Tuesday 20 January 2015

Are they honest or not?

How honest do you think businesses are? How well do you think we can trust the companies that sell us things? Are there industries that lie to us? Are there other industries that always tell the truth? Or is it more complicated than that?

It’s certainly easy to become rather cynical about ethics in business, particularly if you spend a lot of your time helping consumers fix the problems they’ve experienced. There certainly are some individuals I’ve encountered in the last few years who are no more than liars, cheats and fraudsters. The way they make money is by telling lies to people and stealing their money. But they are individuals who act that way. Is it possible that there are certain industries that are dishonest? Or others that are honest?

Like all things in life, it’s not as simple as that.

To begin with I think that on many occasions we confuse dishonesty with the results of a lack of education and clarity.

Let’s start with the insurance industry. We’ve heard from many customers of insurance companies over the years who have accused their insurance company of being dishonest. “I claimed on my insurance policy and they refused to pay me!” is a fairly common complaint. However, when we probe a little more deeply we often find that dishonesty is not actually the problem. One customer made this complaint but it turned out that the reason they refused to pay following his car accident was that he’d caused it because he’d been drunk. He’d even been charged with drink-driving. Their policy in fact made it clear that if you were involved in an accident and it turned out you were drunk at the time you would get nothing. So rather than being dishonest, the insurance company was actually just sticking to their contract. Probably the only real criticism that could be made against the insurance company was that they didn’t make this absolutely clear when they sold him the policy.

The lack of customer education also leads consumers to some other serious misunderstandings. We frequently hear from consumers who have had a funeral or life insurance policy for a long time but who have never made a claim. For whatever reason the policy lapses or is cancelled and then the consumer then becomes incredibly angry when they don’t get a refund, thinking that because they never made a claim they’re entitled to get their money back.

But that’s just not how insurance works. During the period of the policy the customer was getting something: cover against risk. If something bad had happened during the period of the policy the insurance company would have paid up. If a relative or the policyholder himself had died then the policy would have paid out. I sometimes wonder if such consumers would rather that someone had died so they got something tangible for their money.

A more complicated situation came up recently. Two different people contacted us about a company that sells satellite TV decoders that can receive various SABC TV stations. Both claimed that they could no longer receive the TV channels they’d bought. However the two cases were very different. In one case the decoder had stopped functioning and the company were taking way too long to fix it and they were being a little difficult to reach, not answering calls from the customer until I got in touch with them. The company was being somewhat dishonest about their willingness to offer their customer what she deserved. In the second case the dishonesty was the other way round. That customer’s failure to receive TV was actually because she hadn’t paid for four months. She was the one who could be described as dishonest, not the company.

Meanwhile the company is being fundamentally dishonest because they’re product is based on a lie. They register people who live in Botswana to receive South African TV channel in South Africa, not in Botswana. Presumably they can only do this by lying when they do the registration? Their business is a lie.

One of my least favorite industries is micro-lending mostly because they have more than their fair share of liars. I know that since NBFIRA appeared things have become a lot better but there are still lying micro-lenders out there. We still occasionally hear of lenders who don’t think they need to be registered with NBFIRA or who think they can charge whatever they want in interest, ignoring the “in duplum” rule. That’s the rule that says when a debt is settled the interest may not be greater than the outstanding capital amount.

Another thing I despise is hire purchase. I’m not suggesting that stores that sell on HP are liars but there are some that are certainly “economical with the truth” preferring to hide the nasty things they don’t want their potential customers to know in tiny text hidden in the middle of a VERY long contract written in language that very few of us really understand.

So who are the honest and dishonest industries in YOUR opinion?

We’ve recently been running an online survey on honesty and members of the Consumer Watchdog team have also been out on the streets asking shoppers who they think can and cannot be trusted. It’s only a very simple survey, it’s certainly not scientific and it only measures perceptions of honesty, not whether companies really are honest or not but I think it will give us a clue of how people perceive the trustworthiness of a range of industries.

So who do you think people trust? More importantly who do you think they don’t trust? The results aren’t in yet but you can see them here in Mmegi next week.

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