Is this really the way to treat customers - Veterinary Practice
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Is this really the way to treat customers

Periscope continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern

“The quality of the VLA’s testing service will be unaffected,” is a quote I saw attributed to the VLA’s chief executive, Peter Borriello, when speaking about the recent decision that VLA’s regional laboratories will no longer open on Saturday mornings.

Which is a bit like the chief executive of a Primary Health Care Trust saying that the quality of patient care will be unaffected by the decision that no doctors will be available to see patients from 5pm Friday afternoon until 9am Monday morning.

Just another load of meaningless words that bear no relation to the reality of everyday life. I guess we should long ago have come to expect nothing less from this Government and its public representatives.

“No more boom and bust.”

“British jobs for British workers.”

“Weapons of mass destruction.” One can only look back now and laugh, not with a warped sense of humour but with a wry irony that we could all have been so gullible and easily fooled by what have turned out to be nothing more than worthless sound-bites.

Bankers and financial “experts” lauded and knighted as geniuses only a few short months ago have turned out to be nothing more than spivs in expensive suits chasing bonus-driven short-term targets that have proved as pointless as the regulatory authorities themselves.

No one’s fault

But never mind, it is no one’s fault, merely the result of a global banking crisis that was beyond the ability and remit of this Government to see coming. Nice one!

So where does that leave the good old VLA and us poor old large animal practitioners on a wet Friday afternoon in April? Up the proverbial without a paddle to put it politely. And just another step in the “dumbing down” of British professional expertise where the views and value of a whole range of “professionals”, and the public services they provide, are considered to be dispensable and too expensive besides.

I don’t know Peter Borriello but I’m sure he is a wholly good bloke and very proficient at what he does. I do know that he’s not a vet and can almost certainly therefore have no idea of what it’s like to be on a client’s farm late on a Friday afternoon with a serious animal health (and perhaps welfare) problem to be investigated and dealt with … well before Monday morning. That’s what farmers expect and that’s what us vets in practice expect. That’s how it’s always been, and for good reasons too.

These days we are constantly being told that customer care and customer focus are the key to success. Yet once again this Government appears to say one thing and do another and the closure of VLA regional labs is another fine example of this. As is a not entirely unrelated experience I had recently that brought home to me the disdain with which the Government’s “customers” are treated.

Approval system

A disabled friend of mine had decided to take up the opportunity of purchasing a new car under the Government-approved Motability car scheme. The final stage of approval involved taking a CP50 form along to the local Jobcentre which can, after a 30-second phone call to the Disability Benefits head office, stamp the CP50 authorising the car dealer to release the chosen car to its new owner.

Of late, the car dealer told my friend, local Jobcentres had been reluctant to stamp the form, insisting that it was sent off to the head office for attention, a process that could take up to three weeks. Not very efficient and a somewhat cumbersome change to what had gone before.

Because my friend is not very mobile, I offered to take the form in for him and I was met just inside the door of the local Jobcentre by a sort of pantomime villain character standing at a lectern and wearing a badge that said (somewhat disingenuously as it happens) “Customer Services Manager”. I explained to him why I was there and proffered the CP50.

Well-rehearsed diatribe

With a fixed smile on his face, the customer services manager went into a well-rehearsed diatribe about how sorry he was that I’d had a wasted journey but although the Jobcentre had provided this service until a couple of months ago it was no longer able to do so.

The reason was that it did not administer this particular disability benefit and my friend would indeed have to send the form off to the head office. I pressed the point but it merely encouraged the customer services manager (you might be able to see why this title was now beginning to grate with me) to rewind and begin the whole monologue again from the start.

A process which I thought might only be averted by my giving him a damn hard punch on the nose. Eventually I left, disheartened and dejected, a sad and disgruntled “customer” indeed.

I am not normally taken to complaining but by the time I had walked a hundred yards I was seething. I turned and marched back into the Jobcentre. The customer services manager, still smiling as though lobotomised (perhaps he was) greeted me politely once more and appeared ready to begin the whole damn explanation again. I stopped him by saying that I was not happy with his previous decision and would like to speak to the person in charge.

“I’m the customer services manager,” he said (the irony completely lost on him), and so I let him have it straight.

Exceedingly displeased

I told him that as a taxpayer I was both his employer and his customer, and that I was exceedingly displeased on both counts.

I told him that refusing to do something that he had done up until two months previously, purely as the result of a change of policy, was not acceptable and was in fact discriminatory against the disabled who were often not in a position to fight their own corner. I demanded that he provide me, his customer, with the service I required.

He caved in. Two minutes and one phone call later the form was stamped and he was now apologising profusely for his initial refusal. He told me that it had been the regional director’s decision to change the policy and that he for one had raised the point that it was not good customer care but had been overuled. So much for joined-up Government and the one-stop shop, I thought.

So what is the lesson to be learned here? Well, perhaps farmers and those of us in large animal practice should simply continue to turn up to regional vet labs with dead bodies on a Saturday morning (bet your life the French would), and if no one’s home just dump them on the doorstep with a note saying that as the VLA’s employers and customers we demand the service that has been hitherto provided.

Perhaps then the Government will get the message that if it wants farmers and large animal vets to work in partnership with it on animal health matters, it can’t make unilateral decisions and not expect discord.

After all, the annual cost of maintaining the Saturday service is probably less than Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension and Harriet Harman has already assured us that that is not going to be paid. Though perhaps that was just another sound-bite after all.

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