Well, that’s what it took to recharge the batteries in the Pyrenees – part of a long-held ambition to walk the Spanish side of the mountains from Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

I returned footsore but exhilarated, and who wouldn’t be by the scenery…

… think 10,000+ ft. altitude and check the trees to get the scale.

The mountain-with-cloud is one of the few parts of Andorra not devoted to removing money from visiting foreigners.  Thanks to a quirk of geography I also visited the town of Llivia, a pocket handkerchief-size piece of Spain surrounded completely by France (Catalan required to read their web site).  Eat your heart out Berwick-on-Tweed.

Casting my eye away from the walking towards the Spanish media I was surprised to see their national RTVE 24h news channel live coverage of our own sordid tales of media hacking and the accompanying resignations/arrests.  They even showed Rupert Murdoch being pied in the Commons Select Committee and Mrs M’s robust defence of the old fella.

One of the more obscure issues the whole News International affair throws up for me is the almost complete inversion at national level of the normal relationship between local politicians and local print media.

In my experience councillors (certainly those in a ruling group) often have a highly antagonistic view of their local morning and evening papers.  Many are convinced the local rag is out to get them, that this hostility is peculiar to them and is uniquely bad in their patch.  The truth of course is that this is what it’s like everywhere there’s a local daily paper.  The difference nationally is that the stakes are so much higher – the government of a whole country, the power to determine the major strategic expansion of a global media company.  The power (diminished in England now) to withhold a planning permission for a newspaper publisher isn’t quite the same thing.

I’ve just spent six happy days in and near Madrid, isolated through choice from news of the UK.  A friend’s significant birthday was the reason for the jaunt, but as always I tried to keep my ears and eyes open for all that stuff that helps drive my work interest.

Here are some of the things I picked up.

Local and regional elections with an unusually high turnout of 70% gave the incumbent PSOE (socialist) party a drubbing and a large swing towards the PP (Partido Popular – conservative).  An uncanny parallel to the turn and turnabout of UK mid-term local elections.  More privatisation of local services are now expected with left-leaning acquaintances at least concerned about the allocation of contracts to politicians’ “friends”.  My Spanish wasn’t up to asking about their public sector procurement procedures.  Presumably not as rigorous as ours.

While much of the country voted, on a Sunday, thousands of young people in a phenomenon instantly dubbed Movimiento de 15M (15 May – the day it began) occupied major squares in a number of city centres (most prominently 25,000 in Madrid) to protest against, well, most things – youth unemployment at 40%, the PSOE/PP duopoly of power, a general sense of hopelessness about the future and frustration with the political class and their elders.  As I write it’s not at all clear whether this will wither on the vine after the initial enthusiasm or become the precursor of more profound change in society.

It’s sometimes difficult to see a looming crisis in the wealth and vibrancy of Madrid.  We ate one evening (late as is the Spanish custom) in a Japanese restaurant at the top of an elegant new shopping centre.  Four floors below we had parked opposite the special bays reserved for Vehiculos ecologicas, electric or hybrid cars.  You don’t see many of those in the UK.

Finally, on a completely different subject but one many readers will recognise, a friend told me she was unable to join us one afternoon because she had to be at a work meeting.  This was how she put it in English better than my Spanish.

Erm, we have to go to a meeting, very important, for the division of my company, to see the strategy for the future.  What should we do?  Is looking at the problem ABC [name of a major worldwide consultancy company very active in the UK].  They come, all very young and suits to speak with us very much then they come back with the answers of what we have told them.  This will be the meeting.

How an engineering company in Spain plotted the future for one of its divisions suddenly seemed very close to what innumerable British public servants have endured at the hands of the ABCs of this world.  Perhaps the same children with MBAs commute back and forth to apply the single model of consultancy (not my model I need hardly say) throughout the globe.

This post is Part 2 of a response to a suggestion made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  If you don’t see it on this page, Part 1 is here.

D3 (daughter No. 3) has just revealed she sneaked a look at Part 1 of these two linked posts.  I got the usual honest feedback, my finely crafted text being dubbed a “rant”.  I can take it.  Each visit racks up the number of page views and moves me up the league of business-based blogs.  Not that I’m one for targets you understand.

What D3 characterised as a rant was deliberate.

How easy it would have been to summarise my tale of travel woe.

I was stranded in Madrid by the appalling weather that closed Heathrow before Christmas.  The airline got me home as quickly as they could.

And that’s true.

But customer service is all about the attention to detail.

Here are my 15 golden rules to avoid the private sector mistakes I experienced. You might need to read across to Part 1 to check how they relate to my Madrid experience.  But trust me they do.

  1. Have a system and a plan for major foreseeable problems but respond flexibly when the chaos actually happens.
  2. Take responsibility for your customers even if what’s happened isn’t your fault.
  3. Be honest.  Explain what’s happening.  If you don’t know say so but find out as soon as possible and tell people.  In fact keep telling them everything you can by whatever means are needed.
  4. Get more staff on duty to deal with problems.  Don’t let problems grow uncontrollably.
  5. Don’t hide your staff or let them hide when things get tricky.  Do a stint out there yourself so you know what it’s like for them and your customers.
  6. Listen to your customers.  Counter rumour and mis-information.
  7. Try hard not to let people wait a long time for service.  If you have to, consider issuing numbered tickets (à la supermarket deli counter) so people can take a break from waiting.
  8. Empower your staff to go the extra mile to meet people’s needs.  Be clear to them about the high standards you expect.  Thank them for their efforts.
  9. Suspend normal rules.  If the crisis is going on 24/7 don’t leave your call centre running Monday-Friday 9-5.
  10. Be fair to customers, whatever that means in the circumstances.  Let them know how you’re being fair.
  11. It doesn’t always matter if you get it wrong but how you recover is critical and determines what customers think of you.
  12. Don’t start by relying on law or regulation to provide redress but where you have to don’t get it wrong.
  13. Say sorry.
  14. Use your brain.  Don’t do plain daft things.
  15. When it’s all over hold a post mortem (after action review in management speak) before memories of what happened fade.  Update the plan for next time.

And if you’re feeling smug about how the private sector gets it wrong, don’t.  I can think of occasions, some of them serious and large-scale, where public bodies I could name have got almost all of my golden rules wrong.  I’ll bet you could too.

Estanys de L Ubago and Gran Collado de Anglos, Aragon

…planning the rest of his Atlantic – Mediterranean Pyrenean walk by the Spanish GR-11 long distance footpath – la senda.  It’s a long-held ambition.  I’ve had years of being preached at by HR colleagues about work-life balance so why not a bit of balance on this blog? 

Proceeding west – east, I hit Catalonia on the last leg.  Just over half-way.  Not quite downhill all the way now but a feeling of the end in sight. 

The cliché “up hill and down dale” doesn’t do it justice.  Last year the highest pass we toiled over was 8,700 ft.  Magnificent scenery.  Days with no clouds and half a day hailing at full pelt.  Fantastic food at amazing prices. 

Work was far from my mind.  Yet as always the similarities and differences struck home. 

Similarities? – immigrants in the smallest places doing the work Spaniards won’t, even with 15+% unemployment – Ecuadorian builders, Romanian shepherds.  EU-funded courses for those sin trabajo in the town hall.  Political sparring between left and right over a councillor in Benidorm who changed sides and tipped the balance of power between socialists and conservatives (now there’s a surprise).  Tensions between different levels of government including the two regions – Catalonia and the Basque country – that would much prefer (maybe) to be independent thank you.

Differences? – four levels of government from local council upwards with up to four police forces.  A weirdly flexible No Smoking policy that means if a restaurant or bar sets aside a smoking area the noxious habit is banned elsewhere in the premises but if they don’t it’s allowed anywhere.  A used battery being snatched by the check-out operator in a supermarket because that’s how they make sure they’re recycled.  The mobile matadero who’ll come and slaughter the pig on your smallholding (what happened to the EU regs there, then?)

It’s all good stuff and leaves me hugely refreshed for the other side of the work-life balance.

  • la senda­ – affectionate name for the GR-11 footpath
  • sin trabajo – without work, unemployed
  • matadero­ – slaughterman