Saturday, 24 December 2011

Customer service and common sense

When I began these posts, I warned you that I might occasionally stray from my area of putative expertise and reflect on other matters. This is one of those occasions.

Accepting as a matter of common sense that the best kind of advertising is good customer service, I am always amazed when some companies forget this policy and put their own short-term gain ahead of long-term customer satisfaction.

Let me first give you an example of sensible policy in this regard. I recently bought a book from that venerable Victoria institution, Russell's Books. From their huge secondhand collection I chose one of several copies of a book, took it home, and began reading. Half way through I came upon some missing pages, so I dashed back to the shore, hoping to exchange the book for another copy. Too late! The store was closed. "Come back tomorrow," I was told by an employee who was still hanging around. I explained my predicament:"You know how it is when you're in the middle of a book." "Of course," he said, grabbed some keys, climbed the stairs and found me another copy. Needless to say, I left the store with very positive feelings about Russell's Books.

Here's another incident. I bought a bag of cherries at Oxford Foods in the Cook Street village. A few cherries into the bag I encountered some rotten ones, so I took the bag back. Instead of taking my receipt and refunding the full amount, the assistant weighed the bag, knocked off the cost of what I had eaten, and gave me the balance. No thought given to my inconvenience at having to return to the store, or my discomfort at biting into a rotten cherry. I have never been back to the store. That day, Oxford Foods saved 99 cents and lost a customer for life. Thrifty's or Safeway would never act like that. Or so I thought....

Recently, we had to put down our dear dog, Tia. It was a sad occasion, but she was almost 17, and had had, as they say, a good innings. She has gone, as Elvis and others have put it, "where the good doggies go". She had been on painkillers, but I had run out, and needed one pill to get her through her last day. I went to a Safeway pharmacy. The pill cost $1.53, but I was charged an $11 dispensing fee. I pointed out that this seemed a bit excessive for a single pill, but was told by a somewhat sympathetic pharmacist that they had to follow "policy". I decided to try to discover the thinking behind this policy and contacted the Complaints Department. 

I am now engaged in an email correspondence with Safeway. I receive form letters with one or two original sentences specific to my complaint, buried in paragraphs about their commitment to world class service, etc. I persist in asking them why they can't dispense with the dispensing fee when it's more than  five times the cost of the single pill. They fall back on their standard answer: it is their policy to charge a dispensing fee.

What is interesting in all this is that my simple questions do not get simple answers. Instead, I get what George Orwell called the worst kind of writing: "gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug". I can imagine a person at Safeway's Head office cutting and pasting from a catalogue of stock responses, like Harper's ministers.

They have, however, "escalated [my] concerns to the Retail Operations Department for further review on this matter". 

Update, January 23

I am happy to report that common sense has prevailed. A representative from Safeway contacted me, apologised, offered a refund of the dispensing fee, and explained that pharmacy managers did in fact have the discretion to dispense with fees in exceptional circumstances.

Update, April 22

I have long been interested in how some businesses can see the benefits of creating long-term good will in their customers, and others just don't get it.

MEC gets it. I recently spent a few days in Vancouver, and of course it rained. It rained so hard that the water came right through the MEC jacket I was wearing. Vancouver rain would penetrate anything.

(By the way, for those of you on the prairies who might lump Victoria and Vancouver together as soggy cities on the Wet Coast, note that Victoria has exactly half the annual rainfall of Vancouver.)

Anyway, I popped into MEC and pointed out to the man at the Customer Service counter that rain was coming through my rain jacket. "Ah," he said, "we don't make that jacket anymore. I think it's well past it's normal lifespan. This is not a warranty issue." Yes, I know, I was about to say. I quite understand. Thank you.

"Hang on," he said." Let's check it out." He looked at my purchase record. "You bought it in 2005." Fair enough, I was about to say. I've had good use out of it. Thank you.

"Wait," he said. "I see that you paid $110 for it. It cost us about half that. I can offer you a store credit of $40. Then we've still made a slight profit and you're happy."

So that's why I shop at MEC. I like to support local businesses and I do, but when it comes to buying anything that I might want to take back in the future, I shop at MEC.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Possessive gerund

Mr. Charest, appealing to nationalist sentiment, has often been unhappy with Prime Minister Harper's government, but he hasn't called into question Quebec remaining in Canada (Globe and Mail, December 23, 2011)

I remember Inspector Morse's once deducing from the use of a possessive gerund in a note that the suspect was an educated person. If Morse had read today's article from the Globe, he would have picked up the error, a result of the similarity and confusion between the participle and the gerund, both of which end in "ing".

The participle is a verbal adjective; the gerund, a verbal noun.

Mother liked to hear me doing my homework.

Here, "doing" is a participle, an adjective, modifying "me".

Mother was disappointed at my failing the exam.

Here "failing" is a gerund, a noun, modified by "my".

The question always to ask is, is Mother disappointed at me or the failing of the exam. If the latter, then whose failing the exam? My failing the exam.

Or in the case of our example, is Mr. Charest calling into question Quebec or its remaining in Canada? Whose remaining in Canada? Quebec's.

So the passage should read:

Mr. Charest, appealing to nationalist sentiment, has often been unhappy with Prime Minister Harper's government, but he hasn't called into question Quebec's remaining in Canada.


From the Globe editorial on July 18, 2012
The donor deal, Carleton announced, "did not fully reflect [the university's] policies" with respect to budget management and staff selection - a reference to it allowing the foundation to effectively name three of the program's powerful steering committee.

Again, the reference it not to "it", i.e., the university, but to "allowing the foundation to effectively name three of the program's powerful steering committee".

So the paragraph should read:

The donor deal, Carleton announced, "did not fully reflect [the university's] policies" with respect to budget management and staff selection - a reference to its allowing the foundation to effectively name three of the program's powerful steering committee.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Beget and begat

When I was at school, we were taught never to use the word "get". It was probably considered a bit common. We were to receive letters, not get them.

And yet "get" is a respectable old English word. In keeping with his preference for these words, George Orwell, master of the simple style, in his essay "Shooting an Elephant", after describing in longer sentences his three attempts to bring down the rogue beast, writes simply, "I got up."

The principal parts of the verb are get, got, and gotten (in North America) and got (everywhere else).

Today, I get the mail; yesterday, I got the mail; in the past I have gotten (or got) the mail.

Interestingly, the older past participle has survived in America, but not in England.

The verb has two compounds, "to forget" and "to beget", with principal parts as follows:

Forget, forgot and forgotten, and beget, begat and begotten.

The older form of the participle has survived in both cases, but it's the past tense that differs.

She forgot where it occurred in the Bible, but she remembered that Abraham begat Isaac. She had forgotten that he had begotten Isaac.

Thanks to the the King James Bible, the verb "to beget" has not been forgotten, but survives in all its forms, particularly in "only begotten son" and in the genealogical catalogue in Matthew with its 37 "begats" in a row, tracing the link between Abraham and Christ. (It has always puzzled me how Jesus can be a direct descendant of Abraham, through Joseph, while being the son of God.)

This brings me to today's error in the Globe.

Thirty years ago, a pub owner challenged Prohibition-era laws to open a brewpub in West Vancouver. Two years later, in 1984, Spinnakers opened as a neighbourhood pub in a forgotten, mixed industrial and residential corner of Vic West overlooking the harbour. A month later, the pub served the first batch of its beers – an ale, a malt, a stout and a special brew. And people came and they drank and, lo, they pronounced it good, so others went forth to begat other craft breweries (21 December 2100).

Our writer has probably not read Matthew, but has heard of the passage in the Bible with all the "begats". In adopting a Biblical style to convey the almost religious significance of the birth of craft beers, hwrongly assumes that "begat" is the infinitive.

The passage should read:

And people came and they drank and, lo, they pronounced it good, so others went forth to beget other craft breweries.

The verb "to beget" has a very precise meaning. It means to father a child. The verb "to get" has a special meaning in that sense as well. In older literature we read of a man getting a woman with child. She conceived and gave birth to the child. He begat the child.

So Abraham got Sarah with child. He begat Isaac, and Isaac is recognised as his "only begotten son", a phrase later applied to Jesus.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Apostrophes - possessive plurals

Even the Guardian makes mistakes.

Apostrophes indicate either contractions or possessives. Possessives are indicated as follows:

  • singular noun, e.g., "boy" - Add apostrophe s ('s) > the boy's desk
  • plural noun ending in "s", e.g., boys - Add apostrophe after the "s" > the boys' classroom
  • plural noun not ending in "s", e.g., men - Add apostrophe s ('s) > the men's cloakroom

In other words, a plural noun not ending in "s" is treated the same way as a singular noun. In an article about a bug in Facebook, the reporter for the Guardian writes:

Facebook could not say how many peoples' private pictures had been viewed as a result of the flaw (The Guardian December 8, 2011).

Now "people" can either be a plural noun meaning persons in general as in "the people" or a singular noun meaning a race or tribe as in "a people". In the latter case the plural would be formed by adding an "s", as in "Aboriginal peoples", and the possessive would be indicated by an apostrophe after the "s", as in "the Aboriginal peoples' charter".

But in the example from the Guardian, "people" is already a plural noun, meaning persons in general, and the sentence should read:

Facebook could not say how many people's private pictures had been viewed as a result of the flaw (The Guardian December 8, 2011).

Apostrophe errors are very common and one often comes upon huge properties or organizations belonging to or serving one person, as in Boy's Gym instead of Boys' Gym or Cross Lake Teacher's Society rather than Cross Lake Teachers' Society

Wednesday, 7 December 2011


As part of her excellent series on the caste system in India, Stephanie Nolan writes in this morning's Globe about the Love Commandos, a volunteer group that helps couples from different backgrounds who are cast out or threatened by their parents.

Mr. Sachdev [of the Love Commandos] has a lengthy roster of young couples who are fulsomely grateful to the Commandos: Vijay Sagar and his wife Simran were attacked by her parents, Sikhs in the Punjab, who objected when she fell in love with a less-educated Hindu (Globe and Mail, December 7, 2011).

"Fulsome" is one of many words whose meaning is changing, because, some would say, they are being being used incorrectly by so many people. 

The first meaning given in the Oxford Canadian has a negative connotation: "excessively complimentary or flattering, effusive, overdone". However, it is often used in its second sense, as in the example above, to mean abundant.

At least in this example the meaning is fairly evident from the context, although it would have been clearer if Ms. Nolan had simply referred to a "roster of young couples who are extremely grateful to the Commandos". In this sense of "full" or "abundant", "fulsome" has become a fashionable word, and is often used unnecesarily, and sometimes confusingly, when a simpler word would be better. It has become part of many journalists' and politicians' vocabulary, ready for use when the occasion arises. In yesterday's Globe, we read:

Kamloops MP Cathy McLeod told the newspaper that Mr. Kent wants to find out more information to see if something might trigger a panel review. “What he’s committed to is understanding this issue in a more fulsome way, which includes a site visit, which includes the community." (Globe and Mail, December 6, 2011) 

Again, it is fairly clear that Mr. Kent is committed to a fuller understanding of the issue. But he didn't say that, because "fulsome" has become part of his stock vocabulary. 

A problem arises when the reader cannot tell from the context which meaning is intended. In a  comment on an article about Margaret Thatcher, the writer comments:

Vanity Fair has been a redoubt of anglophilia from the days of Tina Brown’s editorship through the current regime of Canadian-born Graydon Carter, so it’s hardly a surprise to find Moore, former editor of the rabidly Tory The Daily Telegraph, waxing eloquent here. Fulsomeness aside, the article’s timely not only because we’ll soon be seeing Meryl Streep’s impersonation of the baroness in theatres but because it provides a sort of relief to the seemingly intractable difficulties faced by Britain’s current Tory supremo David Cameron (Globe and Mail, November 8, 2011). 

What meaning is intended here? Is the praise of Margaret Thatcher abundant or sickeningly so? Probably the latter, but we can't be sure.

"Fulsome" is a word best avoided altogether. Its earlier meaning of "sickeningly excessive" is almost forgotten, and in its newer sense of "full" or "abundant" it has evolved into political or journalistic jargon.