Friday 28 July 2006

More maturity

Last week I wrote about how maturity was a critical attribute of any successful company. I don’t mean age, I mean that certain something that comes with experience, some hard knocks and a grown-up attitude.

One of the key ways in which this maturity can bets be demonstrated is by taking the inevitable criticism you’ll get constructively and understanding that reasonable criticism from a customer is actually something to be welcomed, however painful it might be at the time to receive it.

We had a good example of this very recently.

We heard from a reader who visited the Gaborone Private Hospital earlier this year for a minor matter. While she was there everything was fine and she gave them her medical aid details so that all the horrible financial side of her treatment would be dealt with behind the scenes and she wouldn’t have to worry about payment and could concentrate on getting better.

Well, everything was fine until months later she got an attorney’s letter demanding full payment for her treatment as well as the various expenses they had incurred in chasing her. The letters she got from them became increasingly threatening (as these sorts of things do) and she began to get really worried. When she contacted the hospital she was told that her claim to her medical aid company had been declined because there had been too much of a delay between her visiting the hospital and the paperwork being sent from the hospital to them. Her position, a very reasonable position in my view, was that this simply wasn’t her fault. She had done everything correctly and didn’t see why she should be made to pay for someone else’s mistake.

Now all of us with medical aid schemes should go right now to the filing cabinet, the cardboard box under the bed or that worrying pile of paper under the kitchen sink where we file our hospital paperwork. Check in the small print and you’ll probably find a clause that says that if your medical aid company declines your claim, for whatever reason, you are the one actually responsible for making the payment. Nothing about if they delay the claim for so long that it’s no longer valid, oh no, it’s all up to you.

So where did this leave our reader?

Well, she called us for advice and we called to the hospital and asked for their side of the story. Pretty quickly we got a formal response from the management apologising for this mistake, saying that they would contact their patient to apologise to her as well and, best of all, would cancel all the charges, including the legal fees.

All in all a rather mature response to the problem don’t you think?

The All New Consumer Watchdog radio show

As I also mentioned last week we are really pleased that the Consumer Watchdog radio show is about to be re-launched on Yarona FM. If you haven’t heard them yet you can tune in on 106.6 FM next Tuesday at 7:15am. Co-hosted by Kate Harriman, the program will present new, exciting and provocative program elements addressing new sections of the community, will offer fantastic competitions and will continue the work of Consumer Watchdog in educating, informing and entertaining consumers.

Some of what we’re going to do will only become known on the show itself but here’s a few clues and hints about what we’re going to cover.

When should you take your clothes off in a store? Tune in to find out!

How was your “first time”? Tune in to share some experiences…..

Do you want to win a prize? The first 5 people who call into the show to either celebrate a service star, to report a success they had in getting good service or who just make us laugh out loud will win prizes.

Now, for those of you who aren’t in Gaborone and who may be feeling a little left out then here’s something for you.

The first 5 people from outside Gaborone who write to us, or who email or fax us with anything similar will also win a prize. The prizes are really rather good so give it a go. You might win something fantastic!

We’ve had all sorts of donations to help us launch the new show including cash, vouchers and all sorts of merchandise. We’re also working with certain large donors on some seriously awesome prizes to be given away over the next few months so you better start listening in or just keep reading Mmegi!

In total we want to give away a staggering P4,000 next week and if you want a share of this then you had better either listen in or start writing to us!

This week’s stars!

  • Lungi and Livingstone from Air Botswana in Johannesburg for going out of their way to solve a problem that wasn’t even of their making. Another airline (that will remain nameless but they also fly between Jo’burg and Gaborone) managed to completely screw up our reader’s flight and then demonstrated absolutely no interest in fixing the problem. When they heard about it our two Air Botswana heroes stepped in and took ownership of the problem and fixed it. That’s not just maturity, that’s fantastic!
  • Last week we managed to misspell the name of someone we were celebrating so here goes again! Omphile and Tlhabano at the Department of Road Transport who helped a visiting expatriate from Canada to sort out a driving licence issue. Our reader says that Omphile and Kabano “surpassed the level of customer service that I am used to in Canada”. See, we are as good as, if not better than the rest of the world when we try!
  • Dipsy from Musica at Game for going out of her way to fix a problem that a customer brought in that had actually occurred in Rustenburg. However Dipsy showed the mature approach and took personal responsibility.

Friday 21 July 2006

Grow up!

Why are some companies like children?

No, this isn’t some silly riddle, I mean it.

Perhaps they need someone to wipe their bottoms? To learn some basic arithmetic? Maybe they just behave like uncontrolled little brats who have never experienced any basic discipline? Alternatively they could just be very egocentric, so self-centred that they can’t cope with not getting what they want.

Well, yes, frankly some of them are all of these things. Just like my own darling little offspring who occasionally need some paternal guidance, some companies need to be repeatedly told what to do. The reason is that some of them are just so incredibly immature.

Like a good wine, a good cheese or a really good bit of Botswana beef, companies need maturity if they are going to excel.

Of course maturity doesn’t just mean age. Just like a wine needs to get to the right age, not necessarily the greatest age, maturity can come to both people and companies at various times. However, the sooner a company develops maturity the better. This is because it is probably the single most important attribute a company can possess. Well, apart from all the others that I talk about like honesty, good recruitment polices and a competitive spirit. However this week let’s just assume that maturity is the thing that matters most.

One of the most profoundly mature things any company (or individual) can do is to take constructive criticism and to see it genuinely as an opportunity to improve and not as a personal insult. On many occasions a reasonable complaint or criticism is the best Christmas present any company can get. Surely it is better to hear from customers as soon as a problem arises than to find out later as customers just start drying up?

In our work with organisations we see enormous variations in maturity levels. Luckily we see plenty of companies who are grown up enough to admit that things go wrong sometimes but there is still a proportion who just can’t take it. They seem to think that valid and constructive criticism undermines them completely and threatens everything they hold dear. The result is the sort of defensiveness and occasional massive over-reaction that almost always results in tears. Not ours. Theirs.

Just recently we had some issues with a company who had just launched a new product. A number of people contacted us complaining about certain aspects of what was being sold. We spent some time investigating and researching and finally concluded that, in our opinion, there were some issues but on the whole we still thought that the item was fundamentally a good one. However, when we raised the issue on both radio and here in Mmegi, all hell broke loose. It turns out that criticism simply wasn’t welcome on that occasion by this supplier, not even the very mild words we had to say. Not even when we explained that the product was actually very good, just not quite perfect yet. It turns out that the people there at the time had a slight maturity crisis.

So just how immature was their reaction? I’d say they were at the 8-year old child stage. Still some way to go I think.

So what’s our message to suppliers when it comes to taking criticism?

Be mature. Act like an adult. Grow up.

And now some excellent news.

We are delighted to announce that the Consumer Watchdog radio show is about to be re-launched on Yarona FM.

The first broadcast will be at 0715 every Tuesday, beginning on Tuesday 1st August. Co-hosted by Kate Harriman, the program will present new, exciting and provocative program elements addressing new sections of the community, will offer fantastic competitions and will continue the work of Consumer Watchdog in educating, informing and entertaining consumers.

Several people have asked us why we chose a Gaborone-based station and not a national one. Well, with a little luck and some public support Yarona will soon be a national station and then we can talk directly to everyone and you can talk back to us and test OUR maturity! Also, we do feel that if there is to be any significant change in customer service levels in our country then the drive for change must come from two specific directions. First from consumers themselves but also from the private sector. That’s why a young, dynamic and talented group like the guys at Yarona FM are exactly the right people to help us.

Listen in and hear the new show if you can!

And finally some thanks.

We have been overwhelmed by the support we have had over the last few weeks after we chose to take some decisions about how we communicated with the public. Loads of listeners to the old radio program have contacted us to demand that we get back on air as quickly as possible and that has made the disruption we’ve experienced utterly worthwhile for us.

However we’ve also been staggered by how many CEOs, managers and employees of service suppliers have said exactly the same thing. It seems that all the mature companies out there understand that what Consumer Watchdog and other consumer campaigners do actually helps them. One manager of a company actually said “Excellent. We’ll get to hear what’s wrong with our service again!” Now THAT is maturity.

This week’s stars!

  • Omphile and Kabano at the Department of Road Transport who helped a visiting expatriate from Canada to sort out a driving licence issue. Our reader says that Omphile and Kabano “surpassed the level of customer service that I am used to in Canada”. See, we are as good as, if not better than the rest of the world when we try!
  • Kalahari Quilts and Hazellwood for fantastic displays at the Home Expo and for proving that we produce excellent crafts!

Friday 14 July 2006

Protect your name

What do McDonalds, Coca-Cola and Consumer Watchdog all have in common?

Well, maybe all three of us are bad for your health and can give you heart problems if taken to excess? I’m sure some store owners and bank managers think that Consumer Watchdog is incredibly unhealthy. We do, after all, regularly give them a hard time, we bother them remorselessly and we do our level best to raise their stress levels at every opportunity.

Maybe we’re just sickeningly sweet and liable to rot your teeth?

Actually I’m pretty sure that we don’t make you gain weight or induce diabetes and I don’t think we should try to restrict our children’s intake of Consumer Watchdog.

So what DO we have in common? What’s my point this week?

All three of us protect our brands. We have all invested much time, effort and money in developing a product that is recognisable, that is respected by at least some of the population and that leads to some sort of business benefit.

McDonalds are notorious for the energy they put into protecting their brand name, their identity and their trademarks. Try setting up your own company called McDonalds even in Botswana and you will pretty quickly find yourselves under fire from their attorneys encouraging you to change your company name, first politely but then with increasing ferocity. They have even been known to get awkward with companies started by people whose name is MacDonald. And don’t think you can come even close to their name. Even just the “Mc” prefix can be enough to attract their attention.

Yes, maybe all of this does seem a little aggressive but I’ve actually got no problem with it. Their food may be rubbish in my opinion, but it is entirely their own invention. They are the ones who have worked for so long to make their name a household one and to “perfect” their revolting product.

The same goes for Coca-Cola, KFC, Nandos, in fact pretty much everyone who has a recognisable identity and it’s not limited to food and drink. All of the stores and suppliers that have familiar names will fight tooth and nail to protect those names.

We at besbw are also committed to protecting our brand name “Consumer Watchdog”. You may have read in Mmegi and other papers that we are having a slight disagreement with another company over their stated plan to use the term Consumer Watchdog. I’m not going to go into the history of the disagreement because it’s all very boring. However it did start me thinking about trademarks, brands and corporate identities.

Now clearly I’m not suggesting that besbw, the company that owns the Consumer Watchdog name is comparable to McDonalds or Coca-Cola. After all two of them are multi-billion dollar companies with turnover greater than some small nations and we are just a multi-million dollar operation (that’s if you convert it to Zimbabwe dollars by the way!).

However the principle is the same. We took the time last year to do what the other two have done, to take measures to protect something we invented and are proud to operate.

Now before there’s any misunderstanding, all we own is the name, not the industry. You are perfectly free, right now as you read this, to set up your very own consumer rights organisation and start lobbying, pressurising and campaigning for change. In fact I would genuinely welcome more consumer rights groups. Every newspaper should have one, every radio station and every TV station should have one too. The more the better. Who knows, we might even get to a situation where consumer groups start competing with each other as well as cooperating to bring about change. I think that would be great for the consumer movement here.

Just don’t call your group Consumer Watchdog, OK? Call it something else. Call it Consumer Forum, Consumer Congress or perhaps even The Consumer Kgotla. (Mmm, why didn’t I think of that last one before?)

The word Watchdog is also free for you to use. After all the Sunday Standard has a column called The Watchdog and that’s just fine with me.

However, the two words together form a recognisable trademark and are ours. Go check with the Registrar of Companies and they’ll confirm it.

One of the fundamentals of both liberal democracy and the free market is respect for property rights. Normally people think that means things like your house, car and cellphone but it’s much more than that. Your business, your designs and even your ideas originally belong to whoever paid for them and respect for the sanctity of that property is fundamental to fair and reasonable business. You should take action to protect them and to prevent someone stealing them from you.

Recently there was some publicity about an ex-employee of KBL who claimed that he owned the recipe for St Louis. However, whatever his role in developing the recipe, the recipe clearly belongs to the company that employed him, that gave him an office and that paid him a salary. How he can even consider claiming that he owns the recipe is beyond me.

Just like I can’t imagine how anyone can think they can use the name Consumer Watchdog!

A final unrelated plea

I can’t be the only one who has seen a whole series of advertisements on DSTV for competitions that only apply to South African subscribers. Last week I saw one that only applied to Gauteng subscribers. Now I really do know that the number of subscribers in Botswana is very low compared to those in South Africa but why can’t WE have something occasionally? If they can afford to offer a huge prize for Gauteng surely they can afford something humble for the whole of Botswana?

This week’s stars!

  • Everyone who has contacted us over the last 2 weeks to offer support and to contribute towards a new idea… Watch this space!
  • Everyone at Vee’s Videos at Molapo Crossing for being friendly, cheerful and bouncy.

Friday 7 July 2006

The youth of today

This isn’t going to be a typical, lengthy complaint from someone like me about our youngsters, about how terrible their music is, about how little respect they show for their elders and about how badly they dress.

On the contrary, the youngsters I meet, the younger brothers and sisters (and even the children) of my friends and colleagues and the young people we employ all seem to be respectable, presentable, polite and well-educated. A lot of them also seem genuinely to have a work ethic and ambition, in my view two of the most important attributes anyone can have.

Incidentally the music they listen to IS utter rubbish but then that’s exactly what my parents said to me and I’m now a grumpy, middle-aged man thinking just the way they did.

But that’s not my point. I’m more interested in what young people offer, the role they play and how they can help fight for the customer service revolution I think we, and especially they, deserve.

Of course any adult, regardless of age, is a consumer. Even though there may be huge differences in our purchases, our spending habits and our disposable income all of us are consumers in some way. But go to any shopping centre at a weekend you’ll see hundreds of youngsters there. Even though they are not all spending money they are there in the market place, spending what they have, absorbing brand identities, developing aspirations and planning the purchases they will make in a few years time.

My point though is that any organisation trying to make money that ignores the younger end of the community is taking a terrible risk. As hard as I try I can’t think of a single industry that can safely ignore youngsters and their custom. There are, after all, very few items that younger people don’t buy, very few items that only we oldies buy.

When I’m feeling particularly middle-aged I think that the future of any organisation doesn’t actually rest with grumpy 42-year olds like me. With a little luck and good medical cover I’ve got another 40 years of spending left in me. However any sensible organisation, whatever industry it inhabits, will recognise that although they may not have the same spending power as I do, 22-years olds can give them 20 more years of spending than they can get from me. The sooner they can hook them in, earn their loyalty, develop a brand commitment, the better for them.

Remember also that the loyalty that people develop, particularly in their younger years, can be intense. Despite the fact that they are not the best bank in the world, I remain irrationally loyal to a bank that was pretty good to me when I started work.

However we all know the dangers that youngsters currently (and probably always will) face. Their lack of experience can make some of them easy prey to the forces that school has almost certainly not prepared them for.

When you’re young, when you’re a newcomer to the world of work and a salary it’s very easy to fall into horrible debt traps. The banks aren’t silly, they know better than we do how much money we earn, where we like to shop and what we spend our money on. It’s in their interests to predict when their younger customers can just afford to start buying that flashy new car. But it’s not the banks I worry about; it’s the less scrupulous end of the market. It’s the loan sharks, the money lenders, the stores offering deceptive finance packages.

There’s good news though. I wrote a few months ago about what Stanbic have done in publishing booklets for use in schools about money matters. This is good of them and is perhaps a sign of a growing understanding of how important youngsters are to the nation and to them as a bank.

On the other hand, as well as being the customers of today and tomorrow, our younger brothers and sisters are also the service stars (or criminals) of tomorrow. If we can encourage a sense of service amongst youngsters that they can demonstrate in their jobs we can only benefit. Take a look at the remarkably young crew in places like Primi Piatti. All of them show an enormous commitment to the work they do, they help maintain the highest standards and they take huge pride in what they do. This last point is also important. They understand that there’s nothing belittling or embarrassing about working in a service industry and actually being the ones delivering the service. They understand that they aren’t “servants” but instead are highly trained employees with every right to feel very proud of what they do.

Next time you pass through Riverwalk shopping centre in Gaborone stop at Primi Piatti, look through the windows and take a few seconds to observe the waiters in action. Then take a deep breath, close your eyes and summon up your imagination. Think what it would be like to go into a bank and see staff behaving like Primi waiters. Think what being a customer could be like if all service staff had a little more youthful energy!

So which younger employee do YOU think deserves celebration?

This week’s stars!

  • Veronica from Orange for being “a fantastic service star who consistently goes out all the way to offer excellent and superb service, which is also hassle free”
  • Kgomotso in Corporate at BTC who took on a problem that was, strictly speaking, nothing to do with her but recognised that a customer needed assistance and got it fixed.