Making a Profit from Small Businesses Part 2

Another blog about a large business making money from my own little enterprise. This time, the subject is Internet Service Providers.

I’ve had some very poor experiences with ISPs over the years. In the early years of the Internet the problems were largely due to teething difficulties – providers and customers didn’t really know what our respective roles were. But now, the issue seems to be the commercialisation of the World Wide Web.

My needs from a service provider are quite simple – I want a basic website, which I can tailor to suit. I want an easy interface (I’ve done enough years of coding), a basic shop where people can order books direct from me and the ability to link to other websites. It’s important that the website is available all the time (or nearly so) and that I can setup multiple email addresses.

The two ISPs I’ve used in recent years both offered all of this for a reasonable fee. Or so they claimed.

One useful way for companies to make money from small business customers is to keep taking money, whether we still want the service or not. I cancelled one package, as a consolidation exercise – just redirecting the URL to a page on my main website. I cancelled the package and, for good measure, didn’t update my credit card details. So the ISP couldn’t “accidentally” debit my card for a renewal, as they’d done before. The catch-all redirection of my URL was included in my registration and I redirected it myself.

For several months, there were intermittent problems with my emails being unavailable – and the best answer I got was that they were taking securities and the email was only down “briefly” at quiet times of the day. (Over an hour one morning, starting about 3am, while I was trying to work.)

Then a few months later, I had to update my credit card, to make payment for my main website package.

The ISP also took payment for my cancelled service and reinstated a four-year-old version of the website without telling me. The first thing I knew was a friend contacting me to say a link was broken. Not surprising, as the website it pointed to had closed down years before. I queried this and was told my cancellation was invalid – I went to check the service tickets I’d raised on their website and found about two-thirds had vanished. I never did get an explanation for this.

At about this time, a folder in my main email suddenly emptied, losing me a lot of important emails. I raised another ticket, requesting that my email be restored to the latest backup – only to be told that they don’t take backups any more. Except for their “premium” customers. Something that used to be included in the cheapest package is now only available for an additional cost. Apparently they’d notified users of this change in an email – but I tend to delete their marketing mailshots without reading. Don’t we all?

Their premium service is also necessary for anyone wishing to sell anything from their website, or have a contact form that works. This isn’t clear until someone tries to do something and the transaction / contact forms just don’t do anything. No error message to the customer or myself.

Another handy way to increase your profit margin – downgrade the service you’re providing, hoping the customer is too stupid / busy / trusting to notice. I was all three.

Not surprisingly, I will be migrating my custom to a new ISP in a few months, when my contract expires.

Total cost to date: £60 plus wasted time plus income lost through unchaseable invoices.

And from now on, I will check that renewing my ISP each year is still a good deal. The price may stay the same, but I no longer trust that what it’s buying covers my simple requirements.

After all, I have nothing better to do with my time than check that companies are being honest with me.

One more blog to come on this subject – and it’s a doozy!

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Making a Profit from Small Businesses Part 1

First blog in a short series of how companies are increasing their profits from small businesses. Specifically me – an independent author.

Yes, times are hard and everyone’s trying to keep themselves in business, but I have my suspicions that some of the methods used are not entirely ethical. Possibly not even legal.

Firstly, I send a lot of parcels, mainly individual books, to lots of destinations, including International ones. I’ve been known to walk into a branch of the Post Office with more than a dozen packages to post. Royal Mail may not be the cheapest way to post a small parcel, but they have been more reliable than other courier companies and going into the physical High Street shop means I get a free certificate of posting. I even make it simple for the staff by printing my own table of addresses, so they can write in the price for each and stamp it. I’ve done this for several years and the staff are used to me handing over this form.

They’re also used to my always saying, “Cheapest possible, please” as I place the package on their scales.

So I was surprised to notice they’d charged me for first class post for a package when I’d got the correct (second class) payment ready in my pocket.

I checked back through my paperwork and realised this has been going on for more than a year. During this time, I’d been served by various staff members so I suspect it’s standard practice in this Post Office. I can’t be sure when it started, as historical postage rates aren’t available in any way I can access them.

Now, this may sound petty. A “Large Letter Second Class” charge for one of my books should be £1.17 whilst the same parcel as “Large Letter First Class” is charged at £1.24. If it’s sent as a “Small Parcel”, this goes up to £2.80 and £3.20 for the respective classes of delivery and I’ve had to argue that my packages are small enough for the cheaper category. (All prices current in April 2014 and for UK delivery.)

Yes, it’s quite complicated, and I haven’t worked it out in detail – but I reckon a small amount has been added to the price of each book parcel I’ve posted for at least a year. (Most are small, single book orders, the price increase is more significant on the larger multi-book parcels.) Over the last year, I reckon I’ve been charged in excess of £10 more than I think I should have been. At a conservative estimate.

And that’s with me always requesting, “Cheapest possible, please”.

Not a lot of money perhaps, – but I’m trying to make a profit here, folks!

The sneaky thing is that I’ve been provided with the service I’ve paid for each time. It just happens to be more than I asked for.

The way the Post Office works, a label is printed out and affixed to each parcel after I’ve passed it across the screen-protected counter. I never get to see these labels – only the buyers see that I’ve sent them “First Class”.

I’m aware that the Post Office as a whole is going through hard times and that individual branches have to make a profit. But I feel this is the wrong way to go about it.

I now have different arrangements for posting my parcels.

And two more blogs to come on this subject.

Women’s Voices – Part 2

(Part 1 here: https://megkingston.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/womens-voices-part-1-small-talk/ )

So what did we learn from Mary Beard’s programme on the Public Voice of Women? A lot of examples from History and Art and Literature, a few from Geography and Entertainment but nothing really from Sports or Science and Nature. (Yes, I nicked the headings from Trivial Pursuit, what’s wrong with that?)

Mary Beard is a highly intelligent, articulate and well-read classics scholar. Hence her experience in and bias towards certain subjects, which made for a fascinating presentation about the historical records (factual and in the fiction of the times) that demonstrate ways in which the sound of a woman’s voice has been regarded. She tried to separate the issue of women’s voices from straightforward misogyny, which I’m not sure is possible. Yes, there are differences, but are these the reason for the discrimination we see today? Shakespeare regularly had women passing themselves off as men by changing their clothes in his plays (never the other way round, as far as I recall), which is even more amusing when you remember that all of his actors would have been male. So a man playing a woman pretending to be a man…

More recently, we know that Margaret Thatcher had training to lower her speaking voice – one way to be taken more seriously in the male-dominated political arena. As a matter of fact, some men in the public eye have had similar training – including actors who’ve been advised to take up smoking to give them gravelly tones. Not a price I’d be willing to pay for a sexier voice!

So men and women alike have realised that we judge people by their speaking tone. Deeper voices are more serious, mature, trustworthy, sexy and therefore something to be aspired to. As a young man, my Dad tried to push his singing voice into the bass register – until he gave up and learned to make the most of his lovely tenor range later in life.

While we’re so close to home, my own voice is deep for a woman – a low alto for any singers reading this. I’ve had people mistake me for a man on the phone. Even one person (Receptionist at the dental surgery I used to attend) who behaved very oddly, asking if the appointment was for me and my “wife” – and once referred to me as “him” to another member of staff. I was amused to realise she must have thought I was cross-dressing or transgender or something. I never bothered to put her right – if she hasn’t learnt after working in that sort of job, then she’s never going to learn that women’s voices aren’t all high, soprano or strident.

I’ve been a member of various writers’ groups over the years and I’ve noticed that the majority of members tend to be women. Yet any men who attend seem to be more likely to get the opportunity to read their work to the group. At a series of meetings in a local group, the men who attended all got to read at every meeting, whilst I was refused the opportunity for four meetings in a row. One man in particular would read long, waffly chapters every week. Now, it could be that my writing wasn’t liked, or any number of reasons, but I believe a gender bias is in operation here. The nominal chairperson at the time was a woman, but she never really took control and the pro-men reading bias steered the meetings.

So, I propose that there’s more at work here than the simple fact that women’s voices are (on average) higher than men’s. That seems to be more a symptom than the cause and the way we’re disregarded goes beyond that. Men with high-pitched voices are regarded as frivolous in the entertainment industry – but in business, they’re still taken more seriously than women, even ones with a lower voice range. I won’t cite personal examples, because I’d risk embarrassing the men in question, but there have been a few. In the working world, I found that men could easily talk over a woman and no-one would blame him for it. The Miss Triggs cartoon cited by Mary Beard is only too true.

In the 20th Century that bastion of UK tradition, the BBC, were responsible for the chocolaty tones of news readers giving out news, both good and bad, in deep, reassuring tones. Nowadays, the “BBC Voice” is something of a joke, but it echoes through our society. They didn’t create it, just gave us a convenient label for the way some men speak. And thinking about the battles that women fought to be allowed to read “serious news” to the nation, media broadcasters haven’t been exactly willing to confront the issue.

So how should we try to rectify the imbalance? How can we tilt ourselves towards a more level playing field?

I don’t have a simple answer. Anything a woman says will be seen as further evidence that she doesn’t have anything useful to contribute, that she should not be listened to. “Oh, you’re always whining about men ignoring you.” I would ask that men start noticing the phenomenon – look out for a woman being shouted over in a meeting, etc. Even if you (a “he”) don’t intervene, it may make you more aware of how often it happens. Women, stand up and be counted when you hear someone complain she’s being ignored. (At least think about supporting her or maybe speaking up for yourself next time.)

This isn’t a trivial matter and it won’t be resolved in a hurry, whatever we do. The examples I’ve cited above all happened, but I’m not saying everyone thinks in a particular way, or that all men will shout down any woman who speaks. But even once would be too often – and I’ve seen it happen many more times than that.

I did suggest at the writers’ group I mentioned earlier, that we should have a time limit on each person’s reading. I even offered to bring an egg timer. This didn’t go down well. But I would propose that idea if I were chairing meetings where a few voices dominated in this way. Feel free to borrow the idea!

Like Mary Beard, I don’t advocate voice training as a solution. I’m sure it does some good for a few individuals, but that isn’t really the problem. The only way this will change is if all of us, men and women, realise we’re more inclined to listen to men, and make a point of hearing women when they do speak.

After all, we might have something worth saying.

Women’s Voices – Part 1 (Small Talk)

We’ve all heard, “Children should be seen and not heard”, but an awful lot of men seem to think the same should be applied to women.

From Les Dawson’s jokes about his Mother-in-Law talking too much to Family Guy’s catchphrase, “Shut up, Meg” (Yes, I know. If you want to berate me, come up with something original, can’t you?), it’s a deep-rooted cliché that women should talk less.

Now, after a recent discussion online, I happened to spot this programme coming up on Sunday:

And I’m really looking forward to it. From my earliest years, I’ve been aware that females are judged to be not worth listening to when we express our opinions – my parents used to joke about it, in front of me and presumably when I wasn’t listening, too. (“We used to wish she’d start talking. Now we just wish she’d shut up.”)

The strange thing is that women are expected to be able and willing to make “small talk”. This derogatory term is never used to refer to men talking, however trivial the subject matter. Only women’s conversation is considered small. (Sometimes it’s even small when there are men involved, but there has to be a woman in the equation.)

We use different words to describe the behaviour of people according to their gender, from a very young age. For example:

Male………….Female
Assertive……..Bossy
Confident……..Pushy
Self-assured….Domineering
Emphatic………Aggressive
Forceful………Strident

A woman who raises any issue like this will find herself described as whining, whinging, grumpy, belligerent, difficult and (only too often) hormonal. The nearest a man ever comes to being described by that last term is if someone says “he’s a bit of a lad”. In the office environment, male hormones result in laddish, but accepted behaviour – female hormones are a weakness, something to be ashamed of.

I have direct experience of this. In the days when I worked in an office, an email was sent by a male colleague, complaining that people were not routing their desk phones to their mobiles, so phones in the office would ring and he objected to answering them. He was thanked for being proactive at the next team meeting and staff were all asked to ensure their phones were correctly routed.

A couple of weeks later, I was alone in the office and fed up of phones ringing unanswered, so I sent a copy of the same email to the same people, asking they route their desk phones to their mobiles.

Bear in mind, I copied and pasted his email. I sent exactly the same words to the same people.

I was reprimanded by the manager who’d thanked my male colleague, saying I was “being bossy” and “pretending to be a manager”.

On a disability note, I’ve been on the receiving end of comments like, “If you used your body for what it’s meant to do” far too many times. Male doctors who make it clear they feel they can dismiss many MS symptoms as “female problems”. It doesn’t help that the condition affects more women than men.

Back at the forthcoming programme. Mary Beard is a respected classicist historian, so I’m sure she will incorporate some excellent examples of “Oh Do Shut Up, Dear” from ancient sources as well as her own recent experiences on social media and in the populist press. I wonder if any of her detractors could rebuff her comments with one-tenth of her eloquence?

There is a lot of low-level sex discrimination in the UK, and one definite issue is the way that girls and women are criticised for expressing ourselves.

(It’s not just a gender issue – the same criticism is levelled at all sorts of minorities for daring to speak out. Drawing on my own experience, I’ve heard:

“What do you know about hillwalking?” (With a gesture towards my wheelchair.)

“You don’t know anything about sport!”

“How would you know how long it takes to walk there?”

And many other comments that my opinion is irrelevant, specifically due to a physical impairment.

And I’ve frequently been shouted down when I dared to express an opinion – often without my even saying enough for my views to be clear. I’ve been female all my life but visibly disabled only for the last 20 years, so I have a good perspective on the difference between gender bias and disability discrimination. I’m not saying one is worse than the other, and I know that other forms exist – but I can tell the difference between the two in many cases.)

I like to measure the ####-ism of a statement by reversing the polarity, or translating it to apply to a different flavour of discrimination. So – how would it sound if I made a similar joke, but made the subject my Father-in-Law? It wouldn’t work, it wouldn’t be funny because we don’t have the same cliché about men.

Or what if I made it a racist joke? I’d be (rightly) pilloried for saying it.

And yet we accept this sexist view of women (and a similar one about disabled people) without questioning it.

Rather than duplicate effort, I will watch the programme on Sunday and post another comment afterwards.

Let’s hear what the good lady has to say before we offer our opinions on her.

Funny Women

I watched Newsnight (BBC2 last night) conclude with a discussion on the insistence of Danny Cohen (head of BBC TV) that more women be included in panel shows such as Mock the Week and QI.

Now, I’m all for equality, but is this a good way to tackle the problem of imbalance?

Let’s take QI – chaired by the lovely Stephen Fry with teams of mainly male competitors and an esoteric scoring system. Undoubtedly a testosterone-rich environment, this is blokey comedy at its richest, not feminised by having a (whisper it) homosexual presenter. And there are women who thrive on the show – Sandi Toksvig (hey – is homosexuality compulsory here?) gives the male panellists a run for their money, whilst Jo Brand could almost be Les Dawson reincarnated as a woman. That’s two females who do well, in part because they behave in a mannish manner by standing up for themselves when necessary, but without trying to be men. They are women – and they are funny.

So – does a policy of increasing the number of female panellists mean we need women to act like men? Or should we change the format to be more feminine? Stephen – time to camp it up.

No, I can’t believe this would work. I applaud both Sandy and Jo for being entertaining women in a man’s panel game. And make no mistake – it is a man’s game. Not only are the panellists mostly men, the whole idea was created by a man (John Lloyd) specifically for Mr Fry and Alan Davies. I don’t know if they ever thought about including women or if we snuck in afterwards. It’s a big boys’ playground game. That’s why it’s fun to watch.

I worked for many years in male-dominated environments and I know how much it takes for a woman to get any respect. I’ve been told on many occasions that I was thought of as “one of the boys” and other, less printable, terms. I’ve worked in teams where there was more testosterone than oxygen in the air – and it isn’t healthy. Groups of men will act in ways they know will cause problems, but no-one is prepared to say anything in front of the rest. And so…

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve worked in all-female offices, too. And it can get so bitchy that I sometimes wondered if I should keep a note of who’s not speaking to whom and who’s staking a claim on which fellas…

Danny Cohen is correct that we should have more women on panel shows. But shoehorning females into the boys’ own world of most TV panel shows won’t work. You’ll annoy the fans by diluting the male hormones, which will change the feel of the shows they love. And the poor token women will know they’re included because of their gender, not because they’re likely to be funny.

Tokenism doesn’t work. If a panel game has to have a women in front of the camera, what about someone from an ethnic minority? Or a disabled person? QI, at least, is already in the clear on the LGBT front – should we insist all other shows toe the line, too?

Imagine the advert:
_____________________________________________________________________________________
Panellists wanted for new quiz show. Successful applicants will have appropriate qualifications or be able to demonstrate proficiency in at least two of the following areas:

Female
Non-Caucasian
Visible Disability
L/G/B/T
Over 50 years of age

GSOH desirable but not essential.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

No – this isn’t the solution. For women to be entertaining and successful in panel games, we need to involve them from the start. We need female designers and writers, as well as males. Perhaps in a few years we could all be enjoying panel games where men and women compete on an equal footing – and they can all enjoy being themselves. An entertaining panel of people.

Read more here:
http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/feb/08/bbc-comedy-shows-male-panels-female-presence

Honesty

We’re always told not to give personal information to anyone unless there’s a good reason for it. Identity theft is a very real danger and personal information is a valuable commodity to those dishonest enough to want to steal it.

And yet retailers and other businesses often insist that we provide it. Whether it’s relevant to our purchase from them or not.

I received an email from a brewer whose website I have visited. I didn’t sign up for emails, I didn’t purchase anything. But I had to provide information to prove that I’m over 18 because the website content may be unsuitable for those under legal drinking age. So I had to provide my full name, date of birth, email and home address. Just for a casual browse on their website. But this email tells me their database has been hacked and that my information has been stolen.

Just think about that.

I gave them information in good faith and they’re now telling me they kept it on their database and it has been stolen. I’m sure there was a box I ticked which said I gave them permission to keep the data – after all, who reads the Ts & Cs every time they visit a website?

They say this happened on 28th September, which tallies with the huge increase in SPAM I’ve been experiencing for the last month or so. And those spammers apparently have a lot more info about me, too. A dangerous amount.

As far as I’m aware, I have no legal comeback on the brewers. I can’t prove that the people filling my inbox with adverts for body enhancements and phishing messages got my info from them and neither would I be able to prove that someone trying to steal my identity had found my date of birth and full name on that particular database.

They have the temerity to include advice in their email on how to protect my identity.

But here is my suggestion on how to avoid your information falling into the hands of criminals:

Lie.

I’m pleased to say, I gave them a false date of birth. I have one I use for just such an occasion. It’s feasible, it’s a date it’s easy for me to remember and I always use the same one when I don’t accept that a website has a right to that information.

I’m so glad I lied to them.

Organ Donation – a Rant

I’ll be straight with you from the start. I’m a great believer in organ donation. I carry two donor cards, the general one that many Brits have – and an extra one for the MS Tissue Bank. I’ve blogged before about this and you can read more here:
https://megkingston.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/when-a-donation-is-taken-for-granted/

What got my goat this week was a studio guest on the radio, saying she didn’t want her organs to be used after her death because it’s her body and “The Government” doesn’t have any right to take bits of it off her. (The Welsh Assembly Government has passed legislation for an opt-out system here in Wales.)

Aside from the fact that everyone alive today has benefited to some degree from research carried out on donated bodies / organs, I wondered how she’s react if she needed an organ transplant. And that got me thinking even further…

What if we had a single register for organ donations – it doesn’t even matter whether it’s opt-in or opt-out. But only those on the register would be eligible for organ donations. Or transplants. So a person could only receive a donated organ if they were prepared to donate their own after death.

Let’s rule that there’s a two-year probationary period, too. So you’ve got to be on the register for twenty-four months before you could receive a donated organ. Just in case anyone tried to cheat the system.

That would be fair, wouldn’t it?