Thursday 21 December 2006

Christmas stars

So who’s been a good child this year and deserves a visit from Santa?

It’s that time of year again when we at Consumer Watchdog appoint ourselves the judges of customer service and identify those people who we think deserve celebration.

Incidentally the temptation to name and shame those companies and individuals who have shown contempt for their customers is almost overwhelming but, as it’s Christmas, I plan to show some self-control and keep their names to myself. They say that at this time of year we should show “good will to all men”. Even towards those who really don’t deserve it. They know who they are.

So, in no particular order, here we go. Here’s a brief list of companies who really seem to understand how things work. They understand how to treat a customer and most importantly (well to us anyway) they genuinely seem to value feedback. Even when it comes from us. Even when a customer might have decided NOT to follow the official complaints mechanism and has approached us for help. Remember that there is no contractual obligation on customers to follow the sequence of steps a company decides they should follow, not matter how logical it might seem. What these companies understand is that what matters most is making sure that a problem gets fixed and that a customer walks away reasonably happy. They are the sort of companies who, when we alert them to a problem, actually thank us for letting them know.

The banks. Yes, I still feel a little odd writing this but they really do seem to get it. Of course mistakes happen. No company is perfect, things will always go wrong occasionally. With the number of customers they have the banks are a good example of this. However Barclays, FNB, Stanbic and Standard Chartered have all genuinely seemed to welcome us getting involved if it helps fix a problem. The best thing for us though is the genuine competition they demonstrate. They really do seem prepared to fight for our custom. The real beneficiaries of this are you and me, the ones that lend them our cash.

Air Botswana. Despite going through an enormous amount of change and huge levels of stress and uncertainty about the future, our national airline has continued to focus on customer care. The great news is that this can only get better when they become a properly commercial enterprise.

Pick N Pay at Molapo Crossing. One of the best examples we know of MBWA. Management By Walking Around. Managers not spending all day in the office doing accounts, instead they are out there on the shop floor chatting to customers, preventing problems from occurring in the first place instead of having to fix them afterwards. Obviously this works particularly well in shops but it’s critical in all businesses.

Our prize donors. All 4 main banks, Barloworld Motors, Orange, Mascom, Wimpy, Debonairs, Primi Piatti, African Banking Corporation, Pick N Pay at Molapo Crossing and loads of other companies all donated either money, vouchers or merchandise to give away to the people we celebrate.

It’s not just companies we celebrate though. Loads of individuals deserve it as well. The list is huge but a few superstars stand out.

Kabelo from BTC. Hardly a month goes by without someone celebrating Kabelo for dealing with customers as if they matter, as if he welcomes their business and recognises that they are actually paying his company their hard-earned money in return for a service.

Lorraine from FNB. She’s the Managing Director’s PA, a great example of those employees who understands how to take responsibility for an issue. A caller came through to her, and although technically it wasn’t her job to answer the question, Lorraine dealt with it personally. Our reader says she was “wonderful”!

Finally, two prize winners.

Nikki from Optimum McCann who was celebrated twice, both times for outstanding work.

Morasho, a shop manager from Fairground Mall. A customer left her purse behind in his store and before she knew it he had worked out she was a student and had printed leaflets which he distributed around the University announcing that he was looking after the purse for her.

Both Nikki and Morasho win P1,000 in Barloworld merchandise. Barloworld also tell us that if either of them has a car from Barloworld they can use the value of the prize towards a service or they will knock double the value of the prize off the price of a new car!

Finally we need some advice. In 2005 three companies were so upset by things we had to say that they had a tantrum and threatened to sue us for defamation. Obviously these threats came to nothing because we had only spoken the truth and it is not defamation if it is true. All it achieved was to show us which companies can’t take criticism and are frankly rather childish when it comes to unhappy customers. But at least it suggested we were having some sort of effect.

Incidentally don’t they understand how fantastic it would be? Can’t they see what amazing publicity we would get? Us, the poor little underdogs being sued by a big company for standing up for a customer. Bring it on!

However, this year only one company has threatened to sue us. Are we doing something wrong? Are we being more diplomatic? Surely it can’t be that companies are maturing, can it?

In 2007 rest assured that we’ll do our best to get threatened some more!

Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year to us all!

Thursday 14 December 2006

Who are the champions?

Many centuries ago there were champions. Real champions. Their job was to fight on behalf of Kings and Queens who, because they were royalty, were themselves only allowed to fight their equals. They were far too important to fight their own fights so they used to hire people to do it for them.

Now of course being sensible, if somewhat inbred, these Kings and Queens would seek out the roughest, toughest, most battle-hardened combat specialists most likely to beat off the competition. These champions were seen as heroes in the days when fighting prowess meant something. Thankfully we’ve moved on since then but the legacy of these champions remains with us in our language and also in things like sport. The Zebras are our champions when they take on teams from other countries on our behalf. Whether they win or lose they remain our champions in the original sense.

Now of course the word has now changed it’s meaning but I think it is useful to remember it’s origin.

And that’s where I think that there are parallels between these champions and the customer-service industry. The service champions we at Consumer Watchdog identify are very much like the champions of history. They are the ones that aren’t afraid to go into battle on behalf of their employer and against their competitors. They fight, although obviously not in the old-fashioned sense, to win, to beat their competitor and to bring glory and riches to those that they fight for. They aren’t armed with swords, battleaxes and bows and arrows any more but with much more complicated weapons. Our champions go into battle with good (or at the very least well-presented) products, policies that are customer friendly and with the occasional special treat for consumers.

OK, that is about as far as I can stretch the analogy. One big difference is that these days service champions can move from company to company. In fact a series of career moves is probably a sign that someone is pretty good at it. Sooner or later anyone doing a great job servicing customers will be recognised by other companies and head-hunted (another term with a violent history).

Normally when “head-hunting” is mentioned we think of CEOs and MDs but it’s not always the case. People can be head-hunted at all levels. In fact we were privileged to help bring about one of these several months ago.

In April this year we hosted the first Consumer Watchdog Birthday Party. We invited the 150 service champions we had celebrated in our first year to the Gaborone International Convention Centre to be celebrated in front of the press, their managers and the nation. Our guest of honour was the President who helped us to recognise the achievement of our service champions (see our website for pictures).

One of the champions worked at a well-known fast-food outlet, serving customers on the front line (yet another military term). Just a few minutes after getting his prize from the President he was approached by a very senior manager from a bank who offered him a job on the spot. Our champion doubled his salary instantly and now works in customer service helping the bank improve it’s relationship with it’s customers.

The bank manager didn’t care that the young man in question had never worked in a bank before. He didn’t care that our champion was unqualified to be an actual banker. Instead he saw that he was perfectly qualified to work in customer care.

What he understood is that champions are champions, regardless of who they fight for. Fighting skills are universal, whether you are serving fast food or helping customers in a bank. The qualities needed are actually quite simple but most importantly of all they are the same as those needed for the old fighting champions. Huge amounts of energy, excellent skills with the weapons available and most of all a passion to be the best, to win.

It also takes an understanding that there is nothing wrong with seeing business as like warfare. Some people seem to think that there is something morally reprehensible about competing, about taking on the competition and doing your level best to beat them. However the bizarre thing is that these same people are often avid sports fans. There are so many parallels between sport, warfare and business. All are about competition, victory and defeat. Can you imagine a boxing match with only one boxer? A football final with only one side? The reason football teams practice over and over again is not just to make them good at the game, it’s to make them better than the other side. Why can’t we see business as the same?

Lastly customers, like football fans, benefit when there is vigorous competition. We all want to see an exciting game involving two well-matched sides each doing their best to win. Same in business!

Christmas prizes

We have Christmas presents to give away! Barloworld have donated several thousand Pula’s worth of merchandise, from sweatshirts to baseball caps, for us to give away to nominated service champions. Barloworld also tell us that if a winner has a car from them they can use the value of the prize towards a service or they will knock double the value of the prize off the price of a new car!

So tell us, who do you think deserves to spend Christmas looking like a walking, talking advertisement for Volvo, Volkswagen, Audi, Ford or Jaguar? Let us know and there is still just enough time to give them an early Christmas treat.

This week’s stars!

  • All the staff at Vee’s Video at Molapo Crossing for being friendly, helpful and for service above and beyond the call of duty.
  • Moses from Lengaleng Bottle Store in Tlokweng for always smiling.
  • Barloworld for their generosity!

Thursday 7 December 2006

Bypassing sanity

I’m not sure what we’re doing. What’s going wrong? Why are we, as a nation, being so insane?

Yes, this week I’m going to go on and on, yet again, about road safety.

A couple of weeks ago I was outraged by encountering the aftermath of a traffic accident that took the lives of a mother and two children and was apparently caused by the recklessness of a government driver.

But this time it’s personal.

Last Monday one of the Consumer Watchdog team, in fact our longest serving team-member, narrowly avoided death. She was in a combi in Gaborone when the driver became distracted. Distracted by a junction? Distracted by another motorist? Distracted by one of the passengers?


The driver and his companion were busy discussing (and no, I’m not making this up, everyone heard it) the buttocks of a woman they had just passed. So busy was he gazing sideways and over his shoulder that he didn’t see the BMW that had stopped in front of him, waiting to turn right.

Well, not until he drove at great speed into the back of the BMW. Almost all the passengers were hurt and by a huge stroke of luck the accident happened about 60 seconds walk from the Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone. An ambulance came along pretty quickly but unfortunately that’s where her luck ended.

I first got to the hospital about 15 minutes after she had arrived, only about 30 minutes after the accident and found her on a trolley, in some pain but patiently awaiting the attention of the emergency staff. That was at around 10am.

So when did she finally get some medical attention?

She didn’t.

Despite her being a formidable woman who rarely takes no for an answer, by 8pm that evening, 10 hours after the accident, she hadn’t even been assessed. I don’t mean treated, I mean just the first assessment. The assessment when they decide if you are already dead, dying or worthy of treatment.

When we called the hospital at 8pm they were not exactly optimistic or re-assuring. The nurse we spoke to, who refused to give her name, told us that there were only 2 doctors on duty and at that moment, 94 patients were awaiting attention. However I spent the first 8 years of my career in hospitals and have spent some time in Accident & Emergency Rooms. The Princess Marina A&E was NOT particularly busy during the day on Monday. The issue was staffing. There was only one nurse on the “shop floor” on the two occasions I was there. I refuse to criticise him because he was actually there doing his job but he was simply overwhelmed.

Now for some educated guesswork. I suspect that the Princess Marina must employ at least 100 doctors and maybe 500-600 nurses. I’m also sure that they don’t all work in A&E but surely we can expect some of them to be there? I also know that the A&E centre is used by many people as a primary health centre, arriving with headaches and minor cuts and bruises that should really be dealt with by a family doctor. I am also painfully aware of the impact of HIV/AIDS on the hospital.

But all I wanted was for my colleague and friend to be looked at by a doctor or nurse and to be given at least some indication that she would be treated at some point in her life.
By 8pm we had all had enough and we had her driven to the Gaborone Private Hospital where we are happy to pay for her to be examined. Luckily nothing was actually broken. Luckily there was no internal bleeding. Luckily she hadn’t sustained a head injury.

Not that anyone at the Princess Marina would have noticed.

So back to road safety. What are the authorities doing to curb the death toll? Well, no doubt over the Christmas break there will be police officers stopping us and giving out leaflets. No doubt there will be random licence checks, speed checks and the fire brigade there to deal with the results of recklessness.

But that’s just papering over the cracks. We need radical action.

What we don’t need is the frankly insane action of which ever authority it was that recently painted pedestrian crossings on the Western Bypass in Gaborone. Not crossing with lights, no, just zebras on the road. Nothing wrong with a little patriotic imagery on the road but are we all insane? They are at some of the fastest spots on that road. Yes, I know that the speed limit there is only 60 but we must face facts. If you build a dual carriageway that is meant to be a city bypass then people will use it for exactly that purpose. I assumed that the purpose of the Western Bypass was to allow people to drive past Gaborone swiftly and effectively so we can only expect people to do exactly that: to drive round it swiftly.

I’m not defending speeding motorists, I just think we should recognise what certain roads are for. City bypasses are there get people around a city, not through it. At the moment there are times when it’s quicker to drive from Game City to Broadhurst through the city than along the bypass and that’s a strange state of affairs.

Of course pedestrians need to cross the road. But surely if we really cared about them we would build them a bridge. Yes, the bridge would cost money but I think the time has come when we should begin to measure the cost of lost lives as well.

This week’s stars!

  • Staff Nurse Rosemary Makorie at the Gaborone Private Hospital for taking a decision that helped treat our Watch Puppy. You reminded us how patients should be treated.
  • Segametse at Nandos at Game City for being fantastic.
  • Tsaiamiso from FNB Main Mall who so overwhelmed a customer she thought she deserved a present. Don’t worry, we’ll give her one!
  • Edward at BPC for courtesy and reconnection!

Thursday 30 November 2006

The Innovation Hub

So off I went to the “National Stakeholder Seminar on a proposal for a Botswana Innovation Hub” in Gaborone this week.

Hundreds of people were there to hear what Government were proposing. At the workshop were Government Ministers, academics, senior people from BEDIA, BOCCIM and the TEC, endless “Captains of Industry” (I think I am more of a corporal frankly), stakeholders (useful for killing vampires) and me.

The proposal for the Hub has wonderfully ambitious and lofty goals. The draft report states that the “Botswana Innovation Hub’s mission is to ‘put Botswana on the map’ as a location for world-class businesses engaged in knowledge intensive activities. The BIH will act as a catalyst for knowledge intensive industry to improve Botswana’s ability to compete in the global market with a technically skilled labor force.”

Sounds impressive and when you look at the success of these things elsewhere in the world they are very impressive. They are all over Finland and attract all sorts of Research & Development (R&D) companies and genuinely seem to foster a creative, dynamic environment that produces real results.

The Hub, as envisioned by the consultants and the various Ministries would act as an “incubator” as much as anything else. The plan is that start-up companies can begin there, soak up the creative atmosphere, partner with all the rich, successful companies that will have been attracted to come here to be part of the great experiment.

But I kept asking myself why they would come here when they can go elsewhere? What’s so special about Botswana that we will attract foreign investors? Yes, we all know about our relatively low levels of corruption. We all know about our long history of genuine democracy, low levels of crime and what thoroughly nice people we are.

But we, and now most of the rest of the world, understand that at the moment we have a number of genuinely impressive disincentives. Bureaucracy, red tape and queues really do put investors off.

If we want the big guys to come here we’ve got to offer them something different, something special, something unique. The trouble is that our history isn’t quite enough. It needs to be something new, something radical, something exciting and genuinely business-friendly.

Also I confess that I’m sceptical about the proposed involvement of Government. I genuinely mean no disrespect to them but they are not actually themselves business experts. I think that Government has a role to play but that it’s limited to painting white lines on the road to the Hub, stopping people from speeding on their way there and making sure that the companies pay their taxes on time.

I’m also not convinced that academia has a huge role to play. The atmosphere I think that we want in an innovation park is not academic, studious and peer-reviewed. It should be fast, reactive and entrepreneurial, none of which are frequently found at universities. I also don’t think that innovation and entrepreneurial spirit can be taught. Everyone at business school is taught the stories of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ray Croc and Larry Ellison but that doesn’t mean we can all become them. The entrepreneurial spirit is something you either have or you don’t have.

As our business environment stands today I don’t think the Hub stands any chance of success. At least not until we face a few facts and decide to take action.

We need a massive overhaul of business regulations. In fact we need a radical deregulation. If we want to become somewhere like Singapore or Hong Kong we have to adopt some of their approaches. Take a pair of scissors to the rule book and cut out everything that gets in the way of anyone, Motswana or expatriate, from doing legitimate business here.

We need Government to be brave and take a step back. Let them retain responsibility for what they do best like policing and building schools and hospitals. If this sounds scary, remember that they actually did this a few years ago when they completely abolished foreign exchange controls. It took guts but the signal it sent to investors was powerful. We are confident that our currency is sound, solid and stable. Why can’t we do that again with business deregulation?

We need a real set of incentives for businesses. NOT handouts, not huge loans, not licences to buy flashy cars. Instead give new companies tax breaks. Start by reducing corporation tax for everyone a little bit but give genuine investors major breaks. Other countries trying to do this have offered 0% corporation tax for the first year or two, just to get a company stable. IFSC companies get a few things like this but we don’t go nearly far enough.

Two final points. Charles Tibone, Minister for MEWR said at the launch that we need to change out mindset and start to adopt risk and change as the way forward, not stability and “business as usual”. 100% correct and SO refreshing to hear something like that from a senior politician.

Secondly something truly impressive. A very young woman stood up at the workshop and took us old-timers to task for not including youth in the plan for the hub. As she pointed out, it’s a project lasting longer than a decade so she and her follow youngsters will inherit this eventually. She also pointed out that what works elsewhere will only work here in Botswana when we have adapted it to our local, specific needs. Best practice elsewhere is not necessarily best practice here. So if that was you wearing that red and white stripy top then email me. I want to offer you a job when you finish your education.

This week’s stars!

  • Kabelo at BTC, yet again for the usual excellent service. Frankly it’s getting a little tedious how often he gets celebrated!
  • Daniel at BSPCA for showing that we DO care for animals and yes, the Watchdog HAS adopted a new puppy thanks to him!
  • Mr Jain at Gaborone City Council for fixing a problem amazingly quickly.
  • Lorraine at FNB Head Office for “wonderful service”.

Friday 24 November 2006

Nobody is too important

We had an interesting experience this week.

We took a call from someone who had experienced what she thought was poor service. She had turned up at the airport in Gaborone with a friend and there had been some sort of mix-up with check-in and her friend ended up missing her plane entirely.

The details of this issue aren’t important though. What we thought was amazing was how the airline in question reacted. After we heard from the caller we phoned up the airline to get their side of the story.

This, incidentally, is what we always do. We never just accept one side of a story. We always see what the other side have to say for themselves. Only when we’ve done this can we really judge the true merits of a case.

Anyway, back to the airline. We called them and asked to speak to their Public Relations people. However, and we’re not quite sure how this happened, we got put through to the Chief Executive Officer himself. We explained that this probably wasn’t actually an issue for him to deal with but he wouldn’t take No for an answer. He insisted on hearing the details and investigating himself.

Half an hour later he was back on the phone to us, having made a few calls himself and he had a proper response for us. As it happens on this occasion he didn’t feel that his airline was at fault. He used a phrase we like to hear from managers when they firmly believe their staff haven’t made a mistake: “I have to support my staff on this one”.

So who was it? Isn’t it obvious? Air Botswana. Yes, the one’s going through privatisation as you read this. Surely you would think that their CEO has a million and one better things to do than respond to a customer’s complaint? In fact the opposite is true. If it isn’t related to pleasing customers then ignore it.

The lesson here is simple. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your fancy title is and whether you have a glossy MBA certificate on your wall, you are NEVER too important to take an interest in customer care. We teach this to our victims, sorry I meant “trainees”. Whoever you are, if you take the call, it’s your responsibility to make sure something is sorted out.

So the lesson is simple. If you work in a company that attempts to serve customers, but you aren’t prepared to risk speaking to an irritated customer, then don’t answer the phone. You’ll probably be fired, or your company will out of business sooner or later but you’ll have quiet life.

Something for free

As our regular readers will know, every so often we go crazy and give things away for free. Crazy I know but we’re just like that.

You may have seen in the papers in the last week an Invitation to Tender from the Ministry of Trade & Industry. Tender number MTI/MTC/DMM/57.3/2/60-07 (just printing that tender number in every newspaper probably cost them a few hundred Pula) asked for consultancy services “to undertake a detailed study to review and assess the impact of policies, laws and regulations on the operations of small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs).”

Well, we seriously considered offering our services on a commercial basis because we know we have the skills. However being the crazy people that we are we’re going to give away our consultancy services entirely for free. So here we go. Here is our consultancy service regarding how “policies, laws and regulations” affect small businesses.

They get in the way!

The fact that small, new, struggling business have to pay the VAT they have charged their customers BEFORE they have themselves received it is crippling small businesses.

The fact that it takes up to six months even to start a business legally stifles the entrepreneurial spirit.

The fact that the citizen-owned businesses we all want to see succeed are GIVEN money to start themselves up, rather than not having it TAKEN AWAY during the first, really hard couple of years just adds to the complacency we see, the purchase of flashy cars, the occupation of fancy offices and their inevitable collapse and “In The Matter Between” notices in the papers.

In fact, the sooner the “policies, laws and regulations” that are there to regulate small businesses are themselves regulated the better. The word “regulate” comes from a Latin word regula which means “to rule” but conventionally it means “to control” or “to limit”. I don’t think that businesses should be ruled, controlled or limited at all. Yes, of course they should obey the law, that’s obvious. Companies shouldn’t behave like the Mafia. Murdering the opposition is a bad thing. Not paying your taxes is a bad thing. However, other than a few basics I think that small companies should be left entirely alone. Let business men and women follow their instincts and then succeed or fail.

Rather than submit their business to regulators, policy committees and the Government I think we should let businesses submit themselves to the greatest judge of all. The market. The free market is the very best judge of who should succeed, not regulators.

This week’s stars!

  • Lance Brogden at Air Botswana firstly for taking personal responsibility for a customer complaint and secondly for sticking up for his staff when he felt they had actually done nothing wrong.
  • Another company we dealt with who seem to believe their customers are beneath their contempt. You would think they would understand that their customers are all that matter. But they can’t. No, I won’t name them but if you email me I’ll give you a clue!

Friday 10 November 2006

Wise words from on high

It is always very important for any writer to name their sources. I think that it’s unforgivable for anyone writing in a newspaper to pass off ideas as their own when they actually came from someone else. So this week I’m going to be completely up front and name my primary source for this week.

The President.

Yes, our one. Nobody else’s. His Excellency Mr F. G. Mogae (followed by too many letters to list here).

As you will have read in all the newspapers this week when he gave his State of the Nation address he covered a huge range of topics. Obviously this included things like HIV/AIDS and crime, the things that worry us all on a day-to-day level, but he also covered things that I think are critical for our long-term future.

Less than two minutes into his address, he said something that grabbed my attention. He said “Let us be driven by the quest for world class service”.

Awesome. I think that it says a lot when it’s not just the MDs of banks and insurance companies that say service is important, but the Head of State thinks so too. Clearly he understands, and he’s a hugely experienced economist of course which helps, that service is an essential element of a successful economy. It’s not just commodity prices and stock exchange indices that matter, it’s the way things are actually done that makes a difference.

But there are risks. As anyone who has visited our website will know, the Consumer Watchdog team were interviewed by the BBC a few months ago as part of their “Psychology of Consumerism” series. It’s not just us that worry about the impact of “consumerism” on an economy like ours. The BBC and our President talk about it as well. While we advocate consumer rights and great service there IS a risk with “consumerism”. The risk is to do with expectations.

We can’t all drive flash cars. We can’t all live in mansions. I know it’s not fair but that’s just life, OK? As H.E. said, fixed assets like a house and a child’s education are what matters most. As he warned us, “a lot of us are borrowing simply to fund luxurious vehicles and extravagant lifestyles”.

He also spent time discussing the way forward for citizen empowerment. I think it’s important that he and others have realised that what we’ve done so far hasn’t actually worked that well. Yes we have all seen the advertisements from CEDA proudly showing off success stories. I’m the first to give credit to our friends and relatives who have succeeded in business but we all know how many failures there have been, the number of people with hopes shattered and flashy cars repossessed. Just read the regular “In the matter between” entries in the papers where CEDA is the plaintiff. It’s not working nearly as well as it should do. If we really want to encourage citizen entrepreneurs to succeed we need something new.

I think that the recent report from the Botswana Economic Advisory Council and the President’s address have got it right. We need to demonstrate local excellence before we can expect success. It’s no good succeeding on the basis of handouts from Government. We will only be respected by the international community when we succeed because we are the best. Imagine a country where every shop, every bank, every government department is like Primi Piatti. OK, perhaps slightly lunatic but thrilling to be in.

As he said I think that the way forward involves one of those over-used marketing words: partnership. As an economy that is still developing it’s not entirely reasonable to expect us all to function at the highest level, with the highest productivity and effectiveness without external assistance to begin with. Forgive me for telling a personal story. Several years ago I worked in the Philippines on a couple of major projects that were entirely new to the country. A year later I got a very charming email from the customers telling me that (and I’m putting it simply) they were grateful for my assistance but I didn’t need to come back on business. Next time I should come back as a tourist they said. They had downloaded my brain and were now entirely self-sufficient. I think we need to be much more like the Philippinos. Partner with foreign companies, absorb skills, pay them well and recognise that a trade has occurred. Skills, experience and profit in return for profit. Both sides do well as a result. Most importantly if we show enough initiative and hard work we then become skilled and experienced ourselves.

Please forgive me for one last point. He suggested that change should start at the top. We should expect to be led by example by our politicians. We should expect productivity from them. I think his point is exceptionally good. Think about it. Do politicians work harder because of performance management systems, performance based reward systems, the balanced scorecard or process re-engineering? No, of course they don’t. Politicians work at their very best when they are approaching an election. When they are faced with being fired by the electorate!

This week’s stars!

  • Candy at Ola Milky Lane at Game City in Gaborone for being celebrated by a range of people, too numerous to mention!
  • Urgent from Total Filling Station at Game City in Gaborone for always being friendly and jolly!

Friday 3 November 2006

Enough is enough

No, for once I’m not talking about being treated with contempt by shops, restaurants, banks or supermarkets. In fact, this week, as far as I can recall, no service provider has disrespected me or indeed anyone I know.

No, this week, I’m planning to abuse my position as a columnist who talks about customer service to talk about something that seems entirely irrelevant.

Road safety.

Last week, as I was doing my daily duty, driving my kids into school along the road into Gaborone from Lobatse I was unlucky enough to come across the aftermath of a horrific car crash. It had clearly happened just a few minutes earlier as there was little hold-up and no emergency services. On the other side of the road was a Toyota Camry, on my side was a large ball of metal that I think, at one stage in it’s life, was a red Hyundai.

Surrounding the red wreck at the moment I passed was a group of men desperately trying to rip the doors off, presumably trying to get into the car to help the occupants.

Unlike some of the people passing by at the time I didn’t want to stick around. There was nothing I could have contributed other than getting in the way. As I passed the white car burst into flames and just another passer-by expressing morbid curiosity would not have helped in the slightest.

I found out later that in the red car were a Primary School teacher and two young children, all of them dead. The Camry was a Government vehicle and luckily the driver escaped with his life, if not his legs intact.

Now obviously I’m not going to comment on who might have been responsible but I am going to say one thing. Why do we put up with this?

This morning I saw two saloon cars going through a light 2-3 seconds after it went red but then, to my astonishment, a combi went through the same red light almost 10 seconds after it had turned red.

Yes, we’ve all seen this time and time again. Anyone who has spent any time on our roads will have seen such horrors and will be used to by now. The trouble is that we also get used to the causes of these tragedies. We get used to combis dashing through red lights. We get used to BX vehicles being driven by people who seem to be going out of their way to cause accidents.

So who should take action? Is it Government’s job? The Police? The President? Politicians? City Council? The Pope? The United Nations? No, it’s actually nothing to do with any of them. . It’s not the Police’s job to prevent us from driving badly, they are there either to prosecute us or pick up the pieces afterwards.

No, it’s nobody’s job but ours. Yes, you and me. Nothing at all will change until WE change our attitudes towards homicidal drivers.

So enough talking, what are WE, that’s all of us, going to DO about it? Are we content for our children to be mown down? Are we happy for our neighbours, foreign visitors, tourists to see us driving like we have a death wish? Most importantly are we truly happy with ourselves for allowing this to happen?

I’m not claiming to be beyond criticism myself of course. Public confession time. I have occasionally gone through a robot, a fraction of a second after it turned red. I’ve been caught speeding a few times and even more times when I wasn’t caught. Mea culpa. (I do SO like a little Latin on a Friday, don’t you? It’s great to speak a language no sane person, apart from lawyers, speaks any more, but I digress…).

I think we need a zero tolerance of this sort of behaviour. If we’re in a combi and it’s being driven by a lunatic I think we should force him to stop and demand our money back before getting out. Then write to City Council about him and tell them what happened. Same with taxis. Let’s do what I urge all consumers to do (see, it IS a consumer issue after all!). Vote with our wallets and purses.

Oh, and as for BX drivers… Take down their registration number and send it through to the Director of the Central Transport Organisation at Private Bag X048, Gaborone and let him know the registration number, the date and time of the incident and what you saw. But let’s be positive as well. Let’s start to celebrate the combi, taxi and BX drivers who drive responsibly. Surely they exist?

But most importantly let’s take action ourselves. If I benefit from being in a combi driving at 120kph in a 60kph zone because I got up late this morning then I am part of the problem.

So here’s a final challenge. Let’s all get up 5 minutes earlier each morning so the combi doesn’t have to rush. I think it’s a fair exchange. Every working person in the country sacrifices 5 minutes sleep. Maybe one child will live.

I think it’s a fair exchange.

This week’s stars!

  • The Good Samaritans who stopped at the scene of the accident and did their very best to save some lives. It’s not their fault there was nothing they could do.
  • Amigo at Pick N Pay at Molapo Crossing who insisted on getting a shopper a bargain.
  • Nancy at FNB Corporate switchboard for taking personal responsibility for finding a phone number in South Africa and phoning our reader back with it.

Friday 27 October 2006

Steak vs Pizza

So finally and after weeks of trying my family and I achieved what I was beginning to believe might be impossible. We got into the new Spur at Riverwalk in Gaborone.

On previous occasions we’d been there in the hope of finding a table but faced with a long queue and an unknown waiting time we had given up and gone downstairs for a pizza at Primi Piatti.

Actually I’m not going to complain about not getting in at an earlier attempt because there are few things that give me more genuine, heartfelt joy than seeing a busy restaurant. There is something so satisfying about seeing people enjoying good food, good drink and good company out in public. It’s such a fundamentally human thing to do.

I’ve never actually worked in any sort of food outlet but I’ve known a few restaurant owners and I understand quite how much hard work goes into starting and maintaining the business. I also know that it takes a certain type of person either to run a restaurant or to work in one. In short someone completely unlike me. Someone who can always show a smile, make people feel welcome and who doesn’t impose his bad moods and temper tantrums on the paying customer.

So when I see a restaurant that is so busy that I can’t get a table I know something is working well and the new Spur seem to be a good example of this.

However the thing I really started thinking about was one of my favourite subjects, yet again.


Specifically the inevitable competition that will emerge between Spur and their neighbour downstairs: Primi Piatti.

Incidentally I make no reference to either of the other two restaurants on the same floor as Spur, neither of whom ever seem to have any customers. How DO they pay the rent when they are always empty?

Anyway, back to Spur vs. Primi. Are they competitors?

Well, obviously they sell different types of food. Spur don’t serve pizza or pasta. Primi do sell steaks but they are very different to those on offer at Spur. So far, that is the only major difference between them but both satisfy a need. Sometimes I need a steak, other times I need a pizza.

It strikes me that they are targeting broadly the same community. Spur is obviously very family-oriented with balloons and a kiddie’s adventure area and the evening I visited there were dozens of little monsters (mine included) running around, making loads of noise and generally having a great time. Primi is slightly more adult-oriented but my kids love it there as well.

Also they seem to focus on similar price brackets. My feeling was that we paid pretty much what we would have paid if we had eaten downstairs.

Both have a slightly eccentric quality that I enjoy. Primi have their crazy uniforms and décor decisions, Spur have loads of noise and, well, until you’ve seen the line dancing you won’t believe it.

Finally they both seem to have focussed on what matters most to me as I write this – the customer service experience. Both have staff who you can tell have been hired and trained to be cheerful, friendly and attentive. Most importantly of all both have what I would call “active management”. Unlike certain restaurants where the manager is that faceless one hidden in the back office doing the accounts, both Primi and Spur have managers you can’t help seeing. They are constantly walking around, observing the customers, the service they are getting and, where necessary, intervening to prevent or resolve any issues that come up. Or they just smile at you, perhaps have a quick chat and generally make you feel like they are happy you are there giving them your money.

This is one of the areas where we consumers can expect to benefit. Although personally I can’t think of a way in which Primi could actually improve their service we now have a guarantee that they will maintain their standards. If they don’t we’re all likely just to go upstairs. It works the other way round as well. Spur need to get their service levels as consistently high as Primi’s so we don’t all stay down below.

So yes, I DO think they will compete with each other to some extent. However I can’t see that being a problem. They are addressing slightly different demands but I suspect that the market is big enough for both of them. My prediction is that once the novelty value of Spur has died down a little both restaurants will continue to be popular. The likely victims will be the other restaurants in the vicinity, the ones we already seem to be avoiding anyway.

My only request is that both of them try their very best to vary the menu somehow. Yes, we know they are franchises and that there are very strict controls but a little variety would be nice. I really think I could recite the Primi menu while wearing a blindfold I’m so familiar with it. Even a little variety would be good sometimes.

This week’s stars!

  • Peter and the entire crew at Spur at Riverwalk for selling us a great meal and for completely exhausting my family. I was awake for 2 hours the next morning before any of them even started to wake up. Good luck to you and keep it up!
  • Will and the crew downstairs at Primi. Don’t worry, we still love you. After all you still make the best pizza in the country.
  • Orange for speedy service in replacing a lost SIM card.
  • Kemanao at the Walmont Ambassador (sorry but it will always be The Grand Palm to many of us) for being helpful, friendly and getting a problem fixed “without a drama”!

Friday 20 October 2006

Celebrate local produce

Last week I went off the deep end and criticised the latest government intervention into our marketplace. As you may all know now the Government have banned the importation of some pretty risky items into the country. Already on the list of banned things were weapons-grade plutonium, narcotics and pornography but now it seems that our way of life is threatened by some even more dangerous items.


Yes, instead of banning what I think are real threats to civilisation like third-rate imported soap operas, the intensely condescending Dr Phil and above all, people who can’t or won’t pronounce Gaborone correctly, the Government has decided to ban foreign potatoes, cabbages and onions.

Yet again I need to say that we should all support local produce. Our local growers of food deserve our support, they deserve some assistance from the Government and they deserve lots of publicity. However they ONLY deserve this when what they produce is as good as what we can import. We have shown in Botswana already that we can produce the best beef, some fantastic fruit and vegetables and we make a fine bottle of beer as well. But that doesn’t mean that everything we produce is good enough yet and we certainly don’t seem to be there yet with potatoes.

I really do feel that by banning foreign competition we are not doing the local growers any favours. We’re not helping them, we’re just over-protecting them. Just like a schoolchild who wants someone to do his homework or sit an examination for him it doesn’t actually do him any good in the long run. It’s only by exposing your product to competition that you find out if it’s going to succeed. Competition is the ultimate test. It will test, like evolution tests the genetic suitability of an organism, whether it’s suitable for it’s environment. Curiously it’s often not even the best product that succeeds. It’s just the one that is most suitable to what the market, what the people actually want.

I don’t believe that anyone in their right mind can seriously suggest that Coke is an awesomely good product. It just satisfies a huge demand for hideously over-sweetened, obesity-inducing, tooth-rotting fizzy syrup. The market has a space for such a thing and Coke do an excellent job of filling it.

So what do I think Government should be doing to support local producers? Do I have a better idea? Well, I don’t have any easy solutions but I have a clue where they might lie.

Start by following that old saying about the role Government should play in people’s welfare. People should be given “a leg up, not a hand out”. Instead of over-protecting them, just make life a little easier for them. Take away a few of the real threats to a business during it’s start-up period. For instance, what about exempting citizen-owned farmers from corporation tax for the first two years of business?

What about free evening classes for new farmers on business management, basic accounting and marketing. The channels for this already exist via the Department of Non-Formal Education in the Ministry of Education. Why not make these courses compulsory in order to get the tax breaks?

What about selling them redundant government computers? They won’t be the most up-to-date and high-powered but they will be cheap, perfectly capable of writing letters, running simple accounts programs and producing simple marketing materials.

This is the opposite of what happens now. Instead of giving money to new citizen-owned businesses I think we should just take less of it away from them. Let them keep more of their own hard-earned money to re-invest in equipment and staff. It will help to keep their costs down, their profits higher and above all will allow them to develop real business experience by encouraging them to compete in the open market.

Now THAT would be real empowerment. Remember per ardua ad astra. Through adversity to the stars!

Free advertising

Here’s an offer to local food producers. Something that may help them just a little bit. If you think your produce is as good as or better than foreign imports give us a call. We promise to review it and if we think it’s as good as you say we’ll advertise it in this column, on our radio show and on our web site, entirely free of charge.

This week’s joke

There was once a parastatal company working towards privatisation that placed an advertisement in the national press asking it’s customers to contact them to confirm their telephone numbers. OK, that’s not very funny is it? Is it any funnier if the utility in question is Botswana Telecommunications Corporation?

According to the advertisement they are working hard to develop next year’s telephone directory and are asking customers who want to correct their entries in the current directory to give them a call. Presumably they can’t call us because they are using the old directory? The one full of errors? The one that printed as my home telephone number a number I’d stopped using 2 years ago? Maybe that’s why they can’t call me to check?

Hang on though, can’t they just compare the directory entries with what they have in their billing system? Just a thought.

This week’s stars!

  • Reuben and colleagues from Car World in Gaborone for speedy, responsive and friendly service.
  • Officer Kerekang from Naledi Police Station for friendly service.
  • Shadrack at New Capitol Cinemas at Game City for sorting out a problem with a smile.
  • Botswana Telecommunications Corporation for breaking our record for the longest time taken by a parastatals to respond to a customer complaint, currently 84 days!

Friday 13 October 2006

You can’t BE empowered

I know that I might be being controversial but I can’t stop myself. I can’t keep quiet any longer.

I think we’ve got citizen empowerment thing all wrong.

I’m not denying that some citizens have benefited from the government’s efforts to “empower” them, I just think that these people probably would have done just as well without government help, they just saw an opportunity to succeed more quickly and easily than they would have done otherwise.

My concern is based on something I believe very strongly. I do not believe that anyone can empower you. You can only empower yourself.

I was thinking about this again recently when I heard that the government, in it’s infinite wisdom, had again decided to step into the marketplace and control what we could buy. No I’m not talking about pornography, addictive drugs or weapons grade plutonium. I’m talking about the really dangerous stuff. I’m talking potatoes.

Yes, it’s official. We are no longer allowed to buy potatoes, cabbages and onions unless they come from Botswana. My issue is that I don’t see how this helps anyone, let alone the local producers of such things.

Now before you think I have some problem with local produce let me set the record straight. Given the choice of identical products I will always choose local ones. I strongly believe that, certainly when it comes to food, the closer the point of production and the point of sale are to each other the better the produce will be. It will be fresher, healthier and less likely to be covered or injected with all sorts of ghastly chemicals to help it survive the journey from it’s origin to my stomach. I also think that we should support our local producers whenever we can. It’s the right thing to do for so many reasons.

However, the key point is that I will choose local produce when it is as good as produce from somewhere else. Most of us do this already with some products. For instance look at the tomatoes on sale in most supermarkets. Hundreds of packets of tomatoes all with a little twist-seal at the top in the colours of our national flag. And they taste great as well. We even have top-quality local cheeses for sale in certain places. And do I have to mention beef? Anyone who chooses foreign beef over our own clearly needs to get new taste buds or go and take a holiday in that fine mental health facility we have in Lobatse.

But critically I think that we choose these products not mainly because they are home grown. We choose them because they are the best and are very reasonably priced.

So who benefits when the government decides that foreign vegetables are no longer allowed? Do we consumers benefit? No. We are deprived of choice, we are treated as if we don’t care about our local producers and the real irony is that we often pay higher prices!

In an article in The Voice last week a major vegetable seller pointed out that before the ban he could buy a bag of potatoes for R21, now he is forced to spend P36 for the local equivalent. Needless to say that increase of almost 100% will actually be paid by you and me.

So we certainly don’t benefit.

So maybe the vegetable grower benefits? Well, yes, perhaps he does, but I think he does only in the very short term. If it costs him twice as much to produce a potato as it does his South African cousin then frankly he’s doing something wrong. Protecting his inefficient business by outlawing his competitor just protects and reinforces his high-cost production techniques and it just makes it harder for him to compete when the trade barriers are eventually lifted.

Perhaps instead of failing to compete he should change direction. Do what the local tomato growers and cheese manufacturers have done. Find something he can produce cheaply or perhaps go into a niche market, something higher cost but that meets an actual demand in our economy. There’s certainly no demand for pricey potatoes here, is there?

It sounds harsh but being over-protective does nobody any good.

I know I keep saying this but I think that running a national economy is a bit like running a school. Yes, the students (and businesses) need to be given some basic rules of conduct and critically an education but we don’t do them any favours by doing their work for them. Should teachers do pupil’s homework for them? Well, they would all get top marks but they wouldn’t actually learn anything, would they?

No, school children, and businesses need education, encouragement, the occasional leg up and lots of praise but they have to do the learning themselves. Only then will their success be worthwhile.

Success in business isn’t a right. It’s something that must be earned and for almost every business person that only comes with hard work, sleepless nights and a product people really want to buy.

Competition is the greatest educator in business. By protecting those elements of our local economy that aren’t competitive we are surely doing a disservice to them, to their now compulsory customers and above all to the future of our nation.

Per ardua, ad astra.

This week’s stars!

  • Minkie from Air Botswana for excellent in flight service
  • Robert from Spur in Francistown for showing how good restaurant management can be.
  • Chezane and the entire cleaning crew at the Metcourt Inn also in Francistown for being wonderful and friendly.

Friday 6 October 2006

All’s fair in love, war and business

I was reading over the recent long holiday weekend an article in the Sunday Standard about the so-called “war” between Orange and Mascom. According to the article as a result of this “cellular phone war” there is now “blood on the floor”. Dramatic stuff, eh?

The article goes on to discuss the various advertising campaigns that each company has undertaken that, the paper suggests, are clear but subtle attempts to criticise the other party. Most of us have probably seen the advertisements around our towns and highways. Orange is offering “no hidden costs” which is, according to the article, a dig at Mascom. In turn Mascom advertise the fact that their prepaid customers can roam in South Africa which we’re told Orange prepaid customers cannot do. Mmmm, heavy stuff, how will we all survive?

The article also reminds us of a couple of incidents where each of the two cellphone providers have slipped up. The first one, was just after Mascom had introduced GPRS. This service allows fast internet-like access from cellphone devices. Just after Mascom launched this, Orange started advertising “gprs” which the small print disclosed was actually nothing to do with GPRS and instead stood for “great products, rates and services”. Yes, that was sneaky and, in my view at least deceptive. BTA thought so too and Orange was severely and publicly told off like naughty little schoolchildren.

The other incident was when Mascom recently used a number allocated to Orange during a marketing campaign. Orange complained about this to BTA and Mascom had their turn to get a well-deserved spanking.

Now, clearly we shouldn’t approve of this sort of behaviour. Like children (and indeed adults) companies shouldn’t tell lies, shouldn’t steal and should obey the rules established by whoever regulates their industry. Like school children they should obey the head teacher or suffer the consequences.

I think advertising and the business success that can come from it is like the success of children at school. Some children will do better than others. Not every child will get the same examination results. Some will do better because they are naturally more talented, other because they simply work harder and make the most of the skills they were born with. Some kids are just naturally good at sitting exams. It may not seem fair but then life just isn’t sometimes. Some kids are just brighter than others. Should we hold them back so we can achieve uniformity? Should we forbid children from going the extra mile? Of course not.

So why should we try to do the same in business? Let’s face it. Some companies just have a better product than others. Others don’t necessarily have better products but they just market them better than others.

We all know the stories, whether it was VHS vs Betamax, Coke vs Pepsi, Microsoft vs Apple or any of the other legendary business battles it was often the company with the best marketing team who won, not necessarily the one with the best product.

My point is that advertising, marketing and public relations are all ways in which companies can manipulate our buying decisions and gain our business but this is not a bad thing. In fact the more they advertise their “great products, rates and services” the better placed we consumers will be to take the decision that satisfies us.

Isn’t that what advertising is all about? It’s partially to say that my product is the best, the cheapest or the best value for money, but it is also about implying in usually subtle ways that the other guy’s product is more expensive, less good or lower value for money. I’m not exactly the hugest fan of the advertising industry because so much of what they produce I think is infantile, third-rate and often just insulting to our intelligence. So few advertisements are amusing, stimulating or informative. The exceptions are actually those that are out of the ordinary like the Orange and Mascom campaigns.

Sometimes though they are actually not quite even slightly subtle. For instance there’s a well-known spicy chicken chain that has placed a huge advertisement near one of it’s competitors in Gaborone saying “Oil is for your car, not your lunch”. Not exactly subtle but we all forgive this particular chain because they are known for their sense of humour and somewhat eccentric quality.

I don’t think that this business between Orange and Mascom is something we should criticise. On the contrary I think we should be rejoicing. We have a case of genuinely enthusiastic competition. Each of the two companies is desperately trying to get our business. They are each offering us inducements, special offers and new products that may make our customer experience more rewarding.

So my message to Orange and Mascom, and I’m sure they read everything I say and obey my instructions every week, is get fighting! Don’t lie, cheat or steal but get aggressive with each other. Do you very best to sell us the “great products, rates and services” and work even harder to beat your competition.

Oh and when BTC get liberated (or was that meant to be “liberalised”?) perhaps the competition can be even greater? Well, maybe. It will be interesting to see if BTC have any commercial aptitude.

This week’s stars!
The team at Incredible Connection at Riverwalk in Gaborone for their friendliness, particularly Mothibedi, Kebonye and Victor.
Thati at the new Apache Spur at Riverwalk. Although the place was very busy we are told she was exceptionally friendly and helpful – “everything you could want a waitron to be”!
Everyone involved in the production of Annie. The list is too long for everyone to be included but we have to mention Stuart White, Joe Matome, Shombi Ellis, Refilwe Mpai, Maria Kathurima and Janet!

Friday 29 September 2006

They don’t want my money!

Last week I promised to give feedback on some mystery shopping we did with the main banks. This was inspired by a comment made by Iqbal Ebrahim, the President of BOCCIM, who suggested that if Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and now the richest man in the world, had arrived in Botswana 30 years ago he almost certainly would have been turned away at the border as someone unlikely to contribute towards our economy.

This prompted me to see how a potential investor would be treated in 2006.

So I decided to phone round the banks pretending to be a foreigner planning to arrive in Botswana the following week and who just wanted to open a personal account to start with. Oh yes, arriving with over a million Pula to open the account.

I set some basic rules before calling. To begin with I wasn’t prepared to be kept on hold for more than 3 minutes. Any more than that and I would hang up. I would tell the banks that I had whatever proof of identify they might require and I would only be seeking a personal account at this stage, business accounts could come later. My basic need was for a personal account that I could use to live while I set up the business, filled in endless forms and acquired permits.

So how do you think I did? Was I treated with courtesy, with interest and with an overwhelming effort to get my money into one of their accounts?


To begin with two of the big four banks couldn’t even put me through to someone who could help me in the time I allowed. With one bank I was on hold for a total of 5½ minutes. Yes, I know I said I would limit it to 3 minutes but I’m a big softy and wanted to give them a chance. I confess I did phone them around 4pm so maybe I should expect less? Perhaps they were all tired after a long day of ignoring the phone and losing business?

With the third bank (still no names mentioned) I had a long conversation about the requirements for opening an account. To begin with they did quite well but it didn’t last long. It seems that until I get both work and residence permits I can’t have an account. Strangely they were the only bank that demanded this so it can’t be a legal requirement. Actually the law makes no reference to permits so it must be a particular requirement at that bank. Only uncomplicated customers there please!

With the last bank I had a long discussion about how they wouldn’t accept my fictitious money transfer from the UK unless I gave them “confirmation of where the money is coming from”. No, not a letter saying that it wasn’t the proceeds of drug deals or terrorist funding. Just a letter saying which account it was coming from. My argument that they would see from the transfer where it came from wasn’t good enough. However they did redeem themselves slightly at the end by suggesting that if I visited one of their senior managers they could probably do something for me which is perhaps a reasonable recovery. Internal rules are fine but there are often times when these rules need to be bent slightly.

Trouble it’s still not quite good enough. Not one of the banks gave me even a hint that they wanted me as a customer.

Let me say again what I said last week. I have absolutely no problem with a bank having to confirm my identity, my address and whether I have any money. In these days of terrorism, international crime and money-laundering that’s only reasonable. I wouldn’t want to lend my money to a careless bank. I would however like to lend it to a bank that gave some impression that MY money was of value to them.

The funniest bit was when I was on hold with one bank. They played a message warning me that for training purposes my call might be recorded. It most certainly was. By me!

Why must it be so difficult? Why do our banks, one of the key industries contributing towards our national development, actually seem to impede business rather than support it? Remember that this wasn’t a test of the way the banks deal with ordinary folk like you and me, it was a test of how they deal with an investor. Someone with loads of money that he wanted to invest in OUR economy. Someone we should be treating like a donor.

How might our fictitious visitor and potential investor feel right now? I imagine justifiably irritated and despairing of whether he would ever be able to open an account. Probably also wondering about whether he could do business here at all. Whether we like it or not and regardless how xenophobic we might feel some times a successful country attracts money from outsiders as well as insiders. People who think the country will be a successful investment.

So why do some of us do our best to make it look like it’s not?

This week’s stars!

  • Victor at Barclays Mall Branch, Business section is apparently “a service champion”. Our reader says that he is “every customers dream, courteous, competent, consistent and extremely helpful”.
  • The anonymous bank official, from a bank that cannot be named, who seemed to realise that their procedures were too rigid and suggested that I take it higher up the line to a manager for review. She knew her limitations and was prepared to escalate!

Friday 22 September 2006

Television is compulsory

Why do people make stuff up? Why do service providers go out of their way to make life so completely difficult? Do they actually want us to give them our money? In particular do they want foreign investors to give them their money?

I was at a business function a couple of weeks ago at which Iqbal Ebrahim, the President of BOCCIM spoke. He said a number of things that I think really made a lot of sense but he joked about the barriers we put up sometimes to foreigners. He jokingly suggested that if Bill Gates had come to Botswana 30 years ago saying he wanted to found a company called Microsoft we would have turned him back at the border saying he was offering nothing to the economy. This is the same Bill Gates who has since given truly staggering amounts of his own money to Botswana in the fight against the pandemic.

Well, this inspired us to behave badly. Yes, again.

We’ve been mystery shopping.

Actually this is one of the things our company does for a living. Companies come to us and pay us to pretend to shop with them and then to report back to senior management on how good (or how bad) the service they give can be. We’ve done this for all sorts of private companies, and even for places like restaurants and supermarkets. As well as being sometimes very depressing it can also be very funny.

However, because we are naturally naughty we sometimes do it just for fun. We call up an organisation pretending to be a potential customer and see what sort of service we get.

This week one of our team called up a certain bank, one you’ve all heard of, one of the big ones. Our caller pretended to be the wife of an expatriate who had just arrived in Botswana to work in a very exalted and impressive position in Government, in short someone who no doubt has lots of money to dispose of and wanted to lend it to a bank so they could bet it on horses or whatever it is banks do with our money.

OK, that bit about betting it on horses was an exaggeration but when you think about it, it’s not so far from the truth.

So what sort of service did our fictitious expatriate lady get? Well, not so good. It turns out that unless you have a Multichoice account you can’t have a bank account. Yes, that’s true apparently. This bank requires you to watch DSTV before you can bank with them. Well, that’s what the guy from the bank said. Shame they don’t offer to pay you for the DSTV account though.

It seems that unless you can provide this bank with a utility bill, I guess like water or power, but this guy just mentioned Multichoice, you simply can’t have a bank account. Despite offering a copy of a lease, endless ID documents like passports and CASH to open the account it’s impossible it seems.

Now before you think I’ve gone completely off the deep end I DO recognise that banks have to exercise some caution when opening accounts. Of course they have to establish the identity of potential customers. We can’t have Osama Bin Laden just wandering into a bank in the Main Mall and opening an account. Or George W Bush for that matter.

In fact the law demands that banks ensure the identity of the potential customer. The Banking Act says that banks may only open bank accounts “when they are satisfied, having acted with due diligence and with reasonableness, that they have established the identity of the person in whose name the funds or securities are to be credited or deposited”. So far so good and perfectly reasonable.

Nothing there about the compulsory TV though is there?

Perhaps they just need the Multichoice bill to prove where you live? Well, maybe except your Multichoice bill just has your postal address, not your residential address. It’s not like they can use it to send in the Deputy Sherriff is it? The lease however DOES say exactly where you live so surely that’s much more useful?

The message from this particular bank seemed actually to be quite simple. It was something like “Sorry, we simply can’t be bothered, you’re too much trouble”.

Oh and I forgot to mention, we record all these calls so perhaps that can be one of the first podcasts we put on our website!

So anyway, what sort of treatment would the next Bill Gates get if he came to Botswana planning to start a new company?

Well, by the time you read this we will have found out. We will have phoned all the banks to see what sort of service someone bringing huge amounts of money into Botswana receives. Can they open an account quickly, offering suitable services and all within a few days? Can they, in fact, respond to an important customer’s needs in the way an important customer would want?

Because if they can’t, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Read this column next week to find out!

This week’s stars!

  • Judith at Moviemax Bonnington for going beyond the call of duty
  • Shaula and Haranka at BTC for taking personal responsibility for a problem and getting it sorted
  • Kabelo at BTC yet again for just making things happen. Can this man do no wrong?
  • Marilyn at Multichoice for being really friendly and helpful
  • Famida at Stocker Fleetword Bird for really efficient and quick service
  • The staff at Mahogony’s restaurant for fantastic service

Friday 15 September 2006

Something new!

Business is not actually about stability, it’s much more about change. It’s about adapting to new circumstances, taking every opportunity to consider what you are doing and asking yourself all the time whether you are achieving the best you can.

The thing nobody prepares you for is that almost every time it happens, change is unexpected. Just when you think things are nice and stable something happens that completely throws you.

However troubling this might be, and no matter how much I hate sounding like some management, or worse still, spiritual guru, these unexpected changes can a huge opportunity for development and growth. Whether this growth is financial or purely mental is irrelevant. Personally and in business these opportunities are too valuable to be ignored or rejected. As they say in Latin (well, they would if anyone had actually spoken that ridiculous language in the last 500 years) “Carpe Diem!” Seize the Day!

Consumer Watchdog is no exception to this. As you may have seen in the press over the last few months we ourselves have undergone some changes. At the time the need for these changes seemed challenging but we decided to make the most of the situation and do you know what happened? We now have a much more dynamic and exciting radio show, a new sense of energy and things are genuinely better as a result.

However, much more importantly our imaginations are running at top speed. Hardly a week goes by without one of the team coming up with a fantastic new idea, some new mission or some new target for our attentions. Whether they want it or not!

One of our latest ideas is a first for Botswana. Something new, a little experimental perhaps but we think it has great potential.


The trouble with radio shows is that you need a radio to listen to them. You also have to be near that radio at the right time. Also if you hear a radio program that you really enjoy it is virtually impossible to allow a friend to hear it as well. Yes, some radio stations will send you a transcript or maybe even a recording if you pay them but the whole process is really inconvenient. Hence the podcast. A podcast is a recorded radio program that the producers make available on the Internet. Anyone with access to the internet can then download the program and play it on their PC. Every PC these days, regardless of manufacturer, whether it uses Windows or is a Mac, they all contain the software needed to play a podcast. If you have one you can also copy the material to your portable music player such as an Apple iPod (hence the name “podcast”).

Broadcasters such as the BBC, CNN, radio stations all over the world now make some of their programmes available as podcasts, but it’s not just huge organisations that podcast. Anyone with some fairly basic equipment can record a program and post it to the web.

A podcast is totally portable for each individual listener but in the same way an organisation can download it and distribute it within the company. Most companies these days have top-of-the-range communications networks that would allow them to download a program once and circulate it internally. They can then use our material in staff meetings, training sessions or just as interesting material for their managers, their staff and even their customers.

Podcasting also fits into the original philosophy behind the internet. It allows information to be freely and easily accessible to the world. Yes, I DID say free. Podcasts are almost always free and ours certainly will be. You will be able to download anything we produce entirely for free so long as you respect the simple licence we give you.

So what are these podcasts going to contain? Well, to begin with all the things that we don’t have time to broadcast on our sparkling radio show on YaronaFM every Tuesday at 7:15am.

There will be detailed follow-up on cases reported to us, all those cases that don’t make it on air or in this column. However we’re going to take it further. We’ve already lined up some of the most important business leaders in the country to come along and record interviews, conversations and arguments about the important issues of the day. Competitiveness, national branding, privatisation and liberalisation, the role of government, the education of consumers, localising our economy and developing our home-grown talent, we’ll cover all of these things. Also, as it’s recorded we can edit out the boring bits and keep the material simple, fresh and interesting.

So what do YOU think we should cover in our podcasts? Let us know what you want to hear about, who you think might be an interesting person to interview or profile. Maybe it was someone who gave you great service, maybe it was someone who gave you dreadful service but recovered well and learnt a lesson from it. Maybe it’s you! Are you interesting, do you have something to say that you think our readers and listeners should hear? Just let us know. You could end up a famous internet personality!

Just keep reading this column, checking our website and listening to YaronaFM for updates. We’ll keep you informed!

This week’s stars!

  • Wonder at the new Village Super Spar for being cheerful, incredibly friendly and attentive.
  • Joel Konopo from Mmegi for winning the MISA award for Business Reporter of the Year.
  • BTC for saying that they are going to almost double the price of local calls and line rentals and to drop the price of international calls at the same time that they announced an 18% increase in profits to P139,000,000. How does this help the poorest in our developing nation? Is this perhaps a sweetener for any potential investment partner so that when they finally get involved it’s not THEM that has to increase prices to make a profit? Perhaps they shouldn’t be in this section after all?

Friday 8 September 2006

Fair business practice?

It’s been a strange week. I’ve seen examples of good management, had some major disappointments and seen more examples of companies just not really understanding some business basics.

The Consumer Fair

Consumer Watchdog visited the Botswana Consumer Fair last weekend, just before it ended.

There are some things I don’t understand about the Consumer Fair. For instance, where did it actually have to do with Consumers? Yes, of course we consumers could go there and buy things but that doesn’t make it a Consumer event does it? We don’t call restaurants “Consumer refreshment outlets” just because consumers go there do we? Was calling it the “Consumer Fair” perhaps just an attempt to cash in on the growing awareness of consumer issues in our community?

In fact what was there was what I think we all knew were getting: an old-fashioned trade fair. Endless rows of stalls most of which were selling cheap and nasty children’s toys. The sort you know will be broken two days later. Yes, there were a few craft stalls but they were grossly out-numbered by those selling utter rubbish.

Oh and why the [removed so I don’t offend the editor and readers] were we obliged to PAY to get in to be sold things? The exhibitors had to pay to have stalls but that’s how things work. But making the shoppers pay just to enter the grounds seems way too much to me.

In the advertising the Consumer Fair was styled as our “Spring Shopping Oasis”. My dictionary defines an oasis as “a fertile place in a desert”. Well, it’s true, I certainly left feeling well and truly fertilised. Actually that’s not the word I’m looking for. What’s another word for “fertilised”? I’ll leave that up to you.


Actually the only good thing we saw while at the Consumer Fair was the Orange area. Loads of noise, dancing, things being given away and what looked like a couple of hundred people having a great time. It’s things like this that make a public event like a trade fair fun and memorable. Such a shame it was the only one there.

Orange (again)

Earlier in the week I read, like most of us did, a full page advertisement from Orange. Apparently they are upset that another “company offering mobile services” (now who can that be?) is trying to take their business away from them. OK, if this other company is telling lies then that’s going too far but they are accused in the advertisement of trying to “lure Orange Botswana’s customers to change SIM cards at no cost”. Orange say this is a “questionable tactic” aimed at “diminishing our brand, reducing our customer base and compromising achieved market share growth”. Let’s overlook the fact that this is really horrible English for a moment and think about what is happening. One company is trying to gain business at the expense of another. They want Orange customers to stop being Orange customers and instead to become customers of a competitor. How terrible. It should be illegal, surely?

Come on Orange! Get a grip! Big business is competitive. Companies make money by trying to modify customer’s choices, to encourage customers to buy from them rather than the other guy. So long as it’s legal, well, it’s OK. In fact I’m tempted to follow the example of this naughty and mysterious company.

Here goes.

This is a message to all the customers of our competitors. Our competitors are all very bad at what they do and we are much better than them. We’re also much better looking, we tell funnier jokes and we give you lots of sweets. So can we have your business? Please?

There, that wasn’t too painful was it? Do you think our competitors will complain? Perhaps they want to sue us? Visit our website and you’ll find we’ve devoted a whole page to people who want to sue us. It will be great to hear from you!

So now some good news.

In the papers recently were large advertisements from Air Botswana explaining in wonderfully simple terms their new e-ticketing facility. Every single question I had was answered and I was really impressed both by the new service itself but also by Air Botswana’s efforts to educate their customers. It’s things like this that allow us to differentiate between competing companies. Rather than just try to be as good as your competitors, find ways to keep ahead of them. Find ways to stand out from the crowd.

In the past I confess that we’ve been a little bit less than positive about certain Spar supermarkets. In particular we’ve been very critical about standards of cleanliness and hygiene. So it was really refreshing to visit the new Village Super Spar near Riverwalk in Gaborone. So many specialist products on offer that they barely have the room to display them, helpful and very friendly staff and a management team headed by Matt Price that are constantly on the shop floor running around making things happen.

So you see the variety that exists? Disappointment, excitement and some that are just perfectly average and forgettable. However it makes choices so much easier doesn’t it?

This week’s stars!

  • Matt and the team at Village Super Spar in Gaborone for a great start.
  • Orange for being the one up-beat thing at the Consumer Fair.
  • Ofentse at Penrich Employee Benefits for “going the extra mile to get a problem solved”.
  • Lesego at Department of Taxes for proving yet again that things can be done efficiently in Government!

Friday 1 September 2006

Who needs regulation?

Last week I went off on a bit of a rant about privatisation. This was in response to some comments in the press by people who are opposed to the whole process. I felt that some, in fact, now I think about it, ALL of their arguments were out-dated, poorly conceived and just plain wrong.

I suppose my biggest objection to the objectors is that their view of business is just so old-fashioned and what’s more has been proven wrong so many times. Look at Eastern Europe during the various communist regimes they suffered, look at even some of the developed economies like the United Kingdom during their quasi-socialist lunatic periods and look just across one of our borders and see economies that have been utterly ruined by central control. Economies where endless committees, and worse still, politicians, decide on what can be bought and sold, what prices we have to pay and even who can buy certain things. Economies where farmers are told what to grow by committees of political functionaries, not actually anyone who knows anything either about farming or what the market actually requires. The European Union has been a particularly bad example of this, paying massive subsidies to farmers to grow crops that nobody wanted to buy and that ended up being destroyed.

The whole idea of centralised control of the economy has shown itself on every such occasion to be a catastrophic failure. Surely it is better to allow the people who actually know about production and trade (the people actually doing it) to decide for themselves what is sold and how? Would you want to be on a plane at 10,000m that was being flown by a committee or a trained pilot with thousands of hours of flying experience? What’s the difference between that and entrusting the economy to government?

The whole centralised approach seems to me to deny some very basic truths about human nature. I’m not afraid to suggest that there are certain attributes of human beings that, while they should be moderated, should nevertheless be understood and even encouraged. For instance a sensible amount of enlightened self-interest is a good thing. Good for the person concerned, for his or her family and even for the nation as a whole. People who are looking after themselves and their family are going to be the ones chasing the best deals, the best jobs and the best salaries. Then take it one stage further. What do people earning more money actually DO with that money? Well, some of it they invest in other companies, even if they just put it in the bank, but more importantly they spend it! They spend it on products and services that are what? Yes, they are made and delivered by other people demonstrating their own enlightened self-interest. Also these people spending their hard-earned money pay taxes, taxes that can be spent allowing other people to earn money, to protect what they have earned and to educate all our children to become successful in turn.

The very best way to help all this happen is to keep governments away from any position where they can ruin a business by meddling. The very worst people to take charge of an economy are people who want to control it. Like the heart in a healthy body the market will keep itself going perfectly well if it’s left alone. That is the essence of the free market operating in a liberal democracy. Left alone it will look after itself.

Oh and one minor point that is often mentioned that is a useful by-product of trade freedom. No two free market liberal democracies have ever waged war upon each other.

As I’ve said here before the marketplace has been here since the very first cave man sold a dead antelope to his neighbour in return for an axe. It’s nothing new, it’s been with us since the beginning of humanity. We are, at our core, hairless, social, trading apes and the marketplace is our natural habitat. It’s what we are and every social experiment to construct something “better” has been a miserable failure.

The fact is that the liberalisation and eventual privatisation of organisations like Air Botswana and BTC offer us a real opportunity to get better, cheaper and more exciting products at lower prices. Surely that is much better than electing a government to ruin, sorry, run them for us?

By coincidence on the day I wrote this I heard on South African radio a telecommunications expert discussing the central state control of telecoms. He pointed out something I had never realised. Central government control of communications is only ever found in developing economies, never in those that have actually got there. In most of Europe, the USA and Australia there is no Ministry of Communications. In New Zealand, he said, they have even abolished the telecoms regulator. He finished by saying something that summarised it all for me:

“The best regulator is competition”.

This week’s stars!

  • Arne and the team at Arne’s Horse Safaris for being great with kids as well as adults
  • Fred at AON for really speedy and efficient service
  • Felicitus at Minchin & Kelly for keeping customers informed and for being really friendly, upbeat and helpful.

Friday 25 August 2006

Business should be private

Anyone who reads our impressive range of national newspapers will have seen a whole lot of criticism of the efforts by organisations like Air Botswana and BTC to privatise. Obviously we should all welcome public debate involving ordinary people like us as well as politicians and commentators, it’s an important issue. However I can’t help but react to some of the resistance to privatisation that is based either on outdated and nonsensical arguments or just an irrational objection to progress. Last week I heard a caller to a radio station say that he thought privatisations were a conspiracy by evil capitalists to defraud the poor honest workers from their birthright. I also saw letters from certain staff organisations who predict that revenue will drop, costs will increase and job losses will result. This, of course, is despite experiences elsewhere in the world where the exact opposite has happened. Everywhere else when publicly-owned organisations have been privatised they have tended to become competitive, commercially-oriented and profitable, all things that lead to expansion, higher paid staff and better services.

So why do people come up with these nonsensical objections? My suspicion is that most of the objections come from people who hold very strong political and philosophical positions that are, shall we say, old-fashioned (see, I CAN be polite).

Some of the objectors clearly just believe that industry should be “in the hands of the people”. However if you look at what they actually propose you find that this isn’t entirely true. They DON’T in fact want companies to be owned by the people, they want them to be owned by the government.

Now, this may not be entirely obvious but think about it. The government and the people aren’t the same thing. Governments are usually populated by people who, despite their qualifications and training have little, if any, experience of running a company. They can be very good at filling in forms, discussing endlessly complicated processes, procedures and policies, getting Masters degrees from far away places and having extremely valuable and rewarding retreats to Kasane but very little experience of actually doing anything commercial.

Ask yourself this. How many people do you know who have left a successful career in the private sector to join government? I’ve given it some thought and I can think of only one and his job is actually to shake things up so he’s hardly typical.

So why would you want an industry to be run by such people?

The alternative of course is to have the so-called publicly owned company staffed with commercially experienced people but have the whole thing report back into government. Same problem there. The strategists, the people who control the purse strings and who authorise changes and visions are the same government people. With all due respect to our leaders most politicians seem to come from a government background so they also suffer from the same impoverished background.

One of the key things about the commercial world that struck me when I left government to join the private sector many years ago was the decision-making process. I went from an organisation that took 6 months to authorise the purchase of a laptop to one where it took less than six hours.

Take the example of BTC. Why is it that we are only now getting technical goodies like ADSL and VOIP and all the other cute things that they’ve had in other countries for years? It’s not due to a lack of talented, visionary people in BTC, it’s down to the fact that before they start implementing these things they need government permission. We all know long that takes.

The other reason I think some people object to privatisation is that they somehow think that a private company doesn’t contribute financially towards the national good as much as a publicly owned one. I’ve never quite understood this. Yes, a publicly owned parastatal will pass it’s profits to government and they might conceivably be passed to the public in the forms of schools and roads but haven’t people heard of corporation tax, income tax and VAT? Banks, supermarkets, restaurants, every private sector, profit-oriented company has to pay a significant proportion of their profits to the government in corporation tax. The employees will also be paying more and more of their income in income tax. In fact the better paid the employees are the more they contribute.

Then there’s the customer service angle. Companies that are free to follow the profit motive will know that the money they make comes from us, their customers, not from a huge pot called government. They can start to focus on what WE want, not what the powers that be decide we should have.

Yes, it’s scary to shed our sense of ownership of industries and cast it adrift in the harsh reality of the free market but let me ask you one final question. When was the last time that YOU personally had any say in the direction a publicly owned company was taking? Never. But last time you selected supermarket A over supermarket B that’s exactly what you did.

When Air Botswana is privatised, and in my view the sooner the better, I will continue to choose them over the competition every time. Well, so long as they continue too be the best.

This week’s stars!

  • Michelle at Office Depot in Gaborone for being friendly and flexible
  • All the team at Kalahari Quilts again for their creativity
  • Again all the team at Café Dijo for excellent coffee, food and welcome

Friday 18 August 2006

Bad seafood and trousers

It’s a constant source of astonishment to me quite how badly some stores treat their customers. Quite how much contempt they apparently have for us.

For instance we heard from a customer who went to a certain restaurant which can be found on the outskirts of Gaborone. She ordered a seafood dish that contained mussels. Very quickly she realised that at least one of the mussels was seriously off. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune ever to taste bad seafood will know that there’s never any doubt. It tastes completely revolting.

She reported the problem to the management who firstly alleged that she was making it all up to get a free meal. They told her that it is impossible for just one mussel to be off and that as she had eaten a couple of them already she was clearly making it up. Knowing that she was being abused she stuck to her guns and refused to give way. So what was the eventual reaction of the restaurant management? They knocked P8 (yes, I mean eight Pula) off the bill to compensate her for the cost of the one mussel that she disliked!

Well, when she contacted us we thought this was worth a few phone calls. We called the restaurant and asked for their side of the story. Their response was simple. Some customers lie in order to get a free meal and that’s all there is to it.

Good enough? Not a chance.

We called the expert, Nina Hamid from Foodsafe International, Botswana’s leading food safety specialist. Her reaction? The restaurant was talking rubbish. It’s perfectly possible for just one or a few mussels to be off and for the rest to taste fine. It happens.

We then called a couple of other food outlets and asked them what they do in such circumstances. Debonairs said that they always take the word of a customer if they take the time to call in and complain that food is off. They said that they would rather run the risk of being abused a few times than to insult the vast majority of customers who are reasonable and honest. Primi Piatti said that if ever this happens with them they always get the manager and the chef to taste the food in question and if they agree with the customer then not only do they get the meal for free but they get a free cup of coffee as well as an apology.

So feeling even more confident we went back to the original restaurant, explained a few basic truths to them and what happened? The customer has been promised a voucher for the cost of another meal. We have no idea whether she wants it or not, having been fed bad seafood and then being insulted but it’s better than nothing I suppose.

But think about the different responses from the various restaurants. Two of them are mature, responsible and treat their customers with some respect and the other Doesn’t Really Offer Service.

What about another extreme case?

We heard from a reader whose daughter had been deeply traumatised during a shopping expedition. While shopping for clothes at Riverwalk in Gaborone she was stopped by the management who insisted that she had stolen a pair of shoes from their store. When they failed to find anything in her bags they decided that she had somehow concealed the shoes in her clothing. Now that is rather curious given that she is very slim and apparently was wearing skin-tight clothing (No guys, you can’t have her number).

When she continued to protest her innocence the store management began to get very grumpy and threatening indeed. They insisted that she remove her clothing in front of a female employee or the police would be called. By this stage she was very upset and embarrassed and had lost any confidence she might have earlier had. Rather than insisting that they must call the police if a search is required she gave in and went through the trauma. Needless to say no shoes were found.

Now I don’t have daughters but I do have nieces and to be honest I’m not sure what my reaction would be if I heard that one of them had been treated in this way. Shall we just say that I’m impressed by the restraint showed by this young woman’s father. Even now, several weeks later the victim remains painfully embarrassed by the incident and the unpleasant memories still trouble her.

We contacted the store in question and to their credit they were appalled by the conduct of their staff. The young woman has received an apology and the employees in question have been sent for retraining. However I do think that they can be held accountable for a culture where employees think they can act in this way.

Just so everyone understands let me make this very plain. Stores cannot undress you. If a store demands that they search you or your belongings make sure that you have a witness who is either neutral or on your side. If in any doubt demand that the store calls the police.

Don’t allow any store or restaurant to abuse or insult you.

This week’s stars!

  • Tumi at Barloworld for fantastic service and for keeping customers informed.
  • Dipsy at Musica at Game City for sorting out a customer’s problem promptly and without any fuss.
  • Most certainly not me for getting facts wrong last week. Firstly we celebrated Calvin who is actually from Rescue One, not from MedRescue. Secondly the P150 prizes for service stars are from Stanbic, not FNB. Whoops. Sorry!