Friday 25 January 2008

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer's Voice

On 28th December 2007 my security company came to my house when my alarm went off.

As they left the driver lost control of their vehicle and rammed into my electric gate. This bent the gate and it could no longer be closed properly. Their supervisor came to inspect it and helped to realign the gate. He promised to call on Monday 31st to find out the condition of the gate but he didn’t. I went to their officers on the 31st and a senior manager promised that personnel would come to fix the gate after the holidays.

On 3rd January I went to their office to remind them of the problem. After this visit their National Technical Manager visited my house to inspect the gate. After the inspection he told me that they couldn’t deal with the situation until 7th January.

On Monday 7th their technicians came to the house to inspect the gate and returned on Tuesday to fix it. They left around midday on Tuesday and promised to come and finish the work that same afternoon but never returned.

I called them on 9th January and told them I was disappointed at the way my problem was being handled and they promised to come back to me. Later they called and told me that technicians were on their way. They arrived and left after failing to fix the gate, suggesting a new motor may be required.

Finally on the 10th I called them and they told me that they will forward my complaint to the relevant people to deal with the case but I’ve heard nothing back from them yet.

What should I do?

A nice simple problem! Tell them that enough is enough. They damaged your property and they have to fix it. Write them a letter giving them 14 days to repair everything they damaged. Tell them that if they fail you’ll ask Consumer Watchdog to get their lawyers involved. That’s after The Voice have been round with a photographer. Do they want that sort of publicity?

Get a relationship

No, despite the temptation I’m not going to talk about sex. However now I come to think about it if one of you readers can come up with a link between customer service and sex we would, naturally, be happy to explore it. All in the interest of benefiting you, our readers, of course.

Last Friday’s Mmegi intrigued me. Of course it does every week, excellent newspaper, make sure you buy a copy very day. In fact buy several copies every day.

What intrigued me to begin with were two advertisements in exactly the same position on pages very close to each other. On page 3 First National Bank were seeking a “Business Banking Relationship Executive”. Later on page 7 Standard Chartered Bank were seeking an “Investment Services Relationship Manager”. I’ve long been intrigued by titles that involve the word “relationship” and not because they sound like someone who procures “ladies of the night” for customers. The curious thing for me is the growing understanding that relationships are at the very core of most business. We all have relationships of varying quality with the people and companies that we engage with. Some relationships end up being long-term, even lifelong.

We all have brands, companies, restaurants with whom we’ve formed “relationships”. For me there will always be one favourite restaurant in Gaborone, the restaurant in which I feel most comfortable. I would ordinarily name the place but given that they would often lend me and my colleagues the keys to the place when they went home between lunch and dinner, leaving us with a row of ice buckets full of wine and making us promise to look after their business while they had an afternoon rest it’s probably best I don’t. But that helped to form an enormously affectionate relationship with the place in my mind and in the minds of all my former colleagues.

Similarly I have a relationship with Apple, Virgin Atlantic and Hewlett Packard printers that has built up over many years. The strength of each of those relationships has got me through the occasional mishap and disappointment.

Organisations like banks have, in recent years, understood this, that they have a relationship with each customer and that this relationship, like a marriage, has to be maintained, to be worked at and to be protected. Just like a marriage there are often low points but if the relationship is strong enough and if the problems are handled well enough, they can be overcome.

Again like a marriage there should be what biologists call symbiosis. This is when two completely different animals cooperate to mutual benefit. Those birds that pick tics from zebras and the zebras are in a relationship from which they both benefit. The birds get food and the zebras get cleared of tics. There are endless examples of this sort of relationship in nature and banks and their customers are an overlooked example. OK, I concede that banks aren’t actually animals but that’s not always how it seems. What animal is your bank like?

So back to the advertisements in Mmegi. Both banks are looking for someone to be in charge of the relationship management process. They’ll be a bit like marriage counsellors, trying desperately to keep husband and wife together and helping them to heal the wounds they have inflicted upon each other.

Then there was a third thing in last week’s Mmegi that really impressed me. An example of an organisation going out of it’s way to prevent a problem happening, or at least preventing any damage from happening.

This was a full page public update from Botswana Power Corporation regarding what they call the “power supply situation”. Before you make the normal assumption, that I’m going to be nasty about BPC, this is the exception. I’m going to be nice about them. Perhaps just this once.

Anyone who has read this column since the beginning will know that we’ve sometimes been critical of BPC. Firstly they have, on occasion, demonstrated clearly that they are a monopoly and they are immune to the effects of competition. Unlike Mascom and Orange, the banks, the supermarkets, pretty much everyone else in business they have no competitors. You see this in the some of the ways they operate. We’ve probably all come across the “You can’t have an account with us until you’ve paid the previous tenant’s power bill” situation. A couple of years ago we raised this with them their answer was, to put it simply “we can do this because the law says we can”.

Well, we’ve read the various laws concerning BPC and we think they have misread their powers. But that’s not the important issue this time. I want to say something positive about BPC. Imagine me taking a deep breath first.

Well done. The notice you put in the paper regarding the current and impending power shortage was very good indeed. It was honest, clear and practical. It described the current situation in simple terms that we can all understand, it suggested things we can all do to help and it really did suggest, quite persuasively, that the solution requires us to have a relationship with BPC.

The situation they outline IS serious. We are genuinely facing a serious national power shortage. Industry is starting to make an effort but individual consumers like you and me have to make an effort as well. The last line in their notice was

“The reality of the situation warrants a national and a personal campaign – a shared commitment”.

Now I know that sounds a very marketing-ish statement and they probably DID spend a long time coming up with it but it does ring true. Only with a relationship and a shared commitment to reducing consumption will we as a nation get through the crisis.

So I think it’s perhaps time that other organisations, banks, parastatals, in fact any organisation that sells things recognise that they have relationships to maintain and to protect. Unfortunately for them if they fail to realise it then they might just find their customers committing adultery.

This week’s stars!

  • Fred from the Directorate of Public Service Management for really outstanding customer service. The first Government service star of the year!
Whoever it was at BPC who wrote the excellent notice about the power situation. Let me know who it was?

Friday 18 January 2008

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer's Voice

I saw an advertisement on TV for “Slim Coffee” that claims it can help me lose weight by burning fat and suppressing my appetite. Can this be true?


I’m tempted to leave the answer as simple as that but I suppose we all deserve an explanation.

Products like the so-called “Slim Coffee” are marketed as appetite suppressants. They are loaded with stimulants which may have some ability to suppress your desire for food. If you look at the website for Homemark who market this product from South Africa you can see what this drink contains. It’s 75% instant coffee mixed with extracts of guarana and citrus aurantium, all of which are stimulants. The web site also states that the product is unsuitable for pregnant women, children and those who are sensitive to caffeine.

The most interesting thing claimed is that “rapid results are scientifically proven”. It’s always suspicious when a supplier claims that something is scientifically proven but neglects to say when, how and by whom.

The bad news is that all of these products have only inconclusive evidence to support them. On the contrary citrus aurantium, otherwise known as bitter orange, contains a drug called synephrine which is known to cause a range of heart problems, increased blood pressure and even strokes. If you already have disorders like diabetes, high blood pressure or a heart condition they could pose a serious threat to your health.

However even if you did decide to start drinking this stuff and it failed to kill you and it did actually suppress your appetite it’s still useless. All the scientific evidence shows that the moment you stop taking appetite suppressants the weight just comes straight back again.

Face it. There are no miracle cures. There is only one way to lose weight and not put it back on again. Eat and drink more sensibly and take some exercise.

Stealing intellect

How much do you value your intellect? Your brain, your mind and your ideas?

A few days ago I was watching a news report on the BBC about the singer Robbie Williams.

Apparently he’s going on strike from EMI, his studio because the new management are in trouble and fired a couple of thousand staff. While his contract probably commits him only to recording for EMI it presumably allows him, as a temperamental artist, to come up with new musical delights only when his creative juices start flowing. So they won’t, he’s said.

At the same time, bands like Radiohead have quit and decided to take their creativity elsewhere. According to the BBC they are considering making their new album available, for money of course, via the internet.

At the same time, writers in Hollywood are also on strike. Their complaint is that the big studios aren’t giving them a fair share of the royalties from the repeats of the shows they wrote and also of the very lucrative DVD sales. The impact of this strike has been catastrophic. Well, so the Hollywood types say. The Golden Globe awards have been cancelled, comedians and presenters are having to come up with their own material for the first time and all the big actors are showing support. Poor little Hollywood studio owners, doesn’t your heart bleed for them?

Not even slightly.

I’m not normally one for supporting strikes but in this case I think it’s a very welcome lesson that should be heard all over the place, not in studio owner’s limousines. The people with the real skills are standing up for themselves and demanding that their skills be appreciated.

Of course I’m not saying that it’s always this simple. There was a story some while ago about a former manager at KBL who claimed he had invented the recipe for St Louis and that KBL should recognise that the whole thing belonged to him. Well, that’s just silly. KBL paid him for his time, his work and his skills and he gladly accepted that payment. If he had been coming up with new recipes every day and they were bringing in lots of money for KBL then perhaps he would have had a good argument for a pay rise but actual ownership?

But there is a powerful point being made by all these people. The question of who owns the things they produce and how the authors should be compensated. The whole issue of intellectual property. An idea can be as much an item of property as a cellphone or a car. Just as you register your car and insure your cellphone as part of your household property (yes, of course you do, everyone sensible does) so you should register and protect your ideas.

Our local musicians are going through this problem at the moment, trying to find a way to protect their music from thieves. Thieves such as the people who copy a friend’s CD or who download music from a file-sharing site. If you do this you are no morally different from a non-violent thief who steals a cellphone or a purse through an open window. If you do this you have effectively mugged the musician and you should feel ashamed of yourself. You should also take care. The authorities are becoming more and more aware of this sort of crime and there are even signs that they are beginning to crack down on it.
Then there are the really big guys. Companies like Microsoft lose huge amounts of money when your friendly, neighbourhood PC dealer sells you a computer but installs software from a disc they use for every customer. We’re halfway through a major investigation into software piracy at the moment and Mmegi readers will be the first to read our findings. Yes, I know it’s difficult to feel huge sympathy for Microsoft and Bill Gates but remember how much of his own personal money he’s given us in Botswana and ask yourself whether it’s then fair to mug him in return?

One final point about your intellect. Show it some self respect. Start taking care about qualifications and the money you invest in improving them. In the past we’ve covered some of the scams that local training companies run with fraudulent qualifications. I have personally encountered two people in the last two years who it turned out had qualifications from entirely fraudulent institutions, the ones that give you a degree for cash, not actually for any hard work and learning. Calamus University, which we prefer to call Calamity University, has no actual campus and gives away degrees in subjects like Holistic Studies, Homeopathy and, best of all, Regression and Reincarnation Studies. Alternatively Almeda University is perhaps better referred to as All Made Up University as it’s degrees are slightly less useful that toilet paper, not being printed on soft paper.

Last week the BBC broadcast the results of their investigations into Irish International University which offers degrees through a network of companies throughout the world. Even their Honorary Chancellor, when interviewed by the BBC, described the degrees they award as “dodgy”. The whole bunch of crooks who run this ludicrous company seem to have awarded themselves a range of nonsensical and undeserved titles and letters after their various disreputable names.
The lesson about all of this is to take a whole lot of care about your intellect and your qualifications and those of your neighbours, relatives and colleagues. Let’s stop stealing other people’s property and stop honouring qualifications that have been stolen.
This week’s stars!
Tsiamo at Bata at Game City for being friendly and very helpful.
Mmoni who works at Wesbank at Barloworld Motors who apparently shows an “excellent work ethic and courtesy”.

Friday 11 January 2008

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer's Voice

I recently went to a furniture shop and I wanted to buy a fridge for cash. However I was told that if I buy on cash there is no guarantee and whatever happens to the fridge after they deliver they wont help me, so I ended up buying on credit. Once it was delivered I realised that the fridge wasn’t working properly so I took it back to the furniture shop and they gave me a temporary replacement.

However is it true that if I buy furniture for cash then there is no guarantee on the goods?

This is all very hard to believe. Any reputable store will offer a warranty or a guarantee for the products they sell, regardless of how you pay for them. If this was a major retailer the salesperson was either mistaken or lying. Either that or there’s been a huge misunderstanding.

However to some extent this doesn’t matter. If a product is sold new then the Consumer Protection Regulations demand that it must be of "merchantable quality". That means it must be "fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased". Regardless of whether they offered you a warranty it wasn't of merchantable quality so you can expect a replacement or a repair and that’s what you seem to be getting.

Also, regardless of whether you bought it for cash or on credit the merchantable quality rule still applies. Check the paperwork you got when you bought it and see what it says. Somewhere it will surely have warranty details.

We’ll get in contact with the store for you and see what they have to say for themselves.

The lesson for consumers is not to get smart-talked into a decision you know you’ll regret. If a salesperson says something that you suspect is untrue or you think is unreasonable get them to put it in writing. At least then you have ammunition for the battle that will later commence!

All Year Resolutions

I’m very dismissive of New Year Resolutions. They are usually made after a few weeks of ridiculous over-indulgence when we’re all feeling over-weight, hung-over and penniless. Hardly the best time to make major lifestyle decisions. Moreover the sorts of resolutions we all make are often just so predictable, the same ones we make each year. We promise to start taking some exercise, to cut down on the red meat and the booze and to be nicer to our partners and families.

However, as it’s so predictable and I’m a creature of habit I thought I might suggest some resolutions anyway. However these are not just New Year Resolutions, these are for all year round. These are changes I think we should all make that will genuinely help to improve our health, wealth and happiness.

Let’s start with health products. In the last two weeks I’ve encountered two health products that are frankly nonsensical. The first was a leaflet from a health shop that offered the delights of “ear candling”. This involves sticking a little candle in your ear and lighting it.

What on earth is this ridiculous concept supposed to offer? Well, the leaflet explains that doing this will clear your ears of earwax and a whole lot of toxins, poisons and other stuff you presumably don’t want in your ears. The trouble with this is that it’s all utter rubbish. Firstly there’s a reason your ears secrete ear wax. It’s useful. It is a key element in one of those wonderful self-cleaning processes our bodies perform. Removing it is unnecessary and potentially harmful.

Then there’s the theory behind this pseudoscientific hogwash. If you believe what the leaflet suggests these candles suck the wax from your ear. The supporters of this silliness claim that the revolting brown muck that emerges from the candle is extracted from your head. No it’s not. Every time these candles have been tested it’s been shown to be no more than a mixture of ash and wax from the candle itself. And anyway, how much suction do you think it would actually take to suck ear wax out of your ear? Enough probably to remove most of your brain as well although I wonder whether the proponents of ear candles have actually lost of much of their grey matter already if they believe this drivel.

Then on TV I saw an advertisement for “Slim Coffee”. This is another of the miracle cures that allows you to shed enormous amounts of weight. It’s the same old story. Take our useless product and without taking exercise and while still throwing vast quantities of food down your throat you will lose weight. Rubbish. How many times do we need to be told? Other than cutting your legs off there is no way to lose weight without effort and lifestyle change. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either a liar or profoundly mistaken.

Then there are the wealth resolutions. There are many things you could decide to do but they all come down to one simple decision. Spend less, spend smartly and save what you can. It’s easy to say this just after Christmas when we’ve all probably gone a bit over the top but now is the time to get into some better habits.

Stop showing off with your money. Very few people will actually respect you more if you get yourself hugely into debt to get that flashy new car. Most people who see someone else driving around in a brand new shiny car realise that they only did it because a bank lent them the money. They aren’t actually seen as being better looking, deeply desirable and a great catch. They are seen as a jerk who has just bought a brand new car that went down in value by 10% the very moment they bought it.

Buy second hand. Few people worry about buying a second-hand car so why is it any different with a computer, a DVD player or furniture? So long as it’s clean and has been well looked after what on earth is there to object to? You’ll save truly enormous amounts of money. Get a copy of the Advertiser and you may yourself a fortune.

Get a calculator. If you can’t do maths easily in your head then go out shopping armed with a cellphone that has a calculator built in. Before you even ask for assistance, do some maths and work out how much you’ll be paying for something if you are mad enough to buy it on credit. Multiply the instalment amount by the number of instalments and then add the deposit. Compare that cost with the cash price. Scratch your head and be surprised when you realise how much extra you are required to pay for the privilege of paying for a year or two. Then change your mind and go home. Pick up a copy of the Advertiser on your way.

And resolutions for happiness? See above. Look after your physical, emotional and financial health and the happiness will come all by itself.

This week’s stars!

  • Officer Ntshese from Central Police Station in Gaborone. Our reader lost her cellphone and when she reported it Officer Ntshese “came over to me and asked if I had been assisted. She then told me that I had to go pick up an affidavit form from the Orange office, it was raining and she went as far as to actually put me under her umbrella and proceeded to take me to the Orange shop. We met her colleague on the way and she borrowed his umbrella so that I could cover myself!!! I was really touched and have never experienced anything like this especially from our police service in Botswana.”
  • Then Ntukuna from Orange Call Centre who went above and beyond the call of duty to help our reader!