Friday 16 June 2006

Who is a consumer?

Things have reached a very strange point. This week we have had some strange experiences. Companies that in the past have threatened to sue us have been really helpful, they have been responsive to complaints that have been raised and they have really given the impression that they understand that we genuinely try to help, not just to make their lives difficult.

When we started Consumer Watchdog early last year many companies didn’t seem to understand us. Some were really defensive, others refused to cooperate and a couple even threatened us with legal action just for reporting the truth. They seemed to think that we were here just to criticise them and that we always took the side of the customer regardless of the circumstances.

However we are delighted that over the last year this seems to have changed. These companies seem to have understood what we are about. Yes, we are here to call them to account when they fail to deliver good service, but just as importantly we genuinely want to help them deal with problems, prevent them happening again and to celebrate success.

A few companies have understood from the beginning of course but these others have taken a little longer. But it doesn’t matter, the level of service has genuinely improved a bit and we should all be grateful. There is still a long way to go though!

The other strange issues we’ve had have all come from correspondence with consumers themselves. Consumers that perhaps have not yet grasped a few basics about how to get decent service, what can realistically be expected and also have not yet understood a few legal basics.

When is a consumer not a consumer?

For instance we got a call last week from someone who had bought a cellphone from another individual and was now unhappy with some aspect of the transaction. Note that he bought it from an individual person, not a store. We politely explained that the reason we are called Consumer Watchdog is that we act on behalf of consumers who have ought things from companies, not deals between two people in a bar that have turned sour.

Unfortunately he wasn’t too impressed that we couldn’t help him, complained that he didn’t know how we worked as he had never heard us on the radio or read this column and generally got a little stroppy. The fact that we do all of this for free didn’t seem to impress him. Looks like we have an unsatisfied “customer”, if an entirely free and voluntary service like Watchdog can have customers? Still, that’s just business I’m afraid. You can’t please everyone all the time.

For the record, please understand that we deal with individuals who feel they haven’t received what they deserve from companies, stores, utilities and restaurants. Not other individuals. Sorry.

Can you avoid responsibilities?

We also heard from someone who wanted us to help them get out of a contract they no longer liked. This person signed a lease to rent a shop for three years. When they signed the lease they had done lots of research into business and were confident that they were going to make a packet. So confident were they that they ignored certain clauses in the lease. For instance they notes that there was no cancellation clause in the lease. They would be committed for three years with no “get out”. Our caller stated “We weighed our options but decided to sign because we knew our product was good and cheap and the area we were in was free from stiff competition”.

Well, things went wrong. Immediately after they moved into their new store another, virtually identical shop opened up next door providing them with stiff competition.

Needless to say their business dried up, they are having problems earning enough to pay the rent and now they want to get out of the lease that has no get out clause. When they approached the landlord he said that they can leave so long as they find him a replacement tenant.

The unlucky shopkeeper approached us and asked for our opinion and whether we could assist him. Our reaction? Well, sorry but nobody forced you to sign the contract. You confess yourself that you went into the contract knowing that there was no termination clause. Unless you can find a way to prove that the landlord breached the lease himself then you are stuck with it. A contract is a contract. It’s an agreement entered into by two parties voluntarily and in full knowledge of the nature of the terms. There’s not a lot that can be done about it. Sorry!

The lesson is quite simple, one that I’ve repeated endlessly in this column. We live in a free country. Nobody can force you to sign a contract if you don’t think it’s a clever thing to do. So just don’t sign things! Don’t sign contracts unless you are completely confident that you can keep to them. If in doubt, tear it up and don’t sign it.

This week’s stars!

  • Patricia at Air Botswana for “being a service hero and making a very unhappy customer happy!”
  • The team at CafĂ© Dijo at Kgale Mall in Gaborone for fantastic and friendly service, for brilliant coffee and as for the breakfast in a bun…..
  • Yet again Calvin, Tebatso, in fact the whole team at Kudu Filling Station in the Main Mall in Gaborone. These guys were nominated last year several times and seem to be on even more of a high since they were celebrated at the Consumer Watchdog party!

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