Friday, 30 March 2007

Service maturity

Just recently we started allowing one of my sons to make tea. We decided that he was now mature enough to use the kettle and could be trusted to pour boiling water safely. Obviously the first few times we were there to assist him but also to make absolutely sure he could be trusted to do it himself without endangering either himself or anybody else.

That is how you allow a child to grow up, to develop his or her skills and to become self-sufficient. You start by doing things for them, then teaching them how to do things independently and finally you let them get on with it themselves, remaining available for when an emergency arises. It’s the ways things are.

So why do some companies seem to be so determined to behave like children? Why can’t they grow up?

Just recently I heard an interview with the head of a company who was asked how he was going to react to some complaints that he had received. His answer was simple. “We will engage consultants”.

If you know who this is, please don't let him use the kettle, OK?

I still don't understand the obsession we have here in Botswana with engaging consultants. Whether it is local consultants helping us to fix the simplest of problems or international consultants telling us the blindingly obvious I think it all just serves to keep us in a childish state of mind.

Of course I am not saying that consultants have no place. I just believe that they should be restricted to specific, “technical” services. If I want an environmental assessment done then clearly I don't have the skills so it is obviously best for me to pay a specialist to do it for me. If I want to find a new CEO for a company it is obviously much better to approach a top-level recruitment company. If I want my company accounts doing perfectly I will engage an accountant.

But if I want to know how to teach my front-line staff how to treat customers with respect I can do that myself and SO CAN YOU! I have read the books. I have seen the TV programs. I have read the newspaper columns that go on and on about how to do it. I have even written a few. I don't need a consultant for this. No, I don't.

The other thing that my children do sometimes is use long words. Part of it is them developing their language skills, another part is experimentation but it is often amusing to hear them just showing off, using a word they just heard on the TV.

The trouble is, adults do it as well. Take this example taken from a speech recently given at a conference and reported in the newspapers. Talking about the conference the speaker said it:

“should provide much-needed leverage to enable the country to upscale its present operational threshold through taking advantage of the latest concepts.”


I challenge you to translate that into English without reading it at least 4 times. I think what he meant was:

“we will learn new things and get better”.

So why not say that? Why are we so ashamed of using simple language? Yes, certainly you can use a long word if it is the best way to get a concept across. There is nothing wrong with long words if there is no alternative but very often there is. For instance I have never understood why anyone uses the word “utilise” instead of “use”. Why say “we will benchmark it against” when you can say “we will compare it with”?

And every time I hear the phrase “results-oriented” I have to wonder how the speaker did things in the past. Did he judge performance by something other than results? At their recent “Results-based Monitoring & Evaluation Workshop” did the Ministry of Agriculture announce that they were no longer going to judge performance by something other than results? What else is there? Surely agriculture specialists are some of the best-placed to know about results?

Every time I hear words or phrases like “paradigm”, “process re-engineering” or “stakeholder” I wonder who people are trying to impress. Probably just themselves.

I think that this is all actually a bit childish. One of the signs of maturity is confidence and I think it is actually very mature of a business leader to suggest that his or her ideas are actually quite simple and that they can be expressed simply. It is not necessary to clothe them in pretentious words. Surely that is just a smokescreen for sloppy thinking?

Sorry, I must finish now. I need to go and get my son to put the kettle on so I can upscale my present results-based operational tannin-oriented capacity threshold. I need a cup of tea.

This week’s stars!

  • The company that objected to what we had been saying about them in Mmegi (without even giving their name) and on the radio and got their attorneys to call us and suggest we had been defaming them. Given that we only reported the exact truth as reported to us and in our experience it really made our day! We knew we were doing something right. Thanks guys!
  • Candy at Stanbic Fairgrounds for fantastically good service.
  • Mpho at African Banking Corporation, nominated by her colleagues (yes, that’s permitted!) for outstanding service and always being willing to help out.
  • Ivy at Capitol Medical Centre for being amazing.

Friday, 23 March 2007

An avalanche of new ideas

Two weeks ago I wrote in glowing terms about the new “Islamic” banking services that had just been introduced by FNB. As you may know there are strict rules that Muslims are required to follow when they consider financial matters. The biggest of these rules states that interest should not be earned on a loan. This does not mean that a lender cannot make a profit on a loan but it is forbidden for this to be in the form of interest, it must be something else.

So FNB developed and launched Islamic lending mechanisms. Instead of variable “interest” on top of the amount of a loan a customer is now charged a fixed amount of profit to the bank on top of the loan amount.

The only real difference between this and a conventional loan is that the extra money, the profit, is stated up front and is fixed. Unlike a conventional loan the repayment doesn’t change if the basic interest rate changes.

So what happened? The Managing Director of another bank contacted me to talk about similar services that they deliver. I’m not going to name the bank in question because I have not yet had his consent to quote him but he described various fixed repayment lending mechanisms that they already have.

Firstly it was refreshing to get some feedback, something that happens very rarely! Secondly it was good to hear that there are lots of options available for banking customers.

Many of us are very enthusiastic critics of banks but I think that it is genuinely good news that competition between the banks is leading to greater choice for us all.

However I still do think that FNB deserve a lot of credit for gaining the competitive advantage by their excellent use of that great competitive weapon: publicity. Even if other banks do already deliver similar services FNB are always going to be able to describe themselves as the first bank that “introduced Islamic banking”. No matter what other banks jump into this market FNB will be, and will be remembered as being, pioneers and that is going to do them no harm at all in the long run.

So let’s give credit where it is due. We got a press release from Stanbic recently announcing their new TransactPlus account. In itself this is a fairly conventional account with the features that we are used to like a debit/ATM card but the key difference is that there is a monthly fee of only P10. Yes, ten. There is also, most importantly in my opinion, “no minimum income level”. It’s open to everyone. Now this IS a big issue. So many bank accounts are only available to those who earn more than a certain amount and this leads to the situation we have where so many of us can’t afford to have a bank account at all. OK, so it is easy to operate with cash but what happens when you want a home or car loan? They always ask for bank statements and I think this just contributes towards to some of the social divisions we see in our society. Some communities are prevented by circumstances from improving their situations through those old-fashioned activities like working hard and saving money.

In the same press release Stanbic talk about a new savings account called PureSave. The big thing with this account is that it’s absolutely free yet pays interest. That’s another thing that might help the less affluent end of the spectrum get into a savings habit.

I agree with Dichaba Molobe whose column in Mmegi is always full of common sense. Education is by far the best way to elevate the people of a country but we can help this happen more quickly if entities like the government and banks remove some of the obstacles to each of us making and saving our hard-earned money. This is particularly important amongst the poorer parts of our society.

Now clearly a major part of FNB and Stanbic introducing these new products is that they themselves want to make more money. Out of us. They are, quite literally “exploiting” us but there is absolutely nothing wrong with “exploitation” so long as it is balanced. Yes, my bank exploits me by taking my money and making profits but I exploit them by using the services they provide. Yes, a restaurant exploits me by charging me slightly more than the total cost of the food they prepare and the cost of the staff who serve it but I exploit them by eating their delicious food and letting my kids run around making lots of noise. Exploitation is only to be condemned when it is based on deception as it is with many loan sharks and holiday clubs.

Let me stress that this column is NOT here to advertise a particular bank, or indeed any company, but I do think innovative products should be recognised when they emerge. FNB and Stanbic have done that recently and even if they help just a few customers save more money for a rainy day, or get that home or new car then I think we should be happy customers.

Next week I promise I will do my best to be nasty about banks again. OK?

This week’s stars!

  • Ofentse and Kayabe at G4 Security for being speedy and chasing away bad guys!
  • Osenotse at Stanbic for great service with a smile.
  • All the guys at Total Filling Station for speed and for a song.
  • Keitumetse at Barclays Broadhurst for just sorting things out when a customer had a bag and cards stolen.
  • Vera at FedEx for tracking down and personally delivering a lost parcel. And it was on New Years Eve!

Friday, 16 March 2007

Bodies everywhere

We were asked recently whether we thought that the country would benefit from a “Stakeholder body” to oversee and guide the development of customer service.

My heart sank.

Yet another “body” to sit around long tables, drink weak and over-sweetened tea and discuss at great length our terms of reference, read minutes from previous meetings and to receive endless apologies for absence?

Yet another “body” to take up endless amounts of money, probably yours and mine, discussing at length pompous strategies, visions and missions?

Yet another “body” to spend half it’s time on flights to Kasane, because of course these committees must have retreats in a luxury hotels, drinking hugely alcoholic cocktails from glasses with little umbrellas in them and watching hippos and crocodiles go past? And of course there are the obligatory game drives. After all they do help the committee members to pass the time pondering how they can “uplift” their expenses claims.

So perhaps you’ve guessed already that I’m NOT in favour of setting up another body to waste time wondering how we can make things better.

Correct, I’m not. What we need is action, not words. Winston Churchill was famous for writing on top of lengthy documents the words “Action This Day” in green ink. Like him we need to stop pussy-footing around discussing things and instead actually to roll up our sleeves and make change happen.

I think that we need to adopt the J.F.D.I. methodology. This approach has been successfully used throughout the world in a wide range of environments but is particularly known in military circles. It’s a remarkably successful approach to dealing with the sort of problem that usually results in the formation of a working party, a project or sometimes even an entire Department. J.F.D.I. stands for “Just Flipping Do It”. OK, that is not quite true. Mmegi won’t allow me to say what it really stands for but let me give you a clue. The second word is not quite right. I’m sure you can work it out.

We need more committees, working parties and consultative forums like we need a hole in the head.

We already waste a staggering amount of the taxpayer’s money on these things and what do we have to show for the investment already made? Have service levels improved as a result? Yes I think there HAVE been real improvements in service but these have not come from committee meetings, seminars and conferences but instead have come from genuine competition entering the market, not “stakeholder bodies”.

There is a very closely guarded secret in business that management gurus don’t want you to know. There haven’t been any new business ideas in decades, just old ideas recycled. Yes, there have been plenty of new ideas about new products and services, but nothing really new about the WAY in which things are done. Yes, we have internet shopping sites like Amazon and clever things done with cellphones but these are just the old business practices being done with new technology. Emails and SMSs are just messages. An email is just a letter and an SMS is just a telegram, they are just sent electronically rather than by hand. When did a bank last introduce a genuinely new type of product? Current accounts, savings, loans, investments and pension schemes have all been around for hundreds of years.

The same is true for customer service. We all know what has to be done, just like a store-owner a hundred years ago knew. Products offered at competitive prices, served with courtesy and some follow-up if things go wrong.

The trouble is that so many organisations just fail to deliver. Just as business has not really changed in centuries, neither have customers. The endless list of closed restaurants, supermarkets and clothing stores we have seen in recent years shows that this is true. Even in a relatively small and new consumer community like ours, shoppers know to shop around, to pick the cheapest offers and to avoid outlets that rip them off. When there is oversupply it will always be those that forget the old lessons of hard work, focus on customers and fair prices that fail.

So in short I think we should forget about new bodies, new committees and new agencies and instead just get on with the work we all know we need to do. Every minute we waste in a meeting or at yet another conference is a minute we could instead spend on thinking up new special offers, checking our competitor’s prices and finding ways to beat them and actually making ourselves and our shareholders some money.

We don’t need “stakeholder bodies”. We need “shareholder bodies”. The good news is that we have them already. They are called “owners” and it’s them we should be satisfying and the best way to do that is actually to deliver excellent customer care, not just to think about it.

Stop reading this now. Go away and J.F.D.I.

This week’s stars!

  • The staff at Diagnofirm in the African Mall for being lovely. Even the owner came and held the hand of an anxious listener and told her everything would be OK.
  • Gase and Doreen at Air Botswana for amazing service. They worked hard to get their customer the very best price and even gave him a wine bottle holder to say thanks for his business!
  • Minah at FNB Kgale branch for no hassle account opening and follow-up.
  • Bruce, De Klerk and the team at Pick N Pay at Molapo Crossing for allowing us to celebrate International Consumer Rights Day by bothering their customers with leaflets on their rights. Check our web site for details.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Competitive interest

Yet again I have been thinking about competition. This week my interest was sparked by an announcement by First National Bank.

FNB staged a major launch of a new service that they had developed for a particular market. Yes, we hear these things all the time about things like new car loan schemes but this was slightly different. It was focussed on one particular group: Muslims.

As you may be aware there are strict rules that Muslims are required to follow when they consider financial matters. The biggest of these rules states that interest should not be earned on a loan. This does not mean that a lender cannot make a profit on a loan but it is forbidden for this to be in the form of interest, it must be something else. There is an interesting summary of this on the Wikipedia web site. Just search for Islamic banking and you’ll find an extensive summary of the various Shariah rules.

As a result of these rules in the past most Muslims in countries like Botswana have been forced to compromise their religious principles to some extent if they wanted a loan from a commercial bank.

So FNB, being utterly nice people, have introduced an Islamic banking service. The principle is actually quite simple and when it’s explained in simple terms it is actually perfectly reasonable. It goes like this. If you want a loan under this sort of scheme you simply tell the bank how much you want to borrow from them, they give it some thought and they tell you perfectly openly how much extra they are going to charge you as profit. They then divide the total amount by the number of months over which you want to pay and there you have it, your monthly repayment.

The only real difference between this and a conventional loan is that the extra money, the profit, is stated up front and is fixed. Unlike a conventional loan the repayment doesn’t change if the basic interest rate changes. If base interest rates double your repayments stay exactly the same. However on the other hand if base rates are reduced, again your repayments don’t change.

The more I think about it the more it seems like quite an attractive option for a customer. At least your repayment will remain exactly the same regardless of what happens in the financial markets. For some customers, including a lot of non-Muslims, this might be a very appealing option.

Incidentally the FNB scheme is not just open to Muslims. Anyone can apply. If this style of finance is right for you then you can apply. I somehow doubt they will be checking your knowledge of the Quran or other Islamic credentials at the door. It is a bit like the Halaal food issue. There is nothing un-Christian or un-Hindu about Halaal food, just because it happens to satisfy the requirements of a particular group. I’m not a vegetarian but I can eat vegetarian food. In the same way I can use an “Islamic” financial service without being a Muslim.

Presumably FNB being smart people will be making sure that the profit they charge on top of the basic loan amount will cover them in case interest rates goes through the roof but next time you want to borrow something it might be worth asking them for two quotes: an Islamic and a non-Islamic one.

Incidentally while writing this I have been trying to find a word to describe non-Islamic loans that isn’t insulting. “Normal” implies that Muslims are somehow abnormal. Conventional suggests that Islam is unconventional. I did think of describing non-Islamic loans as “infidel loans” but I thought that might be undiplomatic.

Earlier I suggested that FNB have introduced this scheme because they are nice people and they want to contribute towards the greater good. Well I suppose that may be the case but there is at least one other reason.

The competitive edge.

Yes, this is a new service that reaches out to a community that has perhaps not been well served in the past but it also puts them ahead of their competitors. FNB are always going to be able to describe themselves as the first bank that did this. No matter what other banks jump into this market FNB will be the pioneers and that is going to do them no harm at all in the long run.

The last time I commented on banks doing things for their own selfish interest I was criticised for suggesting that this was their only motivation. I don’t genuinely believe that but there is nothing shameful about a bank wanting to grab a large piece of the market by being innovative and addressing a need. On the contrary it is the mark of a successful business that they do such things. It’s even better if they stimulate a competitor to enter the market as well. If a second bank enters the Islamic banking arena next month then we all benefit, not just Muslims. The more aggressive, the more competitive and the more focussed on customer care a bank becomes, the better the products they offer us and the lower the charges we all face.

So, congratulations to FNB on introducing a service that may initially seem only to benefit a minority but which, with a little luck, will benefit us all.

This week’s stars!

  • Theresa at BTC Corporate Services for being a star.
  • Kwadiso at BBS for outstanding service.
  • Grace and Eugene at FNB Industrial Branch for going the extra mile.
  • Lalala at Stanbic Business Banking for being amazing.

Friday, 2 March 2007

We need enforcement!

I sometimes think that before any new laws should be passed our legislators should be forced to find one to cancel to make room.

We have no shortage of laws in Botswana. We have laws that cover everything from marriage, the protection of monuments and relics and witchcraft. No, not the protection of witchcraft, the law makes it illegal. Did you know it is illegal for anyone to claim that they can “discover where or in what manner anything supposed to have been stolen or lost may be found”. Strange then that we still have advertisements in the press from so called traditional doctors who claim that they can do this. Maybe the problem isn’t that the laws aren’t there. Maybe the problem is that nobody is actually enforcing them.

Anyway, let’s move on from witchcraft to consumer rights.

I’ve been reading the Consumer Protection Act and the Consumer Protection Regulations and do you know what I think?

They are amazing. When I started reading them I thought I would find no real protections, no real powers and nothing with any teeth, but I was totally wrong. The Act gives the Director of the Consumer Protection Office a wide range of powers and the Regulations include a number of perfectly sensible and reasonable guidelines about what consumers can expect.

For instance any commodity or service must be “fit for any particular purpose made known by the consumer” and best of all in my opinion, must be “of merchantable quality”. What does “merchantable quality” mean? It’s simple. Items must be “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”.

In plain language this means that a DVD player must be able to play DVDs. The cellphone you buy must be capable of making calls. If you buy a sofa it should be capable of being sat upon.

There is a whole lot more in the Regulations that might seem obvious but are actually there in black and white for us to use. If a store says something is new, then they will be in deep trouble if you later find out that “it has deteriorated, or it has been altered, reconditioned, used or is second hand”.

Over the next few weeks we will be giving away a tip every week from the Act and Regulations, as always entirely for free! We will give you the details of a clause from the Regulations you can use whenever you encounter a specific problem. This week’s free tip concerns deposits. We heard recently from someone who paid a 50% deposit for an item they liked on a Friday, came back on Monday only to find that the item had been sold. If this happens to you, just go back and read out the following:

“By failing to restore to me the deposit I gave you regarding this item you have contravened Clause 15 (1) (e) of the Consumer Protection Regulations 2001. Unless my deposit is immediately restored to me I will be reporting this matter to the Consumer Protection Office and requiring them to exercise their powers to investigate this issue as described in Section 8 of the Consumer Protection Act 1998.”

While you are saying this to them remember to keep your back straight, your eyes connected with theirs and above all remember that you know your rights.

Just watch as they crumble before you!

As I mentioned earlier we don’t lack laws, we lack enforcement. However the powers that be, in this case the Consumer Protection Office, can only act when we complain to them.

What about an example to start with?

Holiday Clubs.

We have heard from so many people over the last few years about the holiday clubs that call inviting you to attend a presentation where you learn about the fantastic holidays that will be entirely free if you join their club. A few weeks ago a customer called us to tell us his sorry tale of being trapped by one of these companies. Over a few years he has paid them a total of around P15,000 and has not had even one holiday. What these companies strangely forget to emphasise is that all they offer is accommodation. Yes, you can stay for free in a hotel in London, Sydney or the South Pole but you have little choice of which hotel you stay in and they make no contribution towards your food and drink while you are there. Most importantly they pay absolutely nothing towards your travel costs. So yes, there is a free hotel for you in Las Vegas but you have to find the P10,000 it takes to fly there. Even when you arrive there is no guarantee you will be within spitting distance of the nightlife.

And the worst thing of all? The contract you sign is for life. For ever. There is no cancellation clause. According to the clubs you can never change your mind. Their excuse is that they give you a chance to change your mind when you first sign this contract but after that it is a bit like marriage only worse. No divorce from the holiday club. Ever.

Well, we think this is wrong. So wrong that we believe that a lifetime contract is an unfair business practice as outlined in clause 17 (1) (f) of the Regulations and not making this repeatedly clear to customers at the outset is deceptive and an unfair business practice as outlined in clause 17 (1) (d) of the Regulations.

We have complained already to the Consumer Protection Unit and we will let you know what happens!

This week’s stars!

  • Lucky at Payless in the Main Mall for knowing her customer, always giving her a personal service.
  • Victor at Barclays Bank Main Mall for winning the Barclays annual service award.
  • Nancy at Ministry of Finance for being helpful and going out of her way to find information for a customer.
  • Rebecca at Department of Customs & Excise for being really helpful, friendly and even offering a customer a newspaper to read while she was waiting!
  • A G4S security guard at Mascom Head Office for being really helpful and helping someone who had their cellphone stolen.