Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Charity Pitfalls

The Central Remedial Clinic has been very much in the news recently here in Ireland and though its behaviour is in no way unique, it does tend to highlight a number of problems generally with respect to the running of charities.

Unfortunately there has far to little accountability required by the charities. Unlike private commercial companies they do not have to provide audited accounts.
Furthermore the association with a worthy charity as for example helping to provide facilities for children with disability provides wonderful cover against possible unscrupulous behaviour of those running the charity. For the general public is predisposed to look on such work - unlike an activity such as banking - as highly commendable in social terms and therefore will tend to form positive feelings with respect to those involved.

However though the Central Remedial Clinic since its foundation has stood out as one of the best organised charities, there are clearly however unhealthy aspects as to its operations.

Indeed for many years it generated massive publicity from its association with Jimmy Savile who came over annually to Ireland on highly publicised walks to aid funding. In retrospect it is now perhaps easier to appreciate the unwitting danger to young children arising from this celebrity connection.

However it is the connection with former Taoiseach Charles Haughey which is perhaps more relevant in providing a background to its current problems. Through this connection the board of CRC subsequently became dominated by politicians with a strong Fianna Fail; connection. So several of the existing incumbents are identified as closely associated with Bertie Ahern (as his Drumcondra Mafia).

So it is this board that sanctioned the top-up payments to five of its senior executives. The payment especially to its former chief executive, Paul Kiely bordered on the outrageous enabling his salary to increase by more than 100% of the recommended level. In fact it emerged today at the hearings that the topping up (subsequently recalculated on his greatly inflated salary) will make his pension now greater than his original recommended salary.

Also when on Kiely's retirement a new chief executive was appointed, the position was not advertised externally but awarded to another long serving member of the board (who we heard today had likewise been given a top-up on the recommended salary). This appointee then resigned earlier this week apparently to avoid having to take responsibility for the behaviour of his board.

So these top-ups (and pension contributions at about €3 ml) came from the contributions of "The Friends and Supporters" who presumably would now be shocked at what had been happening to their money.

There was also a story in one of the Sunday newspapers at the weekend indicating that members of this board had formed a company to provide certain medical supplies. Then when it got into financial difficulties they were bailed out through a generous "loan" from "The Friends and Supporters".

The whole situation is unsatisfactory and unhealthy. Though a large part of its funding comes from the state through the HSE (Health Services Executive) it can conveniently get around state sanctions regarding the appropriate use of cash through use of its additional funding.

In any case it seems that the HSE is in part compliance with what was going forming part of the "nod and wink" culture that is still so prevalent here with respect to stipulated guidelines.
And when it comes to top-ups, government politicians seem to be the worst offenders in routinely looking for additional amounts for their "special advisors". Even the President had sought - and achieved - such a top-up for one of his own nominated advisors.

Also there seems to be a totally unhealthy situation in Ireland regarding the membership of boards operating to the entire benefit of a privileged inner circle. I was amazed for example when reading about the CRC board to see that most members holding multiple directorships on a wide variety of different boards. And as this kind of behaviour is itself fostered through the routine  patronage offered to key supporters by all the political parties (when in power) I do not see this practice changing anytime soon.

In fact if real change is to come it will have to be forced through public opinion.

Regrettably what is likely to happen in the light of present revelations is that voluntary funding for the CRC will drop dramatically unless drastic change is quickly implemented. This would require at a minimum that all members of the existing board stand down (that manifestly has been abusing their privileged position). This is not only necessary for the future of the CRC but by extension many other worthy charities that will be inevitably damaged by increasing public cynicism (if appropriate action is not taken).

Also the charities en masse should be required to provide full accountability so that contributors can ascertain exactly how their money is spent.

I would also question the "hard-sell" actions that increasingly are being used by many of the charities. I understand fully that they desperately need funding. However they should realise that they need to be seen to act in a fully transparent manner before having the right to request additional funding from the public.

For example it is increasingly common for fundraisers to arise unannounced on one's doorstep immediately seeking to sign one up to a direct debit system of  funding their charity. Additional pressure is then placed on would be donors by refusing to accept one-off contributions!

Also I have noted from experience that the more one donates to a particular charity that one will inevitably receive an increasing number of emotive demands for additional contributions, not only from this charity but also a variety of related charities.
While recognising that the charities always need additional resources, on a human level it becomes irritating dealing with this bombardment, perhaps leading a willing donor to cease contributing altogether!

Though the CRC is perhaps unfortunate in facing the full brunt of criticism at the moment (when clearly other charities are also culpable), perhaps it may ultimately be seen as a valuable development in bringing about much needed change with respect to the general operation of charities in Ireland.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Yesterday turned out to be one of those irritating days. I went to my car on the street after work to find it clamped. Such an incident is annoying at the best of times. However on this occasion it was even more so as I had dutifully paid for my ticket at the meter and had returned to the car well in time.

So probably what had happened is that the ticket, which had been placed on the dashboard had fallen off due to a draft when shutting the door. So technically you could say that I was at fault and that the clampers were thereby justified in their action.

However while accepting this, I feel it unreasonable that I should be then expected to pay the fine. Having retrieved the dislodged ticket I had clear evidence to show that I was in credit when the clamp was imposed.

From my perspective, normal justice should have accepted that waiting for the car to be declamped was more than sufficient penalty for this inadvertent failure to strictly comply with the rules. After all, I had paid in good faith and returned to my car within the allotted time on the ticket.
However to my considerable annoyance, absolutely no flexibility was shown. Though reference was made to an appeals procedure that I could follow if still dissatisfied, I was left in no doubt that my car would not be declamped till the €80 fine was paid.

Fortunately in this case I was in a position to pay the fine. Also I had no pressing engagements which limited the degree of inconvenience involved. And in fairness the car was declamped without a significant time delay.

However the point I am making is that there is something inherently unsatisfactory about a procedure, where effectively in the case of any dispute, the consumer is considered guilty until proven innocent.

Though in my particular case I perhaps should have doubly checked to see that the ticket was still on the dashboard after closing the door, I can envisage other possible scenarios where the same problem could have arisen.

For example in a busy parking area it would be quite frequent for cars entering tight spaces, to bump into the car behind when reversing. Such an action could then dislodge the ticket (which has no adhesive quality). Also it is possible that someone could break into the car resulting in the ticket blowing off the dashboard. It is even possible that on an extremely windy day that the ticket could move (with the doors locked). And all these scenarios relate to just one possible cause of dispute (where the ticket is not visibly displayed!)

Now the point is this. Say in fact my ticket had fallen as a result of another car reversing into the parking slot in front inadvertently hitting my front bumper! As a consumer I would have been completely innocent of any short coming. However the same inflexible procedures would have been applied with the car not being removed until the fine had been paid.

There is something very unsatisfactory about this especially when the authority involved (in this case Dublin City Council) accept so little liability for their own failures with respect to consumer service. For example it is not uncommon to find a meter is not functioning. Also it is somewhat frustrating to arrive at a meter with the correct designated coins only to find that they are not accepted by the meter.
Also surely given the rule requiring visible display of a parking ticket e.g. on the dashboard of the car, the ticket should be provided with some adhesive.
For example on a windy day, it may continually fall from the dashboard requiring the frequent opening and shutting of a front door (which in itself constitutes a major traffic hazard on a busy street).

So in many ways the service provider fails the consumer. However whereas the provider reserves the right to penalise the customer (for an unwitting technical infringement) the consumer enjoys no similar rights with respect to the more blatant failures of the provider.
So quite simply the principle applied by the provider is "guilty until proven innocent".

An even more blatant example of this is provided by the toll operators.

Some time ago I received by post a fine from the toll company here in Dublin for an alleged infringement with dire warnings of the further penalties pending if I refused to pay up promptly.

The problem was that I was nowhere near the road in question (where the alleged incident occurred) on the day of the "offence".

Though 100% innocent in this case I was then forced into a laborious procedure to prove my case. Eventually after much discussion the toll company accepted that it had got the number plate identification wrong (with another car actually involved). So finally after all this hassle, I received a letter from the company conveying "the good news" that my appeal had been found successful.

However from my perspective I should never have been required to get involved in an appeals process in the first place (as I was 100% innocent all along). Yet, I was forced into an unsought for procedure with the adjudication of the outcome solely at the discretion of my accuser. Then having caused such unnecessary trouble, the accuser saw no reason for providing any form of compensation.

Again, there is something inherently wrong about this whole process and it should not be allowed (at least without the requirement of compensation for a consumer fined in the wrong). Furthermore I found out that my own incident was far from an isolated case with some 10,000 other motorists receiving fines in error from the company during the year. Apparently what happens is this! When the registration number is not clearly identified, the toll company apparently charges a motorist having a number that might possibly fit. So for example, say they are not sure whether a particular number on the plate is a 4 or a 9 they will try their luck by picking one of these numbers as correct. So, in some cases - because of uncertainty as to precise movements on the day, or to avoid unwanted hassle - it might successively collect the fine off a driver (who is actually innocent of any offence). However happily from its perspective, even when challenged and ultimately forced to admit to being in the wrong it accepts no liability with respect to innocent drivers.

Once again this is a case of "guilty until proven innocent" operated however in an even more blatant manner.

Thre practice is clearly wrong and the consumer should be protected through legislative measures obliging the company to change such procedures.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Travelling on RyanAir

I had the dubious pleasure of travelling to France on Ryan Air recently.

Normally I travel by Aer Lingus and am prepared to pay a premium for the pleasure. However on this occasion, it would have proved too expensive, so I reluctantly booked with RyanAir.

Though I have not travelled on RyanAir in recent years, I did travel with it on many occasions in the past (especially to London). So it was interesting to compare this with past experience.

Overall, I would have to say that the service had deteriorated somewhat in the meantime.

It starts with the booking process which I find less transparent than on the Aer Lingus site. In the way the site is set up, RyanAir seems to be deliberately trying to inveigle people into purchasing what they may not require e.g. travel insurance.

Then they have developed this online booking system where you have to provide your own boarding pass. Like a lot of RyanAir practices I find their policy somewhat irritating. Though I would have no objection at all to allowing customers to print out their boarding passes (as a convenience), I consider it quite unacceptable that they then can apply a €40 surcharge on any passenger arriving at check-in without their (home produced) boarding pass. Many people still do not have the relevant computer technology and/or not sufficiently confident in its use. So I think RyanAir should be forced by EU regulation to change this practice. Of course it suits their producer oriented model! However while personally having no difficulty using computer technology, overall I would find it unacceptable.

Though RyanAir is certainly not alone in this respect, the advertising of flight prices is something of a great sham (which keeps growing more and more). When I checked my own booking receipt I found that only about 40-45% related to the quoted price of the tickets with the rest all made up of supplementary charges.

Again, though I welcome the detailed breakdown of flight charges, I find it somewhat ridiculous that advertised prices of flights do not include all (unavoidable) extraneous charges.

When one goes into a supermarket for example, one expects that one will be only charged the price of goods as advertised. One certainly does not expect supplementary charges e.g. for rent of premises, for administration of the store, government tax etc. However when one pays at the airline till, a different policy applies with a whole host of charges added as extras. So at present advertised fares are totally misleading and this again should be tackled through an EU directive (applying to all airlines).

This misleading practice with respect to air fares is closely associated with the attempt by the airlines (especially RyanAir) to keep reducing entitlements associated with quoted fares, by shifting an increasing number of - formerly included - charges into the optional category.

For example Ryan Air does not offer you a definite seat when you book. Rather it attempts to extract further money through creating a priority check in system so that one has to pay more in guaranteeing seating arrangements. And of course carrying luggage is becoming more and more expensive. A bag with a limit of 15 kgs will cost you €30 extra on Ryan Air. Indeed if you are planning to fly in July or August this year there will be now a further surcharge of €10 to €15! Now one might expect that for many flying in the Summer months that bags will not be an optional extra! So by continually separating charges in this way airline pricing becomes ever more misleading.

Another unacceptable RyanAir practice - which thankfully it has been forced to abandon - related to hefty credit card charges. In fact this charge was downright insulting as the very basis of its online system requires the use of credit cards. So payment by credit card was a considerable convenience for RyanAir which it then rewarded by charging for the privilege. If this charge was in any way genuine, then lower charges should have applied where several passengers were included on the one credit card transaction! However of course this made no difference with a €5 charge on each passenger. I am sure as I speak that RyanAir is busily considering the introduction of further optional charges. Here are a few suggestions - charging to go to the toilet, a charge for embarking on the plane (and of course another for disembarking), a charge for sitting down in one's seat and a charge for any assistance required by a crew member on board.

The point I am simply making is that present pricing and charging is both misleading and unacceptable in many respects. This is why firmer regulation by the EU competition authorities is urgently needed to rectify matters. Personally I consider that they have been far too lax in this regard tolerating many dubious practices that would not be considered acceptable in other consumer contexts.

As for flight comfort, RyanAir planes now literally have a yellow pack look about them (due to the garish yellow panelling and seating employed). Then on the outward flight I found that was very little room with the seat pressed up closely on the one in front. Then I went to put a magazine in the pocket in front of me to find that this had now been removed. Again I find this practice unacceptable. Where is one expected for example to place an inflight magazine or the emergency procedure leaflet? Of course again this suits RyanAir's desire for quick turn around times. Also by making it so inconvenient for the passengers it probably reckons that passenger demand for the "free" magazine will fall resulting in further savings. Now others may be impressed by this carry on but I am not one of them. All in all with the pre-recorded messages, the constant pressure on crew to keep selling various (poor value) items on-board, the RyanAir scratch cards, the silly trumpet fanfare when the flight arrives on time, I had the distasteful feeling of being constantly brainwashed in the Michael O'Leary philosophy of running an airline.

Now before proceeding further I will readily recognise RyanAir's many good points. It has enabled a great number to travel at extremely low fares and indirectly through the strong competition it provides has forced others (like Aer Lingus) to become more efficient and offer better value to the customer.

Also in fairness it has an excellent record with respect to punctual arrival (which is another key consideration for many travellers).

And then it has opened up so many new destinations around Europe greatly improving access for customers.

Finally apart from a few minor hiccups, its safety record has been very strong.

So in many ways it has been truly a wonderful success story generating considerable economic benefits both in Ireland and elsewhere.

However the point that I am making here is that any flight comprises a range of different customers (who have paid very different prices). Yet RyanAir misleadingly tries to pass itself off as the low fares airline for everyone.

Indeed there is an important paradox here. There are many customers (usually Ryanair's biggest fans) who can indeed pick and choose times to travel so as to maximise the benefit of discount fares. However there are others who for a variety of reasons do not enjoy such flexibility (and because of set work commitments I would fall into this latter category).

Once again though RyanAir keeps marketing itself as the low fares airline it shamelessly will extract as much as it can from those with little flexibility in booking e.g. fans travelling out for an important rugby fixture.
Furthermore its very business model of offering very low fares (and occasionally no fares) to some on-board equally requires that a substantial proportion be charged at a considerably higher rate.

Understandably the "discount" flyer who is paying little or nothing for a flight will cheerfully put up with almost any service limitations. However on the same flight there will be many others who have paid perhaps considerably for the privilege and it is far more likely that these especially will feel short-changed by the quality of the service.

In fact I literally experienced this on the return flight. To my surprise the Irish Independent was offered for sale. For a moment I experienced a slightly warmer feeling towards RyanAir thinking that at last they it was paying more attention to customer needs. Then having paid €2, I was surprised when the crew member forget to give me back the change only to find that RyanAir charge €2 for the Irish Independent (though the retail price is €1.80).
Though the amount of money involved is very small I felt quite angry seeing it as yet another somewhat petty attempt to raise additional revenue from passengers.

And this is just one example of where I believe that RyanAir are pushing a business model - that admittedly has served them very well - to an unhealthy extreme. In its constant attempt to cut costs and raise additional revenue, it ignores basic principles of consumer service.

As I have stated, not everyone can fly as a low discount customer (and RyanAir's very model is dependent on this fact). Yet RyanAir while marketing itself as a low fares airline shows scant regard for the concerns of the many passengers flying at considerably higher prices.

So my own position is this! even though I would fly again with RyanAir where no reasonable alternative option exists, following my most recent experience I would be willing to pay an even higher premium to fly with an alternative carrier (such as Aer Lingus). And I doubt very much that I am unique in this respect. So if I am right, with present practices continuing, RyanAir will alienate the good will of many potential customers to such an extent that they will be anxious to avoid travelling with it whenever possible.

I find it truly remarkable that for an airline that expects its customers to be attuned to the internet, ready to receive e-mails (and text messages) and with printers available to produce their boarding cards, that it completely shuns the use of any e-mail customer service in return. So for RyanAir, communication is very decidedly not meant to be a two-way process!
I once heard Michael O'Leary when challenged on this, attempting the ridiculous explanation that as he himself couldn't be bothered with e-mail, he didn't see why his customers needed such a service. So when it suits even Michael O'Leary can come out with self serving nonsense. And this is a clear example of the true lack of emphasis that Ryanair places on customer service!

Just one other observation regarding customer service! I remember once when waiting for the final evening flight from Gatwick hearing an announcement that due to "technical reasons" that the earlier scheduled flight had been cancelled but that its passengers could transfer to the later flight.

I doubt very much that there were any genuine technical problems. Rather I strongly suspect that management realised that as the numbers due to fly on the earlier flight were relatively small, that they could thereby be transferred to the later flight (thus eliminating the running costs of the earlier flight).

However if this is true i.e. that an airline reserves the right to cancel any flight at the shortest notice (for operational reasons) then one could question whether in fact a scheduled service is genuinely in operation.
And this is by no means an isolated incident. When returning home on this recent flight I was talking to a family who were due to fly the previous day on RyanAir but had been informed at short notice that the flight would not be operating and then offered a flight the following day. Now as it happens no major inconvenience was caused in this case. However in other circumstances such a change could be very problematic causing passengers additional financial expense and failure to meet important commitments.

We all can accept that in certain unforeseen circumstances e.g. industrial action or bad weather may cause flight cancellations. However I would find it unacceptable for airlines to cancel flights for mere operational reasons (e.g. not enough bookings) free from any financial liability with respect to affected passengers.

There was however some compensation at the end of the flight. Because its arrival was slightly late we were spared listening again to the "canned" self congratulatory message! I was indeed thankful for this one small mercy.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Gift Cards

The more I think about Gift Cards, the more angry I become regarding their continued existence. In general they represent a very good idea (from the point of view of the issuer) but a very bad idea for subsequent users.

Partly because of the strong culture to give presents e.g. at Christmas, people can feel under considerable pressure - literally - to come up with the goods on such an occasion. Buying a personal gift for someone can take time and possibly end up being problematic (i.e. giving a present that is not appreciated). Offering money as an alternative carries the great benefit that it can be then potentially spent on any item that the recipient wishes to buy. However in general this would be considered too impersonal.

Thus the Gift Card has emerged as something of a stop-gap making it easier for the shopper, while not necessarily restricting the user to the subsequent purchase of just one item.

However there are so many potential problems with Gift Cards that in general they are not worth the trouble.

Firstly, in many cases they do not represent a good substitute for cash. Personally I would prefer to be handed - €100 in cash - than a Gift Voucher to a - say some restaurant for the same amount. The Gift Voucher in this case is unnecessarily restrictive as regards choice - I could spend the cash on any good or service - while not really carrying much value as a personal gift.

Also largely because of its restrictive nature, many Gift Cards are never subsequently used. Because one may have to make special plans so as to use the Card, once received, many are quickly forgotten about and never subsequently redeemed.

Also the issuers of such cards can put unjustifiable time restrictions on use of the cards (e.g. a year). So in our example €100 euro has already been paid up front to the restaurant. However 13 months later, where I have forgotten - or not found it convenient to yet use the card - it will keep the money while disowning any further liability.

Also - as I have experienced myself - stores can operate in a totally unfriendly consumer manner in honouring cards. I remember one highly reputable store in Dublin that refused to honour the final €15 unspent on my card (when it was temporally mislaid) even though I had the receipt from the store for the balance remaining. I found this refusal somewhat outrageous (especially in view of the fact that I was a regular customer spending thousands of euro annually in the store over a period of 10 years.) On a point of principle I have not shopped there since the incident!

There is another problem that now looms large in that a lot of firms in the current recession are going out of business and will never be in a position to honour Gift Cards issued.

So overall Gift Cards often represent a rip-off where a business can get in plenty of convenient money (with no immediate liability to customers). Then when customers look for paid up commitments to be honoured, it will often be treated as a tiresome inconvenience as if being requested to provide special favours. So for example where a Gift Card represents some service (e.g. right to a helicopter ride) the holder may be continually put at the back of the queue until all "regular customers" have been accommodated.

I would also strongly question present legislation which does precious little to protect consumers against abuse by unscrupulous issuers.

Personally I do not believe that Gift Cards should be issued without providing some extra benefits (that would not accrue to customers making direct cash payments).
Secondly no time restrictions should normally apply. Alternatively if time limits are imposed, the issuer should then be forced by law to hand back the value unredeemed on the card to the customer.

However I do not expect these measures to be taken and the exploitation therefore by the issuers will continue. If their own money was involved in purchasing the Cards, there would be uproar from consumers regarding existing practices. However precisely because such cards are bought by a third party having no connection with their subsequent use, too little questioning takes place.

So, I will not be giving Gift Cards to anyone this Christmas; likewise I sincerely hope that I do not receive any in return.