Friday 3 December 2010

Us and them

Sometimes the relationship between consumers and suppliers is conflict. Obviously it’s open warfare when it comes to scammers, they are attacking us and we have a right and an obligation to defend ourselves and even to take the fight back to them. With scammers the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply, we take no prisoners.

Even with some of the more orthodox, (presumably) tax-paying, registered companies things can be a little combative. Many of the holiday clubs and holiday voucher discount schemes insist on fighting dirty. Some neglect to mention that the agreement you sign that offers you free holidays doesn’t include any transport, food, drink or entertainment costs and only allows you to stay in your desired resort when you least want to. There are even allegations that some of these holiday clubs reserve the best locations and dates for their own sales staff as incentives. The poor schmucks who sign up for the deal are left with the dregs.

Then there are the holiday clubs who hide in the small print the minor fact that you signed their contract for eternity, until the end of time or the end of your time, whichever comes first. Of course if Consumer Watchdog exposes this then things can get rough. That’s when the ridiculous lawyer’s letters start coming in accusing us of war crimes. Luckily they aren’t very effective weapons, mainly because we just find them funny and not in the slightest bit scary.

In the last few weeks we’ve seen their relatives, the hotel discount voucher industry fighting dirty and taking people’s money. We all know about the companies that call you out of the blue selling you the benefits of their worthless schemes (why pay for something you can get free elsewhere?) and then ask for your credit or debit card details “to see if it will be acceptable” or “to check whether you’re eligible for Gold membership”. Before you know it several thousand has disappeared from your bank account and you’ve been captured, a prisoner of war. Luckily so far we’ve been able to help a few prisoners escape but sooner or later they’re going to realise that people are more willing to defend themselves. Well, Mmegi readers will be.

The good news is that despite a few enemies like these the vast majority of suppliers understand something simple. If you have a product that has real value, not just monetary value, I mean value to the customer, then both the consumer and the supplier are best served when both parties are reasonable. Set a reasonable price and reasonable customers will happily pay it. Offer reasonable customer care as well and you’ll get repeat business from these reasonable people. That’s the essence of the free market system that we are fortunate to live in. Very rarely does the Government come along and tell us that we can’t buy that thing at that price, that our purchases have to be regulated and we all need to be treated like little children who can’t be trusted with our own money.

Of course there are occasional exceptions. The Government DOES step in on things like the price of petrol and I just about understand why. Petrol is fundamental to a country like ours where almost everything must be transported by road, whether it’s goods or people. I still wonder whether allowing the prices to be determined by the market might not work but I’m not going to complain too much. We have fairly low prices compared to other countries and I have a car with a big engine so I’m going to keep my mouth shut.

But are there other areas where Government do some good instead of just ruining a company? Yes, I AM thinking of Air Botswana.

Yes, there are. Few of us think twice about the role Government plays in building roads. We see no problem in our taxes going towards Government funding road-building. Obviously they select companies from the private sector to do all the hard work but the money comes from our taxes because roads benefit us all. The same goes for our water and power supplies. We all pay for the entire country’s improvement via Government.

The trouble is I think there’s a massively overlooked area where Government has to get more involved. It’s an area where improvements are so desperately needed and which might really make or break our nation’s future.

Internet access.

As a nation we have staggeringly slow and expensive internet access. Before anyone points out the geographical challenges we face being a huge country with a tiny population density, yes, I know that, but it’s no excuse. Some people argue that we need to extend the gradual improvements in the connections we have gradually so that everyone benefits, not just those in the cities. That’s commendable but short-sighted. The economic centres of our country are the cities and that is where investment will be centred. All the talk we hear of Innovation Hubs and Foreign Direct Investment will lead to disappointment if companies come here with their wads of cash and then find they can’t afford to send an email.

I know there are problems with comparing us with other countries but I can’t help it. Why must I pay P399 each month for a connection speed at home in the bush that is exactly 32 times slower than the connection a friend in the UK gets for free. Yes, FOR FREE!

Even more disappointing is that my connection at the office is identical. How can we imagine big companies will come here and manage to survive the frustration? I’m not asking for anything free, just for Government to get things moving. What some people would call a subsidy others might just call an investment.

This week’s stars

  • Leero at CNA at Game City for being “amazing, charming and a breath of fresh air”.

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