Saturday 28 April 2007

How to turn blue

As I promised before it is again time for me to burden you with more information on your rights under the Consumer Protection Regulations 2001. This utterly excellent piece of work provides us consumers with a wide range of protections and empowers the Consumer Protection Unit to do all sorts of great things to make sure that suppliers treat us properly and cannot escape the penalties for abusing us.

As a professional sceptic and someone who did have some scientific training you can probably imagine how delighted I was when I came across this part of the regulations:

“15 (1) A supplier of a commodity or of a service shall fail to meet minimum standards of performance if –

(b) the supplier quotes scientific or technical data in support of a claim unless the data can be readily substantiated;

(c) the supplier promises outcomes where those outcomes have no safe scientific, medical or performance basis;”

Frankly I could not ask for better than that. If someone sells you something that promises some sort of outcome that has no scientific basis or they quote nonsensical pseudo-scientific backup for their ludicrous claims then they have been bad boys and girls and will get a well deserved firm smack on the rear from the Consumer Protection Unit.

There are all sorts of products that offer a variety of benefits that you advertisers hint have some scientific basis. There are fuel additives that claim to reduce petrol consumption, extend the lifespan of your engine and make you car go faster. There seems to be an endless sequence of weight-loss techniques and substances that mean you can lose weight without having to modify your diet and take some exercise. There are so-called churches (you know who I mean) who promise an end to mental illness, drug addiction and education problems. The trouble is that none of this actually works. None of it has any scientific backup.

So what should we make of the advertisement in last week’s Advertiser for “Electro-Colloidal Silver”? According to the advertisement this “great and natural immune booster” can help:

“Athritis, Burns, Colds/Flue, Diarrhoea, Cuts, Gout, Shingles, Throat infections, Ulcers, Cancer, AIDS to mention but a few”. (I have deliberately left in their spelling mistakes.

What is this stuff anyway?

“Colloidal silver” just means water with microscopic particles of silver suspended in it. Nothing more than that.

So can it really help people with AIDS? Can it really help people with cancer? Cuts? Well, actually the people advertising confess in the advertisement itself that it offers nothing at all. They say that they “cannot claim ability to cure” but they DO say that it can “help”.

What they strangely neglect to mention is that there is absolutely no scientific evidence that colloidal silver has any health benefit at all. None whatsoever. In fact the US Food and Drug Administration and more recently the Australian government have declared it illegal to sell the stuff claiming it provides any health benefit. Because it doesn’t.

They also neglect to mention that one thing colloidal silver CAN do, if taken in large doses, is cause a condition called argyria. Agryria isn’t actually that bad, if you can cope with your skin turning blue. Yes, you turn blue. While that might be an interesting fashion and style experiment you should be aware that it’s permanent so it might not be the best thing to risk.

So back to the Consumer Protection Regulations. Do you not think that the advertisement for this product that even it’s advertisers concede is useless contravenes Section 15 (1) (c) of the Regulations above? I think it does and we’ll be writing to the Consumer Protection Unit to ask them to take a look.

Also in the Advertiser I saw a much more modest little advert for “Turkish Herbal Syrup) which apparently is the answer for “1) Hip Boost, 2) Loose weight, 3) High Blood Pressure, 4) Asthma” (Again I haven’t corrected the spellings. Why can’t any of these charlatans spell correctly?).

The chances are that anyone buying a syrup that claims to reduce “hip boost” is unlikely to suffer anything other than disappointment as a result, but what about someone who takes it rather than their real medication for high blood pressure or asthma? Sooner or later someone naïve is going to die.

The day before I wrote this I was talking to a very good friend who told me about someone she knows who is currently engaged in a life or death battle with breast cancer. Unfortunately the poor woman was seduced by a so-called alternative approach offered from a well-known source of nonsense who had journeyed up from South Africa. Instead of going through the admittedly horrible side-effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and a possible mastectomy she has instead been focussing exclusively on thinking positively, meditating and just, well, hoping it will go away. It has not. She is dangerously ill. The trouble with wishful thinking is that it is no more than thinking. It is not action. It is no more than doing nothing.

So anyway, by all means go out and buy yourself some colloidal silver. Your cancer will continue to spread, your cuts won’t heal any faster than before and your gout is still going to be excruciating but you will match your sofa very nicely so that must be some consolation

This week’s stars!

  • Warona at the Air Botswana check-in desk at Sir Seretse Khama International Airport for making check-in a fun and effective experience.

Saturday 21 April 2007

A letter from abroad

OK, like so many other newspaper columnists I’m going to show off about how important I am, how widely travelled I am, and how thoroughly important you should think I am.

I’m writing this 8,500km away from home in the place that some would have you believe is the birthplace of excellent customer service, the place where everyone comes to be treated like royalty, where everything works perfectly and nothing ever goes wrong.

I’m in the UK.

So does everything really work like clockwork? Are the roads really paved with gold? Is every product perfect and without blemish? Does every customer get treated like a Queen or King?

Sorry, no.

I know that the team at Consumer Watchdog as well as the rest of the population are very often rather critical of the levels of service and care we get in Botswana. We are always moaning about the disrespect shoppers encounter, the contempt with which consumer are treated and the scams with which they are presented. There IS certainly a lot of abuse about. Many organisations seem to think that we are easy prey for their carnivorous instincts and they exploit that. They stalk us, chase us and eventually eat us.

However all it takes is a trip outside Botswana to realise that our bad experiences are not unique. They happen everywhere. They happen in those places that all those irritating expatriates constantly compare our country to. Bad service, just like good service, is universal.

I have visited a particular supermarket here in the UK three times now. It genuinely is about the size of our national stadium. The only things I found that it did NOT sell were cars. It sold clothes, furniture, insurance policies, internet connections and credit cards. Oh and they sold food and drink as well. More food and drink than most of us have ever seen. Every type of vegetable, bread and meat you can imagine and then some more.

But what happened when I approached the woman at the checkout, smiled and said “Hi, how are you”? She looked at me like I was deranged. I really got the impression that I had disturbed her somehow. Was I really a madman? Was I visiting writer from far away who specialises in customer service? Worst of all was I perhaps mystery shopper from Head Office?

We go on all the time about the “blank stare” that we so often get from bank tellers, shop assistants and government staff but that the good news (if it can be seen as such) is that it is not unique to Botswana. A huge proportion of the service staff I’ve encountered in the UK were exactly the same. Bored, unmotivated and uncivil.

The Consumer Watchdog team spend a lot of time trying to persuade customer-facing staff to try some of those old-fashioned techniques that are so obvious that you need no customer service expert to tell you about them. Smiling, looking like you care and putting the customer’s interests above your own. None of it is rocket science, it is all very simple common sense.

So why doesn’t it happen? Well, we have no excuse. As a people, those of us who live in Botswana are naturally rather courteous. Sometimes a little too courteous I think. There are times when I don’t want to hear another Dumella, I am genuinely not interested in how you are, I just want to know how much something costs or what time you open.

But the point is valid I think. We have a slight natural advantage when it comes to delivering customer care. We start from a position of natural courtesy. I know we don’t always live up to it but we DO have a head start compared to so many other places.

I think though that we forget this advantage. We are so used to these courtesies that we fail to exploit them to our advantage. Why aren’t we always extending our natural courtesy to the visitors to our shops, restaurants and hotels?

So frankly I’m looking forward to getting home. I am actually looking forward to going into the shops, the restaurants, even the government offices that I frequent and being greeted with a smile, a handshake and even the occasional hug. I’m certainly looking forward to getting on board an Air Botswana plane and being greeted like I’m coming home.

The lesson that I think I knew already but that I needed to have refreshed is that despite my many complaints about service levels and quality in Botswana we do have quite a bit to celebrate. Yes, there is a long way still to go but we have already started along the road, we have already made a lot of progress and our natural courtesy is a marvellous advantage.

Don’t worry, you can rest assured that the Consumer Watchdog team isn’t going to get all complacent and self-satisfied about the levels of service we get but it has been a useful lesson for me at least to realise that things aren’t all bad.

This week’s stars!

  • All the staff at Clipso Hair Salon for managing teenagers without a fuss! That DOES deserve a medal.
  • Adriana, Edwin and Eric at Vee’s Video for service always with a smile. Again!
  • All the team at Café Dijo for super super service. Again!
  • Gabotsewe at Pick N Pay Molapo for being a star.

Saturday 14 April 2007

Basic standards

Last week I promised some action on the subject of protecting ourselves from unscrupulous businesses. However much as I believe this is an area where private sector bodies such as Consumer Watchdog can play a role I do also believe that this is one of a few situations where we should be demanding actions from our Government.

Their huge resources can play a critical role in educating us on our rights and the remedies. They, after all, employ tens of thousands of people and better still, have staggering amounts of money to spend on education, not just of our kids but us grown-ups as well. They perhaps just need a slight nudge to get out there and do it. As I mentioned last week I think that Consumer Protection Unit officers should be out there amongst us in kgotla meetings, PTA meetings and special consumer rights awareness road shows. It’s one of the things they are meant to do.

The Ministry of Education has whole teams of people that can help the Consumer Protection people with this. The Department of Non-Formal Education is there to develop education strategies that work outside of schools and colleges. Surely with the combination of their education expertise and the skills and powers of Consumer Protection Office we can assemble a formidable force that can raise public awareness, give us knowledge and skills and (Oh how I hate using this terrible word) “empower” us?

So what exactly can the Consumer Protection people do for us?

The Consumer Protection Act says it clearly. Amongst other things it is their job to:

“disseminate information to enable consumers to acquire knowledge of basic consumer rights and obligations and the skills needed to make informed choices about goods and services”

Better still they should:

“formulate and implement consumer education programmes”.

But like I said this is an area where Government have a role to play, not necessarily one where they are the ONLY people who can do something. We don’t always need them to do anything in order for consumers to benefit. We can do a lot ourselves. I suspect that in most cases just suggesting to suppliers that we know our rights and that we know where we can take complaints will be enough to make them cooperate and to help us solve the service problems we encounter.

All it takes is a little knowledge of what the law says. You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand this. The Consumer Protection Regulations are actually a pretty good example of a law that is expressed in simple terms, simple language that can be understood by us simple people.

For instance, the Regulations make it perfectly clear that there are minimum standards for things that we buy. In fact there will be a major problem for a supplier if something they sell us:

i) does not match any sample or description given to the consumer;

ii) is not fit for any particular purpose made known by the consumer; or

iii) is not of merchantable quality;

Perfectly simple and there are no get-out clauses, no excuses that a supplier can make. There are no exceptions for foreign companies, no exceptions for small companies, no exceptions for companies that are having a hard time making ends meet this month. Simply no exceptions.

Incidentally, what does “merchantable quality” mean? It is something that is:

“fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”

In other words, something you buy must do what a reasonable person would expect it to do. If you buy a bakkie you are never going to break any speed records but it should allow you to transport a reasonable quantity of goods from A to B without the suspension breaking. If you buy a microwave oven it should be able to heat food.

That clause about being “fit for any particular purpose made known by the consumer” is also pretty useful. If you make it clear that you want to buy something for a particular purpose then tell the supplier that. If you can get the supplier to put it in writing as well then, even better. If for some reason they refuse to do that then you would be right to be suspicious.

One clause that I particularly like is the one that says that basic standards have NOT been met if:

“the supplier quotes scientific or technical data in support of a claim unless the data can be readily substantiated”

So where does this leave the alternative health store I walked past a few days ago that is advertising an “oxygen supplement”? Apparently we need to start buying this meaningless rubbish because in the past oxygen levels in the atmosphere were 38% but now, because of pollution and industrialisation have fallen to 21%. Now this simply isn’t true. It maybe true that hundreds of thousands of years ago oxygen levels were higher but that was before human beings were here to breathe it. Taking ridiculous supplements that apparently raise our blood oxygen levels is just plain silly and the advertising from these charlatans is contrary to the Consumer Protection Regulations. Who wants to complain to the authorities or should I go first?

This week’s stars!

  • Sergeant PC Dzwikiti, who, while on duty at Parliament, was extremely courteous, helpful and friendly.
  • Paul from Trojan Security at Riverwalk for being really friendly.
  • Lebo at whatever the Grand Palm Hotel is called these days for being a star.
  • The manager at Excitement Stores at Riverwalk for really helpful and friendly service.

Saturday 7 April 2007

Combating naiveté

Many, many years ago I worked briefly as an Assistant Psychologist in a large hospital. It was my first ever real job and as well as getting used to things like getting to work on time, filling in endless forms and learning how difficult it was for an office to get paperclips I had to learn to deal with the completely insane. No, I’m not going to make any predictable jokes about psychiatrists, these were the patients. The customers. Sometimes on my bad days I often think that this was a very useful learning experience for someone that ended up spending a lot of time thinking about how organisations function.

So many organisations have processes, rules and practices that are clearly deranged. For instance the cellphone operator that demands that after you’ve filled in a lengthy form requesting a new contract you then have to write them a letter asking them to process the form you just filled in and signed.

Anyway, the reason I was thinking about my brief time in psychology was the use psychologists make of a particular word:


Before anyone gets upset let me stress that naïve doesn’t mean stupid or ignorant. If you look it up in the dictionary you see words like “innocent” and “unaffected”. You even see phrases like “lacking conventional expertise”.

Psychologists use the word to describe a person who is encountering a situation for the first time. The first time you get behind the wheel of a car you are naïve about driving. The first time you get your hands on a cellphone you are naïve about cellphones. The first time you sign a credit agreement or a timeshare contract you are naïve.

However the problem is that there seems to be an epidemic of naiveté in Botswana. We see it all the time. There is a level of innocence surrounding us that causes endless problems. There is a lack of understanding amongst so many customers that results in them getting into trouble, all because they were naïve and innocent.

This is another of those situations where I actually do not blame consumers. I think that given everything we, including suppliers and stores, know about Botswana only recently emerging as a vibrant economy, there is a moral obligation on the part of these suppliers to make things clear. To educate us. They know that many of their customers have never signed a credit agreement or a contract before so I think it is their responsibility to make things perfectly clear.

I am prepared to go further than this. I think that any store or supplier that fails to make things perfectly clear is abusing us. Any supplier that feels the need to hide contractual terms in incredibly small print using words like “irrevocable” should be ashamed of themselves, particularly when many of their customers were not raised with English as their first language.

So yes, I think there is a moral obligation and you could even argue a legal obligation on the part of suppliers to make things perfectly simple to understand. The Consumer Protection Regulations clearly say that “causing a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction” is an unfair business practice.

However, of course there is also an obligation on consumers to educate themselves. I am a big believer in self-reliance (remember the P5 coin?) but where should a consumer begin? Should every consumer need to buy a copy of the Consumer Protection Regulations before they go shopping? Of course not.

This is another of those rare situations where (yes, I know Dichaba Molobe and I get uncomfortable saying things like this) Government has a role to play. It is Government that educates most of us at school. It is Government that publishes a free national newspaper. It is Government who currently has it’s own radio and TV stations.

I think we should be demanding that Government starts using these channels to teach us all about our rights. Why not a weekly supplement in the Daily news on consumer rights? Not a column waffling on about generalities, a column that describes a specific right that we can use every day when we are spending our money. Why not a TV program that educates us, exposes fraud and helps remedy problems that occur?

But we should demand even more than that. I think kids in schools should be taught the financial self-defence skills they will need later in life to protect themselves. Why not go even further? Why not send out Consumer Protection Unit officers to kgotla meetings, PTA meetings and special consumer rights awareness road shows? I know it might be reckless to compare consumer rights to HIV/AIDS but the approach adopted to communicate the facts about HIV/AIDS are the same techniques that we can use to educate the people on other subjects like our legal rights.

However, we will not wait for Government to do this. We are going to start it ourselves. Stand by for a deluge of information on your rights in this and our other columns, on our YaronaFm radio show, on the web and wherever else we can reach out to people.

This week’s stars!

  • Kgomotso and Ranthapeng from Shield Security for being super fast and recovering stolen goods!
  • Fred at Orange for being calming and helpful!
  • Officers T J Kgati and M D Mgantesang at Old Naledi police station for being quick and efficient.
  • Margaret at Grand Palm (aka Peermont Global) for really knowing what customer service is. We are told that she is a valuable asset to her company.