Friday 28 September 2007

Lose money, not weight

Last week I got all hot under the collar as a result of an advertisement in the Advertiser that offered a ludicrous herbal remedy that promised to help us “Lose weight fast”. The advert suggested that if you swallowed their ridiculous concoction it was possible to lose 30kg in 10 weeks.

This is just untrue. It’s impossible for any human being to achieve that sort of weight loss without either severing a limb or two or dying in the process. Surely everyone knows that the only healthy way to lose weight is to stop eating rubbish and to take some exercise? Yes, it would be convenient if there was some miracle cure, some pill you could swallow that would just dissolve fat, strengthen your heart and make you incredibly attractive to whichever sex you prefer but sorry, it doesn’t exist.

So there I was last week, getting all cross at this rubbish being advertised, writing my angry rant and sending it off to Mmegi. What happened? Finally feeling good that I’d honoured my newspaper obligations for another week I took a look at the DStv guide to see what delights were on the TV that afternoon. Unfortunately it was all programs I had either seen already, had no interest in or thought insulted me. Big Brother held no appeal, nor did the various channels selling American religion. Incidentally why is it that American evangelists seem obsessed with having the nastiest suits and stage sets that are in the worst possible taste? Can anyone actually watch them without revulsion?

Anyway, after writing an article about an advertisement for health products that was lies from beginning to end what do I find? Another advertisement, this one taking up a whole page of the DStv magazine, entitled “The express diet for the impatient”. “Cider vinegar capsules, the natural fat busters. 6kilos in 10 days.”

This advertisement, which must have cost a small fortune, suggests that cider vinegar capsules are the answer to all our weight loss challenges. If you believe this advert these cider vinegar capsules can “open up fat deposits on the stomach, hips and legs and buttocks… ensure that the new fat, destined for the fat cells, is diverted to the muscles and combusted.”

Later the advert makes the truly astonishing claim that “You can also eat as much as you like. Combined correctly, even 4000 calories a day could make you slimmer, rather than fatter”.

Just like last week it’s really difficult to express my outrage at this rubbish using language Mmegi wouldn’t censor. Let me try.

This simply isn’t true. This is all spectacular nonsense. This is all, every last word of it, every sentence, every paragraph based on a lie. The product they are selling will not work. There is no miracle way of losing weight. Cider vinegar capsules do NOT allow you to eat yourself silly and still lose weight. No, no and no again.

Like I wrote last week I’m not a doctor, a physiologist, a nutritionist or a dietician. But I know that there is no miracle way to lose weight. Anyone who tells you that such a thing exists is either confused, badly informed or a liar. Anyone who tries to SELL you a way of doing it is a liar, a cheat and a scoundrel.

So many things surprise me about this advertisement. Firstly that whoever placed it clearly expects to make a huge amount of money from this silly stuff. Placing the advert will have cost them a fortune and they’re not stupid, they expect to make more than the cost of the advert in profit from selling their useless product.

Secondly you almost always see in these advertisements a little box hidden away in a corner that says something like “this only works if used in conjunction with a calorie-controlled diet”. This is the usual disclaimer the advertisers feel obliged to make in order to remain in the real world and to avoid prosecution for telling lies.

However this ad doesn’t have any disclaimer. They are really making extraordinary claims but as the great scientist and communicator Carl Sagan once said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

The DStv magazine, like most DStv products, is clearly designed for our South African cousins rather than for us. However my understanding is that South Africa has consumer protection legislation just like ours. You simply can’t get away with saying that you have a miracle cure for something unless you really do have something that actually works.

However I’m in Botswana. Section 15 (1) (c) of our wonderful Consumer Protection Regulations state clearly that a supplier fails to meet minimum standards if:

“the supplier promises outcomes where those outcomes have no safe scientific, medical or performance basis”

Well, I did some very quick research and could find absolutely no published evidence that even hints that cider vinegar does anything therapeutic. No real findings based on those two key elements of real scientific research: the double-blind controlled experiment and peer review. As far as I can establish cider vinegar can’t do anything other than make nice salad dressings.

Finally, what are DStv in SA doing accepting advertisements from people trying to sell something that is contrary to our consumer protection laws? Would they accept advertisements offering to sell stolen cars? So why advertise something that is a blatant rip-off? I think we should expect better.

This week’s stars!

  • Ronald at Sheet Street for being incredibly friendly.
  • Lemogang and Phodiso from Aluminium 2000 for being wonderful, cheerful and kind and for working through a lunch break to help a customer.

Friday 21 September 2007

The sceptical consumer

As a consumer, in fact just as a reasonably intelligent human being, I think you have to be sceptical.

There are so many people out there, so many groups, so many organisations that are, for whatever reason, trying to persuade us to believe things that we should all be very careful about. A sceptic doesn’t reject everything out of hand, all a sceptic does is refuse to accept things just because someone proposes them. Just because something is said or written, that doesn’t make it true.

I’m not saying that everything is a lie. I’ll do my best to be charitable. Most of what we hear on the radio or read in the newspapers is either truthful or at least well-meant. However, as well as a small proportion of outrageous lies there is also a lot that is either exaggerated, distorted or mistaken.

OK, let me start with an extreme example. In a recent newspaper there was an advertisement entitled “Lose weight fast”. The advert suggested that it was possible to lose 30kg in 10 weeks. The advert said “Go oriental, with Chinese traditionally herbal To-Ling homeopathic therapy. No side effects, exercise not necessary – act as gastric bypass.” I haven’t corrected the English at all by the way.

What this seems to be saying is that if you swallow their obnoxious herbal rubbish, sit on your sofa eating as much junk food and drinking as much beer as you like for 10 weeks, you’ll lose 30kg. Later on the advert it also says that their ridiculous remedy can “remove big fat stomach and tightening stomach muscle, also remove stretch marks”. This is clearly all gibberish but then there’s the last word they mention: “Diabetes”. These charlatans claim they can treat diabetes. The same diabetes that requires medical attention. The same diabetes that, if you’re not careful can blind you or, in extreme circumstances kill you.

Frankly it’s a real struggle to remain polite while typing this. How can I possibly express what I think about this without using words that Mmegi wouldn’t publish? Let me do my best.

This is all lies. Outrageous, scheming, malevolent, abusive and immoral lies.

I’m not a doctor, a physiologist, a nutritionist or a dietician. But I know this. Other than by cutting your legs off there is absolutely no way you can lose 30kg in 10 weeks. Anyone who tells you that this is possible is a liar. Anyone who tries to SELL you a way of doing it is a liar, a cheat and a scoundrel.

OK, so that’s a pretty extreme example. However the newspapers are full of less extreme and more plausible products. These offerings are obviously not in the same category as the medical charlatans but I still think we should be sceptical about what they offer.

What about the advertisements we see for workshops, conferences and seminars on the latest technologies, business innovations and fashionable ideas? Just this last week there was an invitation to attend a huge conference on “Recruitment and Talent Management Strategies”. All well and good, these are important issues. But why would I want to go to a conference about it a cost of P2,750 for a single day?

With thrilling sessions like “Linking HR Strategies, Employee Engagement and Talent Management” you can spend the whole day hearing from a load of middle-aged male experts on what they think is important for you to hear. But let’s be sceptical for a moment. Is there any evidence that attending these conferences has ever done any person or any organisation any good? Any real evidence?

Has anyone ever done any research on this? I’d love to hear about it if someone has. Our employers spend a fortune sending us to these functions so surely they’d like to know if they are spending their money wisely?

What I suspect these gatherings really achieve is the transformation of normal, talented and creative people into consultant clones who come out with quotes such as “Once the processes and value chain have been optimised, interventions focus on design and implementation of a suitable solution that satisfies the organisation’s systems requirements.” That’s a real quote from an expert on organisational change reported in a recent newspaper article. In case you’re interested in English that means “Get more efficient and buy a computer”.

A lot of people who come out with this sort of management hogwash do really understand it and sometimes even believe it but the vast majority of people are simply using long words to show off, to give the impression that they are very clever and understand it all. Which of course they don’t because it’s largely meaningless.

By all means go to these workshops, sign up for the conferences, listen to what public speakers have to say for themselves. Just don’t expect miracles, don’t expect your life or your business to improve overnight. If you want to make sure your investment is wisely made why don’t you ask the organisers what tangible benefits they guarantee following your attendance. Ask them what you will actually take home with you. What skills, what knowledge, what solutions will you get? Most importantly will they offer you a refund if you come away with nothing new?

Friday 14 September 2007

Lies, damned lies and credit agreements

Someone, I don't know who, once said that there are three types of lies: "lies, damned lies and statistics". I think something similar can be said about credit agreements. Twice this last week we've been contacted by readers who have had problems with items they bought using credit agreements. Actually their complaints weren't to do with the agreements themselves but with other things like insurance, but I was left with copies of their agreements which I read.

One reader bought a DVD HiFi which had a basic cash price of P2,599.99. Incidentally do stores really think that when they price something at P2,599.99 we don't notice that they really mean P2,600? It's only 1 thebe less but do they really believe we're too dense not to see the attempted deception?

Anyway, back to the credit agreement. Remember that the cash price was P2,599.99. The customer opted to buy the item on credit over 12 months. On top of the basic price were 5 other items. "Handling charges" of P280, "Maintenance contract" at P429, "Customer Protection Insurance" at P800.77, "Contract fees" of P90 and "Finance charges" of P760.23. In total the various extras came to a whopping P2,360 on top of the basic price.

That's 91% of the basic price in extras. However in the agreement the store says that the finance charge of P760.23 is only 35%. However I can't make any of the amounts mentioned on the contract come to 35% of any other figure. I have no idea where they get that figure from. My concern is that this store is probably telling people that the interest they charge is only 35% when you can see that in fact you have to pay almost double the basic price if you want to pay on credit.

And what exactly are all these other items? What on earth is a handling charge? What are contract fees? A maintenance contract? I'll tell you what they are. They are an excuse. An excuse for hiking up the amount of your money they want to get off you. An excuse for lying about their real interest rate which is actually three times higher than they quote.

Then there's the Consumer Protection Insurance. These things are often sold as a protection for you. Protection against the item you buy being stolen, destroyed in a fire or being abducted by aliens.

That's all very sensible but in fact they are often nothing to do with protecting you, the consumer. They are there often there just to protect the store in case you stop paying your instalments. It's the store that's being protected, not the consumer.

The other credit agreement I saw was virtually the same but had some different extras. A general one called "insurance" and the most curious was P583.99 called "cartage". Could that mean delivery? That's another issue. A store once told us, in an unguarded moment, that the only reason they offer to deliver items is so they know where you live, so that when they want to repossess whatever you bought they know where to find it. So they charge you money to deliver things just so they can check up on you.

The big issue for me is the sense of deception you get from these agreements. All those ridiculous extras that mean nothing, it would be much simpler if they just lumped them all together and called them something like "Blatant rip-off fee". At least that would be honest.

OK, there's actually a bigger issue. Why bother with a credit scheme at all? Why not buy the item you want for cash instead? Yes, I KNOW the answer. You actually don't HAVE the cash.

Then why not save it. Instead of paying P389 per month for a whole year to buy the DVD HiFi why don't you put that amount in a savings account every month. By the time you've saved the price of the device you want three things will have happened.

Firstly you will have saved the basic price in only 6½ months, not a whole year. You won't need to save the money for all those extras, just the basic price.

Secondly 6½ months later technology will have moved on a little. We all see it with technology, every week they announce something new, something more advanced. What you can buy for P2,600 in 6 months time will be a whole lot better than what it gets you today.

Thirdly, because you put the money in a savings account your friendly bank will have paid you some interest. Maybe not a fortune but I did a quick calculation and I reckon it might come to the price of your first DVD.

All it takes is a little forethought, some patience and the ability to resist the temptation to spend the savings and you will have struck a blow for yourself and the rest of us in the fight against rubbish like cartage, handling and contract fees from companies that just want your money. Lots of it.

You CAN do it, you know you can!

This week's stars!

  • Ditiro from Game at Game City in Gaborone for going the extra mile.
  • Kessy at Ola Milky Lane, also at Game City for being friendly, flexible and attentive.

Friday 7 September 2007

Technology is not the answer

I’m a sucker for technology. I love my fancy PDA cellphone. I’m writing this on my laptop while sitting on the sofa while the kids watch a DVD. The wireless network at the office is amazing and fast internet access is a real benefit to the business. OK, that’s nonsense. It’s great for reading the news, surfing YouTube, downloading entirely free podcasts from iTunes and is a great way to fill in the gaps between doing real work.

Almost everything you hear from politicians, commentators and people trying to sell techie toys says that technology is also of huge potential benefit to our economy, to our development as a nation and to our progress as individuals.

The problem is that there is so much nonsense said about technology. There is just as much danger posed by not understanding what technology can really do for us as there is from not embracing it. We just need to understand what it can do, what it can’t do and how to get to work best for us.

Take call centres. All over the world banks, insurance companies, computer manufacturers and loads of others have decided that they can save money by setting up huge warehouses full of people who can act as a central contact point for customers to call. But at a time when we in Botswana are seriously considering going down the call centre road other places are doing the exact opposite. Call centres are NOT necessarily the solution to any problem. In fact they can actually make things much worse.

Many years ago in another country my bank decided that instead of being able to call my local bank manager and his team I now had to call a central call centre to get answers to basic questions. If I wanted my balance or to check a payment I had to call someone based in some far flung place who I had never spoken to before, who knew nothing about me other than what she could read on a computer screen and who was bored silly from talking to hundreds of other people that day about their uninteresting financial problems.

I was unhappy. So were thousands of other customers. Some customers actually moved banks but others like me just sat there complaining. Eventually we all got a letter from the MD of the bank. It said sorry, they had made a terrible mistake and they were going to fix it. Each branch would now have a telephonist and we could of course now call the people in the bank we knew. The call centre approach had been a complete failure.

The trouble with new technologies like those that allow call centres is that they often present organisations with what seem to be simple solutions to complex problems. It’s expensive to employ dedicated customer care staff at each branch so why don’t we employ them all centrally in a single place, give them access to every customer’s computerised data and we’ll save some money? Why not? Because it does more harm than good. Because it makes a critical mistake. Anything that puts greater distance between you and your customers is a mistake. You need to get your customers closer to you, not further away.

That’s one of the problems with the careless use of technology. It’s so easy to get seduced by something flashy sold by a computer salesman that doesn’t actually address any real need.

There are more mundane examples. Whenever I have to call a certain organisation (that will remain nameless) to complain that they’ve cut me off again the first thing they ask is “What’s your account number?” It seems like they can’t do anything without knowing my account number. But I don’t know my account number. They never send out statements so how on earth am I meant to know? However I DO have a name. I’m also lucky that I am the only person in the entire country with my name. I’m not a Modise or a Molefe. Besides that I shouldn’t have to know my account number. Just giving my name and a couple of other things to confirm who I am should be enough. The trouble is that they allow their technology to rule the way they do business rather than allowing the customer to do that. It’s 2007 for goodness’ sake. They CAN find my details using my name. I know they can because they always do finally manage to do so after I lose my cool with them and get all cross.

I’m not saying that technology or any other new idea can’t help you run your business. By all means invest in new technologies. Just make sure you understand that technology itself never solved any problem, it’s what you do with it that can help. I’ve tried hard but I can’t think of any industry that didn’t exist in some form before the introduction of the personal computer. I think all businesses would benefit from understanding that just because something is new that doesn’t mean it’s good. My favourite business writer, Robert Sutton, is fond of quoting a colleague of his at Stanford, Jeffrey Pfeffer who says, "Instead of being interested in what is new, we ought to be interested in what is true."

This week’s stars!

  • Rose at Nandos at Game City for being cheerful and excellent with the kids.