Sunday 8 March 2009

The global consumer

Travel broadens the mind. Anyone who is interested in consumer rights or in customer service must travel a bit to see how differently consumers behave and how similarly they are treated.

One of the great myths in customer service and in consumer rights is that there are countries where things are fantastic, where the sun never sets and where the streets are paved with gold and that there are other countries where everything just sucks. It’s not true.

In my experience wherever you are in the world, whichever group of people you meet, whatever their race, gender or sexual orientation about 10% of people you meet are horrible, nasty and mean. About 99% of taxi drivers are certifiable lunatics and about 50% of people “doing” customer service know what they’re doing. It really doesn’t matter what country you’re in, levels of service are fairly uniform.

Of course that doesn’t mean we can be complacent and think that because we are the same as the average we can sit back and take it easy. Do we want to be an average nation or a superior one?

As you can guess I’m abroad. I’m in the land of my birth, the UK. This is the country, that if you believe some Brits who live in Botswana, that invented customer service, is populated by the people who won the Second World War single-handed and where things never go wrong.

It’s simply not true. It’s certainly different to Botswana but the overall quality of service is no different. The single advantage the UK has over Botswana is the size of it’s marketplace. There are so many Brits crammed into a tiny island that competition is everywhere. Within 5km of where I’m writing this there are three enormous supermarkets. Each of them encloses a space the size of a football pitch and has an astonishing array of goods on sale. But that’s just because the entire population of the county (no, not the country, just this county) which is less than 1/150th the size of Botswana has almost exactly the same population as Botswana. It’s the competition that keeps the supermarket staff on their toes. They know that customers will easily switch to another store if they aren’t treated properly.

That’s what we lack in Botswana, the offer of extensive competition. And, to some extent, we just have to learn with that. Our population will never be large enough to warrant the level of choice you get in the UK or even South Africa.

On the other hand we haven’t been corrupted by being enormously spoiled and hideously over-indulged. Trust me, I’m allowed to say this because it’s the land of my birth, but the Australians are right when they call the Brits the “whinging Poms”. When you have things presented to you on a plate you very quickly lose track of how lucky you are. The Brits have entirely free, top of the range health care and they still complain about it when they have to queue for a few minutes or when they aren’t given access to million pound facilities on demand. They are exposed to enormous choice but still don’t realise how lucky they are.

To a very small extent I think we have the same problem. Of course I’m not saying that in Botswana we are as spoilt as the Brits but we have had it fairly good, at least as compared to our neighbours.

We have to be realistic. We are never going to have quite the same level of choice and competition that other countries have. That just means that we, as consumers, have to use competition much more aggressively. Let’s start telling Orange that we’re moving to Mascom when we’re upset, let’s tell Bank A we’re moving to Bank B, let’s make the restaurants with descending standards understand what will happen if they don’t take action.

The other thing we can do is start to apply some basic standards in the way we operate as a nation. There are so many places where we can begin. What about education? As well as the various fly-by-night little training establishments that go unregistered and who really seem just to want to part naive consumers from their money there are the bigger players. In last week’s Sunday Standard there was an article entitled “Why do Batswana hate us so much?” and it quoted Gail Phung , the Senior Vice President, Corporate and Faculty Development of Limkokwing University. Complaining about how Limkokwing were treated in Botswana she apparently said:

“We have only two years in Botswana but the hate we get from some of the locals is not right, including the media... What wrong have we done in this country and if we have done any wrong, our doors are always open for discussion.”

Well, apart from whining because the media have done their job in highlighting some concerns about Limkokwing you can also address the concerns they have expressed, alongside those of the Ministry of Education. We DO have a right to know why Limkokwing recently had a number of illegally employed lecturers thrown out. We DO have a right to know why they employ graduates with no postgraduate experience to tech the courses they only recently finished studying. We DO have a right to demand certain basic standards from a University that has been granted the right to make lots of money from Botswana.

So stop whining because life isn’t perfect and give us some answers. Otherwise we’ll rename you Lomkokwhining University.

This week’s stars
  • Doda from Exclusive Books for “great organisational skills”.

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