Friday 19 December 2008

Christmas presents

It's time for some early Christmas presents. Consumer Watchdog is feeling very generous and has identified a small number of lucky recipients of our generosity.

Furniture stores

Not all of you, just a few. We've written a letter on your behalf. We've written to the President, confessing on your behalves that you have contempt for the laws and therefore the people of Botswana. You know perfectly well that when you offer something for sale on credit or hire purchase you must clearly disclose the full credit price as well as the cash price. Yes, you all say things like “Deposit P470, P427 x 24 months” but that's simply not enough. The Control of Goods (Marking of Goods) Regulations 1974 say very clearly in Clause 6 that in addition to those details you must also state “in characters of a similar size”:

“the total amount to be paid by way of deposit and instalments”

You all know this, yes you do. We know you know this because we've told you. We've written about it here in Mmegi repeatedly, we've written to all your Managing Directors, we've even had meetings with some of you but you have not heeded our advice.

You continue to advertise illegally and we can only conclude that you simply don't care about the laws of Botswana. Some of you even have the outrageous cheek to claim to be compliant with the South African National Credit Act. Who cares? We're not in South Africa, we're our own, sovereign nation with our own laws but some of you clearly don't give a damn about that. You really do seem to think that our laws don't matter.

You are operating illegally and we've written to the President confessing your guilt on your behalf.

Don't bother thanking us, it's Christmas.

Success University

You are also getting a letter written on your behalf. Actually three of them.

Just in case you've forgotten to do so yourselves we've written a letter to the Commissioner of the Botswana Unified Revenue Service announcing the formation of your organisation in Botswana and explaining how you operate. We've explained that you use a pyramid structure to sell a range of second-rate personal improvement and motivational claptrap to the gullible. We've also explained that each person in the pyramid can earn bonuses based on the volumes sold beneath him. We've explained that if your promises are anything to go by, some of these people can earn lots of money. Income that will be taxable. Taxable income that will need to be declared to the really rather professional people at BURS.

We've also written to the Registrar of Companies on your behalf just checking to see whether you are in fact registered as a company in Botswana. We've also written to the Tertiary Education Council regarding your use of the word “University” in your name. After all, some people might think you are a university, don't you think? I'm sure you wouldn't want anyone misled, would you?

Don't bother thanking us, it's Christmas.

Traditional doctors

You are also getting some letters written by us on your behalf.

We've written to the Minister of Health describing how you offer medical treatments without actually being qualified to do so.

We've written to the Commissioner of Police regarding the fact that you advertise medicines which is actually a criminal offence in Botswana. Sections 396-399 of the Penal Code forbid anyone other than a medical journal from advertising medicines.

We've also explained in the letter that describing yourselves as “doctors” is a form of cheating, also outlawed by the Penal Code. The letter also explains that by “pretending to tell fortunes”, which almost all of you do, is yet another criminal offence.

We also couldn't overlook the more outrageous services you offer. In our phone calls to some of you you've offered to have our made-up rivals suffer misfortune, illness and even death. You are a bunch of crooks and you should be given a free stay at one of our very welcoming correctional institutions.

Finally, as a special seasonal gift, we've given your details to the Immigration Department because you almost certainly forgot to declare your planned occupation when you entered Botswana. They can offer you a free trip home although it might not be as comfortable as you might wish.

Don't bother thanking us, it's Christmas.

Enforcement agencies

Lastly, here's a present for all those parts of the Public Service who are tasked with enforcing the law but who fail to do so.

Our present is us. We're going to continue highlighting your failure to perform. We're going to continue writing and broadcasting about the times you just can't seem to be bothered to do your job. We can't actually do anything about that of course but we know a man who can!

We've written to him on your behalf with some suggestions for ways of either improving your performance or for replacing you with bodies that can actually achieve something.

Don't bother thanking us, it's Christmas.

This week’s stars!
  • Ishmael at HiFi Corporation for great customer follow-up.

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

I saw an advertisement for a Sony PlayStation Portable that said it was on sale for P1,900, a discount of P700. When I got to the store they were indeed selling it for P1,900 but the original price was actually P2,200. The store was also selling another PSP for P2,700 but that also included a selection of games in the price.

Was it fair for the store to advertise a discount that wasn't real?

No, it wasn't fair at all. More than that it was possibly even a breach of the Consumer Protection Regulations. Section 17 (1) (a) of the Regulations says that it is a deceptive practice and an unfari business practice if a store makes “false or misleading statements of fact concerning the reasons for, existence of, or amounts of price reductions”.

In their advertisement this store said that the price of the PSP had been reduced from P2,600 to P1,900 when in fact it had only been reduced from P2,300. The fact that there was another PSP on offer at P2,700 including some games sounds like an excuse for claiming a much bigger price reduction to me. In fact the real P2,700 PSP wasn't comparable to the reduced price P1,900 version because that didn't come with the free games.

Seems like a very good example of a “false of misleading statement” to me.

I suggest that you write to the store manager asking him or her to explain how this discount actually worked and to explain why the numbers don't add up. There's very little you are likely to achieve but you can at least make them work a bit.

Meanwhile don't shop there again until you get a suitable response from them. Vote with your feet and your wallet.

Friday 12 December 2008

Courtesy costs nothing

What does it cost to be courteous? My mother always used to say that “Courtesy costs nothing” and I think she was right.

It still surprises me, as a people who pride ourselves on the courtesy and respect we claim to show each other, how often we are so incredibly rude. I'm not just talking about combi and taxi drivers who seem to have a policy of behaving on the roads as if they were at war with the rest of us. I'm talking about some people who really shouldn't be working in a customer-facing environment.

I'm thinking of a certain cellphone store at Game City where the staff are surly, unhelpful and miserable. I'm thinking of the border post at Tlokweng where getting a smile from a member of staff is almost impossible. I'm thinking of the employee of a major store at Game City for telling a customer who was querying a price reduction that he was “a Motswana, born here and I can explain it better than you”. Yes, I'm also thinking of the debt collector who seems to delight in being completely rude to anyone who dares to criticise her.

But why does it have to be this way? Is it because the rude ones haven't been on a course to learn how important courtesy is? No, because nobody needs to be trained in courtesy. We all learned about courtesy from our parents. Is it because managers don't enforce courtesy in the work place? Maybe, but does anyone really need to be told by their manager to be polite to a customer? Is it perhaps because customers don't demand courtesy? That's probably more likely but why don't we? Why don't we remind rude service providers that courtesy is a basic element of service whenever we don't receive it?

Everyone now knows that the financial world is in crisis. Contrary to what many people seem to think, this isn't actually the fault of the world's financial system. Saying that capitalism, the free market or liberal democracy are somehow to blame for this crisis is a bit like blaming Toyota when your taxi driver takes a wrong turn. It's not the vehicle's fault, it's the incompetent driver who's to blame.

For too long in the USA and Europe banks have been pressurised, even bribed by governments desperate for popular support, to lend money to people who they shouldn't lend to. I really don't believe that we should blame the system for this. We should blame those politicians who stuck their dirty fingers into financial systems they didn't understand. We should blame those banks who didn't have the courage to stand up to the politicians and be as sensible as their customers needed them to be. We should blame the banks that thought they had found a way to make a quick buck at the expense of their poorer customers.

However, the world isn't going to end, we're not all going to starve, the sky isn't going to fall in but there ARE tough times ahead. Officially many countries are now in recession but I think that just forces us to concentrate harder, tighten our belts and show a little prudence.

So what has this got to do with courtesy?

I think that when times get tough, companies have to focus even more carefully on what will help them compete against their rivals. They are going to need to come up with much more attractive products for us. Some companies are going to withdraw into their shell and be much more cautious in their business. I think the exact opposite is required. This will be a time when companies need to be even more aggressive in their product development and marketing, a time when they have to fight much, much harder to sell us their products, a time when they need to come up with tempting bargains. They'll need to show a level of courtesy and freindliness that is much better than their competitors.

In short, this is going to be a time of huge opportunity as well as one of huge risk. If we are like the rest of the world (and there's no reason to suspect we're not) we'll see companies failing if we enter a recession. Maybe we'll also see some more of that one thing that is most important to consumers, to business and to a country in general: competition.

Consumers who have less to spend and who are thinking carefully about who deserves their money will be forced to be more selective. They will need to start discriminating. We will all be forced to ask ourselves some basic questions. Do we spend our money at stores that act illegally by not disclosing the full credit price of a product when they advertise it for credit sale? Do we spend our hard-earned money on a cellphone or a computer from a store that says there are no warranties on the items they sell? Do we buy from companies that show our country contempt?

We are likely to have the opportunity of a lifetime. We can use our money, even if there's slightly less of it, to decide which companies survive the recession. We really will have that power. A store told us a couple of years ago that more than half of their profits came from their credit schemes. In a recession that profitability is going to be under huge threat. Isn't that a wonderful opportunity for the people to make their feelings known?

This week’s stars!

Ralph, Alan, Tumi and Kenneth from Barloworld for exceptional service.
Neil and the team at Mr Moves for really efficient and excellent service.

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

I got a letter from Debtsolve saying that I owed money on my Barclaycard. However I haven't had a Barclaycard for years and as far as I can remember when I closed my account I paid everything I owed.

What should I do?

Firstly you should check with Barclaycard.

We've heard from several people with exactly the same problem recently. Barclaycard and at least one other bank who out-sourced their credit card business to Barclaycard seem to have messed up a bit. Each person who's contacted us tells the same story. They had a Barclaycard, or a card operated by them, they moved to another bank or just had enough of that particular card, they closed their account and believed everything was done. Ages later they get the threatening letter from Debtsolve saying there's still a debt.

Each person who contacted us then got in touch with Barclaycard, very politely asked what the hell was going on and eventually got confirmation that they didn't owe a thebe.

The other surprising thing was that none of these people had ever been contacted by Barclaycard about the alleged debt. The first thing they heard was when the heavy mob got in touch with threats.

It really is fairly basic, don't you think? A bank has a responsibility to check, double check and then triple check their facts before they get heavy with their customers and irritate them hugely. Before they scare people with threats they should at least sure they are threatening the right people.

Thursday 4 December 2008

More bad debt?

In late October this column was entitled “Bad debt” and told the story of a debt collection case that had gone wrong.

A customer had bought things on credit from Game Stores and ended up having difficulties making the payments. Her debt ended up being passed over to a debt collector to pursue.

So far there’s nothing wrong with this situation. Stores have a right to chase the money they are owed, just as you and I do. They are perfectly entitled to engage debt collectors and are just as entitled to take court action and seize goods if it’s done according to the rules. Our issue wasn’t an objection to debt collection, just the way this particular debt collector handled it.

The problem was that the customer wanted a statement detailing how much she owed. That shouldn’t be too hard, should it? That should be the sort of thing debt collectors do all the time, surely? A customer is perfectly entitled to regular statements, showing how much they owed, how much they paid and the balance. I don’t see how anyone could object to that.

Well, the debt collector did. There’s no point going over the details of the story, you can see that on our web site. What happened next is interesting.

The debt collector engaged her lawyers to write to the customer’s lawyers and deny everything. So far, so good. However, the letter ended by referring to the article we wrote in Mmegi about the situation. The letter said that the article “is defamatory and action will be taken against your client.”

Against the consumer trying to pay off her debt? How would that work? She didn’t write the article, I did. If they want to threaten someone they should be threatening us, not the consumer. Unless perhaps they think that the consumer is more likely to be intimidated by a lawyer’s letter than we are? That’s likely because we’re NOT threatened. We didn’t defame anyone, we reported the facts of the case as reported to us and the phone calls we had with the debt collector. So threatening us is a waste of ink.

The consumer DID eventually get a statement although it was so difficult to read she’s none the wiser. All she can see is that even after paying off over P10,000 against an original debt of around P9,000 the statement claims she still owes another P11,000 in unexplained charges. She has a right to an explanation.

But the issues remain the same. Why should debt collectors make life so difficult for consumers who acknowledge their debts and make every effort to repay them? Why should debt collectors be so rude? Why do Game seem to care so little about the way their debt collectors operate? When we spoke to Game their response was that she shouldn’t have got into debt in the first place. Well, obviously but life isn’t that simple. People DO get into debt but some of them then do their utmost to settle the debt. Why punish the honest ones?

Then we got another call about a similar situation. Same store, same debt collector. Of course this doesn’t mean anything, the second consumer had read the article, she recognised a similar story and that prompted her to contact us.

She also had a debt with Game, the same debt collector was engaged and the consumer paid off everything. She also couldn’t get a statement but despite this she managed to pay what was demanded. But this year when she applied for a loan she was turned down because her TransUnion record showed she still owed the money. The bank showed her the TransUnion report that said that the debt to Game had been “written off”. Not repaid, written off. Cancelled in other words. How could that be when she had repaid it in full? She contacted Game and they admitted her record was wrong and have promised to correct it but that’s quite a curious mistake don’t you think? A consumer repays a debt but the store thinks it hasn’t been repaid and even goes as far as saying that in the TransUnion record? How could that have happened? The consumer has all the receipts and her bank statements that show the money was paid over to the debt collector so it’s not the consumer’s mistake.

The good news is that once the consumer spoke to Game, they confirmed that once they’ve confirmed with the debt collector that everything is in order, they will remove the consumer’s record regarding this incident from TransUnion completely.

So what’s the lesson from all of this?

  1. Don’t buy on credit AT ALL if you can possibly avoid it.
  2. If you DO have to buy on credit then don’t default on your payments.
  3. If you DO default recognise that you are going to pay back a LOT more than you first thought.
  4. Keep records of everything you pay.
  5. Get someone you trust to do the maths for you and confirm that you are paying what you really owe.
  6. Demand details of the penalty charges, collection fees and legal costs they demand.
  7. Once you’ve finished paying demand a letter from the store confirming that you have repaid the debt in full.
  8. Check your TransUnion record.
  9. If there’s the slightest problem, contact us and we’ll listen.
  10. Never forget, even bad debtors have rights.

This week’s stars!
  • The tender team at the Tertiary Education Council for outstanding service.
  • Nkhwinya Lewanika at Gaborone City Council for friendly, helpful, knowledgeable service.
  • BotswanaCraft Marketing for providing a great venue for an exhibition, in particular for Nicola for being “second to none”.

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

In March I bought a Samsung E350 cellphone from the Game City Orange store for P1,500. In August the phone went wrong so I took it back and they offered to repair it. I picked it up again on 18th September. However the phone showed the same fault so I took it back a week later. Yet again they repaired it and returned it to me. Then it started misbehaving again with the screen blacking out, the phone freezing, a faulty speaker and sometimes it couldn’t receive calls at all.

I took it back yet again but they weren’t too happy to repair it.

What do you think I should do?

Take it back again and now you can demand a replacement. If a phone goes wrong that many times there’s clearly a manufacturing fault.

But that doesn’t affect your rights. You were sold something that was not of merchantable quality. It was a cellphone that you couldn’t use as a cellphone, simple as that. The Consumer Protection Regulations are perfectly clear in this sort of situation. Unless you signed something saying there was no warranty then you deserve a refund or a replacement without any argument.

Update: Instead of talking to the Orange Store we spoke to Orange themselves. Their Chief Marketing Officer was very upset that an Orange customer had been let down and has offered her a brand new phone to replace the faulty one. Good for Orange. Who could ask for more?

The lesson? If something goes wrong you should obviously give the store a chance to put it right, that’s only reasonable. However if they won’t or can’t fix the problem you should escalate to the next level up. Go to the Regional Manager, the Country Manager, Head Office, whoever you think is most interested in the company’s reputation. Chances are they’ll fix it pretty quickly.