Saturday, 7 September 2013

Ask questions

I was taught that in business there are no stupid questions. There are plenty of stupid answers but rarely a stupid question.

I was taught this because I was in a job where my primarily responsibility was to understand certain parts of our clients’ businesses. Only when I had a proper understanding could I possibly be expected to suggest things to them, identify weaknesses and come up with ideas to make things better.

But that occasionally required some stupid questions. Why, I once had to ask, do you have an unwritten rule that you only recruit people who went to this groups of schools but never from that group of schools? The answer was that the first group were known to be Protestant schools, the latter were Roman Catholic. This particular wing of this international company didn’t like Catholics. Guess which country that was?

One much closer to home involved the number of meetings we were having during a project. Why, I asked repeatedly, am I being invited to so many meetings? Most of the time I have nothing to contribute. I eventually discovered that it wasn’t my popularity, it was that I was the only member of the team that wasn’t actually employed by this organisation. I was an outsider. This organisation’s rules stated that if I was present at the meeting they were entitled to order refreshments. No me, no biscuits. My resulting unpopularity, when I started to refuse the meeting requests, was luckily short-lived.

More often than not the answers aren’t that specific. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked managers of a company why they do something only to be told either “We’ve always done it that way” or, more often, “I’ve no idea”.

The problem all organisations face is that decisions were often taken in the past without any record of why they were taken. Usually the person who decided has long since left and their legacy was one of ignorance.

More importantly consumers should be asking questions of suppliers. Questions like “Can I see a copy of the contract before I’m asked to sign it?”, “Can I take it home to show my Mum before I sign it?” and “Why have you printed it in such small characters and do you have a magnifying glass I can borrow?”

The problem is that consumers don’t always know the questions they should be asking. Most of us aren’t experts in complex areas like banking, insurance, credit and technology so it’s very easy for salespeople to confuse us with technical language. Or sometimes just language that is deliberately pompous. I saw recently a letter from an insurance company that demanded that the victim of an accident in a supermarket “let us have your quantum of damages for consideration”. Seriously. I’m sure you know as well as I do what “quantum” means but does everyone?

Luckily the law provides us with some protection. The Consumer Protection Regulations forbid suppliers from “taking advantage of a consumer's inability reasonably to protect his interests by
reason of disability, illiteracy or inability to understand the language of an agreement presented by the other party to the transaction who knows or reasonably should know of the consumer's inability”. In other words, don’t use unnecessarily complicated language.

Another part of the Regulations forbids suppliers from “causing a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”. Think store credit agreements. How many of them actually explain what happens if you have problems with your repayments? How many of them explain what will happen if your goods are repossessed? How many of them explain what will happen if the goods are faulty or never actually delivered? None of them of course.

So it’s up to us to ask questions before we sign anything.

Just as importantly we should be asking more and more questions of the regulators. I know there are some that do a good job despite the challenges they face, regulators like NBFIRA, the Bureau of Standards and BOTA, but many others are sleeping on the job. They have awesome powers to control their areas but seem to lack the willingness to get their hands dirty.

We should be asking the others, the ones with the power to stop pyramid schemes, Ponzi schemes, foreign exchange schemes and all those suspicious “We’ll teach you how to trade on the stock market” schemes, what they’re doing to protect us because at the moment it looks like they’re doing nothing at all.

Here’s another question we should be asking.

What do you think about your bank?

We're about to start a MAJOR survey on banking in Botswana. The time has come to ask bank customers what they think about their bank, what they like, what they dislike, what they can improve. To do this we need volunteers to share their feelings with us, as many of you as possible. The more data we get, the more convincing the results will be. The more convincing the results are, the more the banks will be forced to take notice.

If you can spare 15 minutes we'd like to interview you over the phone, any time of day or night, in your office, at home, in the bath, wherever you feel most comfortable. Email us your name, which banks you bank with and the phone number we can use to call you on. Please also say what time of day is best for you. If you can "volunteer" your friends or relatives (please ask them first) that's even better.

What's more, everyone who volunteers and who is interviewed will enter a competition and stands to win a prize. We can't afford anything too extravagant but there'll be Consumer Watchdog pens, t-shirts, even some restaurant vouchers.

If you can spare the time email us your details to and we’ll be in touch. This is your chance to be part of a step towards improving the service they give us in return for all the money they take from us.

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