Don’t fall for those ‘timely’ and ‘reasonable’ excuses

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Don’t fall for those ‘timely’ and ‘reasonable’ excuses

Never, ever, sign an open-ended contract for the delivery of services

Consumer journalist

Two Consumer Protection Act words cause endless problems for those of us who are tasked with investigating or mediating consumer disputes: “reasonable” and “timely”.
Consumers can cancel contracts with a month’s notice and service providers must refund them, minus a “reasonable” cancellation penalty. So one gym company thinks it’s reasonable to charge its members a penalty of 30% of remaining subscriptions if they cancel before the contract term is up; another thinks it’s reasonable to make that penalty 70%. 
“Timely” is even more problematic.
Section 54 states: “When a supplier undertakes to perform any services for a consumer, the consumer has a right to the timely performance of those services, and timely notice of any unavoidable delay in the performance of the services.”Some online retailers, often the smaller ones run by people who began as market vendors and then expanded their operation to the worldwide web, are notoriously lax about delivery times, expecting their customers’ patience and understanding to endure months of excuses about “delays at the port” and the like.
A few years ago a security gate company used to demand a 50% deposit when a contract to supply custom-made products was signed, and then insist on payment of the remaining 50% before work commenced. Then, with that full payment secured, they’d take weeks or even months to finish the job. To them, there was nothing wrong with the pace of their service provision; their customers, on the other hand, had a very different idea of what “timely” meant.
As I was writing this, “Lauren” e-mailed me about the contractor she has paid a 70% upfront payment to for installing bedroom cupboards in her home. He’s been “dragging his feet”, she said.
“There have been so many excuses for not pitching up or why they have made little to no progress when they have been on site for hours.  It is affecting our daily living as all three bedrooms have wood up against the walls and furniture all in the wrong place. But because I’ve paid him 70% of the job, I can’t tell him to pack up and leave, as I will no doubt lose that money which I can't afford.”So here’s the advice: always ask a service provider to commit to a date of delivery (delivery being you receiving what you’ve paid for if that’s a product, or the completion of a job).
Contracts are two-way agreements, binding on both parties. Requiring a service provider to commit, in writing, to a delivery date is perfectly reasonable  given that you are made to pay in full or in part upfront. Do not sign an open-ended contract.
When you have a delivery date, or a range, as in “three to five weeks”, then at the end of those five weeks you are entitled to demand a refund, in terms of the CPA.
Section 19 states: “If the supplier tenders the delivery of goods or the performance of any services at a location, on a date or at a time other than as agreed with the consumer, the consumer may either … agree to another delivery date or cancel the agreement without penalty.”
And if they refuse to refund you, in full, you have a strong case for the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud (http://www.cgso.org.za/complaints/) or a journalist such as myself.A CASE OF DRIVER BEWARE In February, Ralph Keys of Gordons Bay was referred to an automotive electronics specialist company, Autotronics Genius in Parow, by another motor workshop, for repairs to the engine control unit of his Toyota Avensis.
“I had my car towed there on February 15, and then waited four weeks for a quote.”
On March 14, the day after he got the quote for R12,090, he paid R20,000 into the company’s bank account. And then he waited. And waited.
By late April, when his car hire bill had reached R12,500, and still his job hadn’t been done, Keys approached me for help.
I e-mailed company owner Trevor Maharaj, saying that I’d been informed by Keys that his services are in high demand, hence he’s extremely busy.“The onus is on you to inform potential clients of this and let them know that it may take you months to complete their job, in which case they would be able to make an informed decision as to whether they wished to go ahead or not,” I wrote. And then I asked if he was willing to refund Keys his R20,000. Within half an hour I got a response from Maharaj.
“A full refund will be given to Mr Keys. We have asked him if he would like a refund, reason being we have being waiting on a part for his vehicle. He said he will wait.”
Clearly, after nine weeks of waiting, in total, his client’s patience had run out, along with his car hire budget. Keys then got a call from the company (the first in all that time) requesting his bank details, and he has since been refunded.
Puzzled by the company’s apparent failure to inform potential clients upfront about the logistical challenges and potentially long delays in completing jobs; or proactively keep in touch with them, I again questioned Maharaj about that. And given the inconvenience, and the extra costs of towing and car hire which Keys had incurred, I asked him: “Did you not feel it was appropriate to apologise to Ralph?”
No response. CONTACT WENDY
E-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za
Twitter: @wendyknowler

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