Friday 30 June 2006

Be courageous

Last week in this column I urged customers to demonstrate a certain level of cowardice. I suggested that you shouldn’t be the first to adopt new technologies and should let someone else take the risk of trying something new. Let them be experimental guinea pigs helping the supplier learn exactly how their product works in the field.

Also it’s very often sensibly cowardly to avoid the cheapest option. In fact going for the cheapest deal is often really rather brave. The level of risk is sometimes a bit too much. This is particularly the case with high-tech gadgets but the principle applies even to things like buying washing up liquid, airline tickets and shoes.

This week I’m going run the risk of being accused of contradicting myself and suggest that what is also required is courage. This time I’m talking not just about consumers but suppliers as well.

On so many occasions customers sometimes need to demonstrate courage. We reported recently on a friend who was convinced that he was being abused by a car sales company. He had given them his car to sell but was left with the strongest feeling that the company had sold his car for more than the amount they claimed.

He displayed courage by sticking to his convictions, not giving up and pestering them endlessly. Eventually, once he really started to irritate them they threatened to involve lawyers but still he didn’t give up. Most impressively he managed to trace the person who had bought his car from the company and was able to confirm that the company had in fact lied to him about the amount paid (have you guessed already that their fee was a percentage of the cost they got for the car?). They had sold it for several thousand more than the amount they told him. The difference was money they clearly planned to keep for themselves.

He had the courage to confront them with his new evidence and as if by magic they paid up the difference they owed him and he went away feeling exhausted but justifiably proud of himself.

And what about suppliers? In so many areas of business, whether it’s the initial start-up, those tricky first eighteen months or that terrible month when you get no business it really takes what in Spanish they call cojones to run a business. However it often takes considerable courage just to deal with customers.

A few weeks ago we reported on a cellphone provider who appeared to be letting down a number of its customers. We didn’t name them because they hadn’t yet been given a proper opportunity to resolve the problems but now they have. This week we heard from Mr Kader, the Managing Director of Cell City (yes it was them!) who had just heard about the problems and was very upset at the service these customers had received. He explained to us and to the customers what had happened and very quickly fixed all the problems. All the customers who contacted us now have new phones and one of his staff hasn’t got a job any more.

I think that Mr Kader showed courage in facing up to the problems, taking personal responsibility for them and most importantly for fixing them. It can’t have been easy. Nobody likes to take criticism and it’s always difficult to take decisive action with employees who aren’t performing but he had the cojones to deal with the situation decisively and promptly.

In general terms as well I think that service providers, while being sympathetic to customer complaints should also have the courage to stand up for their staff. So long as the case isn’t completely clear-cut (like the incident we were told about where a waiter assaulted a customer with a black pepper mill in front of the entire restaurant!) I think that a manager should first of all apologise for the upset but then, before anything else happens, offer to investigate without making any instant judgments. There are always two sides to a situation and sometimes the person complaining is wrong, trying to con the supplier or (I make no attempt to be polite) is just an idiot?

So how would you describe a manager who, at the first criticism of his team, instead of offering to investigate and returned with a considered opinion, just knuckles under and capitulates?

Well, what’s the opposite of someone courageous? Wasn’t it a word I used last week?

Finally, an announcement. You may have heard already that we will no longer be broadcasting Consumer Watchdog on GabzFM. This column will obviously continue but we are taking the opportunity to review exactly how Consumer Watchdog operates. So what do you want from us? How do YOU think we should operate? Please let us know…

This week’s stars!

  • Mompati from Liquorama at Kgale Hill in Gaborone for being cheerful, responsive and friendly.
  • Shadrack at New Capitol Cinemas at Game City for dealing with a technical problem well, with courtesy and making up for it very well indeed.
  • Percy, Boi and their team at Aluminium 2000 for excellent service. We are told that not only are they professional but remarkably efficient.
  • Charles at Lesedi Motors for great customer service and taking care of his customers.
  • Brian and Andrew at Stanbic for “seeing the bigger picture”.
  • Thuso at Botswana Life for service above and beyond the call of duty and for dealing with the aftermath of a bereavement with sympathy, professionalism and promptness.
  • Theresa at BTC’s Corporate Department for being “remarkable” and for getting things done without a fuss.

Friday 23 June 2006

Be a coward

All too often we fall victim to the heroic impulse, to the desire to be ahead of our neighbours, colleagues and friends and have the latest gadget, the most up-to-date new electronic device or, horror of horrors, the prototype that nobody has tried yet.

So what’s wrong with having something brand new? Something that nobody else has? Well nothing at all, so long as you are prepared to take the risk, the risk of trying something nobody has really tried before.

I used to know a doctor who refused all the efforts of drug companies to persuade him to prescribe any drugs until they had been on the market for at least a year. His philosophy was that he preferred some other doctor’s patients to experience all the unpredicted side-effects before his had to. He would rather have some other bunch of unfortunate patients grow a second head, lose all their hair or have something genuinely terrible happen.

I think that consumers should adopt the same approach. Clearly I’m not suggesting that buying our groceries is the same as prescribing serious medication but the principle is the same. I think that we should sometimes demonstrate some healthy cowardice and let others take consumer risks.

A good example of this is ADSL, otherwise known as broadband internet access. Put simply ADSL is a permanent, fast connection to the internet. It has only recently been introduced to Botswana but it’s in use in many other countries.

So what’s so good about ADSL?

Firstly it’s meant to be fast. One of the biggest problems with internet access is how slow some things are when you use the conventional “dial-up” access using a normal phone line. If anyone emails you some large digital pictures it can take ages to receive them. Heaven help you if someone wants to email you a video file.

ADSL on the other hand can be amazingly fast. BTC have been advertising on street poles around Gaborone that ADSL is “up to 15 times faster” than conventional Internet access. Those of us who have been lucky enough to use ADSL connections in South Africa and Europe can confirm this. It can be enormously fast and it’s a thrill to use.

The other key difference between ADSL and the conventional approach is that it’s “always on”. You don’t need to connect to the internet every time you want to pick up your email or surf the web. You are always connected, 24 hours a day.

In general ADSL is a great thing in my humble opinion and it’s great that it’s now available to us here in Botswana.

However it’s still very new so it came as no great surprise when we started hearing that some people weren’t perfectly satisfied with the service they were receiving. We’ve heard from a few customers who complain that far from being fast, their ADSL connection is actually a lot slower than they are used to with old-fashioned dial-up access. Also they were unhappy that even though you can get an ADSL connection from most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) you are obliged to buy the necessary equipment from BTC, even if, as one caller reported, he already owned top-of-the-range ADSL equipment he had previously used in Australia.

Then there’s the cost involved. ADSL is not exactly cheap, despite the fact that you save money as a result of the faster access. Also, and this is where real savings can be made, you can use your ADSL phone line as a telephone line. Remember the “always on” idea? Effectively you get free local phone calls as a by-product of the permanent connection. However the ADSL options we are given here are significantly more expensive than elsewhere in the world.

Not all the feedback we’ve received has been poor though. One organisation we spoke to that uses ADSL is utterly delighted. Apparently they have saved the entire setup costs, including all the equipment costs in one month as a result of a drastically reduced phone bill.

We’ve contacted both BTC and the ISPs and they have helped us to understand some of the problems. One critical factor is that there are three ADSL options available. Each promises a different connection speed and it seems that the problems are almost all with those customers who had gone for the slowest, cheapest option. According to the ISPs the management of this slower group of users by BTC is not as good as it should be.

So there are two lessons we have learned regarding are ADSL.

Firstly, like in so many areas of life, don’t go cheap. Customers using the cheapest option are the ones who are having the most problems. It’s the same with most technology purchases. The cheapest items are the first to break.

Secondly I’m glad that I wasn’t one of the early adopters of ADSL. I’m glad that other customers were the ones that contracted for ADSL early and learnt any painful lessons. When I sign up for ADSL I’m going to ask everyone I know what experiences they have had and then make a sensible, informed and unashamedly cowardly decision.

On a positive note though I think that ADSL is a great thing and that it can play a major part in improving internet access in business and at home. We just have to wait for the right services, the right guarantees and the right prices! I’m just not entirely sure we’re quite there yet.

This week’s stars!

  • Matshediso from Bomaid for excellent service and for going the extra mile for a customer
  • Officer Malefho from Gaborone West Police Station for being proactive. He even gave out his personal cell number so that our listener could track progress on an accident report.
  • Maggie at Woolworths Foods at Riverwalk in Gaborone for demonstrating her initiative in solving a customer’s problem.

Friday 16 June 2006

Who is a consumer?

Things have reached a very strange point. This week we have had some strange experiences. Companies that in the past have threatened to sue us have been really helpful, they have been responsive to complaints that have been raised and they have really given the impression that they understand that we genuinely try to help, not just to make their lives difficult.

When we started Consumer Watchdog early last year many companies didn’t seem to understand us. Some were really defensive, others refused to cooperate and a couple even threatened us with legal action just for reporting the truth. They seemed to think that we were here just to criticise them and that we always took the side of the customer regardless of the circumstances.

However we are delighted that over the last year this seems to have changed. These companies seem to have understood what we are about. Yes, we are here to call them to account when they fail to deliver good service, but just as importantly we genuinely want to help them deal with problems, prevent them happening again and to celebrate success.

A few companies have understood from the beginning of course but these others have taken a little longer. But it doesn’t matter, the level of service has genuinely improved a bit and we should all be grateful. There is still a long way to go though!

The other strange issues we’ve had have all come from correspondence with consumers themselves. Consumers that perhaps have not yet grasped a few basics about how to get decent service, what can realistically be expected and also have not yet understood a few legal basics.

When is a consumer not a consumer?

For instance we got a call last week from someone who had bought a cellphone from another individual and was now unhappy with some aspect of the transaction. Note that he bought it from an individual person, not a store. We politely explained that the reason we are called Consumer Watchdog is that we act on behalf of consumers who have ought things from companies, not deals between two people in a bar that have turned sour.

Unfortunately he wasn’t too impressed that we couldn’t help him, complained that he didn’t know how we worked as he had never heard us on the radio or read this column and generally got a little stroppy. The fact that we do all of this for free didn’t seem to impress him. Looks like we have an unsatisfied “customer”, if an entirely free and voluntary service like Watchdog can have customers? Still, that’s just business I’m afraid. You can’t please everyone all the time.

For the record, please understand that we deal with individuals who feel they haven’t received what they deserve from companies, stores, utilities and restaurants. Not other individuals. Sorry.

Can you avoid responsibilities?

We also heard from someone who wanted us to help them get out of a contract they no longer liked. This person signed a lease to rent a shop for three years. When they signed the lease they had done lots of research into business and were confident that they were going to make a packet. So confident were they that they ignored certain clauses in the lease. For instance they notes that there was no cancellation clause in the lease. They would be committed for three years with no “get out”. Our caller stated “We weighed our options but decided to sign because we knew our product was good and cheap and the area we were in was free from stiff competition”.

Well, things went wrong. Immediately after they moved into their new store another, virtually identical shop opened up next door providing them with stiff competition.

Needless to say their business dried up, they are having problems earning enough to pay the rent and now they want to get out of the lease that has no get out clause. When they approached the landlord he said that they can leave so long as they find him a replacement tenant.

The unlucky shopkeeper approached us and asked for our opinion and whether we could assist him. Our reaction? Well, sorry but nobody forced you to sign the contract. You confess yourself that you went into the contract knowing that there was no termination clause. Unless you can find a way to prove that the landlord breached the lease himself then you are stuck with it. A contract is a contract. It’s an agreement entered into by two parties voluntarily and in full knowledge of the nature of the terms. There’s not a lot that can be done about it. Sorry!

The lesson is quite simple, one that I’ve repeated endlessly in this column. We live in a free country. Nobody can force you to sign a contract if you don’t think it’s a clever thing to do. So just don’t sign things! Don’t sign contracts unless you are completely confident that you can keep to them. If in doubt, tear it up and don’t sign it.

This week’s stars!

  • Patricia at Air Botswana for “being a service hero and making a very unhappy customer happy!”
  • The team at CafĂ© Dijo at Kgale Mall in Gaborone for fantastic and friendly service, for brilliant coffee and as for the breakfast in a bun…..
  • Yet again Calvin, Tebatso, in fact the whole team at Kudu Filling Station in the Main Mall in Gaborone. These guys were nominated last year several times and seem to be on even more of a high since they were celebrated at the Consumer Watchdog party!

Friday 9 June 2006

What are banks for?

In last Friday’s Mmegi Patrick van Rensburg wrote an article entitled “Do banks compete to provide better service” that got my mind going.

Unfortunately, and I feel rather cheeky saying this, I disagree with much of what Patrick says.

His article commented on services levels from banks and seemed to be based on the general sense that banks are putting customer’s interests lower than they did in the past.

Actually I disagree with that. My feeling and the feedback we get from people who contact us is that banks are actually treating customers a little better than they did in the past. There’s obviously still a long way to go but I they are making progress.

Patrick makes a couple of specific comments that inspired me to comment. For instance he says that he has reflected on whether “banks are only out for profit these days”. Later he seems surprised that a bank’s “obligations to it’s shareholders are more important than it’s obligations to it’s many customers”.

Well of course! Commercial organisations are there for profit. That’s their only role in life, to make money for their shareholders. Banks, just like any other private companies aren’t actually there for the benefit of customers, they are there to reward the people who invest in them. That’s just the way of things in a free market economy.

Now it may seem curious for a column that’s here to talk about customer service to be saying this, that the profit motive is supreme but there is some logic in my madness.

I think it’s perfectly respectable to put profits and shareholders first. However this is of course best done by treating customers well. It’s not rocket science. Organisations that treat their customers properly, that give them good deals and respect their needs are the ones that are going to attract customers, sell things and make those profits I’m so keen on. These companies are the ones that shareholders will queue up to invest in.

I don’t care, and I don’t think you should either, that they are doing it “for the wrong reasons”. It doesn’t bother me that they treat me well (sometimes) because they think that this will make me give them more of my money to invest and to generate profits for them rather than me. So long as I get good treatment I’m fairly content.

Patrick also questions the contribution that banks are making towards national “development”. Well, they make a huge contribution just by existing and doing business. Not the least of these contributions is the corporation tax they pay. Most of their staff will also be paying income tax. Frankly anything else they do on top of this, whether it’s charitable contributions, corporate sponsorships or general good works is a pleasant luxury. But let’s be frank, they do all these things because they think it will attract more customers, ingratiate them with the powers that be and generally boost their profitability.

Before I get carried away, there are some areas where I think Patrick makes some excellent points. Bank charges in Botswana are ridiculously high. In almost all countries I’ve lived or worked personal banking is completely free, so long as you are in credit. I really resent being charged for every transaction, being charged enormous interest rates compared to the rest of the world and as for queuing…! Simply not good enough.

Also, as I mentioned last week, I do think that banks are often far too rigid. Of course I believe in having procedures and polices that govern how they work but there are times when we need managers to exercise some discretion. It’s not too much to ask long-standing good customers to be given a little flexibility occasionally.

However, back to the main point. Banks are commercial organisations that exist for one reason only, to make money for their shareholders and they shouldn’t be ashamed of that. I also think that we have no business criticising them for this. Yes, we should criticise them for a wide range of other failures but not for being what they are.

Part of the problem I see is that we still haven’t fully understood the principles of the free market. I don’t think we acknowledge that prosperity has always been greatest when the marketplace is free to all, where government steps back and allows nature to take it’s course and where profits are seen as a sign of success, not of moral failure.

Yes, there is greater variation between the rich and the poor in a free market economy. Yes, in a centralised, command economies like Eastern Europe suffered for so long, the variation is smaller but that’s just because everyone is poor. At least in a free market people have a chance to become prosperous.

Unfortunately for those who disagree with the free market concept and think that life would be better in some form of centralised, command economy, well, too late! 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.

Winston Churchill famously said that democracy “is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. I think the same can be said of the free market economy. It’s the worst form of economy, except for all the others.

This week’s stars!

  • Anna, the receptionist at Department of Taxes for her fantastic telephone manner
  • Mr FG Lekhau from Taxes for listening to a problem, finding a solution and then doing it!
  • Debonairs Pizza at Kgale Hill yet again for fixing a problem so well
  • Mr Price at Game City for friendly, helpful and courteous service

Friday 2 June 2006

Some successes

Watchdog has had a busy couple of weeks recently, dealing with a wide range of problems people have raised so we thought it was time to tell you about some of them.

How not to treat the bereaved

We heard from a listener whose British business partner had very recently been killed in a car crash. Our listener had done his best to sort out his partner’s affairs but there were certain things only his family could do so the deceased man’s relatives flew from the UK to attend to them and to take his body back to his home for burial. The good news is that they were treated with enormous sympathy by the Police and the British High Commission, both of whom helped the unfortunate family through what must have been a terrible time and who went out of their way to make sure paperwork was sorted out and that the required legal steps were followed.

However things didn’t go so well with the deceased businessman’s bank. This is where the natural sympathy, respect and understanding the family had learned to expect in Botswana evaporated.

The family went to the bank to return things like credit cards and cheque books and to request that the remaining funds left in the deceased’s accounts be transferred to his son. Despite showing the father’s death certificate, the son’s passport and a whole lot of other official paperwork the bank’s Customer Service Manager’s response was a brick wall.

“Until we see paperwork from the High Court in Lobatse confirming who you are, your relationship to the deceased and your entitlement to his money there’s nothing we can do.”

Despite being told that the family were leaving Botswana the following day and requesting options and solutions numerous times they got nothing but an absolute refusal to assist.

Oh and another thing. Throughout this experience they weren’t even offered a seat, let alone any condolences and sympathy.

Luckily the deceased man’s business partner, who also banked at the same bank but at a different branch stepped in and took control. Off he took them to his branch where they met the Operations Manager who knows him. The very moment he heard the details of the story he took a look at the account and the paperwork and said “Of course I can help, don’t worry about a thing”.

Within moments things were sorted out. Since this all came to light the bank have written to the family in the UK expressing their deep regret for the way they were treated.

Where shall I begin? Perhaps with the staggering lack of sympathy shown by the first manager or is that too obvious?

Perhaps by criticising the bank for adhering to their policies TOO closely? Yes of course policies are there for a reason but there are sometimes situations where managers should use their discretion and act like a manager for a change, not just a policy-follower. What about offering alternatives, rather than just saying No? What about offering to transfer the money electronically to the son in the UK when the manager had received the necessary paperwork? That might even have been easier and more secure than what the family were asking for.

So I think our lesson for the week is flexibility in a crisis.

Broken credit agreements

Yet again we heard from a customer who thought she had one sort of credit agreement but later found out she had something very different.

The same old story. The customers went to a store and bought furniture on credit and was told it’s a 3-month interest free credit agreement. So long as she pays back everything in 3 months she won’t have to pay any interest. However they actually made her sign a 24-month top-notch interest bearing agreement. They assure her yet again that so long as she pays everything back in 3 months everything will be fine. Heard this before?

So what happens? After 2 months the furniture starts leaking dye everywhere. She then makes a mistake. She stops paying.

As I’ve mentioned countless times before this is almost always a huge mistake. In this situation the customer MUST remember that just because one party to a contract fails to live up to his obligations that doesn’t excuse the other party from hers.

Worse still is what the contract actually says. Remember that the contract she actually signed was the 24 month one, not the 3-month interest free option. This also included a huge insurance policy as well as all that awful interest so she was in a VERY awkward position.

However we’ve just heard back from our Attorneys who argue that actually it was the furniture store who breached the contract in the first place by selling her furniture that leaked dye everywhere. This clearly suggests to them that the goods had a “latent defect” so she should be within her rights to demand all of her money back.

However she’s lucky to get away with this, most people aren’t.

The lesson is very simple. Don’t sign things unless you agree to them. Remember that the good old days of a handshake and a promise are gone. It’s only what’s in writing that matters. If you sign something you’re committed. So don’t sign it!

This week’s stars!

  • Mogorosi at Standard Chartered Bank for understanding that policies and procedures are there to be followed but also that managers are there to manage and to take the right decision when necessary.
  • Joe at Delis at the CraftCentre for wonderful service and showing that he really cares about his customers.
  • Encyclo dry cleaners at Molapo Crossing for really friendly, efficient and great service. Our listener told us she wasn’t even charged for one load of washing as it wasn’t quite ready in the time they agreed.
  • Kesaobaka has worked for Evergreen Landscaping at UB for many years. Everyone thinks she is wonderful and admire her dedication.