Friday 31 August 2007

It's raining training!

Every month, every week, sometimes it seems like every day I see advertisements, announcements and reports of training taking place. It could be our government sending people to far-flung places to learn things that are utterly pointless, it could be people being sent on courses at home to develop skills that are so completely obvious even my 8-year old son knows them or it could be seminars, workshops and conferences that are nothing more than just stupendously expensive.

Have you ever noticed that the level of expenditure on training seems to inversely proportional to the benefit gained from it? The more money spent the less useful it is. A 3-day conference you spend P3,000 on attending will give you almost no return on your investment. A 1-day seminar for P1,000 will be moderately worthless. A book you buy for P100 at an airport could be reasonably useful. A copy of Mmegi with some useful news and, of course, this column, will be worth a small fortune but will only cost you P3.

Spending money on a problem is rarely the best solution. Almost always the solution to a problem is a combination of imagination, hard work and, most importantly of all, execution.

This is even more the case when it comes to customer service. You and I will not benefit even slightly by spending a month’s salary to go to a conference or workshop on how to deal effectively with customers. Even if it is someone else’s money.

Achieving excellent customer service is hard work but the principles behind it are actually very simple. Here, yet again, and entirely for free is your Consumer Watchdog guide on how to do customer service for beginners.

To begin with when a customer arrives look them in the eye, pause for exactly one breath and then smile. Give the impression that you are glad they came.

When a customer asks for something do your level best to give the impression that you care about it. Go find what they want and give it to them. If you don’t have it or can’t find it be honest, don’t make up stories, just apologise and tell the truth. Try and find a solution that is either a good second best or perhaps even better than what the customer originally wanted. Smile every so often while doing this.

When a customer complains, give the impression that you are treating their complaint seriously. Stop smiling and say something like “I am REALLY sorry we let you down, let me do my best to fix this for you.” Then fix it. Don’t make excuses, just fix it. If by chance the customer made a mistake still do your best to fix the problem, even though technically you don’t have to. If the customer is unreasonable then by all means stand up for yourself and for your staff, but give the customer the benefit of the doubt first.

When a customer leaves again look them in the eye and tell that you are glad they came and that you hope to see them again soon. Do not, under any circumstances, say “Have a nice day”.

When you get a free moment (yes even the busiest of us have them occasionally) take a look at the way your business operates. Does it put the customer’s interests above your own or does it just make life simple for you and your colleagues? Do not engage a consultant to do this. No, do not. Not until you have had a go yourself first. Only when you have identified some problems should you look to an outsider to assist.

Only hire people who can ALREADY do customer service well. Do NOT hire people who you think you can train to do it at some later stage. If they can’t do it now there’s no way they’ll be able to do it later having attended some pointless training session.

Be honest. Be scrupulously honest. Go one stage further and go out of your way to be open about things like contracts and conditions. Remember that only companies with something they know they should feel guilty about keep their contractual terms secret. Only companies with something to hide refuse to let their customers see contracts before they sign them. Only particularly unscrupulous ones refuse to let you take a contract home to think about it before you sign it. Do you want to be a company like that?

There you go. Lesson over. Now you don’t need to go to some hideously expensive conference to hear the same old things repeated yet again, you don’t even need to buy that book at the airport. All you need to do is apply the simple rules. Yes, apply them. Don’t just think about it, don’t hold meetings about it, don’t form teams and committees, just do it. JFDI. Execution, not contemplation .

There is absolutely nothing to stop you doing all of this. If you just stop thinking about it and doing it, who knows what might happen. You might even make a fortune.

This week’s stars!

  • Solomon from the PABX team at BTC for having the guts to apologise for a failure and for making sure it got fixed as soon as possible.
  • The team at Primi Piatti for the millionth time for demonstrating how well it can be done.

Friday 24 August 2007

Who deserves the boot?

I’m a nice guy, I am, honestly. I do my best to be tolerant of other’s mistakes, occasional lapses in judgment and absence of common sense. Usually.

This is also something we should do in business and at work. Our employees, our colleagues and even our managers will make mistakes sometimes and it’s our job not to over-react but to accept the situation, help them to recover from the aftermath and all learn from the experience.

I make a habit whenever I interview people to ask them about their greatest professional success. Then, after telling me how clever they are, how I should hire them and give them a huge salary and when they are feeling all good about themselves, I throw them a curve ball. “What was your greatest professional failure?”

Most of the time the interviewee will come clean about some ghastly experience, some appalling disaster and will then talk at length about how they dealt with failure, learned something from it and how it can’t happen again.

We’ve all had disasters and frankly anyone who says they haven’t is either very young, a liar or a dangerous psychopath.

The same goes for companies when dealing with customers. Mistakes will happen and a decent company will learn from the mistakes and do their best to make sure they never happen again.

However, why am I on about this?

Because this week I’ve seen a series of disasters, some trivial, some appalling.

Let’s start with the obvious. Multichoice and the English Premier League fiasco. After a huge level of expectation amongst Multichoice subscribers we all found out that we’re only going to see a small proportion of the matches.

Meanwhile there’s the supposed new player, GTV, who appear to have won the much larger proportion of the matches and will be broadcasting them any moment now. So they say. The trouble is I can’t help but think about Black Earth Satellite TV, the people that claimed they would be here ages ago with amazingly competitive packages. You know, the ones that have disappeared off the radar except from the occasional comment that it’s all the fault of the BBC and the Queen. No, I’m not making that up.

It’s easy for me, a non-soccer fan to spout about this but I’m not convinced that Multichoice are actually the villains here. They lost a competition to win the right to broadcast the major proportion of the Premier League matches. GTV won it. GTV offered more money and won. Yes, perhaps Multichoice should have offered more but that’s just the nature of the business. You win some, you lose some.

I’m just intrigued to see what GTV have to offer. I checked their web site and unfortunately it’s not exactly clear. It suggests we might have Sky News, Al-Jazeera, BBC World, E!, TV5 Monde (tres bien si vous parlez Francais), a movie channel, a kid’s channel and, best of all a channel called “God” to play with but it’s not clear. Dear GTV, give us a call…

Those crying for the head of Multichoice are going a bit far. I’m probably going to incur the wrath of football fans by saying this but we don’t have a right to watch football. We certainly don’t have a right to see specific matches from particular foreign leagues. It’s a treat if someone offers us the opportunity to buy it but that doesn’t mean we have a right to it. The only right I DO think we have is the right to take our hard-earned money where we want it. If EPL matches are worth it to you then try out GTV but you’ll lose other choices. You could always have both or switch between them as you need them. August GTV, September Multichoice and so on.

So let’s get real. Rarely to people deserve to be fired for not winning a competition. However they DO seem to have cocked up the communication side of things. Let’s make them suffer a little more for that, purely because it’s fun?

So who DOES deserve to be fired? Who deserves the boot, to be ceremoniously stripped of his or her rank insignia and publicly disgraced? Where should I begin?

Two specific cases. The driver of the BX Peugeot Boxer who was driving between Palapye and Mahalapye last week at speeds in excess of 160kph, overtaking in the path of incoming trucks and generally behaving like a lunatic on the road. Don’t ask how I know he was driving at that specific speed, just trust me, I know but I can’t confirm it without incriminating myself.

When he reached Mahalapye he was forced to stop at some red lights and who did I see in the back of the vehicle? 10 children. He was genuinely lucky to get there alive and so were his unfortunate passengers.

Then a few minutes later the driver of the BX Volvo S40 driving south of Mahalapye, whose obviously very important passenger could be seen encouraging him to overtake everyone in his path.

So, to both the drivers, here’s a present from the Watchdog. By the time you read this the Director of CTO, his Permanent Secretary and his Minister will all know the registration numbers, dates, times and locations involved. They’ll probably even know your names as well. Look forward to getting a call from them!

This week’s stars!

  • Nicholas from Botswana Railways and Lee from Red Guard Security for looking after visitors to BR HQ with courtesy and friendliness.

Friday 17 August 2007

Are we patriots?

Do we have a national inferiority complex? Do we think we are somehow less talented than our cousins in other countries? Do we think that because someone is in a bigger, more well-known country then they are somehow better than us? Are we really patriotic?

I wonder sometimes.

We heard last week of a phone call received by a consulting and training company. They got a call from a senior training manager from a parastatal company that everyone knows and almost all of us use.

The training manager had been advised to call by a former customer of the training company who thought the parastatal might want to use their services.

The training manager asked about some specialist skills they needed and did they know any companies who could help them develop such abilities? Yes, they said, rather proudly, they could, they’d be delighted to help. On the other hand if they couldn’t they knew lots of other companies here in Gaborone who maybe better qualified.

However they had misunderstood what the parastatal actually wanted. They wanted training in South Africa. They didn’t care who delivered it so long as it was done in SA. Why? No reason, they just wanted the training to be done in SA.

I can’t help but wonder why. OK, there’s the obvious reason. It’s nice every so often to have a trip away from home particularly when someone else is paying for it. A nice stay in a hotel, 6 hours of snoozing during day, free food and drink and, no doubt best of all, a per diem payment that can go towards that new fridge back at home. Who knows, there might even be some high-risk depravity as well.

Then there is that other reason. The feeling that training delivered elsewhere is better than training delivered here at home. That people trained or educated abroad are somehow better qualified than those of us who did it here. Not just training, all services. Yes, certainly there are more options, more variety in places like South Africa but that doesn’t mean that the quality is actually any better.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen this. A couple of years ago a young techie I knew in a very large organisation needed to be trained in a fairly well-known bit of software technology. It was still pretty new at the time but there were several IT companies in South Africa who could do it very effectively. So where did he end up going to be trained?

Tokyo. For three weeks.

I don’t want to know how much this cost but the customers paid for it. That’s you and me. Our taxes paid for him to have the trip of a lifetime. I’m not blaming him of course. If a company with money to burn offered to send me somewhere exotic I’d jump at the chance. But my desire for self-indulgence wouldn’t make it right.

This is all just so utterly wrong, counter-productive and, dare I say it, shameful?

I’ve tried hard over the last few days to think of services that it’s not possible to get in Botswana that can only be obtained in other countries. Yes, there are certain industrial services we don’t do here. We don’t drill oil, we don’t make cars and there are certain agricultural things we’ll never be able to do because of our climate and geography. It’s a tragedy but Botswana will never be a major producer of wine.

But when it comes to business services what can’t we do? We have hugely qualified accounting firms, graphic designers, marketers, HR professionals, recruitment companies, the list goes on and on. We have some fantastic lawyers, although I can’t help but observe that a few of them seem to have a minor breathing problem. Breathe in, threaten defamation, breathe in, threaten defamation, breathe in, threaten defamation...

I know that in South Africa they have a tradition of public campaigns to support local industry but why don’t we? Why don’t WE have little labels on our locally produced food stuffs, our local services, our locally produced beer saying “Buy Botswana”. You see the “Proudly South African” slogan all over the place in South Africa so why not here?

If we really want to make a mark, a mark as big as we can given our relatively small size, why aren’t we sticking up for ourselves instead of sticking up for products and services that benefit other countries?

I think it comes down to a sense of patriotism. Now before I get carried away I do NOT mean that vile form of nationalism that suggests that my country is better than your country, that all other countries are somehow inferior. Dr Johnson said that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” but I think he meant politicians who appeal to patriotic impulses when they have no better arguments. I think patriotism is more to do with loving your locality and wanting it so flourish. It doesn’t even have to do with the passport you carry. I know plenty of expatriates who love Botswana, who love here, who are convinced that they’ll be buried here and really want Botswana to succeed.

So why don’t we start being proud of what we do here not just because it’s cheaper than going elsewhere but because it’s the patriotic thing to do?

This week’s stars!

  • Eric, Adrianna and Edwin from Video Ezee at Riverwalk, for yet again being cheerful and for taking the plunge and going it alone. Good luck!

Friday 10 August 2007

Does your car know it's rights?

Readers of a certain age, or those with a basic knowledge of modern history, will know about Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the USA. He’s famous for various things. He got US forces out of Vietnam (eventually), he went to China and engaged with Chairman Mao, and he was of course the only US president ever to resign, in his case because of the Watergate scandal.

Just between you and me, despite all of this he wasn’t too bad as a president. He didn’t fall victim to that great temptation of most political leaders: to interfere. When I was at school I was taught, in dismissive terms, by some talented but fundamentally misguided history teachers about “laissez-faire politicians”. These were the ones who apparently left things alone, who didn’t try to get involved and who didn’t bury their sticky fingers in things that weren’t their business, like the market place. I was taught in fact that politicians SHOULD interfere, that they should try and control and command an economy and that it WAS their job to determine prices and how free trade should work. Wrong. Utterly and completely wrong.

I’ve been reformed by experience. PJ O’Rourke said that “public sanitation is, like personal security, public defence and rule of law one of the few valid reasons for politics to exist”.

Politicians getting involved in business is a bit like getting me, an opinionated, know-it-all guy to say how insurance companies should run their businesses when in fact I know absolutely nothing about insurance, other than that it’s a good thing and we should all have some. I’m the worst person to get involved in telling an insurance company how to run the technical aspects of their business.

Anyway, back to Richard Nixon, or Tricky Dicky as he was often known. Why am I going on about him? The thing that got me thinking about him was a tactic used in one election campaign by his opponents. They put together a poster of Nixon, looking all swarthy and scowling at the camera with the tagline: “Would you buy a used car from this man?”

The most damning thing they could think of was to suggest that he looked like an untrustworthy used-car salesman. Think about it. How would YOU react if you were told you looked like one? It’s not exactly flattering is it? But why is that? Why are people in the used car sales and repair industry seen as being untrustworthy?

Perhaps because a sizeable proportion of them are.

Before I go too far and defame an entire profession I really must say that a whole lot of them are perfectly decent, honest and trustworthy people. They work hard in a cut-throat industry and treat their customers with respect. Well, some of them do. Honestly, some do.

However one of the largest single areas of complaint we receive is used cars and car repairs. Cars seem to be the source of so many of the problems we hear about. Probably once every week or two we hear from a consumer who feels like he’s been ripped off, usually by a garage or a repair shop.

Some of the stories are exactly the same, time after time. A customer takes his car in for repairs, gets a quote, authorises the work and then later finds that the actual price hugely exceeds the quote he was given. The problem with this is of course that by this time the work can’t be undone. It’s not like a product that’s delivered to your front door that isn’t suitable. You can just send that back. By the time a car has been repaired all sorts of components have been removed and almost always can’t be put back. However at the very least you can expect an explanation. A decent repair shop will give you a full breakdown of every thebe they’re charging you. They’ll also do what my favourite place does. In the back of the car when you pick it up will be a cardboard box full of all the little bits they removed, just to show that they DID in fact do what they said they’d done.

The good news is that there are certain protections provided for us by law. The Consumer Protection Regulations provide some of our favourites.

They’ll be in trouble if “the service is not rendered with reasonable care and skill and such service and any materials used are not fit for any particular purpose made known by the consumer”.

Also they’ll incur the wrath of the law if “the commodity or service causes a probability of confusion or misunderstanding as to its source, sponsorship, approval, or certification”. If they say they’re using genuine Toyota parts then they simply have to. No excuses.

A particularly good clause states that it’s an unfair business practice if they tell you that “a part, replacement or repair is needed when it is not”. This one is worth repeating. They simply cannot lie about whether a repair or a replacement is needed. If they tell you that you need a new widget and it turns out later that you didn’t then I think you can demand they don’t charge you for it.

The lessons aren’t new ones, they’re all very predictable but I think you can protect yourself very well by letting anyone who’s going to come near your car know that you know your rights. Drop a few subtle hints that you know the Consumer Protection Regulations.

So here’s a challenge to the car repair industry. Who wants to sponsor Consumer Watchdog bumper stickers saying “My car knows it’s rights!”?

This week’s stars!

  • Beauty at the Bull and Bush for always smiling, happy to serve, speedy service!

Friday 3 August 2007

Too many cases...

Some weeks it’s actually quite a difficult life writing a column for a national newspaper. It’s not that there aren’t enough stories that are related to consumer issues, it’s just that some times there are just too many.

So here goes. Two unrelated issues that have little in common, but both intrigued me.

In South Africa’s Sunday Times last weekend I saw an advertisement from Business Against Crime and all the cell network providers entitled “Is your cellphone an accessory to crime?” Rather than describe it, I’ll quote it. Beneath a picture of a gun, a crowbar, a brick, a knife and a cellphone it said:

“Criminals rely on various tools to successfully commit a crime, but their biggest accessory is a stolen, damaged or lost cellphone that has not been blacklisted. Do your bit to make your country a safer and better place. Blacklist your stolen, lost or damaged cellphone.”

The reason this hit me is that just a few months ago one of our team was mugged outside the office. After she had called the bank to tell them about the lost cards she called her cellphone provider to tell them to cut off her phone number. While on the line she remembered that as well as deactivating her SIM card they could also completely bar the phone itself. All you need to give them is the IMEI number and they can make sure nobody ever uses your phone again. However it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. The cellphone provider said they can only do this if she showed them the box in which it had originally come. Now like most of us she hadn’t kept the box. So there was nothing that could be done. Despite wanting to do the right thing and also perhaps get a little revenge on the miserable scumbags who attacked her, the colourful cellphone provider wouldn’t let her do it. So what did she do? Something imaginative. She called another, distantly related cellphone provider in the UK. She told them the story and what did they do? They disabled her stolen phone from halfway around the globe.

Of course there’s a risk that someone malicious could get someone else’s phone disabled if they found out it’s IMEI number but surely all the cellphone provider need is a police report, just to confirm the story?

So why are we lagging behind our South African neighbours? The phone companies there are paying for hugely expensive advertisements encouraging us to combat crime. Why can’t we do this here?

Why isn’t the now liberalised cellphone industry getting together to do something that will help them, help you and help me to combat crime. It’s not just the job of the police to combat crime. In fact if you look at the international crime reduction success stories you find that crime only ever reduces when the entire community, police included, get together to fight against it.

Next issue. Please help me decide whether this story is humorous or just plain stupid. A reader contacted us and told us about some water pipes he bought for use at his house. After months of endless pipe failures and a series of visits from the manufacturers he was told that the pipes he’d been sold simply weren’t appropriate for domestic use. So he wrote to the manufacturers to complain. He copied the letter of complaint to various important people and mentioned in the letter that the pipes were useless and that he’d heard other people had complained as well.

Their reaction?

They threatened to sue him for defamation. Their attorney claimed he’d injured their reputation. Poor sensitive little things. So sensitive that they said that if he didn’t apologise in public for his hurtful statements they would stamp their feet, cry like a little girl and sue him for, wait for it, P500,000 compensation.

Are they insane? Should people this sensitive be allowed out in public? By the way this isn’t a company any of us have heard of. It’s not Game or Nandos or Pick N Pay. It’s a company that can’t really have any reputation at all, let alone one worth half a million.

But it’s actually not as funny as I suggest. It’s not really about sensitivity at all. It’s about aggression. It’s a fairly standard technique from a certain section of the business community. The moment someone has the temerity to criticise them they get all heavy. Presumably this technique works with some victims but surely companies that immediately engage attorneys and threaten defamation actions are those with something to hide. They are just bullies. They are like the drunken fool in a bar who starts shouting the moment someone looks at his girlfriend.

Again and again I come back to the main distinction we see between suppliers. Maturity, or the lack of it. To be fair the vast majority of stores and suppliers are quite mature. They might not like criticism, who does? But they recognise that things go wrong from time to time and that as responsible, mature people they should take it on the chin.

Then there are the immature ones. The ones who react like naughty little children who have been caught out by their parents. First they deny it all (“It wasn’t me!”), then they try and distract attention (“It wasn’t me, it was him!”) and then they do one of two things. They either hit back or they sulk (“You’re not my friend any more”).

Luckily most of us grow out of it.

This week’s stars!

  • FNB at Kgale Branch for sending a customer a text message on her birthday! See, technology CAN help with customer care!