Back in the Game
July 2017. I was back in the game. I’d closed my cycle shop at the end of 2015, dabbled in recruitment for 6 months and then taken an IT support role in April 2016. I was a bit at sea with no real purpose or direction on the job front but then I found my current role at Halfords. It was ideal. Customer Support – what I had been doing for over 12 months and back in the cycling industry too with Cycle Republic (CR).
Cycle Republic were relatively new. A brand owned by Halfords, I was based out of their Head Office in Redditch. Cycle Republic’s reason for existing was to sell more prestige brands than Halfords and to have wider retail portfolio (posh word for shops) than Tredz (who are also owned by Halfords). When I joined they had an extensive list of shops dotted around major towns and cities in prime locations. London (West End, Fenchurch, Euston, Bloomsbury, Battersea, Purley & Twickenham), Birmingham, Cheltenham, Manchester, Bristol, Southampton, Norwich, Reading and Edinburgh. Over the following 18 months another four were added in Canary Wharf, Derby, Gateshead, Glasgow and Liverpool with even more mooted.
I was initially brought into assist an existing advisor but they quickly left which left me on my own. Something struck me quite early on with CR though. Having owned a bike shop and having a thorough understanding of the industry, the supply chain, the margins, the overheads etc, I just couldn’t work out the math of the business. I simply couldn’t work out how they made money. They were doing good business online and in stores but this was driven by heavy discounting. Turnover was growing but that isn’t net profit. The business model seemed to be a high volume, low margin business. Risky when you are dealing with big ticket, premium branded bikes. At that time, I kind of shrugged it off and assumed the buying and selling power of Halfords was allowing them to negotiate much higher margins than your average local bike shop but selling bikes at 15-20% off on Cycle to Work which nabbed another 10-15% made no sense to me. It was an eye-opener that no one seemed bothered about it either and it went unchecked. They sold a lot of clearance models too which they seemed to buy in bulk so maybe there was more margin there aswell but it just didn’t add up.
For the first few months it was business as usual assisting customers but it became apparent repeated customer service issues were beginning to manifest themselves and I was beginning to see some real shortcomings. Basic stuff just wrong or broken that just never got fixed despite repeated requests.
- bikes damaged in transit
- items missing
- returns/refunds not processed
- no order confirmation emails sent
- no VAT receipts
- website search issues
- website speed
- website payment issues
- failed orders
It was basic stuff to get right and in the December I’d had enough. I’d placed an order myself as a customer and it was a dire, awful experience. The basket kept emptying and adding items I’d popped in and out randomly. The website couldn’t do a basic search and it was woefully slow. For an organisation the size of Halfords, it was an absolute pile of shit, so me trying to be Mr Proactive decided to tell someone. I emailed the whole of CR (CEO included) and told them straight how crap it was for me so how crap it must be for customers. In my eyes it was a really bad first impression to give new customers. The potential damage to the CR brand and loss of customers was immense so I told them.
This is after repeatedly highlighting the same issues over and over up the chain. The problems were not one-offs, they were consistent issues that happened every single day but never seemed to be addressed or taken seriously enough. Web development seemed to focus on additional features rather than fixing the most basic and essential elements of an ecommerce website. The priorities were completely wrong.
Within 5 minutes (probably less than that actually) of sending that email, the CEO of Cycle Republic called me and ‘advised’ me I couldn’t send emails like that because it may upset people. I told him I stood by my claims and if I’d upset people, so be it. It needed to be said and they needed to know and do something about it. The call ended. I agreed to ‘consult’ next time before sending such direct feedback. Clearly I had ruffled a few feathers. Good but that was a sad moment and a realisation how CR viewed their customers even at that early stage. It wasn’t taken as the call to action it should have been. Instead it was a criticism of colleagues and I had to be mindful of their feelings. That really pissed me off. The CEO, the main man, the big dawg had really shown his ambivalence towards his customers and nothing would change. I drew the opinion that he was just another corporate prick. How do these people remain in a job? To this day, he never once came and said hi to me or my team. The people doing the customer support for his Cycle Republic. Says a lot. It transpires he ruled by fear and was a bit of a bully talking to others. To be honest I’m not surprised. Fucking prick is a suitable description for that type of amoeba.
Boardman Bikes parachute in
In 2018, the team were growing. The increase in sales drove more contact (the issues were still there too) and the need for more advisors so we recruited but the next real chapter saw Boardman Bikes join us.
A ‘strategic’ but questionable decision had been made to close their Head Office locally and bring their function in house. Support onto my team, design, bike build and warehousing into the Warehouse (DC). A team manager was parachuted into a position I logically should have undertaken, given the team/CR experience I had, but thats corporate for you. I’m not bitter, I understood why, it was just a shame it was never explained to me why or given the opportunity. In hindsight I’m probably glad. The move was a difficult one for the colleagues involved. Not withstanding the upheaval for the brand and business, going from a seemingly autonomous, small business model to the world of corporate is a shocker. Getting stuff done becomes very difficult and the culture is difficult to acclimatise too. Being watched, recorded, having your numbers checked and working in very tight, rigid systems is hard when you’ve been kind of your own boss working under your own steam for years. I got it and I felt sorry for them. I spent years in corporate so I know. We made them welcome and we trained them in all the nuances the job had and the system workarounds needed to get stuff done.
When the ‘merger’ was announced, it was made explicitly clear that Boardman was a ‘Premium’ brand and had to be protected at all costs but that aspiration was undone by a lack of information, spares and support by the wider business. Disbanding the Head Office function had seemingly killed off any sense of unity or function. Boardman was now assimilated into the Halfords machine and customer support suffered. Designers and marketers of the brand no longer consulted us, often deliberately I feel because they had a level of self-importance that transcended any customer focus. They were just self-serving and not interested in the brand, only themselves. A case in point was and still is the lack of spares availability and technical information to support customers. Additionally, warranty decisions were pushed onto us in a way the Product Manager just felt it was below him or he was too important. A self-serving bellend basically. So we took it on and did the best we could and still do under the constraints that merger created. Recently 2021 models were launched to the media and customers found out before we did. How can that be right? I sent emails to the Customer Service Manager about my concerns and how this was undermining my guys to which I just got a ‘I’ll remind the marketing team again…’ response. Fobbed off basically. Not interested and clearly another prick working amongst the slow moving wheels of corporate. Up to now the team have done their best but the Customer Support, as whole for the brand, is pretty fucking shit for a company the size of Halfords. They should be ashamed.
More brands, no support
As CR grew, more premium brands were taken on. We’d literally just find them available on the website sometimes. No one told us. We’d get customer calls and we were supposed to support them and try and show customers we knew what we were talking about. Stores would get some training though. We wouldn’t. Bosch, Yamaha, GoCycle and any number of brands they started to sell. Basso, BMC, HaiBike, Raleigh, Genesis, Saracen, Tern, Scott. We had to ask for distributor contact details for example so we could help customers with their technical issues or orders . Any offers or promotions, again we were the last to know often getting calls about discount codes and bundles and then finding out about them from customers. It was regularly embarrassing and awkward. We’d raise the issue of training and information, get paid some lip service and occasionally we might see something but on the whole we were treated as outsiders and kept out of the loop.
Good brand support builds rapport and loyalty with its customers who will promote it for you. You can’t win just on price. You have to support customers at any cost. If you do it right, it can be self-supporting. CR didn’t and it cost them a lot of customers, loyalty and money in my opinion.
As an example of how we were treated as outsiders, annually there would be a managers conference. Standard fare. Get everyone together. Bit of fun, bit of business. The stores had constant customer service issues, particularly in London. They kept us busy sorting their shit out. Often their fault, sometimes not. It would have made absolute sense for Customer Support to be represented at that conference. It would have given managers a flavour of what we did for them and how we could help them, but no, we were conspicuously ignored. Customers were not the focus of the business and that culture was endemic and came from the top. All they were bothered about was turnover, nothing else. Honest conversations with store colleagues and the high turnover of store managers bore this out. They were consistently under so much pressure to sell, CS issues were just a distraction and therefore not paid enough attention to. Then we’d have to mop up the mess for them afterwards. The role of store manager was a poisoned chalice and ultimately that approach would come back to bite them. Hard.
Oh feck, its GTECH
Later in 2018, someone (the prick CEO probably) decided to sign a deal with GTECH to exclusively sell and support their electric bikes through CR. It was another brand added to the team’s list we’d have to support but with this one we were surprisingly given some ‘training’. I say training in adverted commas for a reason. It wasn’t. It was basically a Powerpoint presentation by a very young, nervous GTECH employee given the task. There was nothing technical about it. Just a list of error codes and some information on battery interchangeability. When we tried to delve a bit deeper technically it got uncomfortable for them. It could have been emailed us it was that basic.
What we didn’t know at the time was how bad these bikes were. They are simple but simply shit. The batteries regularly fail. Alarmingly so. The number of failures were high. Very high. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Worthy of a recall high. We had no diagnostics and no battery testing available. Basic requirements for supporting an electric bike brand you might say. We asked for them but it was always coming and never arrived. No clear information on what control units matched what model of bike or battery holder. Spares took a very long time (months, no joke) to be available and our support from GTECH dried up to the point they just stonewalled us. In the first year we spunked tens of thousands of pounds on replacement batteries alone. Often with the replacements going faulty quite quickly too. Then supply dried up and customers were left high and dry for months on end. Stranded with either an impaired bike or no bike at all. In a lot of cases we had to exchange bikes over a year old because that was the only way to get the customer back on the road. Dozens of bikes were replaced at the cost of CR. It easily cost them hundreds of thousands of pounds in parts & labour.
It was abundantly clear no one had done their due diligence and probably signed the contract blind to the problems. No one took responsibility for it either. The person(s) directly responsible for the signing off that relationship (I assume the CEO at least) with GTECH just ignored us and was conspicuously quiet despite repeated requests for help and support. Rude in fact and thats a colleague. And at the heart of all this was the customer being let down again. Something we now knew CR and its CEO didn’t care about.
GTECH bike sales have now ceased. The bikes appear to have dried up now but support still rumbles on and the same supply and quality issues are still there. No one in charge, no push back. CR have nothing to show other than a depleted bank account for signing that deal with them. All Halfords can do is watch while their customers’ warranty clocks countdown. How sad they treat people like that.
Jobs at Risk
While on holiday in March 2020, I received a call where I was informed Halfords had decided to close CR and the Boardman Performance Centre (wind tunnel) businesses citing annual losses of £4.5M. My job was now at risk of redundancy and I was placed in consultation. Although not surprised, as I said, I could never work out the math of the business to make money however on the other hand I was surprised given only in Nov 2019, the CEO was given a pat on the back and heartfelt thank you after announcing his imminent departure to Pure Scooters (now Pure Electric). I think it’s a corporate thing that I’ve seen before. When you get to a certain level you can get rewarded for failure if pushed (compensated to go) or its easy to get another role at the same level or in another industry even. A bit like how failed football managers leave and pop up again at another team. In my opinion the CEO of CR had clearly failed.
Its interesting that the CEO went to Pure Electric and became their CEO, took the staff and a lot of their stores too. If you wanted to very quickly roll out a network of shops in major cities, thats the cheapest way to do it.
As for the Performance Centre, well that was a massive white elephant and guaranteed to fail from the start. Built for cyclists on a site that cyclists (not just the lycra-clad racers) cannot safely ride to and quite ironically, in the name of Chris Boardman who champions Active Travel and segregated cycling infrastructure. What was he thinking? There was talk of a bridge (thats how bad it is!) but it never gained any traction.
In principle, the wind tunnel and bringing it to the masses was kind of ground breaking but it never made any money and wouldn’t even have if it was fully booked all of the time. It was too cheap and they didn’t seem prepared to diversify or try anything else either. I’m confident other revenue streams were available. The retail space was just nonsense too. A kind of Boardman concept store except Boardman didn’t have enough to fill it up with just their own brand so compromised here and there on other brands. It looked nice but there wasn’t really much tangible in it, very basic and just a lot of empty space. It had no idea what it was supposed to be. Maybe a CR flagship store with one stop shop aero testing available? I don’t know but not being safely accessible to all cyclists and having no real trade in the week because of its location in an out of town retail park was a massive, massive own goal. A really dumb location.
Did you know it didn’t even have a properly trained mechanic and workshop? There was not enough work. The workmanship that came out of there was sometimes appalling. My team saw it first hand.
COVID killed it for me
After my holiday in March I came back to lockdown in the UK and working from home. It was on the cards before I left. As COVID took a hold, the hand sanitizers went in and noises were being made about taking our laptops home but this is how stupid people in Halfords are. Laptops are used in case of an emergency or disaster recovery. So if the building burned down, the theory is we work from home for business continuity. Simple except that in the nearly three years I’d worked there it had never been tested. Yes, people did and could work from home but I mean everyone, at home, dialled in at once. It had never been tested which for something so important and so big just seemed mad to me not withstanding the last time I had to work from home (remember the beast from the east?) I couldn’t log in and was told by IT I had to login remotely within the office first before it would work. Absolutely crackers but as it happens a lot of staff were furloughed so it still hasn’t been tested properly. As an ex-IT manager thats a dangerous game to play. When its gone, its too late. A company properly prepared has a tested system in place. That why they do fire alarm tests. Can you imagine just hoping they worked when needed?
As the country settled into lockdown the upturn in online sales of bikes became exponential very quickly which, in turn, drove our customer contact up exponentially too. A normal, busy day on my team would see 100-150 calls and we were seeing 700+ not including emails. Turnover online was up 5 times but the company were not setup to cope. They aspired to reach the levels of business they were now seeing but all the problems I’d outlined at the start of this nearly three years ago were still there. No one checked on our ability to fulfill the volume of orders coming in. You couldn’t make it up. We promised to build all of our bikes for customers within a week to 10 days. Our bike building resource was finite. It was increased to cope but it was still finite and they were grossly overwhelmed. I could see the shit storm coming so I made some enquiries. It was already here. A 900+ vendor bikes backlog, these were bikes ordered and delivered to us from distributors and manufacturers. Only 10 of these could realistically be booked in a day so bad was the process for doing it. Thats no exaggeration. Its not hard to do the math and that did not include bikes stocked in the warehouse they were picking and building too. It had been left to run unchecked and now customers were chasing us again and again and couldn’t get through because we were overwhelmed and unable to cope. This was the beginning of a three month shitshow.
Other major online retailers were proactive. They introduced a website queuing system or a maximum number of orders per day for example.
At that moment, when I called it, the website should have been suspended to allow us to catch up. That request was denied. That simply showed the disconnect with what they thought was going on and the reality of the situation. Or just out and out greed. A total disregard for customers again. My team, the guys doing the job knew this too but they were effectively snubbed. To compound the issue it became clear we were selling bikes out of stock and advising customers 4-5 weeks after their order and then asking them to order something else. Only to be told again some weeks later they were out of stock again. Shameful.
It was my opinion we should focus on the quickest and most efficient way of dealing with contact. I called for an honest, open but frank communication to customers admitting the mess we were in and what we were doing about it. Instead they sent some wishy washy, bland corporate bullshit instead. My team could answer a lot more contact via email than phones so I requested the phones were turned off. Initially it wasn’t even contemplated but eventually they realised the extent of the problem and did switch call backs off be it briefly.
Call backs are when in a queue you request a call back rather than wait on the phone. It keeps your place in the queue
The website was still chugging away causing no end of more problems down the line. Our email queues swelled to over 4500 with the oldest emails being in excess of 30-40 days left unanswered. Then they decided to turn call backs back on (without consultation), on the basis we would get to more calls. The call answer rate was more important than customers. They were obsessed with the numbers than the reality. In reality call backs were being overflowed to ill-equipped advisors that didn’t work for CR which would mean they’d call us back, email or we’d have to contact them. Just more contact and made it worse. No good for the customer who had been waiting potentially hours, no good to us because we will still have to call them back or take another call off them or deal with an email they would send. It was inefficient, ineffective and just plain dumb to be honest. Customers were absolutely right to be frustrated. In the end but far too late, they saw sense and turned phones off entirely so we could focus on the massive email back log. Customers were rightly worried when the phones were turned off because the honest email I’d asked for explaining why wasn’t sent. They just did it and popped a shitty unhelpful message on and it looked really, really bad. We were accused of being scammers and I understand why.
Furloughed Halfords store managers were drafted in which swelled my team of 6 to 22. All of us spent weeks through April, May and June just dishing out bad news and letting customers down. We had withheld refunds, we were unable to fulfill orders , bikes went out poorly built, they arrived damaged and often had missing parts. In two months I personally oversaw circa one million pounds worth of refunds, order cancellations and gestures of goodwill for customers which goes some way to context the extent of the problem. When the Halfords CEO started getting letters of complaint and the National press were asking for reactions to articles they were going to run, suddenly the Halfords exec team woke up and started taking an interest and wanted something done. Only then did they begin to ask questions, we’d regularly converse, report and assess the situation daily. They finally understood the depth and gravity of what had happened and how serious it was. Customers were sent carefully drafted, honest emails and given gift cards as gestures of goodwill. I processed them. Circa £9k of gift cards in one go and thousands more in finance credits.
In the end the closure of the website was brought forward a month. I think partly because of the issues at hand and partly because there were no bikes left to sell. Even when it was turned off the don’t care attitude to customers rumbled on. They’d decided to close the stores in a week. Customers that had bikes in for repair were contacted and on the whole most collected theirs but for some unable to, special arrangements should have been made with local Halfords stores to keep them until they were collected but no, they just boxed them up and sent them back to the DC and lost them. So I’ve had to deal with those customers. Sometimes upset and angry that their possessions were just lost for the sake of a bit of attention to detail and common sense. But that sums CR up. That is what they were like with customers. They just didn’t care. As for their bikes, I’ve so far refunded those customers £14k so they can replace their bikes. I shake my head just writing it.
If you’ve got this far. Thank you. Its been a journey which has ended on a sour note. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to look for a new job but the way Halfords and Cycle Republic have treated their customers and their staff has made my position with them untenable. So I am leaving under a cloud, on principle, with a bitter taste in my mouth. It’s a personal protest and not what I signed up for.
The CS department at Halfords has undergone a number of changes in leadership over the past three years. There have been changes in direction and some restructuring but I can honestly say there has been no real tangible improvement and its a no better place to work than it was 3 years ago when I started, possibly worse. Let me quantify that.
Learning and development, that one thing that is so important to empower staff has all but dried up. The person that took it over bloated inductions for new starters out to 4 weeks and made them overly complicated and long. They replaced the quality system for a pile of complicated shit. The CRM system has become buggy, disjointed and inefficient. Office365 and a new phone system were installed (without proper training) and lauded but in reality, the call quality is poor. Its integration with our CRM system is flawed and flaky and all Office365 has done has made the idiots use every type of communication channel they can rather than just keep it simple. One person was heavily involved in that and remain in post somehow.
I can now be contacted by phone, email, 8×8 messaging, Yammer, Teams, CRM case or whatsapp group. Its fucking stupid and used that way only by morons who feel compelled to use it for the sake of it rather than use a bit of common sense and keep it simple. We did for years before we had it. There is no need for messaging so much and on so many different channels.
Conspicuously that manager moved on to some other role but their self-importance prevails while they remain in the clique. Thats the little group the CS Manager has surrounded himself with. Its not just me, the rest of the department can see it and say it too. I know because I speak to the rest of the department unlike a lot of managers do which neatly brings me onto wellbeing at Halfords.
I am a trained Mental Health First Aider and I was a volunteer Wellbeing Champion for the CS department. When I took on the role I was quite proud to be giving something back but the reality some 18 months down the line again demonstrates the lack of care Halfords take with their employees. Through doing the role, it is abundantly clear, mental health issues with the Halfords Customer Support department are there and manifest themselves sometimes obviously and overtly, other times they are kept private. There is a real need for consistent support to be in place and available all of the time. The support they offered through me was discriminatory. If you worked evenings or weekends, there was none. When the department was sent home to work from home for a few weeks it was almost like a full-time job. I would be contacted directly, colleagues would be referred to me. Despite thank you’s from senior management for the work I was doing, it was still emotionally hard to deal with it at the time. Seeing colleagues in turmoil is tough. But, over time, with my help sometimes, people adjusted and the need for my intervention eased but conspicuously the talk from managers about staff wellbeing dried up too.
Where was my Wellbeing Champion through all of this?
When I saw my team, including me, being slowly burned out I made a conscious decision to pull my support as the Wellbeing Champion. I’d been mugged off. Halfords trained the wellbeing volunteers as a tick box exercise. It was cheap and tried to demonstrate they gave a shit but really they didn’t. Its a culture thing and needs to come down from the top and nothing has. I was successful because I was proactive. I checked on people. I gained their trust because I put myself on their radar. Colleagues knew they could come to me for support. There was nothing like that company-wide when it should be and this leads me onto the culture of the department. The mood was low and a lot of colleagues were unhappy. They left. They would recruit and they would induct and the merry-go-round started all over again. Its a false-economy. If you recruit, you should train, you should empower and you should value your staff. If they are supported, they are happy so they do the work you want at the volume and quality you’ve instilled in them. Regrettably Halfords has an obsession with numbers and costs. If you treat the department like a cost centre it will always be a cost centre. If you retain your staff they become an asset to the business and add value. Halfords have a warped, short term view and only appreciate the work colleagues do. They don’t care about the people doing it and thats another reason why I’ve decided to leave.
One final thing. In April, I tried to effect positive change as the Wellbeing Champion. I sent out a survey to gauge the mood and find out what the issues were. My idea was to work with management to address them and in subsequent surveys I’d hope to see an upward trend in the mood, a kind of wellbeing barometer test every month. Part of that first survey was an opportunity to comment. Everyone signed up to it in the knowledge it was going to be open, honest and transparent. I had a lot of responses and the fact they were going to be published in that way buoyed people. As promised I published the results and the comments but I was immediately told by the customer service manager to pull the comments as they were management bashing. This infuriated me and really undermined the trust and good work I’d done. He did promise me he would read and address them but obviously that never happened such is bollocks he talks from time to time. On this, he was an absolute twat. The comments were honest and it could have easily been flipped into something really positive with an honest admission it would be addressed but he opted to bury his head in the sand and brush them under the carpet. Protecting himself and his clique no doubt. People were really unhappy about that and just it just made the trust and belief in management worse. A real own goal.
Find the survey results including the comments here. Probably not as relevant now because we are working from home but the mood is still low on the whole and I know a lot of the sentiment remains
Staff feel unsupported and thats happening on his watch and he doesn’t seem to care about it. The survey is proof. As an example, just so you know. When people were struggling to cope at the start of lockdown and advisors were being run ragged all day as contact exploded, he decided to host a quiz on Teams for Team Leaders one Friday afternoon. Dressed up in some daft blue spangly jacket and dickie-bow tie. I was pretty disgusted and didn’t take part, making my excuses so I could go back to my team and help them. I thought what a wanker.
Its been a bit of a rollercoaster. There are some really nice people at Halfords. Good, hardworking souls but on the other hand there are some real idiots, lazy people with a level of self-importance that belies what they are actually worth.
So as the saying goes ‘…if you don’t like it, leave….’
So I did.