Thursday, July 28, 2011

The critical consumer

Are you critical?

It’s one of my favourite words because it has two important meanings. Critical can mean “crucial” and “essential” and we all know that consumer are both of those things to a business. Well, WE know that but not all businesses seem to have realised this.

An example. We had a complaint recently from a small start-up company that engaged a web design company to construct their web site. P3,000 later no usable site existed, they were making silly excuses about their failures and then they went silent. Clearly they don’t want to make a success of their business. They seem to have forgotten the critical thing, their customer.

Another company was engaged to repair a consumer’s stereo system in July 2009, two full years ago. During this, probably the world’s longest repair period, the store confessed that they lost some of the components and weren’t capable of fixing it. They offered to replace the device at their cost and then offered cash instead. Since then it’s just been excuses. Another critical consumer ignored.

I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that the biggest culprits in the Forget What’s Critical League of Infamy are the monopolistic parastatals. Our power provider seems, despite the efforts of some of their staff, to have absolutely no idea that consumers matter. Despite their manifest and scandalous failures in ensuring power supply they still seem to operate as if we’re the ones who should apologise to them when things go wrong.

The only one of the parastatals that I think have shown any improvement in recent years is BTC but that’s only because they’ve had to confront some competition from Mascom and Orange. They’ve been forced to get off their backsides and do something to keep us making phone calls with BTC phones.

Meanwhile I still think it’s disgraceful that we pay a small fortune for unbelievably slow internet connections in Botswana, most of which are controlled by BTC in one way or another. My mother, who has the misfortune to live in the UK, has an internet connection at home that is 32 times faster than mine here. I pay P399 a month for mine, hers is entirely free, provided by her telecoms supplier with her phone line. If we, as a nation, really want to attract companies to work from our business parks and innovation hubs then we need to provide them with power and internet connections that don’t make us look like a third-world nation. Which, in case you’ve forgotten, we’re not.

My dictionary says that the word “critical” can also mean “involving an analysis of the merits and faults” of something. That’s the bit that’s important to you and me. I know it’s boring but until all consumers analyse the merits of the things we want to buy then we’re asking for trouble.

You can start by being extremely skeptical about any advertisement that uses the words “natural” or “organic”. Neither of these words actually mean anything useful. Cow manure is both natural and organic but that doesn’t mean you want to eat it in a pie. Just because a health product says it’s natural, that doesn’t mean it will actually DO anything for you. Just like homeopathic remedies, which are perfectly “natural” because they’re no more than water. They have precisely no active ingredients. Just like there’s no evidence that they work at all. In fact, the only thing there IS evidence about with homeopathy is that they simply don’t work. Any effect they have is no more than a placebo effect.

You should also be careful when dealing with the people inside stores who are trying to sell you things. Remember that almost certainly they’ve been trained how to sell things. You haven’t been trained how to resist them.

Some salespeople, particularly those selling used cars will have been trained, weird though it sounds, to keep you waiting as long as possible. Once they discover you’re interested in a particular vehicle they’ll sit you down in the office and disappear. They might say they’re off to see their manager to negotiate a special discount but in reality they’re doing nothing of the sort. They’re relying on what psychologists call “self-justification”. The longer you wait, the more you will subconsciously explain to yourself that there’s a reason for it. You must really want the car.

Many furniture stores as well as car dealers will create a sense of urgency by letting you know that there’s a time limit on a special offer. “The offer is only for this weekend and will never be repeated!” Of course you do know that the offer will be there next weekend and every other weekend as well, don’t you?

One of my favourite sales tricks is when the salesperson, particularly when you’ve been a bit challenging, will ask you “What’s the one thing stopping you from buying?” Of course there isn’t ONE thing stopping you buying, there are several but the moment you answer the question you’ve played into his hands, allowing him to focus on just one objection rather than several. You’ve made the sale a bit easier for him.

Needless to say the weapons you should take when buying something expensive is are skepticism and knowledge. And assertiveness.

If the salesman asks you to wait in his office while he negotiates for you, politely say no, you’d rather come back later. When they say there’s a time-limit, call their bluff and point out that the same offer existed last weekend. Are they really going to call you a liar? If they ask what’s the one objection you have, tell them that you have five and which one do they want first?

Above all, remember that the salesperson’s nightmare is seeing you from behind. The moment you can’t get what you want, politely remark that in that case you’ll give it a miss and turn your back on them and walk out. If a good deal really exists they’ll chase you and offer it to you. If they don’t you know you didn’t want to buy from them anyway.