Recently, my professional world was turned upside down and inside out when a household-name removalist company lost (among numerous other items) a series of large plastic crates containing the in-progress manuscripts of a number of my books and other professional works.
Stunned at the way in which the matter was handled (or rather, not handled) by the company’s management on both sides of the move (i.e. Australia and New Zealand), I set about the exercise of gaining insights into the removalist industry.
My enquiries around the New Zealand sector led me to industry icon Errol Gardiner – the Chairman of one of the country’s largest household relocation enterprises, New Zealand Van Lines. Widely respected within the removals industry internationally, Gardiner currently sits on the board of global industry body, FIDI (Federation Internationale des Demenageurs Internationaux), and has served terms as its President and Vice President.
The insights he offered this disgruntled industry customer were revealing, frank, honest and full of the integrity that’s seen him rise to represent his industry at the highest levels.
His overall message: Things go wrong . . . in any industry, but most especially in this one. However, there’s a level of “going wrong” that is understandable, and there are levels that aren’t. And, regardless, most important, is the “putting right” of a bad situation.
I present to you my interview with Mr Errol Gardiner.
Gardiner: Let me start by saying that this is not an easy industry to operate in. Moving house is a highly stressful time for everybody concerned. With the best will in world things can go wrong.
But I do have to say that, in many regards, this industry is its own worst enemy. It competes on price, and that has a knock-on effect all down the line . . . including, critically, the frontline – the packers, loaders and drivers who are our “ambassadors”.
This industry has commoditised its service, and – in a highly competitive environment – businesses seem to know only how to use price as their differentiator.
One of the results of this unfortunate set of circumstances is that there’s insufficient margin at the end of the day to tangibly recognise good performance by frontline personnel.
Kelly: I sense that there’s a degree to which you’re speaking specifically as someone who’s been in the industry – at a senior level – for a very long time. (I understand you bought New Zealand Van Lines back in 1986, and that you were in customs brokering and international freight forwarding prior to that.) What other characteristics of the industry do you see from the benefit of that long-term perspective?
Gardiner: You’re correct, I am indeed speaking from that perspective. What else do I see from that “vantage” point? Particularly, I would point to the changes in society’s work ethic in general; we often don’t have the same pride in our work or the same sense of accountability, as a culture, that we did in decades past . . . in the Western world, at least. And, given the large human element in this work, that loans itself to extra challenges that – well, frankly, management today needs to learn to handle.
The key is to do everything possible to anticipate and mitigate any issues that may arise with a move. In today’s environment, that is an integral aspect of good management – again, particularly in this industry.
But let’s also be realistic: as I’ve said, sometimes things can go wrong. What becomes critical at that point, is the way issues are handled and addressed . . . and hopefully resolved.
Kelly: So it’s a “high-risk” business with considerable scope for things not to go according to plan . . . but management needs to have plans for, and integrity in, the way it deals with arising issues?
Gardiner: Yes, and that observation also serves to bring me to my next point: the criticality of communication – both internally and especially, especially, with the client.
A huge part of integrity is communication, and communication is about keeping people informed, and informed in a timely manner.
Kelly: Set a scene for me.
Gardiner: OK, say I get a complaint come through directly to me because a client doesn’t feel they’ve been heard or because no-one’s responded to their email or returned their phone call.
I immediately acknowledge that email, saying I need time to research that issue and get back to the client. It works almost without fail, because the client knows someone is now hearing them, is taking them seriously, and is on the case.
I want to stress again that communication is inextricably linked with timeliness.
That is one of the worst aspects of the experience you’ve had; the whole communication scenario. It seems nobody would take ownership of the problem. Nobody would come out and communicate with you and give you any assurance that at least they were doing something about it.
They may have conducted some degree of search, or they may have done nothing at all. You wouldn’t have known. And with no communication, it’s a natural disposition to assume the latter.
The lack of any indication that you were being heard or that the matter was being taken seriously . . . that was a big indictment upon all concerned.
From your perspective, it signifies that nobody cared.
Conversely, had someone gotten back to you and expressed concern and said they would sort it, and in some way did, you’d have had an entirely different attitude towards that company and your experience with it.
And as you correctly write, not everything can be covered off by a “Here’s an insurance form” response.
Kelly: Thank you for that affirmation of my own view of the matter.
I’d like to touch on your role with the international industry body, FIDI, and whether or not a company’s affiliations to this sort of body really hold any water. I’m somewhat cynical, and I’ll play that straight up.
Gardiner: That’s OK. When I was in freight forwarding, I used to view household removals as the poor cousin of the transport industry. Over time, and before I went on to buy NZ Van Lines in ’86, I changed my whole perspective . . . I came to see that this was one of the most important and challenging sectors of the industry, because of the intensely personal nature of what is being transported.
So I’ve always wanted to see the industry at large raise its standards and be held accountable to a greater force other than just the management of the individual companies.
In 2010, I was invited to join the board of FIDI. The advent of FIDI has been an important evolution in our industry internationally. It’s a global organisation of approximately 600 member companies from more than 100 countries. These member companies are required to adhere strictly to a specific quality code.
To get into FIDI, a company has to pass a qualification that goes by the acronym of FAIM (FIDI-Accredited International Mover). FAIM is basically an industry-specific equivalent to the ISO standard. The differentiator is that with ISO you can make your own rules, but FAIM – a continually evolving set of standards – is written by FIDI at our global headquarters in Belgium, and it governs everything about our industry in a manner that is highly specific to our operating challenges and our customers’ potential scenarios.
And it provides an important assurance not only to our end customers, but also to all members of the industry itself, in that – if I’m teaming with another a FIDI-accredited company as a link in my delivery chain – I know they’re operating to common procedures for packing and shipping, and that they’re subject to the expectation of common standards of excellence.
It’s a genuinely active organisation. The board meets four times a year. We make our way through a rigorous and comprehensive agenda. In fact, I’ve only just returned last week from an intensive, three-day board meeting in Hong Kong. The agenda included our typically broad range of topics; one of the big ones, as always, was FAIM and any fine-tuning it needs to continue lifting the bar.
Kelly: That sounds credible. Forgive me, though, because I’m still playing devil’s advocate. I want to draw your attention to the Australian industry body, AFRA (Australian Furniture Removers Association). The AFRA website promotes its companies with a list of “The 12 Most Important Reasons to Use An AFRA Member”. Almost every one of them flies in the face of my experience . . . most laughably, the twelfth, “The security of knowing your furniture will arrive and not disappear without a trace.”
Not only has a significant number of business-critical items disappeared without trace, there has been no accountability assumed by the AFRA member in question . . . whatsoever. In fact, in my view I’ve been not only ignored but insulted. There’s also been the indirect threat of legal action should I continue with my attempts to extract meaningful communication from management. And a distinct refusal to disclose the identity of top management, who appear somewhat obscured from the general public’s view – at least in my experience.
How does any of that square with the premises and promises of this particular industry body?
Gardiner: Well, with reference to the specific AFRA assurance you’ve just quoted, my response is that, that is an overly bold, sweeping statement, that frankly, AFRA is not in a credible position to make.
It’s like a cast-iron guarantee – and I’ll say it again, they’re not in a position to make one.
What they should be saying is that, if things do get damaged or go missing, you are guaranteed of accountability, because that company is an AFRA member.
And then we have to look at what “accountability” constitutes . . . and be sure that an aggrieved client can not be dismissed on the basis of a too-light definition.
In my view, accountability is an end-to-end thing. It starts at the point of initiation of the move and continues right through to the delivery, and continues on post-delivery, if there is any element of dissatisfaction on the part of the client.
All parties having anything to do with that move must be held accountable.
Now, I’ll go as far as addressing your circumstances specifically. One of the many components of the overall issue appears to be that items didn’t actually make it onto the inventory. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist. You had clearly and credibly established the existence of these items. Thus, there should be a full and comprehensive audit conducted at every branch, and at every point.
Further, there are myriad causes of things being lost, not loaded, or loaded wrongly.
In a case like yours, the steps – from residence to residence – need to be tracked back every step of the way. And the packers should most definitely be interviewed. A full audit should have been conducted, and you should have been communicated with – in detail – throughout.
And with regard to the irreplaceable nature of your lost items – the fact that you explained this in detail at the outset should have resulted in the company taking the attitude that, “This lady has some very, very important material there and it needs to be treated like gold.”
Clearly, that didn’t happen. So the least that should have happened then, is that someone should have contacted you and said, “Jordan, I’m going to take ownership of this, and research and do everything in my power to find out where they’ve gone.”
That’s accountability. Anything less is either completely unacceptable, at worst, or at best, a pretty glib approach.