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Breast Stroke & Boogie


As an occupation, tackling miserable service head-on, is not much of a recipe for popularity, nor a tranquil, happy life. I take steps to keep my blood pressure low, and one of those steps is to swim quite often at Bedford's public "Robinson pool".

In recent years, they have taken to playing music over the public address system during swimming sessions. Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits" is an all-time great, no question, but it doesn't sooth my troubled brow as it glides majestically - along with the rest of me - up and down. I'd far rather Tina strutted her stuff elsewhere.


I conducted straw polls of swimmers in the pool on a few occasions, and gained the impression that most people would also rather be without the music.

I mentioned this to the manager - Mr. Stephen Lyall. He was attentive, polite, and accomodating. He invited me to ask the counter staff to turn the music off for my half-hour swims. I was a little uncomfortable at imposing my wishes on all the other swimmers, preferring that "no-music" sessions be scheduled, and I would attend them, but this was not their preferred option, so I accepted Stephen's kind offer.

However, things went badly from there in several ways:

1. When I tried asking counter staff to turn the music off, they often told me it "wasn't possible". When you pay attention to customer service as I do, this is an often-heard euphamism meaning "we don't want to do this for you"., and it's quite annoying. "Not possible"? It's Not Possible for you to turn some music off??!

2. When they did turn it off (on those occasions when doing the impossible was acceptable), I would find it back on again in a few minutes, when I was in the pool.

3. When I pointed this out to poolside staff they would tell me (incorrectly) that they were unable to get the music turned off. Again.

This happened a few times. Boring, tedious, frustrating, somewhat typical public-service incompetence and not at all good for the old blood pressure.

The email dialogue below documents my efforts to get this piece of tirvia resolved. As you will see, I failed entirely.

If you prefer to skip the nitty-gritty, you can go straight to the conclusion.


TO: Manager, Robinson Pool
CC: Don Peet
FM: Chris

Dear sir,

You may recall that I have spoken to you on occasion about the playing of music during swimming sessions, which I do not like.

Your response was initially, exemplary. You were very supportive and suggested that I ask reception to turn off the music while I swim, which I did. I could not ask for more from any service manager. I was impressed and grateful.

However, it became clear that this scheme wasn't working well in practive. Soon after I got into the pool, the music would come back on. When I spoke to poolside staff, they would say they were unable to get the music turned off, but could get it turned down. This happened three times before I spoke to you in person about it. You have not fixed it, because it happened again yesterday (Tuesday 9th July).

On this occasion, when I asked at reception to have the music off, the attendant said "I'll try", which was puzzling in itself, and when I got into the pool area, the music was still on. I guess he didn't try quite hard enough.

I asked a pool attendant to have the music turned off, and to convey my frustrtation to the manager, that I had to keep working so hard to get the music off. He said he would do the former, but not the latter. He seemed like a nice chap, though very nervous. We had a difficult conversation during which he did a U-turn, but he needs instruction in handling customer complaints. I believe I was calm and civilized, but he started arguing with me about my atitude, and could not initially accept that it was part of his job to convey customer feedback to the management.

After this conversation, another lady attendant who was nearby listening said that keeping the music off was difficult, because many staff move through reception and any may turn the music on. This is a conversation I have had before with her. Whilst avoiding this pitfall it isn't quite as easy as falling off a log, it isn't much harder either. For example, you can stick a Post-It note to the music control saying "Leave Off Until 1PM". Most telling of her comments, though, was when she said "it's difficult for us to keep the music off, because we all like it on". This supports my long-held theory that the music is on for the benefit of staff, not customers.

Please speak to your staff on this. Make it clear that customers have the right to ask that the music be turned off, and devise some system to ensure that - once off, it remains off until I leave.

When we first discussed this issue, you said you would run another survey to collect customer views on the music.
Please let me know if this has been completed and if so, what the results were.

Thanks & Regards,

I got no response from Mr Lyall, so I phoned him up. He said he was working on a response, so I left hiim alone for a while, but after a month of no formal response, I wrote again...


TO: Stephen Lyall
CC: Don Peet (Stehpen's boss)
FM: Chris

Dear sir,

I wrote to you ([copied in the original] below) on July 10th - more than a month ago.

In the absence of any kind of response, I called you by phone a few weeks ago to check you had received my email. You said you had, and that you were working on a solution.

Please update me on progress, and please be sure to address each of the points from my origianl email.

Thanks & Regards,

Don Peet was on the copy list, and replied instead of Stephen.


Dear Mr [surname]

I did not receive a copy of the original e-mail you sent to Mr Lyall at Robinson Pool as the incorrect e-meal address was used i.e. dp@bedford.gov.uk instead of dpeet@bedford.gov.uk. Now I have received both the original message and your up-date< I will ensure you receive a reply.

[Don Peet]

Date 21.8.02

Dear Mr [surname]

Firstly I can only apologise for the delay in responding to your e-mail.
I have now had time to consider your comments

We had agreed in the sort term, to turn off the music whilst you visited our centre.
This has failed to happen, due to the time at which you visit us; we have changeovers of staff both on reception and poolside at lunchtime.
This is causing communication problems for the staff and we have now put in place signage system for when people request the music to be turned off on poolside.
This will allow us to keep the music off for an hour at a time, hopefully overcoming our early problems.

With rearguards the other issues:

1. The problem of communication and feedback to the management staff. The point that you raised are valuable in helping us delivers a better service to all our customers. We hold regular staff training and this issue will be dealt with

2. The issues with the receptionist on the 9th of July was one of being to busy to deal with your request immediately by the time he had you where taking to other staff members.

3. As to the issue of the music survey we will be conducting another one in the next six weeks and deal with the out come appropriately.

I would just like to comment as hard as we try to keep all our customers happy with the service that we offer. We are a municipal swimming pool which means catering for the general public who, have until now seem to enjoy background music (according to our last music survey).

Once we have the results we will e-mail you them and inform you of the action that we will be taking to accommodate the results.

I would like to thank you for your comments about the pool and hope we can find a solution that can meet your needs and the demands of the majority of our users.
Thanks & Regards

MR S. Lyall
Acting Location Manager


Dear Mr Lyall,

Thanks for your letter. Now that I have seen it, I can't understand why it took you so long to send it. Why did it?

Here are my responses to your list:

1. Your response on staff not wanting to forward feedback to customers is unclear to me. You say you WILL (future tense) use team meetings, from which I conclude that you have not, so far, done anything. Is this correct?

2. You say the receptionist was too busy to deal with turning the music off immediately. I don't know where the music knob is, but in the time it took me to change and shower, he had not found it. I don't know why he could not have jumped up and done it as I walked away, in the same way he might have gone to get an information sheet from the office. Frankly - this seems like a silly excuse for the inexcusable.

You did not address his "I'll try" response, which suggests to me that he, like several other staff members, doesn't know that I have the right to ask for the music to be off.

Perhaps this could be addressed in one of your team meetings.

3. I accept that you have many customers who may have disparate needs to cater for, and that you can't please them all. This doesn't mean, of course, that you shouldn't try to please any of them, and you could certainly please more than you currently do.

You and I have had this conversation more than once before, and this was not the topic of my complaint, so I wonder why you mentioned it.

My complaint was that - having agreed that I can ask staff to turn music off while I swim, you then failed to maintain a system which actually implemented that.

I am now adding the further complaint that - having spoken to you about it several times, and finally, having written to you, your response took far too long to arrive and it does not contain what I was looking for.

Here is what I was looking for:

======= MODEL RESPONSE =======

Dear Chris,

Having said you could ask for the music to be off, I have to acknowledge that we did not deliver that capability to you.
When I look at it, I have to say that there are no good reasons - this is not a difficult problem to solve by any stretch of anyone's imagination.

So, here is what I have done:

1. I have now briefed all staff on the fact that it is a part of their duties to liaise with customers and convey feedback to me.

2. I have also added this element to the document which will form part of any future employees terms of employment.

3. I have also addressed your complaints in a team meeting.
There was a good deal of ignorance about the policy allowing you to have music turned off, which I have now removed.
I apologise for not having done that long ago too. I have no good excuse.

4. There was also some resentment expressed, as staff prefer the music to be left on.
I have corrected this attitude - they are employed to serve paying customers, whose wishes in this matter take precedence.

5. The issue of music going off then coming on has also been addressed.
As receptionist staff change and/or other staff members come and go into the area, they were turning the music on, because they like the music on.
Because we had no system to cope with this - we didn't cope with this - and your right to have the music off was being squashed.
This again was trivial to solve, and it should not have persisted for so long, for which I also apologise.
I simply didn't try very hard to solve it before, but I have done so now.

6. Finally, I would like to apologise for the lengthy delay in sending this response, and the fact that you had to prompt me by phone to get it at all.
Once again, I have no excuse - I simply didn't try very hard. In the several hundred paid employment hours which I have passed since your email to me,
I simply didn't do anything about this.

======== END OF MODEL RESPONSE ==========

Anyway, Stephen. I hope I've made my point without being offensive. I am absolutely clear that you are a nice fellow, and I have not set out to upset you, but I want to be clear.

You have, in my view, done a very poor job of dealing with this, and your last response suggests a good deal of complacency on your part.
I want you to acknowledge to yourself, even if not to me, that you basically did sod all on this until you were forced to.

I look forward to seeing the results of the customer survey, which, by the way,
is now many months overdue of your first commitment to me to run it again at the start of this year.

Best Wishes,


Well, I'm sorry, but this isn't difficult stuff!

Stephen Lyall ignored my email, adding his second one-month delay to proceedings.

That's 30 days of email-received-but-no-response-sent on this occasion, well over 60 days in total. Seasons change!

I want to know why. I never treat my customers this way, and I want to know why he treated me this way. Did he hope I'd just give up and go away? Does he have goals for responding to customers? If not, why not?

Does his boss measure himon his performance on meetings those goals? If not, why not?


Dear Mr Lyall,

It has been nearly a month since I sent my email below to you, and I have not received any response from you. On top of your previous delay and poor performance in addressing my original problem, this most recent delay is very unwelcome.

Please respnd to my email, and explain this lastest one month delay.



Dear Mr [surname]

Thank you For your Most recent e-mail, we are at the present time carrying out a music survey.

This took effect from the 9.9.02 and will take place over a three week period.

We are giving out the survey to every third person and they are also available at reception for any one to fill out.

I will send you a copy of the results and tell you what action will be taken, this will be based on the response of the majority.

[Stephen Lyall]


Mr Peet,

I have been copying you on my dialogue with Stephen Lyall.

Stephen's most recent response - also more than a month overdue and requiring a prompt from me - does not address most of the points in my email.
Some of those points were complaints about point he did not address in the earlier email. This is becomeing more than a little tedious.

I have made a complaint and would like to receive a competent response. Please arrange for me to get one.


PS: My disclaimer trumps yours - I reserve the right to do what I choose with this dialogue. Publishing it on the Let's Fix Britain website as an example of dreadful public service and a complacent, dismissive attitude to the public is a distinct possibility at this point.

My post script needs explanation. Email disclaimers are becoming ever more common on correspondence from public and private bodies. For the most part, they are mealy-mouthed nasty pieces of work, presumably designed to cover every available ass, and hide poor performance from public view.

I spoke to Bedford's council about their disclaimer, and why they add it. The best response I got was "we're doing it because everyone is doing it". I was advised by that same person, that inserting my OWN disclaimer would invalidate theirs, so I did exactly that. This is, of coures, absurd. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and stand up and be counted for it.

Here's the council's disclaimer, which appears on most of their email correspondence:

1) The statements in this message are made by the individual who sent them and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Bedford Borough Council

(2) Copyright in the e-mail either belongs to Bedford Borough Council or this use has been approved by the copyright holder

(3) This e-mail may contain confidential information and may be legally privileged. It is intended only for the person(s) indicated. Do not copy or send it to anyone else or use it in any other way unless you are authorised to do so. To do so is prohibited and may be unlawful. If you receive this e-mail by mistake, please delete it and e-mail a reply to advise sender immediately.


Dear Mr [surname]

Thank you for your e-mail. I have been reviewing the various correspondence between Stephen Lyall and yourself. It appears that there are some gaps in the correspondence I have on file. Will you please let me have details of the complaint/s you feel have still not been answered and I will deal with them personally. You should have the results of the music survey shortly, at the moment it appears that the majority of our users still prefer music to be played at all of our sessions.

The one complaint I can see that you have raised on more than one occasion is that the pool failed to keep the music turned off, after a request by yourself, had been actioned. The majority of our customers still prefer music to be played and if there is no music they will request the music to be turned on. If this happens to be a different member of staff than the one you have spoken to they will turn it on. The pool are now looking to install a simple clock mechanism to over come this problem. Once the results of the survey have been analyzed it is the intention to introduce a limited number of sessions without music.

I look forward to hearing from you with regards to the complaints you feel are still outstanding.

[Don Peet]


Dear Mr Peet.

This is the point at which even I give up.

Having sent many emails over many weeks, I eventually complained to you.
Now you want me to invest even more effort in digging out the correspondence I already sent to Stephen; pull out the missing issues, and compose a message for you.

Presumably you want me to do this because you can't be bothered to review it yourself, or obtain it from Stephen.

Well - NO!

I will however, publish the entire dialogue as an example of how wonderful local services can be. I'm sure you're quaking in your boots :-)) But I'll let you know when it's done. Perhaps a read from my perspective might help you to understand what a poor job you're organisation has done on this occasion.



Dear Mr [surname]

I refer to your e-mail of 30th October 2002 regarding music at Robinson Pool.

I take exception to your statement that "I can't be bothered to review" the correspondence. On the contrary, I do not expect you to "dig out correspondence, pull out missing issues or compose a message for me". My reply clearly states that I have reviewed the correspondence that I have before me. I have responded to the one issue I believe Mr Lyall had not dealt with. I have given you the opportunity to raise with me any complaints that you feel have not been dealt with in an appropriate manner. As you have not raised any issues with me I must assume that all your complaints have been dealt with.

Thank you

[Don Peet]


Dear Mr Peet,

You say: " As you have not raised any issues with me I must assume that all your complaints have been dealt with.".

Must you? Frankly, this is manipulative and ridiculous, and I think it reflects very poorly on the quality of the person who is currently being paid by the rate payer to do your job.

Mr Lyall failed to deal with a number of issues. Each of them is clearly evidenced in the correspondence between us, which you have access to.

You asked me to re-state those issues for you - presumably to save your time at the expense of mine. That still seems to me to be unreasonable, especially so, since this is about dealing with my complaint, and I am your customer.

If you want to resolve the issues, please find them in the correspondence which you have access to. If not, at least be honest enough to say so clearly.


Mr [surname]

I am genuinely trying to find a solution to your problems not engage in a war of words As I stated in an earlier e-mail to you I did not receive some of the earlier e-mails to Mr Lyall as they were copied to me with the incorrect address.

I repeat again, please let me have details of any problems you feel Mr Lyall has not dealt with to your satisfaction and I will try to resolve them. I suggest the best way forward is for yourself, Mr Lyall and myself to meet at Robinson Pool, on a convenient date to discuss the matter, so that we may reach a satisfactory conclusion for all concerned.

I am on annual leave until 26 November, if you would like to suggest some dates and times for a meeting I will contact you upon my return

Thank you
[Don Peet]


Well, I'll publish at this point, and perhaps update later.

This started in July, and I don't think a clean, conclusion is imminent.

If Let's Fix Britain were in government, we could do top-down management of the situation from a national perspective. We could, for example, set up a national benchmarking system to define goals and metrics, and to measure standards in public bodies, and we could require those bodies to measure themselves with that system, to acocunt for any short-falls in behaviour, and we could drive the staffing meritocracy from the results which that system delivered.

And in fact, much of that is theoretically in place (see the Best Value system). But I know from personal experience inside such a system, that the systems are always open to abuse, and the whole things can turn into an expensive fiasco unless a solid culture of decency is in place.

Let's Fix Britian is a bottom-up organisation. One of the ways we strive to effect positive change is through citizens doing a million small things and on a daily basis.

The issue here is not about music in the pool. In fact, they just completed their customer survey which apparently shows that the majority of people prefer it. (Dayum!). The issue is about poor service to the public (in this case, me), and the complacency which surrounds it. It also seems clear that it goes up at least one level above facility manager.

Stephen Lyall's system for turning music off when customers request it didn't work worth a damn. He trotted out drivel by way of explanation/excuse, and eventually ignored me completely. Don Peet's performance also left much to be desired.

We have to fight complacent incompetence, or that's what we'll be living with until we die.

If you see bad service, complain. And if (should I say "when"?) you get a dismal response - or no response at all, don't roll over and play dead, don't whine to your partner, don't put it down to "the way things are" - don't say "What's the bloody point?" - escalate it up the management ladder.

Push Push Push Push Push Push Push!

And if you do all of that, please let us know and we'll publish your work here.

As always, I have notified the parties involved of the presence of this article, and I will include their responses if they wish to provide any.

Did I mention?


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