Friday, 23 February 2007

Zero tolerance for poor standards

Again I’ve been inspired by an article found on the web site of the Adam Smith Institute. Go to their web site ( and take a look at “Around the World in 80 ideas” for a series of bright ideas. If you don’t have internet access write to me and I’ll post it to you.

This time it’s a discussion of the so-called “zero tolerance” approach to crime that was pioneered in New York and went a long way towards bringing down crime levels there. According to the ASI article immediately after being employed the new NY Police Commissioner, William J Bratton, did a number of things. He “flattened the command structure, devolved control to local precinct commanders, upgraded the crime management information and took the view that the petty offences that occurred in full view on the streets contributed towards the climate of lawlessness in New York and should no longer be ignored”.

This approach has been copied all over the world and while some have criticised it for picking on people for committing petty crimes it has nevertheless been remarkably effective. It is loosely based on the “broken windows” theory that suggests that even minor environmental issues like litter and broken windows as well as minor crimes create a “climate of lawlessness” that just leads to growing crime.

Put simply the principle behind “zero tolerance” is that combating the so-called trivial offences reduces the general acceptability of all crimes. The gradual reduction in minor offences sent a message to the criminal elements of the community that crimes of all levels were no longer acceptable. This may all sound a bit simplistic but it has shown itself to be a pretty effective approach. It wasn’t the only cause but crime did go down in New York and in many other places where it was adopted.

Incidentally I really think we could do with a dose of this here in Botswana. Every day we see trivial offences that we have grown used to. Litter being thrown around, petty vandalism, public transport driving standards that are shameful and what do the authorities do about it? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to witness a Police Constable dragging a litter lout or a combi driver to the local Police Station for an hour of lectures and a fine? I would pay money to watch that. There’s an idea. They could charge us a nominal fee to laugh at minor offenders being lectured by a stroppy Police Sergeant. It would be better than most programs on TV these days.

Anyway, back to zero tolerance.

When you examine it closely the real reasons why the approach worked were quite simple.

There was a return to old-fashioned community policing. Police officers were taken out of cars and put back on foot so they could interact with the communities within which they operated. Instead of seeming distant from their customers, the public, police officers became members of the community again, people that the public could relate to.

Radical decentralisation. Basic decisions were taken by local commanders who were given power to decide for themselves how, within the rules, they should police their precinct.

Better information. Details of crime rates were analysed closely so that the people at the top had an accurate picture of the situation. Then they could plan policing more effectively, making sure the right resources were in the right place at the right time.

So why am I on about crime this week? Isn’t this column meant to be about customer service?

Yes, but the thing that struck me is that exactly the same principles apply in customer service. The three solutions above can all be used without modification if you run a chain of restaurants, a supermarket or a bank.

Start with Community Management. Get your managers out there on the shop floor, out of their offices to where the customers are. Get them visible to your customers; make them stand out of the crowd.

Then start decentralising. Your managers can only do a great job on the shop floor if they have the power to make decisions while they are there. If they are good enough to be in charge aren’t they good enough to offer a refund or a replacement to a customer who has been disappointed? Aren’t they qualified to modify your rigid procedures and regulations when circumstances demand it?

Then begin analysing your performance. This is where things get a little difficult though. The trick though is not to do it internally. Analysing your own performance doesn’t work. It’s a bit like asking a student to mark his or her own examination paper. No matter how honest the student might be it is impossible to be perfectly unbiased. Get outsiders to do it, people who know how to measure service in ways that actually mean something. It is not as simple as asking your customers to fill in one of those silly little bits of paper some restaurants give you after your meal, it’s a lot more complicated. Get in touch with us if you want some free advice on how to do this.

Finally, the last thing that I think can be learned from the “zero tolerance” idea is that nothing is too trivial to overlook. There is a lot to be said for delivering customer service “from the bottom up”. Yes, of course your Head Office should worry about strategies, mission statements and all that management nonsense but it is all completely worthless if the tables are dirty, you have run out of ketchup and the staff are miserable. The little things matter most when it comes to customer service and if you are tolerant of minor failures why should anyone care about the big ones?

Zero tolerance for trivial problems may just help transform your entire organisation into a winner!

This week’s stars!

  • Multichoice for fixing a problem with good humour.
  • Bruce and the team at Pick N Pay yet again for treating our recent worthy cause like a Queen.

Friday, 16 February 2007

The Bad Samaritan

You may remember that two weeks ago we reported on an upsetting case involving a woman who was bereaved, who couldn’t keep up with her late husband’s BHC Tenant Purchase Scheme repayments and was eventually evicted from her house. Facing homelessness and having six children, four of whom are still of school age, she turned to us to see if we could help.

Unfortunately there wasn’t much we could do directly. We spoke to BHC who had evicted her but they were also in a difficult situation. She had run up enormous arrears and there was simply no way she would ever be able to repay them.

But then along came the Bad Samaritan. No, not the Good one we all hope will visit us occasionally. The other kind.

I’ll refer to him just as the BS, if you promise to overlook what else that stands for, OK?

The BS offered to lend her a large amount of money so she could repay the arrears and even buy her house completely. Sounds good doesn’t it? Well, not THAT good. How on earth was she going to repay the loan? She has no job and with all those children and no extended family to help, how can she work? Presumably the BS was hoping she would quickly default on her repayments to him and he could then grab the house?

That was where we left it two weeks ago.

Strangely, on the day the article was published we got a phone call at the office from someone who refused to give his name, demanding to know where we had heard all of this and wondering what status we have. Was it perhaps someone with a guilty conscience? Or someone irritated that he had been caught out and might not make a quick profit from another’s misfortune?

So what has happened in the last two weeks?

We’ve spoken to the lady in question many times and done our best to suggest that rather than saving her from homelessness all this was doing was delaying it slightly and further deepening her debt. However since we first covered the story the BS later offered just to give the lady money, not lend it to her. So maybe he has finally decided to be generous?

Sorry. No. What he wanted this time was to give her the money so she could buy the house, she would then sign it over to him completely and she could keep a little extra that he would give her. According to the generous benefactor she could use that extra to buy a plot of land.

In short, what he wanted was a nice respectable house in return for paying off the lady’s debts, which, incidentally, still remain much lower than the price of the house.

Horrifyingly all of this distinctly dubious deal was being done through a supposedly legitimate law firm acting on behalf of the BS. According to the lady a lawyer from the firm had made her sign documents that she didn’t understand and refused to let her have copies. They also refused to allow her to take her grown up daughter along to help her.

We helped the lady to write a letter to the law firm formally advising them that she did not want to proceed and that she wanted them to return various documents, including her late husband’s death certificate. Their reaction? “When you pay us.”

Needless to say, when we contacted the law firm they claimed ignorance of the background to the story, innocence of any deception and horror that anyone would think they had acted improperly. She will of course be getting her documents back very shortly indeed!

We went with the lady to speak to BHC who, to their great credit, immediately said they wanted nothing to do with such a sale. They immediately withdrew the offer to sell if it meant the property would go to the BS.

We then heard something from one of our many informants. Our source told us that it wasn’t actually the BS offering to cough up the cash at all, he was just a go-between. The money was coming from a local businessman who, for simplicity I’ll call the Big Bad Samaritan. The Big BS.

But then something amazing happened. He phoned us. The BS himself picked up the phone to talk to us. He had obviously heard that the net was closing in around him. He explained that he was only trying to help out a lady in distress and heaven forbid that he was going to make money out of it! Well, apart from his cut of the profits of course. When pushed slightly he did admit that he was acting on behalf of a bigger BS than himself. And yes he did confirm his name, which of course we will keep confidential. Well, unless anything improper occurs…

By the way Mr BS, did we forgot to mention that we recorded both the phone calls we had with you. So don’t try denying anything, OK?

Where are we now? Our very good friends at BHC and the lady are talking directly to one another to see if a deal can be arranged that actually involves her buying the house. No go-betweens, no dodgy legal agreements and definitely no BS!

This week’s stars!

  • Yet another example of enormous generosity. Following the last story about this situation Bruce from Pick N Pay at Molapo Crossing in Gaborone has offered the lady and her family a P500 shopping expedition. The last person Pick N Pay did this for said they treated her “like a Queen”!
  • On the subject of royalty, Prince from Barclays Bank for helping sort out a customer’s problem without a fuss.

Friday, 9 February 2007

Official sunsets

The Government got a little bigger recently. Not much of course, but the formation of the new Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture added another “organ of state” to the impressive list we have collected over the years.

Not that I’m against Government of course. Governments are good. Well, some of them are. There are plenty of things that Governments are best placed to do. Like catching and prosecuting criminals, like providing basic education for our kids and providing basic hospital services. And….. Errr….. What was it again?

Oh yes, taxing us so they can spend them our money on all the good things they do.

I probably sound a little cynical but as I’ve said before I don’t always think Government are best placed to actually DO things. That’s why I approve of them divesting themselves of things like telephone service provision, air transport, water and power delivery. In Botswana so far this process may have only got as far as being delivered by parastatals but it’s a good start. The next step is, of course, to hand them over to real business specialists who run them even better but these things do take a little time if they are going to be done right.

So back to the new Ministry. I actually started working on some suggestions for their new organisational structure but once I got as far as the Department of Balls and the Rackets Unit I decided to give up and let someone else do it.

Youth, Sports and Culture are all perfectly wonderful things. I was a youth once, very occasionally did some sport and on a good day I can be quite cultured. Sport is great in so many ways, youth are our future and culture is our identity. Any country that ignores youth and culture in particular is doomed to insignificance. However my concern is what exactly the Ministry has as its mandate.

The nightmare for me, the sign of absolute failure, will be the first time we see a football match sponsored by the Ministry. It’s not the job of Government to pay people to play football. It is their job, however, to encourage others to come up with the cash. Give tax breaks to companies that sponsor sports and we’ll see the sponsorship flooding in, even more than at the moment.

I think that the key objective is to foster an environment where these things are easier than before, where the Ministry oils the wheels but lets others buy the petrol and do the driving.

The creation of this new Ministry could be a great opportunity for Government to set an example of how exactly Government can be an enabler of good work rather than an agency that actually does it badly.

While thinking about this I came across a series of fascinating ideas suggested by the Adam Smith Institute in the UK. Go to their web site ( and take a look at “Around the World in 80 ideas” (if you don’t have internet access write to me and I’ll post it to you). The one that grabbed my attention was to do with “sunset legislation”. The idea is that any agency set up by government should have a fixed term. Not only should the agency be given a mandate but a timescale within which to achieve it. They did this in Texas in the 1970s and by 1999 23 state agencies had ceased to exist and had saved the state an estimated total of nearly P4 billion. Yes, that’s billions, not millions.

This can be done at the inception of an agency but also retrospectively. After all there is no shortage of candidates for “sunsetting”. The government web site currently gives links to 24 parastatal agencies and that is just the ones with web sites! It doesn’t include others like Botswana Railways, the TEC, the LEA, BEDIA, the NFTRC, NDB, BSB and so on. The list seems almost endless.

Of course I’m not suggesting that we should abolish the Ministries of Finance, Education or Health. Nor am I proposing that we close the Bureau of Standards, PPADB or the Tourism Board. Clearly they can do a lot for the country and for our international image. I can’t foresee any situation when they won’t be useful.

But why should the other agencies continue for ever? They all have something specific to do but all of them could be time limited. If you employed a plumber or an electrician to help build your house you wouldn’t expect them to stay forever. Once they had done their job you would let them move on to their next customer. So why do we see the organs of government any differently? Wouldn’t it be amazing for Government to announce that an agency has done it’s job well and is now going to close down because we no longer need it?

It’s happening already in some other countries. New Zealand has recently deregulated their telecommunications sector. What happened? Well, people can still hear radio shows, make phone calls and surf the web.

Wouldn’t it be a remarkable sign of our maturity as a country if we announced to the world that we have done certain things so well that we they no longer need governing?

This week’s stars!

  • Lesego from the Francistown Immigration Office for being welcoming with a huge smile and doing a “splendid job”.
  • Darkie, Khumo and Patricia from Equatorial Coffee at Riverwalk not only for looking after a forgotten laptop computer but for becoming private detectives and tracing it’s owner.
  • Masego at Mr Price Home at Game City for going out of her way to find an item for a customer.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Ensure you’re insured

We had a very distressing case this week. Unfortunately it wasn’t anything we could help with but the lessons to be learned from it are important.

The lady who contacted us lost her husband a while ago. He was the sole wage-earner in a household comprising him, his wife and six children and was buying a house from BHC. Unfortunately after his death his wife and kids were left with very little income. She stopped paying the mortgage and fell very quickly into serious arrears.

Four years after his death and after running up a total debt of over P70,000 BHC finally had no choice but to evict her.

Before I go any further let me stress that this isn’t a criticism of BHC. They are not at fault here. She simply hadn’t been keeping up with the repayments. In fact they seem to have been remarkably tolerant, giving her every opportunity to pay over an extended period. But BHC isn’t a charity, it’s not there to provide free housing. There are advertisements all over the country warning us about what happens if you can’t make your repayments. There are also adverts saying that you if you have a problem you should go and explain it to them and they will do their best to sort it out. BHC are not the bad guys in this story. In fact nobody is. Well there may be one but I’ll come to that later.

Anyway, they evict her and now she is homeless with 4 children still at school. All in all it’s a horrible story, very tragic and saddening.

We have done our best to help though. We contacted BHC but they are understandably saying that with that sort of debt outstanding there is not much they can do.

However we have now heard again from the lady in question and the news is actually even worse. It seems that a loan shark has offered to lend her the money so that she can pay off the accumulated debt, own the house completely and then rent it out to pay off the debt to the lender. We haven’t heard the exact details yet but this is very worrying. How exactly is the mathematics going to work? Knowing how loan sharks work, the sort of interest the charge and their reactions when there is a problem with payment we are worried. There is no way we can calculate a repayment schedule that will work out. At best she will need to rent out the low cost former BHC house for somewhere between P7,000 and P10,000 to stand any chance of ever paying off the loan and that is simply never going to happen.

Instead, what we confidently predict will happen is that in the very first month she won’t be able to make the first repayment, the unscrupulous lender will demand the keys to the house and she will be in even bigger trouble than before. And she still won’t have a house to live in. And she’ll then owe even more money and now to someone much less proper than BHC. BHC charge reasonable interest on late repayments, loan sharks demand absolutely exorbitant levels.

So can any lessons be leant from this awful situation? Well, seeing as most of this is beyond the lady’s control there may not be many but there is one that stands out. One thing that we all should consider whenever we enter into any sort of serious debt, whether a house purchase, a bank loan or a credit card.


When we discussed this situation with BHC they mentioned that they now do their very best to make purchasers take out insurance to cover them in the event of misfortune. This is very wise advice. Although it might sound silly to spend money insuring against something that will probably never happen, we live in an environment where these things DO happen, all the time. Many of our neighbours and cousins are dying, whether from illness or car accidents leaving their families destitute. For a very small payment ever month they could have at least ensured that their bereaved families still had a roof over their heads.

The situation then got me thinking about the occasional kindness we see from companies. Firstly, and perhaps ironically, from BHC. They didn’t throw her out after her bereavement. Instead they gave her a long time to set things straight. It’s not their fault that she couldn’t.

Then, of all people, Wimpy. They heard about the basics of the situation and immediately offered the family a Wimpy family meal voucher so at least the kids can have a decent meal some time soon.

Incidentally if anyone else want to donate anything to her and the kids all they have to do is contact us and we will make sure they get it.

This week’s stars!

  • Alan at Wimpy for his generosity and kindness.
  • DHL for recovering from a problem with style.
  • Cedrick from BPC for service above and beyond the call of duty.