The Consumer Protection Act (CPA), which comes into effect on 1 April 2011, promises to turn South Africans into some of the most heavily protected consumers in the world.
For large companies, however, the Act brings along with it a set of daunting challenges as they strive to meet its demands for increased transparency in their relationships with their customers, writes Kevin Meltzer, business development manager at Consology.
One way that companies can strive to meet the provisions of the Act is to put the right enabling technology in place to change the way they interact with customers.
Online self-service systems, which allow consumers to interact and transact with companies with whom they do business through a web or mobile portal, could have an invaluable role to play here.
Let's consider a few clauses in the CPA and how self-service could help companies to comply. The CPA makes major demands on companies to bill for their goods and services in a way that is fair and transparent.
They must provide clear breakdowns of the cost of any products and services they supply – extra costs cannot be hidden in the small print.
Self-service software supports this with its rich online billing functionality. Companies can make it simple for their customers to view their bills, with clear and detailed breakdowns of all items they are being charged for. An online bill empowers the customer just the way that the CPA intended.
There is another section of the Act that deals with the automatic renewal of fixed-term contracts.
This shaky practice will be forbidden from 1 April, and consumers will have to renew the contract in writing. In cases where consumers actually do want to renew the contract, this could be an administrative headache for company and customer alike.
But with self-service in place, one could simply automate the process. The consumer could receive an alert that his or her contract is set to expire in a month or two and be given the option to renew it online.
The Act also provides for stronger consumer rights around cooling-off periods, cancellation of advance bookings and orders, and returning of unsatisfactory goods to the supplier. Once again, self-service solutions can automate processes, such as cancelling a reservation or opting out of a contract, before the cooling period is up.
The CPA takes a tough line on direct marketing, beefing up in the anti-spam provisions in the ECT Act.
Consumers have the right to privacy, meaning they have the right to require a company to stop communicating with them or even to pre-emptively block communications, provided the communication is primarily for the purpose of direct marketing.
Through an online or mobile portal, businesses can allow their customers to manage their own marketing permissions.
If companies respect their choice of communications medium and their right not to be hassled with direct marketing, they'll not only bring themselves in line with the Act, but also enhance customer relationships.
Master data management – a set of methodologies and tools that organisations use to build a uniform set of clean, timely and reliable customer and product data – can also be invaluable here by ensuring the organisation has clean and accurate data about its customers at every line of business and point of contact.
The CPA, as daunting as it is, is not to be feared. Those companies that make the right investments in technology and processes can actually use it as an excellent opportunity to improve customer relationships and boost their own efficiency.
In just the same way that the National Credit Act was aimed at protecting customers, the CPA will bring about the same protection and benefits for consumers – and what’s good for the customer should ultimately be good for business.