PA24/7 Blogs

Held Hostage In Buckingham Palace

It was all going so well …
My mother is a wheelchair user and she wanted to see the Diamond Exhibition at Buckingham Palace.  As a, sometimes, dutiful daughter I called their Access Booking Line and experienced five star customer service.  Not only is there a special access route and shop but you can book to park inside the Palace forecourt – the bit where the soldiers march up and down.  The thought and attention to detail for disabled visitors was impressive, we were made to feel like “guests” rather than “visitors”.  Even the ticket wording was dignified, my mother was described as a “Wheelchair User” and I as her “Companion” rather than the usual “Carer”.
We had a lovely morning, banter with the policeman at the gate, oohing and ahhhing at just how much the exhibition of diamonds sparkled, a coffee in the garden and then it all went a bit soggy and the excellent customer service dissolved.
A confusing message about timings meant we tried to leave just as the guard started changing, efficiently marching around my parked car.  I asked if there was somewhere we could wait: “well you could go to the cafe …”  I explained that we’d just been there and got quite cold so would rather stay inside: “but there isn’t anywhere … when this has happened before people go to the cafe … or you could just wheel up and down this corridor …” there was a note of desperate panic.
So we went back to a children’s activity room – which was empty of children – and sat quietly looking at the books we’d bought.  We were challenged five times in an hour as to why we were there and encouraged to move on.  Each time we explained that we would love to move on but were unable to until the guard had finished changing.  Between challenges there was a lot of whispering and pointing by staff who were highly disconcerted that we didn’t want to go into the cold garden.
Look, if the room had been packed with children I could understand but it was empty.  I could also understand if the staff had been sloppy and inexperienced up to this point but they hadn’t.  The Palace’s planning had been so immaculate that they cannot have overlooked this scenario.  So, why was there provision for children but not the elderly or wheelchair users?  The staff were so courteous and considerate but didn’t seem to have the initiative to adapt after all if they’d offered us “a coffee on the palace” I suspect we’d have gone away charmed!

Manners Maketh The Interview

Seeing the TV footage of students getting their ‘A level and GCSE results reminded me that late summer into autumn is the time when workplaces fill with new workers.  Well that is what used to happen but the market for interships and jobs is so competitive, how can these new workers give themselves a winning edge at interview?  They need to distinguish themselves from the competition with something more than their results and they need to make a great impression in the first five seconds.  So how about displaying great manners?
Good manners are not about table cutlery but showing respect to other people and to do that you must interact with them.  In a society where we text rather than talk it is critical to understand how effective communication skills (verbal and written) can make a difference.
So …
·         take notice of the interviewer,
·         listen to what they say and respond to it,
·         don’t give one word answers,
·         look people in the face not at a point above their head
·         SMILE
In fact smiling is the crucial action – when you smile there is a psychological reaction that forces you to feel relaxed and confident.

Value Is In The Eye Of The Bill Payer

Have you seen the BBC’s definition of Value For Money (VFM)?
It was £310,000 (an hourly rate of £45,000) for approximately seven hours of broadcasting for the Eurovision Song Contest.  Now if you skip straight to the contest outcome, Englebert Humperdink coming second to last, then you have to question the notion of value.
However if you look at what the Corporation gained then the investment paid off.  The contest’s viewing figures peaked at 9.6 million, the average for an episode of EastEnders is 8 million but EastEnders costs approximately £750,000 per half hour.  So suddenly £45,000 per hour does seem a bargain.  I must point out that the £310,000 is only the “entry fee” to the contest and doesn’t cover the travel and accommodation costs for production and presentation staff.
So, what constitutes VFM for you?  As a general rule I think it is the quality of product or service received versus the cost paid.  I had an inspiring example recently.  Having watched a programme about the Roux brothers and their restaurants, my mother said she would love to eat at the Waterside Inn at Bray.  I did a bit of research and found that the restaurant offered a lunchtime menu for £42 per head so I made a booking for Mum’s birthday and reasoned that even if we were sat in a dark corner at least she would have her dream fulfilled.
I should have known better.  The Rouxs are defined by exemplary service and cuisine, what you are spending does not determine what you experience.  For £42 the menu choices are limited but add generous sized amouse-bouche, the breads, the petits fours (the size and number made them petit sixes really) with coffee and that £42 begins to go a long way.  When the staff realised that we were celebrating a birthday – they brought out a small “cake” with a candle.  Yes the food was delicious and beautifully presented but it was the care and attention to detail that really delivered the VFM.
A week before the lunch I rang a couple of local hairdressers to see if I could get a basic wash and blow dry before heading off to Bray.  One was “closed because of the Jubilee” which had finished a day earlier.  The other was open and quoted £45, I squeaked that this was a bit expensive and could hear the rustle of a disinterested shrug down the phone.
A high street hairdresser costing more than a three Michelin starred restaurant?  I know which one gets my VFM vote and, more importantly, which one I will visit again.

Visa Vis

Did you hear about the ques for food and drink at Olympic events in Wembley?

The tills had not been set up to accept Visa cards but Visa are one of the sponsors and therefore the only card that can be used at Olympic events!

One of my VA colleagues and I were discussing this and agreed that LOCOG should have hired some VAs because, as an industry, we excel at looking ahead at business needs and paying attention to detail.

We are also great at problem solving – perhaps Lord Coe needs to keep a team of VAs on standby until the 12th of August?


A Handshake Is As Good As A Hug

When I left my first job I think I shook hands with everyone in the unit.  I didn’t think twice about it, a handshake was a professional and courteous way of saying “thank you for being a good colleague”.
A few years later and I was working in the media and with that came double air kisses all round.  I actually think this ramped up because of Ab Fab, in a strange way everyone was trying to emulate what Jennifer Saunders was mocking.  Although thankfully we never adopted the Corsican five kisses or we would never have got any work done.
But now The Kiss has been replaced by The Hug.  I noticed when I finished a recent contract that my colleagues all gathered round to hug me goodbye and a few days later at a networking meeting I was hugged “hello” and “goodbye” by the organiser.  When did we start hugging for business?
I wonder if there is a connection between the increase in remote working and the increase of physical contact when we do meet?  Is it that we need to prove to the other party how much we value them even though we don’t see them every day?
Discussing this with members of my network (both male and female) not many were comfortable about it.  We all felt that hugs and kisses were for family and friends and very occassionaly for a colleague – usually one who has become a friend.
So I’d like to put in an appeal for the return of the handshake.  It was a good enough ritual for the ancient Greeks as a symbolic way of saying: “I come in peace – look no sword”.
My Dad taught me to shake hands – take the hand confidently NOT bone crushingly and look at the person with a smile.  He had worked around the world and said that it was a common currency that crossed cultural boundaries.  However there are national variations – the Norwegians like a firm grip but this is considered rude in the Middle and Far East.
Only once have I had a handshake refused and that was for religious reasons.
However for all those missing their hugs there may be a compromise!
The Hand Hug.
I’m assured this is the handshake of choice for politicians, as it shows them to be warm, friendly, trustworthy and honest. This type of handshake involves covering the clenched hands with the remaining free hand creating a sort of “cocoon.”
I think I’ll stick with what my Dad taught me.

Invasion Of The Temps

Traditionally July and August are the months when permanent staff take their annual leave and make way for the “temp”.  Temporary staff play an essential role in office life, for a start they are responsible for every missing document (hard or soft copy) in every organisation at any time.  It doesn’t matter if they covered for two weeks in August and the document was created in October,  when it goes missing the solution will be: “Oh that was when we had the temp in”.  Usually followed by rolling eyes and knowing nods.
Somebody once said to me “don’t worry too much about where you file all that stuff, we’ll just blame you when we can’t find it anyway”.  Throughout my career I have had periods when I worked as a “temp” and these were some of my most interesting and valuable experiences – one year began at the Treasury and ended at Christie’s auctioneers via the Home Office and one of the security services.
My ideal scenario was to make a great impression in the first booking and then get re-booked as each employee went on leave.  This guaranteed me work but the employer gained continuity as I learned their systems, processes and key personnel.
But times change and as we approach the months when one quarter of UK businesses are expected to take on temporary workers it is worth considering the implications of The Agency Workers Regulations 2010.
Introduced in October 2011 these oblige you to offer temps access to the same facilities as their permanent employees from their first day.  In the main this is just a formalisation of what most you would offer such as the use of parking spaces and the staff canteen and perhaps the provision of a staff handbook for reference.   However employers must now give temps access to any childcare facilities and after 12 weeks continuous employment the temp has to be offered salary parity with the permanent employees.  This creates extra work and burecracy for the employer.
Well there is some good news for when you want flexible staffing – these rules do not apply to employing a Virtual Assistant (VA).  As a VA is a self employed professional and probably working remotely the regulations do not apply.
Holiday cover is an excellent and cost effective way to trial how you could use a VA in your business.
Remember a VA will charge you only fr the time spent working for you – which could be as little as one hour, in fact I specialise in working with clients who need just an extra hour each day.  A temp is usually paid for the hours that they are available to you.  As a VA I can offer you the benefit of my experience to support a range of services and I will take the time to get to know you and your business.  A temp will be gone within a few weeks.  I understand that you may need some help outside of core office hours and can help you to meet your deadlines or commitments.

Networking With The Stars!

There is no doubt that networking is a skill to be learned but my starting point is to be friendly and receptive to the people you meet.  I was thinking about who had influenced my networking style and remembered one woman (an actress) with whom I had worked in radio.  She had come to record a commercial and we had an easy production day with her – she turned up on time, made coffee, was fun and friendly with everyone and did a great voice over.  My boss booked her time and again.  In contrast an actor, with a slightly higher profile, was incredibly difficult: he complained about everything from the directions he’d been given to get to our building, the quality of the coffee, the commercial he was making.  He was rude, disinterested and we never hired him again.
It was a valuable lesson and influenced my philosophy on how to network.  So here’s what else I learned from the “stars”:
  1. When you introduce yourself say your name with pride and confidence and state what you want.  On my first day in radio I picked up a phone and heard “Hi this is Jackie Collins and I want to know why …”.  Yes it was the author and sister of Joan.  She had no hesitation, embarrassment or fear of saying who she was and making her enquiry.  It gave me a clear opening that was easy to respond to.  I always make sure that I say my name clearly and I am open about asking for information.
  2. Remember people’s names, especially from one event to another.  I was incredibly impressed when Bob Monkhouse not only bothered to learn my name but remembered it from one recording to the next (about a month later).  It charmed me.  In fact charm is a much underrated quality.  Being charming doesn’t mean sucking up to people it just means showing courtesy and interest and that brings us to …
  3. Listen to other people.  We were making a series of commercials for a small charity and were very excited because “national treasure” Dame Thora Hird had agreed to record the script.  It was an incredibly difficult recording because Dame Thora was talking about herself and her career non-stop.  The commercial took over an hour when only fifteen minutes had been allocated and cost considerably more in studio fees.   At nearly every networking meeting you will find someone who sells at you and takes no interest in the other people – don’t be that person.  Start conversations with people and don’t bombard them with details about you and your business.
  4. It should almost go without saying that you should be professional.  Recording with John Craven was a joy because he listened to direction and executed it as requested before making some suggestions on how it could be improved.  There was no doubt he was the expert who was happy to share his experience.
  5. Never, ever judge by appearances.  Bradley Walsh arrived early one morning and looked somewhat dishevelled, in fact I’m still not sure if he had just got up or if he was on his way to bed!  We were a bit apprehensive especially when the other “voice”, Frank Thornton, arrived looking equally careworn.  However as soon as they were in front of the microphone they had focus and were full of energy.  They finished in about fifteen minutes and had time to finish their coffee and chat.
  6. Give away samples of your work and always follow up on a contact.  One day I picked up the phone and it was Russell Grant – now this was before he became a dancing sensation and was better known as an astrologer.  We chatted and I happened to mention that I’d always found his forecasts incredibly accurate for me.  “What sign are you?” he asked immediately “Oh I love Aires, my favourite sign …” and he went on to do a mini astrology reading for me.  The following day I received a copy of his latest book and a note about how he’d enjoyed our chat.   I was never able to book him but I always remembered him and yes, I did vote for him on Strictly as a way of saying “thank you”!
  7. Know your worth, build your contacts and don’t be afraid to ask for the money!  Twenty years ago I worked with Peter “voice of the X Factor” Dickson.  Peter was the ultimate professional and incredibly focussed on developing his career.  He knew the exact value of his time and submitted his invoices promptly and collected his payments promptly.  Remember that even though you are meeting interesting people and enjoying the events, you are attending networking events because you want to win business.  So if people ask about your fees don’t be embarrassed, if you are looking for specific contacts then ask for help finding them and know what you want to achieve from every event.