Saturday 7 November 2015

What is Consumer Watchdog?

On several occasions in the last few weeks I’ve been asked again, what is Consumer Watchdog? How does it work? Here goes.

What is Consumer Watchdog?

Consumer Watchdog is a division of its privately owned parent company. We’re not registered as a society, a charity, a NGO or even a church, we’re a private company.

Who funds Consumer Watchdog?

Other than being paid for the newspaper columns we write, Consumer Watchdog has no sources of external income. All our costs are covered by the parent company. We’re certainly not funded by any other agencies, not Government, not other consumer groups and not by any international consumer bodies. Most importantly we certainly don’t get anything from consumers. There have been occasions when grateful consumers have offered us gifts but our response has always been the same. If you feel the need to make a donation give it to the Cheshire Foundation instead.

Do you want to be funded?

No, we’re perfectly happy with the way we are. I genuinely like the fact that Consumer Watchdog is financially independent. Not taking money from anyone means we don’t have to take instructions from anyone.

Are you allied with other groups?

No, and we like it that way. There are other consumer organisations out there both in Botswana and elsewhere, and while they do good work but we don’t generally collaborate with them. I wish them the very best of luck but we prefer to do things our way. Independently. That doesn’t mean we won’t appear on the same platforms as them, we talk to them, we might even agree with them. But their business is theirs and ours is ours.

In particular we’re not allied in any way with Consumers International, who describe themselves as “the world federation of consumer groups that, working together with its members, serves as the only independent and authoritative global voice for consumers”. I’m in favour of groups like this as sources of information, research and knowledge but I’m not sure we want to be guided like this or to play by someone else’s rules.

There’s even a consumer body in Botswana that sometimes describes itself as “the mother body for all consumer groups within the country”. Sorry but no, they’re not our Mum, Dad or any other relative. As you can probably tell by now, we don’t like being told what to do.

Don’t you have conflicts of interest with your clients?

Consumer Watchdog’s parent company works for a variety of companies doing market research and helping them to improve the quality of their customer service. Maybe you think this places in a difficult position when we receive a complaint against one of our client companies?

No, it doesn’t. Without exception, every company we work with understands that we keep our commercial work and Consumer Watchdog separate. It’s perfectly possible that we’ll be working with a company on Monday and dealing with a complaint about them on Tuesday. We can keep these issue separate and so can the companies we work with. That’s because they’re mature, grown-up companies that know how to deal with complaints properly. Every single one of them. I know this because we only choose to work with that sort of company. Other companies can keep their money, we won’t take it.

Of course there are companies who aren’t as mature and sensible. There are certain car dealerships and importers, holiday clubs, quacks selling “alternative health” products, multi-level marketing schemes and suspicious “investment” and stock market training institutions that we wouldn’t work with, whatever they offered us. We have standards. And morals.

Don’t you get into trouble sometimes?

Yes and no. We’ve had more than our fair share of legal threats but only from company representatives who’ve forgotten that we live in a country where freedom of expression is enshrined in our Constitution (Section 12, in case any lawyers have forgotten). They’re the same people who’ve forgotten that Section 195 of the Penal Code says that a comment isn’t defamation if “the matter is true and it was for the public benefit that it should be published”. I can’t think of a better case of publishing something for the public benefit than news of consumers being abused.

So far, every legal threat we’ve ever received has suddenly evaporated when we’ve told the lawyers to advise their angry clients that all we’ve done is report the truth. And reminded them of the law. And then published their threats on the Internet.

We’ve also been lucky with the support we get from Mmegi and our other media partners. Every time there’s been a silly threat from a company they’ve backed us completely.

How much do consumers pay to get our help?

Nothing. Not a single thebe. It’s entirely free. It always has been and it always will be.

Do people believe this?

No, not everyone believes that this is how we operate. On Facebook last week someone posted “I'm suggesting, on good authority, that you are funded by organisations/individuals that pay money for good reviews. How else do you run your business?”

He then continued to allege that we had taken “32,000” to give a positive review to a certain restaurant that he named. The irony is that I did once review the restaurant he named. However my review, which you can see on TripAdvisor, was hardly flattering and I certainly wasn’t paid by anyone to write it.

I’ll overlook that fact that this guy’s suggestion that we are paid to be positive is defamatory. It’s completely, utterly, 100% incorrect so all I’ll do is completely deny it. We have never, not ever, accepted anything to give an organisation a positive review or comment. Not once. And we never will.

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