First O2 and Three said goodbye. Phones 4U didn’t care though. They would give you £50 to upgrade your EE or Vodafone phone. Not the act of a desperate operator though. They were just giving extra value in a competitive market.
Then Vodafone decided they wouldn’t renew their contract with them two weeks ago. No big deal.
At least EE were on board.
On Sunday 14th September, it was announced that EE had declined to renew their contract and that Phones4u had called the administrators in.
The saddest part of this being that over 5,500 people are going to lose their jobs.
It had to be an easy decision in the end. EE had a choice of being the only network to provide phones for a company that was swinging on the ropes and clearly needed them.
They could say ‘yes’, making Phones4u essentially an EE shop with a different sales process and have to pay a commission per phone contract sold and a bonus for hitting sales figures.
Or they could say ‘no’ making Phones4u redundant and their potential customers more likely to come to their own stores on the high street. No commissions, no bonuses to a 3rd party.
A powerful position for EE to be in.
Some are saying the networks might have worked together to ensure that Phones4u would be no more. The timing just happens to be coincidental.
I’ve worked a lot in the telecommunications industry and take a huge interest in it to this day. It was unimaginable that this could have happened to Phones4u, especially how huge they were at the start of my career.
Though back then, it was also baffling to understand their business model whilst I was working for Vodafone.
Around 2001, if you wanted to deal directly with networks you were not going to get the best deal.
It was bizarre.
You would see an ad in the paper from Phones4u or Dial-A-Phone offering a mobile phone for free on a cheaper line rental than the network itself could offer directly.
If you asked the network about this, they would say “that’s just the way it is”. In return, to deal directly you were expected to pay for the phone (sometimes) and then pay more line rental.
They might also tell you that if anything went wrong with your phone, the network would deal with it too.
If you had never had an issue with your phone before, you were unlikely to be moved by this. If you had, you might not want to pay a premium for it anyway.
My experience and from others I have spoken to is that the service by Phones4u was abysmal.
Having worked at a Phones4u call centre briefly. I can only confirm what I saw to be completely broken. If you weren’t buying a new contract today, you would be fobbed off and quickly too.
You know you have a broken, strange culture when a sit-com can be made about your industry and be cringe-inducingly accurate.
Some people who have walked into a Phones4u store will have experienced something out of Phone Shop at some point.
The aggressive sales tactics and selfish agenda gave Phones4u the reputation of being a place to avoid. Rightly so.
The networks had now got their own slick sales processes in place and knew what tricks they were up against. The public knew it too and joined in with the in-jokes of Phone Shop. Getting locked into high-tariff contracts and being offered insurance that you can cancel in 3 months (so the salesman got their commission). It all happened.
As online shopping became increasingly mainstream and the networks own sales experience matured, Phones4u just seemed like a dinosaur. They had a complete lack of finesse when it came to handling people and listening to their needs.
What was even worse for the networks is that any issues caused at a Phones4u store affected their customers relationship with them greatly. It isn’t unheard of that promises were made at the point of sale and then the network’s own customer service had to pick up the pieces.
The strangest part is that the networks were paying for this privilege.
The press are quoted that Phones4u made £100m last year before tax. It would be reasonable to say around 80% of that would have come from phone contract sales.
So the networks were paying out a monumental amount of money to have virtually no control over the sales process for their main product. This had gone on for over 20 years.
It had helped to grow the networks though. No partnership lasts for so long without it being profitable for both sides.
Phones4u had customers coming back to their stores each year to upgrade their phone. This would be an opportunity to upgrade customers on their existing customers right?
The issue was, Phones4u got paid significantly more to connect new numbers than to upgrade existing ones. This was reflected in the prices you would have to pay.
Naturally, customers would then get a new number even on the same network to get a better deal.
It didn’t make sense to most that this was the way of the market. How could it make sense that you could essentially be a new customer on the same network and pay less?
This was Phones4u’s power. They got great commission payments from the networks to get new customers. Upgrading customers brought them in less cash, consequently the deals were much poorer.
Yet again the networks were paying for this to happen.
Something had to give. When you look back on it, it’s surprising it took this long.
It’s hard to say this about a business that had pre-tax profits of £100m last year but cracks did start to appear about 4 years ago. It was all to do with upgrades.
Phones4u had started to offer much better upgrade deals to customers. The days of churning customers to new numbers had to stop. Whether this was insisted on by the networks or Phones4u response to a changing market is conjecture at this point.
If the case was that Phones4u were now getting better paid for their upgrades and people were happy with their existing network, surely it made more sense to upgrade via their network provider?
Yes. This trend certainly started to gain traction. Most could see that this business model was losing in the face of wiser decisions from networks and the use of the internet to sell phone contracts.
All these issues and opinions could easily relate to the Carphone Warehouse. It’s the same kind of model, reliant on the commissions and bonuses from network providers. The loss of Phones4u is certainly their gain.
It also seems that they are supported by networks too. For now at least.
Some good news is that Carphone are set to save about 1,500 jobs through their concessions in Currys PC World stores.
Despite this, you just have to wonder how safe is the Carphone Warehouse brand when all it will take is networks to pull out like they did with Phones4u?
At the time of writing, Phones4u is not officially dead. It seems certainty that it will be.
The networks didn’t need Phones4u anymore. It had served its purpose and some of that 100m pretax profit of Phones4u will now come their way directly.
For all the negativity, you need to just look at the numbers. Phones4u has made millions of connections for all the networks, therefore making the networks an absolute fortune.
John Caudwell, the founder of Phones4u called the networks decisions ruthless and cold-hearted. It certainly is for the staff losing their jobs. On the surface, it’s just business.
“Education, like the American’s say, is a one shot deal. You get one go at this and it will affect the rest of your life.”
This was once said by a supply teacher at my high school leading up to my GCSEs. To the whole classroom.
We were working in our exercise books (remember them?) and had words like this said to us on repeat. Fail at exams, fail at life. Face no prospects now. Repeated negatives upon negatives.
Let’s not forget most of us are 15 at this point. We know nothing about life . We are spotty, ill-informed children.
In my case, I was from a council estate and didn’t exactly have solid role models in my life outside of school. You put that along with a torrent of almost daily abuse for being Spanish and/or being gay (I’m not, for what it’s worth) and you’ve got quite the mix. An outsider. Very much so. To be honest, I wasn’t perfect either.
The opening statement above makes me so bloody angry. It’s a complete load of bollocks for a start. Utter, utter bollocks. One shot deal? If GCSEs mean so much to you, you can do them again at college.
When it came to my own GCSEs, I had a combination of a lack of belief and a lack of work ethic. One came before the other I am sure of it.
I went into my exams not really caring about the results, apart from German and Science which I loved thanks to my excellent teachers in these subjects. The other teachers, however, just couldn’t seem to handle me. Maybe I didn’t give them a chance – I know for sure now that my personality type just doesn’t do too well in a classroom environment.
So what did the German and Science teachers do differently? The teachers in question, Mr Lakin and Mrs Mart (now Ms. Pointon) valued me as a person. They gave me the one-to-one time I seemed to need, inspired me and made me feel like I could achieve anything.
I contrast this with other teachers and they just didn’t know what to do. Most of them probably thought I was a complete nuisance. I could learn what was going on really quickly in class and apply it just as fast but I found this boring as hell. It didn’t stimulate my creativity like I know I need today.
I don’t blame all the teachers though. They were meant to teach us the curriculum, mark our books and ask us to keep quiet. I suppose unintentionally I was very demanding.
I had aspirations to be a musician. It’s something I took to later in life. Not to the level of stardom that I thought I could reach for, but it still became a passion.
I remember going to pick up my GCSE results wearing prescription sunglasses with my long, black hair straightened down below my shoulders. Now that the day had come, I wanted to achieve my results after all. The typical competing side of school kicked in.
At this point, I’d failed at nothing when it came to school work. I got really high scores in all of my previous key stages and was in top sets for almost every subject. I expected that the results would be good.
They weren’t. How could they be? I was downtrodden, quite depressed and could barely muster any enthusiasm for school work. I remember so clearly walking in to see my friend Alex collect his results and being congratulated by our mutual English teacher Mrs Bamford. She blanked me though. After all, I was just a blot on her copy book at that point.
I went to college to do my GCSEs again. I loved the social aspect but hated the work again. I also did an A-Level, which was in German. However, without the care and attention that I once got from Ms. Pointon, I felt my interest wane in favour of anything other than college work.
I left about three months before I was due to take my exams. I was working part-time in Burger King too.
I had become the failure as envisioned by that sloppy, misinformed supply teacher only three years before. I really believed it too.
How do you change direction when you come from a poor background (we had our good and bad times financially) with a family that were all in entry level jobs in less than prosperous sectors? I didn’t have Mr Miyagi around the corner to inspire me.
My grandparents, who gave me so many amazing life lessons, would tell me things like “you can be anything that you like”. Well, that was more likely my Nan. My Granddad would tell me to look in the local newspaper and hope something turned up. Still, he was an inspirational man in many different ways.
I went from job to job for years. I found I was good at sales and was able to earn myself some great money around the age of 19/20. Not knowing how to deal with my mindset at the time I quickly burned out and became very depressed, along with being awfully anxious. I left my job to preserve my ‘health’.
I told myself that at the time but I just needed to get away from the call centre environment. It worked and I took other crappy jobs to pass the time, holding none down.
I briefly went back to college to do a music course. My true passion! As great as it was playing guitar all day, I had the pressure of no income, no grant and no financial support from my family. It wasn’t long before I had to give it up.
This time I’d given up so I could get a menial job to save up for a lifetime ambition of going to Japan. I had made friends with a Japanese/American online and he promised to put me up and find me work as an English teacher. I didn’t believe he could do that as I couldn’t speak Japanese and I didn’t have any qualifications too. Life really was as crazy as it sounds at this time.
So I got a new job and bought a guitar instead. My Japanese dream was just a distraction from anxiety and the pain of not knowing what skills I had to offer to the world.
Between 2004-2008, I can barely remember anything that I did. I can tell you that I played guitar a lot and wrote a lot of music. I had a steady relationship and worked many awful jobs. I kept distracting myself from my real goals of achieving a genuine career. Are you wondering why yet?
I believed I was a failure because of some GCSEs that I did 11 years before. Honestly. I had no one to tell me any different at this point either. I am sure that people tried in their own way but the damage was done. I thought I was a failure, therefore I was.
I had a job as chat host for just short of a year before I embarked on my new goal going to go and live in Canada. In some ways, it would be a distraction from achieving a career but became a huge achievement in itself. It also helped me to put the fact I never went to Japan behind me.
I did it. Somehow. I put everything I needed to do in chunks. Including saving money, buying visas and tickets.
I then went to Canada, got a job in porn (writing not acting folks!), made new friends, met more girls than was healthy and prospered. Until I had to come back. That’s another story for another time.
While I was there I started to go out with a beautiful woman who I fell madly in love with. She was what I perceived to be a success – she was an Account Manager at an advertising agency, one of the biggest in the world. She was intelligent, elegant and so interesting. She even had a degree in advertising. She knew she was going to work in advertising and made it.
Is that success? I guess moderately it is but at the time I genuinely didn’t know anybody that had followed this path before.
As we grew closer and she delved into my personality she told me that I was selling myself really short. I didn’t believe her. I was writing for a porn website. I was from a council estate in Stoke, I was now in Toronto with a beautiful on/off girlfriend, I believed I was punching above my weight. She stayed true to this though and said “you could get a job in advertising”, saying I would be perfect for it.
She listed many aspects of my personality. They were true but I thought they were coming from someone that was blinded by their attraction to me – passionate, expressive, attentive, inspiring and… English.
I declined her offer to find me work in the Canadian advertising agency world. I declined the offer for her to give my resumé (I loved saying that when I was in Canada) to the headhunter that had got her the huge salary that she had. At least it seemed huge at the time. I declined because I wasn’t worthy in my head. I didn’t have the results from my education that she had.
How the hell could I justify myself to an Account Director or Vice President of an agency at that point?
There was no further coercion. I continued to write for $10 an hour. I was just happy to feel the Canadian air on my skin and still giggled like a teenager when I heard a Canadian accent, which was every single day. It was a beautiful time of my life.
Me and her grew apart, then closer, then apart and with it grew my inadequacy in many forms. I didn’t think I was good enough for her. I didn’t think I was good enough to meet her family. I thought she was embarrassed of me.
The one thing she gave me though was belief that I could make something of myself. She even suggested that I started to get involved with social media professionally.
One of the last conversations we had in Canada was that I was going to go live in Manchester, be Head of Social Media for an agency and have a cool city centre apartment . Side note: All this came true within two years.
Somehow, I had convinced myself I could do this without qualifications. I was right. Nothing was really holding me back. I just needed to prove my worth to the world from a social media perspective.
I came back from Canada. It was horrible. Back to Stoke and the reality of no job.
Luckily it didn’t stay that way for long because I was offered a job by my then friend and mentor for his business in Stoke as a content writer. I felt worthy and special. He even thought I could be the social media lead for the business.
Crazy coincidence? Seemed that way.
With one eye on Canada and my mind preoccupied with lost love, I didn’t make a success of it there and then. In fact, I made a complete disaster of it. I didn’t have any training or really know how to conduct myself in the role so I fell to pieces. Success was so fleeting.
Now it hit me hard that I didn’t have these imaginary qualifications I needed to make it. My head swirled with ideas to make money for plane rides to Canada, my complete worthlessness and death. I wanted to get off the world. It was too much.
I took time to repair listening to the Red House Painters and living in an awesome house with my friend I had reacquainted with. It was one of the toughest times of my life. It was going to get even tougher though. I wasn’t ready for the new level of pain I was going to get.
I took on a job because I needed to. At Phones4u. In a call centre. Selling. Oh my god. Everything I had run away from.
The training aspect was enjoyable and I excelled. I made people laugh during a presentation to the whole class about mobile phone upgrades. I felt great.
Then the day came where the real job kicked in. It was like being kicked in the nuts and being told you’ve been cheated on all at once.
I couldn’t believe it. Here I was again. A failure. Barely concentrating, hearing people talking about over-hyped psychological techniques they learned from Derren Brown. Some people seemed to genuinely love the environment. I didn’t.
There was one bright light. I’ve never laughed so much with one person I met called Mark. His stories of selling Samsung DJ’s are legendary. I still keep in touch with him on Facebook because of this. He doesn’t know how much torment was going on inside me though.
I tried to keep my head in this job but I was way past caring about sales figures and I didn’t pass probation. It was for the best. I would have kept trying to get myself by and definitely wouldn’t have been where I am now.
Fast forward a few months and a new optimism came along. I also had friends who supported me and gave me advice about what to do next. I called myself a social media consultant and landed consultancy work with a Stoke-based recruitment agency. I walked in there one day and got talking to someone I knew who gave me a job once. He believed in me and sold me into the business as a consultant. It was great to be doing it again. I reconnected with my mentor from the job where I should have been their social media person.
I managed to get a job on the back of this working for a new social media agency in Didsbury, Manchester. Best of all they found me. It wasn’t the right environment and I wasn’t the right fit so I left quickly. Sure they didn’t miss me.
As luck has it, only two months later I was in a meeting with my friend and mentor for a CBeebies contract. At the BBC. I had one pound in the bank and was at the BBC telling them about content announcements. I barely talked but the meeting was a success. On the back of this I was offered a job with a new marketing agency.
We negotiated and I accepted an offer. I was Head of Social Media for a city centre digital marketing agency. There is no accident that I said it would happen and then it did.
Luck played it’s part. No question. And someone believing in me enough to take me to a meeting. Also, positioning myself as someone who knew about social media meant… that I got a job in social media.
I’ve since been a Brand Manager and massively expanded on these skills. I’ve become a writer, a video editor, a presenter, a strategist, a marketer, a director-level communicator, a businessman. I’ll write about the last three years another time. I just wanted you to see the journey and why my education didn’t matter for me to make it.
Now, I’m working for myself. My own business. One of the reasons is so I can concentrate on the creative projects that I want to give to the world and to be able to write about what I want.
I hope that the young people that are receiving their GCSEs today and think that their world is about to cave in realise that it doesn’t make you a failure.
Unfortunately, having a great education doesn’t also guarantee you success either.
School does a mediocre job of telling you how to sell yourself, achieve your dreams without going to university and even how to budget your finances. Life skills that you really need.
Believe in yourself. You are so lucky to have so many inspiring books and people that are accessible from your smartphone. You can make it all happen today. Don’t be like me and tell yourself you aren’t worth it. You will believe it and then wonder where the hell those 11 years went.
I was asked to write a blog for Social Media Experts. It’s about personal branding and how you can spend 15 minutes a day improving it with free tools.
Hope you enjoy it. Let me know if you use this system, that would be great.