told them some times when I’m available. I’m guessing by the fact that no one called me that this afternoon wasn’t convenient. Who knows if, or when, someone will call?

This is such a total car crash that I’m now rather intrigued. The overall impression is that of attempting to communicate with an organization that inhabits a different period in time (I’m thinking 80s?)  and for whom solving a problem is simply not a priority. Or, in fact, on anyone’s to do list at all. Just how bad can it get? At this point, I expect that if a manager does call me, they’ll make farting noises down the phone for 3 minutes and then ring off, laughing.

Update 2

I know. I thought, you thought, we all thought that the nadir had been reached. Not so, my friends. Not so. Grab a head torch and a long rope, because we’re going in…

This is the claim form I received:

HoF1

HoF2

Nice that we’ve moved on from me rather jokingly saying that House of Fraser assumed I was lying, to black and white proof that indeed, that is very much the case.

Then a manager called me. To my confusion, she did not just make farting noises down the phone and laugh. In retrospect, that would have been better than telling me that the investigation process involved them taking my signature and comparing it with the one Hermes have, to see if they match.

It’s not that they’re accusing me of lying, she was quick to clarify. Although I don’t know how else I’m supposed to interpret this. Fortunately, as it now seems, I was at work when this parcel was allegedly delivered and this signature allegedly captured. I’ve forewarned my colleagues that I may need alibis, and I’m sure our security guys will be happy to share the camera footage of me arriving at, and then leaving work.

On the other hand, I’ve had packages delivered by Hermes before. Somewhere on their systems they may have my signature.

I was unaware that it’s a modern retailing concept to make your customers feel that either they’re appearing in a TV detective show as the early suspect in the crime, or they’re the victim of a major fraud conspiracy on the part of the courier. I can’t wait for next week’s episode!

Update 3

I had the realization that if House of Fraser replicated their online shopping experience in store, a couple of heavies would mug you as walked out after buying something, shut you out of the shop and then challenge you to prove you’d bought anything in the first place. You would only be allowed to plead your case using the medium of mime.

But lo! Is that… can it be… yes, it’s an email telling me I’m getting a refund.  Was it that I’d asked for the MD’s email address? Was it that, shocker, the signatures didn’t match? We shall never know.

One of my sister’s mates has a company that specializes in helping organizations sort out their customer comms. I’ve offered this story up as a case study they can use in a training workshop, so some good may come out of it.

Update 4

In an unexpected twist, both of the missing parcels have just turned up. Hermes had dumped them in a hedge at the other end of the village, and whoever found them there dropped them off with my neighbour today. Which goes to show that broadly, people are pretty honest.  Tempting though it is just to chuck both packages in the pond and call that returning them, I will send them back properly.

Vodafone fail at customer service shocker. Not.

I know, I know. Using the words ‘Vodafone’ and ‘customer service’ in the same sentence is as oxymoronic as anything Milton could come up with. Still, they allege that they provide such an offering, so, albeit with doubt in my heart, I attempted to avail myself of said service.

The reason for this act of desperation was that my signal booster seems to have given up the ghost. Musings Towers is buried deep in the country, a full 5 miles or so from the nearest town and in a mobile phone blackspot. In order to be able to make or receive calls or texts at home I have a signal booster. These are crappy machines that plug into the router and appear to have the shelf life of a cheap toaster. Except that, at around £80 a throw, they aren’t cheap.

The tell tale signs of potential knackeredness were that the device had no lights at all, and I had no phone signal at all. I web chatted. The friendly web chattee said that the signal booster needed resynchronizing with my phone, and that a few more hours should sort it out.

It didn’t, of course. I web chatted again. The second web chattee said I needed to take the signal booster into a store for some diagnostics. I’ve been in Vodafone stores and was entirely dubious about this diagnostics claim, but when I questioned it, I was reassured. Oh yes, they had the technology.

In the meantime, I tweeted my dissatisfaction. Vodafone’s Twitter SLA is way too long (I say this as both an impatient customer and someone who is responsible for social media policy as part of her job). The responses, when they eventually come, are not worth waiting for.

Vodafone’s approach is to direct everyone to their forum. Regardless of what you actually say, or ask, respondent after respondent directs you to the forum. Even when you explicitly say that you don’t want to use the forum because life is too short.

The forum, apparently, is the epicenter of all Vodafone-related knowledge; it’s where all their experts hang out and it’s the place to be. Except that, I’ve used the forum before and it was rubbish, took days, and in the end, failed to solve my problem. Based on this experience I was entirely reluctant to try again; and anyway, if there is any useful information available,  why can’t the web chattees talk you through it? I asked this via Twitter, but as the concept of channel of choice for customers is entirely lost on Vodafone, I simply got directed to the forum again.

At the weekend, on day 6 of no phone signal, I dropped into my nearest Vodafone store. Pity the poor assistant, who flinched as soon as I said ‘signal booster’ and seemed astounded that anyone would think they could test it in store. She could send it off for diagnostics, she said, apparently missing the point that yet more time without a phone signal was not the answer I was looking for. This solution could have worked, if I’d been offered a working signal booster while mine was being tested. But no.

The thing is, my time is valuable. It’s certainly more valuable to me than Vodafone’s time, which I feel somewhat entitled to on the grounds that I’ve bought a service from them that doesn’t bloody work. It is therefore not down to me to spend hours trying to figure out what the sod is wrong. It is down to them. All I need them to do is to confirm that yes, their signal boosters are disposable pieces of crap with the lifespan of a mayfly. Then I’ll buy another one, which will hopefully tide me over until August 2017 when my contract ends and I can skip gladly away to another, slightly less shit supplier.

In which I am baffled by the O2

So, we know I don’t get out much, right? In particular, I don’t get out to arena spaces because they are unpleasant, inconvenient and rammed with other people. Still, I was lured out to the O2 for Country2Country, and duly battled my way to the armpit of London where the O2 lurks.

Thankfully, the music was great: Dwight Yoakam killed it, Ashley Monroe did a lovely turn on the small stage,  and Miranda Lambert rocked out hard. Thomas Rhett can come back in a few years, by when he might have found his feet better, but Charles Esten is touring later in the year, and I’d love to hear him play in a smaller space.

But the venue. Oh dear, the venue.

Now, in my lack-of-getting-out naivety, I’d rather assumed that the O2 was a proper venue. I mean, they’re all over the place. People even I’ve heard of play in them. So I was quite surprised when this turned out to be very much not the case, and instead the whole site had more the air of the cheap end of the shopping centre. You know the bit I mean, it’s where the signs for John Lewis tell you how far away you are in miles, but it’s dead handy for cheap phone cases and non-brand fried chicken. (How do I know this, you ask? It’s because I’ve been to Milton Keynes and parked in the wrong bit, and then had to traverse acres of unfamiliar territory before stumbling tearfully back into the land of Pret and House of Fraser. Don’t go south of Clarks, that’s my advice.)

Anyway, back to the O2 (although, not physically of course. Never again.) Weird place. There was a small stand selling the usual gig merchandise: t-shirts in a size that suits no one, and which are only a good idea while you’re in concert mode. As if the gear wasn’t expensive enough, the vendors were taking the opportunity to wring more money out of people by charging £1.50 for card transactions.

Then we went in, and things got weirder. The guy at the gate made a big deal about how once you’d had your ticket scanned and were inside, you couldn’t go out and come back in again. In case you gave your ticket to someone else. Eh? If that’s a big problem then you probably need better security measures than a print out of a ticket without any ID check, mate. Talk to Glastonbury, I’m pretty sure they’ve nailed this basic entry security stuff.

They searched our bags. My friend, who is vegetarian and gluten intolerant, was told that she couldn’t bring in the protein bars she was depending on to get her through the next several hours. There seemed to be no rationale for this, other than that the O2 wants to force everyone to eat total crap. But maybe we were all jumping to wild conclusions that the food would be shit and there’d be nothing she could eat? Maybe, what in fact lay beyond the carefully guarded portals, was a vegetarian and gluten free cornucopia?

No, our first assumption was right. The O2 is stuck in some kind of localized time warp. If you want to eat yourself into a carb, sugar and salt coma for the cost of a dinner for two at a proper restaurant, then hie ye to the O2 and load up on Krispy Kremes and fat burgers. If you think that eating something that doesn’t start clogging your arteries at 50 paces might be an idea, well, then you’re shit outta luck. As for gluten intolerant, the O2 hasn’t heard of this new fangled faddishness and have you thought about popcorn as an alternative to actual food?

My friend’s partner wasn’t allowed to bring in his plastic bottle of water. There really is no justification for this, other than the venue being determined to charge water drinkers three times the going rate. So yes, you could buy water, but you weren’t allowed the bottle cap. Eh? After puzzling over this, we decided that it’s in case the crowd decided to sod listening to the music and waving their phones in torch mode, and instead chose to spend the entire time gnawing bottle caps into weapons and rising up en masse to inflict minor flesh wounds on hapless fellow concert goers. Well, just think of the insurance premium on that risk! Suddenly… no, the whole bottle cap thing just Does. Not. Make. Sense.

The thing is, tickets for that evening were about £100. That’s not cheap. That sets certain expectations about the whole experience, which do not include ridiculous rules, not being able to get anything to eat for six hours, or having to queue so long for a bathroom that you risk missing part of a set. If anything clearly demonstrates a venue’s lack of interest in attendees as other than walking wallets, it’s the brazenness of charging £4 for nachos (by which I mean literally the corn chips, not the dish including actual ingredients).

It is disrespectful commoditization of people, and frankly, the O2 can fuck right off.

In favour of crap food

Crap food has its place. Not that you’d want to eat it all the time, but there are some circumstances where it’s (a) the only option or  (b) it’s actually what the situation requires, or (c) merely that usage has accustomed you to it and there’s a pleasing familiarity.

Wednesday morning, for example, found me looking at the room service breakfast I’d just had delivered. Before anyone gets jealous, let me explain: I was staying at a Hilton off a slip road to the access road to a motorway in Leicester. I trust that has dispelled any faint whiff of glamour? Right then, back to breakfast. The options had been pretty slim to start with, so I’d gone for fruit, yoghurt, toast and coffee. It was the toast in particular that fulfilled category (c) above, a generous pile of cheap, sliced wholemeal that had gone soggy during the stacking and transportation process.

I was oddly pleased to see it, though. I grew up on sliced white, and cheap wholemeal is basically sliced white with a spray tan. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘That’s what I expect from room service at the Hilton.’  I spread a lavish amount of jam from one of those tiny individual pots onto toast that wilted even further under the minor additional weight.

Hangovers. No one wants good, healthy, nutritious food when they have a hangover, do they? Celery can be so loud. There’s a greasy spoon in Oxford that only appears in my consciousness the morning after the night before. On a normal day, I stroll past that cafe and wonder ‘Who eats there?’ With a hangover, it’s omelette and chips and a large mug of tea for breakfast? Don’t mind if I do. Salt, grease and carbs, just keep it coming.

I’m off on holiday later this month, which means I get to enjoy… airplane food! Admittedly, ‘enjoy’ might not be the right word. Maybe I mean ‘eat’. We all know airplane food is poor, regardless of which celebrity chef had a hand in revamping the menus. And that’s fair enough; mass catering at thousands of feet, when the only cooking option is to blast the ingredients to melting point is a bit of a challenge. So, whatever gets dished up is both the only option and in line with low expectations, and that’s ok.

Except for the coffee. There’s no excuse for that.

 

In which I’m still employed

And that’s about all I want to say about it. The company is in the early stages of the consultation process, and a horrible thing it is too. I’m getting off lightly compared to colleagues whose jobs really are on the line. It has been stressful, and continues to be difficult.

I totally failed to do anything productive for a couple of weeks, other than obsessively check LinkedIn for jobs. I’m still waiting to hear back on a couple, but I’m not particularly hopeful. I think I’m at an awkward stage, because I jumped careers and now my experience doesn’t look as though it stacks up for the roles I’m going for. So I’m not minded to stop looking just yet – a backup plan ain’t a backup plan unless you know it’s going to work, and if I’m not getting interviews then something’s not right.

On the plus side, I’ve just clawed my concentration back and managed to read novels. After almost dry January, I started drinking wine again (it was the ‘Hey! You might be losing your job, but we’ll tell you in two weeks, ok?’ message that did it) but I think I’m about ready to stop again for a while longer. The next step is some exercise. I don’t know how I’m going to pick that back up this time round, especially as I swore I wouldn’t do another 10k. But without some kind of goal, it’s too easy to walk right past the gym and come home.

Life doesn’t get any easier, does it? But, hey. The immediate pressure is off. It’s almost spring. I have vacation booked for March. I made a banana cake and some coconut macaroons yesterday. My boyfriend starts his new job tomorrow, and that’s pretty exciting for him. The cats are healthy, I’m healthy and my sister just bought me this mug as a gift. Life may not get any easier, but at least it keeps flowing along and you can’t cross the same river twice.

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