Are consumers abusing rights?


By Liza van Wyk

Three years ago Joe of Sandton was unhappy when the warranty on his car failed to cover an expensive repair due to a faulty workmanship carried out before he bought the car. The garage refused to cover the cost of the repairs. The finance company that provided his loan would not help either.

So all the advice pointed one way - he should take the garage to court for the cost of the repair. But because his claim was more than what could be covered by the small claims court or consumer council, his case could not be entertained.

Therefore, he would need a lawyer. If he loses, he would have to pay the other side's expenses, including travel to court and expert witness fees. If Joe won, his court fee would be refunded and the garage would have to pay his expenses, loss of earnings and witness fees.


Now thanks to the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), Joe has the right to expect goods and services to be safe and honestly sold to him. He should also be able to claim compensation if those goods or services are not up to standard.

The CPA is here. Customers and business owners need to know their rights. The act is a Bill of Rights for consumers, a form of compliance code for business, an improved tool for the enforcement of rights. Although these rights have existed in the past they have never been properly enforced due to limited redress and weak enforcement capacity, and a codification of the common law.

It sets out the minimum requirements to ensure adequate consumer protection. It constitutes an overarching framework for consumer protection, and all other laws which provide for consumer protection (usually within a particular sector) must be read with the CPA to ensure a common standard of protection.

Joe would benefit from Section 61 of the act. It provides that consumers are entitled to receive goods which will be useable and durable for a reasonable period of time and that are free of any product failure, defect or hazard that would render the utility, practicability or safety of the goods to be less than persons are generally entitled to expect, regardless as to whether a product failure, defect or hazard is patent or latent.


South Africa is not the only country to promulgate such legislation. In 1962, US President John F. Kennedy enacted Consumer Rights legislation and 23 years later the United Nations endorsed what is known as the Eight World Rights.

The eight are, Satisfaction of basic needs (adequate food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education and sanitation), Safety, Information (including protection against dishonest or misleading advertising and labelling), Choice, Representation, Redress (fair settlement of just claims against those who mislead or provide shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services), Consumer education and a healthy and sustainable environment.

The UN guidelines for consumer protection were broadened in 1999, requiring that governments develop and maintain strict consumer protection policy and protect consumers from contractual abuses such as one-sided contracts and unconscionable conditions of credit.


After the enactment of the legislation two months ago, what is required now is the training of everyone who deals with customers on the ins and outs of the CPA and customer relations management.

For businesses to be in a position to take advantage of, and power future growth in, they must invest wisely in human capital. Businesses must maximize and focus their training and development resources on customer-facing employees because they impact on the strength of customer relationships.

There are many reasons why supervisors should consider investing in training. These include, increased job satisfaction and morale among employees, increased employee motivation; increased efficiencies in processes, resulting in financial gain; increased capacity to adopt new technologies and methods; increased innovation in strategies and products; reduced employee turnover and enhanced company image.


In some cases the training is put off by the abuse by customers. On a daily basis some customers think they can swear, be aggressive and be threatening. Some customers seem to assume, wrongly, that because someone works behind a counter they are, stupid and a target for rudeness and arrogance.

True, the majority of customers are nice people who it is a pleasure to talk to, but there's a significant minority who are very unpleasant and ignorant. The old adage 'the customer is always right? sometimes encourages people to be rude and abusive. Indeed, enraged customers are an international phenomenon. While it is justifiable to protect the rights of consumers, they should protect the right of sales staff.

In my experience the abuse of power always begins with three small things: Using power to be right by decreeing that others are wrong, regardless of the facts; using might to make right; using power to arrange things for one?s own convenience rather than the good of the company and lastly using power to punish or prevent criticism.

These three behaviours are the doorway that people have to go through before they can use their power to damage their company, their co-workers, their customers or their community.

Sales staff and business owners staff are just as deserving of fair treatment as customers. No staffer is obliged to endure abuse at the hands of a customer - they should just politely disengage, and know that they have the support of their superiors.

Complaints can be dealt with by focusing on the problems rather than by attacking people. Consumers who respect this practice will always enjoy the best outcome. Call-centre workers say people are far quicker to get upset over small issues than they were a few years ago. Some tend to show bullying behaviour, and this is totally unacceptable. Even if one?s complaint is justified, there's no need to scream, swear or resort to racist or personal attacks. You've got far more chance of getting treated fairly if you're assertive but calm.

That is why staff and business owners need to be trained on how to keep cool in angry times. They should be taught on how to show emotional leadership in response to a livid customer - or to keep calm in the face of abuse.
My advice to sales staff is: Acknowledge the customer's emotions, listen with warmth and empathy, and apologise, even though you didn't create the problem.


Lastly as with any legislation and its potential for success, the cornerstone of the CPA will always be personal responsibility. Through enhanced choice and a robust free market, we believe that well-informed consumers will always be the best judges.Let's protect consumers from force and fraud, let's empower them with effective and factual disclosure, and let's give them opportunities to enjoy the benefits of product innovations.

Legislation, no matter how well-intended, cannot be a complete substitute for personal responsibility.

Liza van Wyk is CEO of skills and development companies, AstroTech and BizTech