A Supply of Faith?

Many, many churches operate in a similar way to St Thomas’ – a heavy reliance on volunteers to maintain the operation and fabric of the church. This includes tasks such as

  • Building and service preparation
  • Stock control
  • Marketing
  • Security
  • Financing
  • Fundraising
  • Cleaning
  • Meetings (including agenda and minute preparation)
  • General administration

And that’s a quite a short example list! But it does indicate the variation in activities and roles that happen behind the scenes. It’s no wonder parishes and churches look to outsource more and more of their maintenance and buying activities. A Google search reveals, on the first page alone six organisations offering one or more of the following facilities

  • Telephone and broadband
  • Lighting
  • Energy
  • Furniture
  • Insurance
  • IT hardware and software
  • Photocopiers
  • Fire safety
  • Boilers
  • Other office products and supplies

More and more companies are now doing this (indeed consumers, through national organisations and local councils are getting together for the best deal through their combined utilities purchasing power). Without collective purchasing schemes (note the difference between this and group buying), the volunteer aspect of churches (and some charities) means hours, sometimes days researching, contacting and employing (switching) suppliers to set up new contracts. Once in place there is always some form of administration whether that’s updating software, changing light bulbs, reading meters, restocking supplies, dealing with problems, paying invoices etc. Of course there can be downsides to collective purchasing which include some loss of control, the requirement to join on a specific date (which often means entering an interim, and usually more expensive arrangement until the next round of purchasing takes place) and the uncertainty of whether the group scheme is better value (taking in to account the costs which must be consumed by the group buying administrator).

The main point of my post is to share my experience of one business utilities provider and the no-brainer decision to switch to a collective purchasing scheme. If I were to go in to full detail the length of this post would be worthy of a small novel. Instead I will bullet point recommendations suppliers must concentrate on to retain customer loyalty (or indeed retain customers, full stop!)

In summary my remit, after taking over management of gas and electricity from a previous volunteer was to

  1. Work out why the church was receiving incorrect paper bills
  2. Establish why the address and contact across all four accounts (2 x gas, 2 x electricity) were different
  3. Establish a new, best value contract with a reputable and preferably single supplier
  4. Move to online account management

I almost, almost achieved all four objectives. I suspect some people, given this position and my dealings with the supplier would have given up far sooner but I am a firm believer in giving everyone more than two chances to prove that loyalty is extremely important to them.

Incorrect paper bills

After much investigation (much of it before I took up the mantle) it was established we had been “sharing” our gas supply with a St Thomas’ in Kent! Insistence with the supplier that we were in fact over 160 miles from Kent fell on deaf ears.

Recommendation – take back control of your software. Mr Lucas and Mr Walliams have a lot to answer for by making the phrase “computer says no” humorous and palatable..

Differing account addresses and contacts

You might think this falls in to the same category as above but differing addresses in this case meant different post codes for the same location. Contact names for some accounts were volunteers who had handed over their duties some considerable time ago. The supplier indicated the differences meant the accounts could not be grouped under one umbrella account. More on that later. But:

Recommendation – take back control of your software.

Establish a new contract

I said earlier I believe in giving the benefit of doubt. It turned out the current supplier, after a small amount of negotiation were also the best value. Am I gullible, have my head in the sand or just plain old trusting? You decide..

Move to online account management

It turns out moving from paper to online (and eventually paperless) billing with this supplier entails closing down the existing accounts and setting up brand new ones (possibly tied to the differing address and contact information previously mentioned). A scary prospect given the apparent insurmountable issues already encountered above! Three of the accounts went online without a hitch. The fourth did not. Duplicate billing, warnings and debt collection letters ensued. I made one firm but fair phone call, stood my ground (on behalf of St Thomas’) and waited for the supplier to admit the error, reset the billing and offer a big fat zero in way of compensation (should I have asked for some? My Christian instinct tells me to not ask for what is not rightly mine).

Recommendation – take back control of your software.

There’s a simple theme here. I do understand software (I code myself) so I know the solution is not as simple as the problem suggests. But that simple theme – the software controls the operator/agent/human (or whatever you wish to call us) – is prevalent in many computer systems and I’m certain you have all experienced this just as much as I have (or have I been extremely unlucky?)

Suppliers: in many cases putting the keyboard and mouse aside, listening to the customer, taking the concern away with you and passing it up the chain of command will earn you no end of brownie points, even if the computer does say no. And those brownie points may well turn in to loyalty points..

I appreciate there is an enormous amount of goodwill, empathy and support in everyone therefore I pray that this post inspires a sense of purpose so that suppliers invest in understanding how what their systems can and cannot do greatly affects how much faith their customers put in them.

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