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 However I can’t help but react to some of the resistance to privatisation that is based either on outdated and nonsensical arguments or just an irrational objection to progress.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 CafĂ© 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!

Friday 11 August 2006

More things for free

Last week I was extremely generous and gave away some free ideas to various groups including BTC, the Government and road users. At the time of writing this there hadn’t yet been any huge response from any of them saying what excellent ideas they were and they are being implemented immediately but, well, these things take time or so I’m told.

Just in case BTC didn’t get a chance to think about the ideas here is one of the key suggestions all over again.

I think BTC should save some paper, some money and take another leap into the twenty-first century (or perhaps just the twentieth) by distributing the telephone directory electronically. Put it all on the internet so the entire world can find our phone numbers. I know for a fact that BTC have the technical skills to do this, after all they have launched advanced things like ADSL with some success, despite the few teething problems that consumers have reported to us.

Just get my phone number correct in the directory next year, OK?

And now something a bit more interesting. Something for you, the reader.

As you will have seen before we celebrate service stars every week in this column. You can see below a number of people who have been nominated by our readers and by listeners to our new Yarona FM radio show. All of these people have gone way beyond expectations and impressed a customer and they all deserve recognition.

But what should we call them? So far we’ve just called them “service stars” but as part of our recent re-launch we think we need a new name for them, something distinctive, something that will help give them the recognition that they deserve.

So contact us and tell us what YOU think we should call our champions. The person who comes up with the snappiest, most exciting and appropriate new name will win a prize, in fact a few prizes. The first part of the prize will be P600 donated by Standard Chartered Bank. The second part will be an invitation to our next Consumer Watchdog party. As you may remember our last party was quite something and the next one will be even better. The last part of the prize is that you will be invited to help give away the star prizes at the party. You’ll be there to help our VIP recognise the achievement of all the service stars. There is of course no guarantee of who our VIP will be at the next party but who was it last time? Oh yes, the President. Do you fancy standing on stage helping someone like him to give away prizes in front of the press and a couple of hundred people? Then think up a good name for the stars and you may stand a chance!

There will be cash runners-up prizes of P200 as well, also donated by Standard Chartered so come on, what have you got to lose?

Last week on the new show on Yarona FM we gave away P500 and we want to give away more. Forget Orange’s Tuesday Madness, we are mad all week! Just be one of the first five people to nominate a service star (or whatever we end up calling them) and we will give you merchandise vouchers donated by Barloworld. The first 10 stars to be nominated will also receive P150 donated by First National Bank.

And there’s more!

The time has come when we consumers, in conjunction with mature and confident companies need to start a revolution in customer service. The time for talking is over. The time for action has come.

How? Let’s start by not taking No for an answer. Let’s start voting with our feet, wallets and purses and simply stop shopping with suppliers that don’t respect us. Before you even venture out to buy things ask your friends, relatives, neighbours and family where they got good service and deals and follow their advice. Also start giving advice yourself. Tell them in return and tell us as well!

If we start this revolution personally and individually as well as a community things will change, they really will. To begin with we will force the development of a greater competitive spirit within and between companies. Whether some political theorists like it or not the simple truth is that free and aggressive competition benefits you and me, the consumer, most of all.

We at Consumer Watchdog want to make yet another contribution towards this process as well. As well as sticking up for customers we want to help companies to get there as well. So here’s an offer.

The first two companies that ask us will get an entirely free Customer Service Audit. This is the sort of thing the team at besbw do for a living. It’s one of our core business areas and we normally charge quite a lot of money to do it. But this will be entirely for free, so if you think your company may have room for improvement then let us know and we’ll see what can be done. Are ready for a dose of reality?

This week’s stars!

  • Calvin from MedRescue for a really quick response to a medical emergency
  • Lesego at Department of Taxes for being really helpful
  • Moji at Department of Student Placement and Welfare for going out of his way to ensure that a customer got what he needed. Apparently Moji even gave the caller his personal cellphone number so they could check for updates
  • Prince at Barclays Bank for being fantastic at getting things done

Friday 4 August 2006

Some free ideas

This week I’m feeling generous again. It’s time to give stuff away for nothing, the sort of ideas we might normally charge people money for. Nothing revolutionary of course. There are, after all, no new ideas in business, just old ones that are recycled. It’s just a set of ideas that may or not work for the relevant organisations.

First, BTC. As you may have seen in the news BTC have announced that they won’t be using ADS to produce next year’s telephone directory. Some of us may recall the fuss there was last year when BTC had a disagreement with ABS Braby about who owned the rights to use the phrase “yellow pages”. However it all seemed to get sorted and seeing as the story was actually pretty boring we all lost interest. However now it seems that things weren’t quite so hot with the new bunch. Clearly I’ve no idea what the problems were and frankly I’m not very interested. Just so long as they get my phone number right in the directory I’m happy. Oh hang on, they actually got my number wrong this year didn’t they? Maybe it IS time for a change after all?

So where are the free ideas? Here goes.

Why are BTC printing so many directories anyway? Now that a significant proportion of the community have computers at home and pretty much every business has computers everywhere why don’t they save some paper, some trees and a small bit of the ozone layer by printing fewer copies. Why don’t they launch themselves into the 21st century and put it on the Internet? Why not let everyone in Botswana and indeed the rest of the world look up Botswana numbers from the comfort of their office or home? It’s not like they make money from printing and selling directories is it? Also, if it’s on the internet they could update it all the time, not just once a year but every time they get a new customer. They could also correct mistakes instantly.

For extra backup they could offer consumers, both residential and corporate, the whole thing on a CD. A box of 10 blank CDs from my local computer shop costs about P30 so if they were to buy a hundred thousand I’m sure they could get them VERY cheaply indeed. I don’t know how much it costs to print each copy of the directory on paper but it has to be a whole lot more than a few Pula, surely? Just think, they could send just one CD to each Government Ministry or large business and they could copy it themselves and email to every single employee with a computer.

Yes, obviously those of us with no computer, no internet connection or an unpredictable power supply (during a power cut businesses with switchboards won’t be able to use their phones anyway) can still have the paper version but even if just 10% of consumers opted for the modern approach it must save quite a lot of money as well as precious natural resources.

Over to you BTC. If this isn’t a good idea, please tell us why not.

Hang on, before I go on to some other victim, could BTC tell us why they can’t adopt the pricing structure that you see in the USA? More expensive long-distance and international calls but entirely free local calls? Think of the impact it could have on accessibility to information, services and the internet for the less affluent sections of our community. Again, if there’s a good reason why we can’t have this, please let us know!

Secondly, Government. Well, whoever it is that decides when public holidays happen. Obviously some holidays like Christmas Day are so traditionally fixed to a specific date that they can’t change but with the others does it actually matter? Why can’t public holidays be celebrated on the nearest Friday or Monday? At the moment we can have a public holiday on a Thursday which really spoils the working week. It also means that many people effectively waste their leisure time. A holiday on a Thursday is no good, you can’t really go anywhere and get back in time for work the next day and even if you do you’ll have to struggle with homicidal traffic conditions.

So why not just move it from the Thursday to the Friday. That way we all get a nice long weekend and it makes long journeys worth the trouble. It also would save honest employees from having to take annual leave on the Friday and to save it up for a genuinely good holiday. It will also save businesses from having to deal with those unscrupulous employees who just go absent without permission on the Friday before the weekend.

Frankly I’ve no idea who sets holidays, perhaps they’d like to tell me and tell us why we can’t boost national productivity but having more sensible holidays? Over to you, whoever you are.

Lastly, to road users. Don’t take abuse from government drivers any more. If you see driving by a BX vehicle like the one that nearly killed me and my children recently, make sure you complain. Write 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. If BX drivers start driving like responsible adults you never know, taxi and combi drivers might follow. Who knows, even BMW drivers might do so as well.