Friday 27 June 2008

Patriotic consumerism

Communism is often summarised by it’s proponents as being based on the idea of “each giving according his means and taking according to his needs”.

Well, I suppose it’s poetic at least. But it does summarise the incredibly na├»ve and ridiculously hopeful view that all you and I want from life is what we actually need and that we’re prepared to give away everything we have in order to get it. There’s no room for what we want on top of our basic needs. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go on about this, the best arguments for opposing this sort of ideology come from the simpletons who believe in it.

However the phrase came to mind while I was trying to summarise “consumerism” in a similar, single, pithy phrase.

By consumerism I don’t mean what people often take it to mean. I don’t mean a passion for extravagant shopping sprees or the idea that buying luxuries is the meaning of life. Instead I mean the real life situation we find ourselves in. Almost all of us buy something every day. Some of us sell things every day as well. Our lives are about trade. Desmond Morris famously described human beings as “naked apes” but I think we are probably better described as “trading apes” or “homo emptorus”.

Once you accept that this is what we are you can’t help but consider what might be the best environment for us to thrive in. Just as our very distant cousins, the mountain gorillas, thrive best when left alone in jungles full of fruit and roots consumers thrive best when they are given choices.

I genuinely believe that the happiest people in the world aren’t necessarily the richest, but are those whose lives are full of choices and opportunities. What they then do with them is their business but at least they have that level of control over their lives. Obviously these choices aren’t always available to everyone. Not everyone can afford the choice between a Mercedes and a BMW. Not everyone has the choice but that doesn’t mean that nobody should have them.

It’s not a political observation but a practical one. Where are people happiest in the world? In Zimbabwe, Burma or Turkmenistan where choices aren’t permitted or in Botswana, Western Europe or the Philippines where freedom of choice abounds?

So that’s why I, and I suspect most consumers, get worried when something threatens our freedom of choice. I don’t mean shortages or increasing prices, I think we’re all used to those by now.

I mean people who should know better, getting their fingers dirty by sticking them in our freedom of choice. Yes, I mean the blatant protectionism of imposing import restrictions on fruit and vegetables.

I would love my son to be the top of his class at school. Do I achieve this by excluding all of his classmates from their maths tests? He would certainly be top of the class then wouldn’t he? He’d also be bottom of the class and he wouldn’t have learned a thing. He wouldn’t have learned about competition, trying harder and doing his best.

What is the difference between that and banning foreign tomatoes and cabbages? The night before I wrote this there was a report on BTV News about a truck full of veg that was stopped at the border. That little known unit of The Ministry of Agriculture, The Cabbage Squad, had impounded lots of evil Al Queda vegetables who were trying to get into Botswana to engage in acts of high-fibre terrorism.

Their spokesman was quoted as saying that they had imposed restrictions “to boost the market”. Those were his exact words. I’m not a trained economist but I know that blocking competition doesn’t strengthen anyone or anything. On the contrary it weakens it.

Just as my son will be helped to get better at maths by competition, our farmers only improve when they have to produce better quality goods than those we import.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with supporting local producers but there are better ways to do it. The Government can employ specialist advisors who can go to our local farmers and give them helpful hints, technical recommendations and advice on practical business skills in marketing.

Then let the real decision-makers, you and me, decide. We can decide to support our local suppliers if we want to and of course we DO want to, don’t we? So long as what they produce is of good quality and sold at the right price. I firmly believe that most shoppers would love to buy locally produced goods if they are as good as, or better than, the competition. Up until recently there were bags of the very best tomatoes available with little blue, black and white tags holding them closed. We all bought them because they were excellent, because they were locally produced and we took a patriotic pride in doing so. It was a real joy to buy them.

I firmly believe it’s our patriotic duty to support local producers by buying goods from them, but only when they deserve it. Artificially supporting second-rate products is, in fact, profoundly unpatriotic.

This week’s stars!
  • Batlhalefi, Tlhabologo and Amogelang who all work in the Minister of Finance’s Office. We’re told that they are all hard-working, easy to work with and friendly.
  • Mopati Keabile, the Minister of Finance’s driver who is also hard-working and patient.

Friday 20 June 2008

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

Last September 2007 I purchased a Defy conventional grill and microwave from Hifi Corporation.

Earlier this month my mother used the microwave to heat up some food and when it was completed the oven malfunctioned and the top of the microwave ended up burnt.

As the microwave was still under warranty my mother took it back to be looked at. Unfortunately she was told that the microwave had been mishandled and over used. It’s true that the inside of the oven was unclean with some splatters of oil but we hadn’t misused it.

My problem is that they refused to take in the microwave for examination and repair simply because it appeared unclean on the inside. They also said that testing of equipment trips their plugs. They also pointed out that we would have to pay for the repairs. But I maintain that the problem was a malfunction and they should honour the warranty.

What should I do?

Excuses, excuses, excuses. It really is sad when stores make excuses so they can avoid their obligations.

Of course, it’s reasonable for a store to charge you for a repair if you really did damage the product you bought. If you’ve not taken proper care of it then you have to pay the price.

It sounds like in your case they are just making excuses. You don’t have to keep your oven perfectly clean every second of the day. Which of us has a perfectly clean oven right now? The fact that they wouldn’t even test the oven to establish what had gone wrong is just silly. The excuses about testing goods tripping their plugs is rubbish and not your concern.

AN UPDATE: We contacted the branch manager and he assured us that he would be in touch with this customer. She later contacted us to say that he had done so and had promised to look into the matter However, he told her that he wasn’t terribly impressed that Consumer Watchdog was involved. Too bad!

Let's be frank about degrees

I received an interesting email last week. No, it wasn’t a Nigerian informing me that she had many millions of dollars stuck in a bank account and would I help her move them offshore and take 25% of the amount as a commission. Nor was it a health company offering me Viagra, cheap medications or herbal cures for non-existent problems. It wasn’t even telling me that I had won the Mongolian National Lottery and all I had to do to get my winnings was to send them my bank account details and ID number.

It was something that seemed almost legitimate. The email was from the JT Frank Academy in Malaysia offering me a place on their “Global Certificate in Knowledge Management” course. For a mere $1,600 (excluding the cost of travel, accommodation, food, drinks and exotic tropical diseases) I could attend their 5-day session in Kuala Lumpur.

Attached to the email was a very colourful electronic brochure that told me a lot more than I wanted to know about the opportunity they were offering me (and a million other people I imagine). By attending this course I could become a “Certified Global Internal Consultant”. How have I managed to survive all these years without this prestigious honour?

The brochure and the web site were full of the sort of language I loathe. The course contains sessions on topics as thrilling as “Specific guidelines to operationalise the physical architectures”, “Capitalising on Formal micro teams to spearhead the Practice of Knowledge Management” and, well, you get the picture.

But better than just attending the course I was also offered the opportunity to schedule the courses myself, here in Botswana. I was invited “to be our Global Collaboration Partner to represent and collaborate with us TO OFFER The JT Frank Global Certificate in Knowledge Management (CIKM) to your corporate clients”. If I did so I would be able to keep up to 30% of the fees paid by course participants. If I managed to get 25 people to attend I would make a grand total of $12,000. Presumably that’s before I paid the cost of the venue and probably the travel and accommodation costs of the Malaysians who would come and deliver this astonishing material.

Before any Knowledge Management specialists get angry with me please believe that I’m not denigrating the subject itself which is obviously very important in this information age. I’ve even been known to talk to my customers about the critical difference between information and knowledge but my objection is taking such a complex subject and making it nonsensical, pompous and terribly self important by doing no more than using a bunch of long words.

Anyway, back to the invitation. The reason I reacted to this was that the JT Frank Academy approached me (and the other squillion people on their mailing list) with exactly the same offer last September. I was offered the same opportunity as well as similar incentives.

However, that earlier email suggested that if I helped them to schedule the course here it might have been facilitated by a certain Dr Frankie Ow DBA who was described as their Chief Knowledge Architect. So far, so good. However being the person I am, I wondered where he received his DBA, a Doctorate in Business Administration. A little research showed it was awarded by St George University International, a well known diploma mill. This distinctly dodgy establishment was well known for having no apparent educational standards and has awarded it’s so-called degrees around to world to people who, one might assume, can’t be bothered to get a real doctorate.

So I emailed “Dr” Ow about this, asking if he actually meant the perfectly respectable St George University in Grenada, or whether he was happy to be known as someone who had a fake degree.

Surprisingly he actually emailed me confirming that his degree was from the SGU International. He told me that he was replying to my e-mail “as a matter of professional courtesy”, that he had 26 years experience in very important things and that, most importantly he was “proud and perfectly happy with both my DBA and St. George University International”.

Unhappily for me, he signed off by saying “I would like to very politely inform you that this e-mail will be my first and the only respond to you on this matter”.

Clearly I’m not going to say that there’s anything wrong with the JT Frank Academy nor with it’s founder, “Dr” Ow. I’m not saying that the course and opportunity they offer aren’t fantastic, once in a lifetime, career-enhancing opportunities to make some money. All I am saying is that their founder openly discusses the fact that his main qualification is from an establishment that nobody recognises and that personally I would never knowingly associate with such an organisation.

In the last couple of years I’ve encountered a handful of people, here in Botswana, with “degrees” from unaccredited institutions. Some of them obtained positions or promotions as a direct result of these fake qualifications. Some of them have since been found out and have lost their jobs.

And the other thing? When you think about it it’s not actually that flattering to receive an offer like this. These people had never heard of me and I had never approached them. I have no idea where they got my email address. Maybe there’s not that much difference between their email and all the other email spam I get?

Tuesday 17 June 2008

A hotel quote

"I think there's something fundamentally wrong with an hotel that leaves a card in the room asking me to tell them whether the lights, TV etc are working. I wanted to write "That's you're job", but there was no pen."

Monday 16 June 2008

We value what we pay for

There's new evidence that we seem to value things more if we've paid for them than if we got them for free. This is perhaps not terribly surprising but it's good to get real, scientific evidence to back it up.

Friday 13 June 2008

The Voice - Puso Kirby

This is how the obituary for Puso Kirby was meant to appear in The Voice this week.

Puso Kirby, who died tragically and prematurely last week, was celebrated in The Voice in November 2007, along with his company, Creations Of Africa. He was one of Consumer Watchdog’s many Service Stars, those people who inspire us with their drive, their determination to succeed and their care for their customers.

Many people will have known Puso originally from when he was the manager of Mokolodi Nature Reserve. Well known for his passion, his commitment to the reserve and it’s surroundings and his overwhelming enthusiasm he played a hugely significant part in making the reserve what it has become today.

Richard Harriman of Consumer Watchdog said: “I first met Puso many years ago when he was managing Mokolodi Nature Reserve and he was himself a force of nature. His drive, his desire to communicate the beauty of the environment and the importance of conservation were legendary. I had never then, nor have I since, met anyone with his level of passion.”

After serving his time at Mokolodi Puso left to start Creations of Africa which specialises in a range of corporate and tourism-focussed goods.

In his interview last year Puso said: “Our company is successful because everyone working here is passionate about what we do and enjoys our working environment.”

He explained that Creations of Africa is proudly a wholly citizen-owned Botswana operation, which blends ethnic and exotic fabrics and designs with a modern twist accessing local and international markets, and that is the inspiration behind the concept. The biggest challenge has been the danger of becoming stagnant and not moving forward in our concepts.

“My team and I must ensure that we have the systems, personnel, facilities and equipment to ensure that we can handle customers’ orders and deliver the right products at the right time.”

Harriman said that “Puso was a perfect example to us all of how to run a business. Have genuine passion for what you do, never let minor disappointments get you down and always have a vision of what might be. I suspect that Puso never read a single book on how to manage staff, how to sell and market your goods, or even how to run a company. For him it was just in his veins. His love for his business, his family and his team was all he needed.”

Creations of Africa didn’t just supply to local companies but it had significant and growing export sales to places such as Namibia, Madagascar, Zambia and the USA.

In his profile last year Puso said: “We have dispatched our second order to Disneyland in the US and are registered through our sister company ‘Originals from Africa’ in Connecticut with the Fair Trade Federation.

“Local communities make a lot of the products. For example the jewellery is made by women from Mokolodi Village, where the company provides technical assistance in product development, presentation and pricing to ensure success in the market place.”

He told The Voice that in the next two years, Creations of Africa plans to acquire larger premises to bring all activities under one roof, where visitors will have the opportunity to see the artists in action.

Tragically Puso won’t be here to see this happen but the community as a whole hopes that this can still happen.
Harriman said: “For me Puso was a genuine business and personal hero. We need more people like Puso who can inspire, encourage and lead us towards national success. He was the best kind of patriot and our nation is poorer since he left us.”

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

I saw an advertisement in a newspaper for a product called Canova that says it can boost my immune system and helps to fight infection and viruses.

Should I buy it?

No. Do not, under any circumstances, buy this product.

We saw this advertisement as well and we were shocked. It claims that the product is “completely natural”, that 60 million doses have been taken in South Africa alone and that “no side effects have been reported”.

There’s a reason there have been no side effects. It’s the same reason that the advertisement claims that it is “safe to take and can be taken by people of all ages”. The reason is very simple. It has no effect whatsoever.

If you do some research you find that Canova is described as a homeopathic. That means that it contains no active ingredients. Homeopathic remedies are nothing more than water and contain no ingredients that have any effect on our bodies. Think about it. If you buy aspirin the box will contain a leaflet that describes side effects. All really effective medicines, the ones that actually do something, have a slight risk of side effects. Any medicine that claims to have no side effects can do so because it no effects at all!

There are two unfortunate truths here. First is that there is are no miracle cures and the only one way to deal with immune deficiencies is to consult a qualified doctor and follow his or her recommendations.

The second is that there are companies out there trying to make money out of unfortunate, scared people.

The good news is that advertising something like Canova and saying that it can boost your immune system when there is no scientific evidence for that claim is illegal in Botswana. We’ll be writing to the major pharmacies to let them know!

Action this day!

Winston Churchill was famous for many things. For leading the UK during it’s “darkest hour”, for winning a Nobel Prize for literature and for consuming staggering quantities of the hard stuff. He was also a complicated and flawed but inspirational leader. He wasn’t, however, either subtle or very diplomatic when it came to leadership. He was famous for writing on documents, in his trademark green ink, the phrase, “Action This Day!”. Woe betide any subordinate who failed to get something done within the required 24 hours.

Of course that was during wartime when things are different. Despite our power crisis, the impact of HIV/AIDS and epidemic of foreigners who refuse to pronounce Gaborone correctly we’re not in such a desperate state.

Nevertheless I do like that demand for action. I like it when there is pressure for things to get done, I think that’s when people, organisations and countries make real progress.

The problem is that we either are, or have become, a passive nation. Action seems to be rare, passivity seems to be the norm.

Just last week we had a Royal Visit from Steven Covey, the author of a number of management books including his best seller, The Seven Habits of People Waiting For Their Flight In Airport Bookstores. He was here no doubt to talk about the same things that he has written about endlessly. Don’t the organisers think we can read for ourselves? Alternatively is the book written so badly that it has to be explained to us? Or, more likely, is it that we have fallen for this ridiculous fashion for motivational speakers coming here and telling us the plain bloody obvious over and over again?

Just for once I’m going to try my best to avoid going on about how Covey is a very senior member of a church that, until 30 years ago, didn’t allow black priests. Are we really saying that we should take management advice from a man whose doctorate is not, as you may think, in Business but in Religious Education? Above all, is there any real evidence, I mean real scientific evidence based on professional research, that motivational speakers like Covey actually achieve anything other than making millions from selling books and speeches? Do organisations that find something to adopt from this inspirational blather actually make more money than those that don’t?

I’m not entirely against learning from the wise, it’s just that I would rather listen to someone who had actually built a business rather than someone who’d just written a book about it. Giving us so-called wisdom that is actually no more than a sequence of platitudes about effective delegation, thinking win-win and “leveraging innovation” is nothing more than an assault upon the English language.

Without wishing to sound too much like the speakers I despise, change only happens when it comes from within a person, from within a business or from within a community. Not when it comes from without. Flying someone over here from far-flung shores to tell us that successful people are organised, put first things first and “begin with the end in mind” is just a waste of time, money and aviation fuel.

But the big thing is that this is all totally passive. We seem to have become a nation who has things done TO us, rather than doing things ourselves. We want to BE empowered, rather than to empower ourselves. We want Government to help us thrive, rather than getting off our rear ends and thriving through sheer hard work. We want promotions because we’ve served our time and not screwed up too badly rather than actually showing that we are the most deserving candidates for extra money and responsibility.

Our beautiful country will only ever succeed when we make it a success ourselves, rather than waiting for someone else to do it for us. We don’t need motivational speakers, we need action.

What we need is heroes, local heroes. Locals boys and girls who, through sheer hard work, sleepless nights and, above all, passion have made businesses from nothing.

Tragically we now have one fewer of these rare creatures. Puso Kirby, who died tragically and prematurely last week, was great example of a passionate man. When I first knew him he was running Mokolodi Nature Reserve. I’ve done the game and nature thing many times since then but I have never met anyone with anything like Puso’s passion. His overflowing love for his environment was awesome even if he was probably most famous for having one of the cheetahs take out a chunk of his knee while being filmed for the BBC. It came as no surprise that soon after he left Mokolodi his new brainchild, Creations of Africa was born. Supplying locally produced goods for the local and international market his passion was again obvious. Supplying them but also making money and even exporting these goods was a tribute to his team but above all to his energy and enthusiasm.

Doing all this while being a loving husband and father and a really, incredibly nice guy is something very special indeed.

We urgently need more like Puso. People who lead by example, who have probably never read a management book in their lives and if they were given one probably wouldn’t get past the first chapter because they’ve actually got some work to do.

This week’s stars!

  • Lemack at the Engen station on the southbound Western By-Pass was wonderfully pleasant and helpful on a chilly Saturday night.
  • Thabo and Emmanuel at Game for being “especially pleasant and helpful with a price check/complaint and product information”.
Petunia at the Woolworths at Riverwalk who is apparently always patient and pleasant.

Friday 6 June 2008

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

In November last year I bought an electric gate motor from Welldone Communications. It worked for a couple of weeks but then it went wrong. The supplier replaced it but that one didn’t work either. I’ve called the supplier endless times and have emailed them repeatedly, all to no avail. To begin with they promised to come round and repair it but mostly they failed to arrive. On the occasions they did come round they always failed to get it working properly.

I wrote to them saying that I didn’t consider either the motor or the service they have delivered to be good enough and that they have caused me enormous trouble and inconvenience. All I wanted was my money back. Finally I bought another gate motor from another company just so I could have a working gate.

They have recently promised to come and collect the motor and to give me a refund on many occasions but nothing has happened.

What can I do to get my money back?

You’ve been very patient with these people but the time for patience has now long gone. We spoke to the owner of the company and he’s not at all happy that you contacted us. He claims that he’s got money issues at the moment so he’s got problems paying you.

But who cares? Sympathy isn’t something you owe him. He’s got your money, all you’ve got is a worthless gate motor. Write him an old-fashioned letter, on paper, that gives him 7 days to give you the money back. Don’t threaten him with lawyers, court action or seizure of assets. Just tell him that you can offer him a front page picture in The Voice if he doesn’t give you your money back in full.

If you can’t beat them…

Consumer Watchdog is VERY proud to announce a brand new series of innovative training programs. Each of these has been inspired by the training we see organisations undertaking and in which they invest a staggering amount of money. Usually our money. Whether it’s the Public Service investing our taxes or private companies investing the money they’ve taken from us in return for mostly shoddy goods and services a lot of it seems to go on staff training so we thought we’d join in as well.

All of our courses will be held in hotels in Kasane where we believe the most effective learning environment can be achieved. Accommodation, full meals and game drives will be provided. Unfortunately liquor and adultery are not included in the costs but arrangements can be made. Our team will also drive you to the local pharmacy each morning for painkillers, bandages and soothing ointments if required. They will also be very happy to drive you the local Tebelopele testing centre if that proves necessary.

All attendees will be provided with expensively produced certificates of attendance as well as a free, extensive justification of the course that can be presented to your training department to show that your organisation’s money has been usefully spent.

Office productivity skills

Firstly we have a series of practical business skills development programs that address the productivity needs of all organisations.

“Stapling for beginners”. This 3 day course will concentrate on developing a range of stapler-related skills including stapling documents of small-to-medium size. It will include a day each specifically dealing with both vertical and horizontally-oriented document staple introduction methodologies. The third and final day will involve a detailed recapitulation of the previous days.

“Stapling for specialists”. This 2-day follow-up will introduce the now accomplished staple introduction operatives to the pinnacle of stapling expertise: diagonal stapling. Note that bookings for this course are only available to graduates of the earlier beginner’s course and once your cheque has cleared.

“Document binding master class”. Our internationally experienced document binding expert will explore the complications of using the binding machine we recently bought at Game. This 2 day, once-in-a-lifetime development experience is available to everyone so long as payment reaches us soon enough.

Customer service skills

We have, at almost no expense at all, engaged the services of an extremely accomplished and renowned customer service specialist who is famed the length and breadth of Mochudi. She will take your staff through an intense, performance-based, results-oriented, hands-on, practically-focussed, skills-based, repeatedly-hyphenated 3-week training program that will cover anything we can think of to fill the time.

After extensive research (using Google) we have summarised the wisdom of highly-paid customer service specialists from across the globe, most of which is in English. We have invested almost a whole day summarising this invaluable knowledge in over 200 Powerpoint slides, almost three of which contain diagrams. Don’t worry, our trainers will read every slide out loud so that all of the easy to remember, 200-point program can be memorised. The value of this is almost incalculable, after all every slide contains at least 150 words of wisdom, all presented in a simple black text on a white background style.

Included in this 3 week course, at no extra cost, will be our newest, locally developed elements that focus on some of the most often overlooked elements of excellent service.

Our patented (in Guatemala) Respiratory Oxygen Metabolism Management Skills Program will help develop that most important service skill: breathing. Sceptics will tell you that breathing comes naturally to customer-facing staff but what evidence do you have for that? Our patented reflexology-based approach will involve extensive foot massage by our experienced trainer, only recently released from maximum security incarceration. His conviction for molesting the feet of shoppers in his shoe store was a travesty of justice, honest.

Finally our Pedicular Retrograde Motion course will introduce your customer service specialists to that most important customer management technique: walking away. Not only will it cover leaving customers to fend for themselves but it will also develop that special look of utter disinterest, contempt and ridicule necessary for treating customers who have the nerve to complain.

Training Management

This course has been specially designed for training managers. It will cover high-level training planning, execution and, critically, excuse-making. In the past training managers have found it difficult to justify the outrageous amounts they spend on utterly pointless, unnecessary and wasteful training programs. This course will empower you to be more imaginative in your excuses. Those lucky enough to pay for this course will receive a set of excuses for wasting money on pointless training that is unrivalled in Botswana. We will cover excuses for dramatically extending the duration of a course, justifying it’s delivery in far-flung and exotic locations and, above all, for getting yourself to be there to check on the quality of every course you buy.

So, if you’ve got a lot of someone else’s money to waste, please get in touch, because we’d like you to share it with us.

This week’s stars!

  • Yolisa and her team at FNB Electronic Banking for “electrifying banking”.
  • Taelo at Game at Game City for actively offering a regular customer a special offer.