Small Business? Beware of Conmen

“Two Hundred trays of eggs needed per week by a leading hotel in Kampala. Please call 0772345678. Competitive price is expected.”

That was the WhatsApp advert that jolted Tadeo into action. He had been looking for market for his eggs and here was a chance to not only sell his own eggs but also other farmers’ eggs. He quckly called the number listed and proceeded to negotiate for the offer. After some haggling, he was given a go ahead to supply the eggs starting the following week.


My Local Chicken at home sitting on its eggs

With his little savings, Tadeo embarked upon looking for farmers that could supply him 100 trays consistently, since his capacity met only half of the demand. He committed himself and bought the extra 100 trays in time for the Monday morning supply.

On the D-Day, Tadeo hires a car to take his produce to the client. They meet in the parking lot of a busy hotel in Kampala where the transaction is completed. However, there is a catch, the buyer indicates that as is standard procedure, the hotel only pays 25% of the invoiced amount upon delivery with the balance being cleared on the next supply.

Already convinced that this was the start of a long term relationship with a big client, Tadeo gives in and leaves with the 25% pay. He then proceeds to prepare for the next delivery as promised. A day to the planned second delivery, the contact number of the client is not available and this goes on for the subsequent days. A visit to the hotel in question reveals that there has never been any such employee on their payroll.

Tadeo realised he had been conned !!!!

Starting a business is never something easy. Keeping it running is an even harder task. This is further complicated by the ever increasing complexity of getting customers. When someone poses as a customer for your product or service, you always trip over yourself to ensure that you give them the red carpet treatment. In most cases this involves throwing all caution to the wind. That is what Tadeo did and now is in losses he had never anticipated.

On my part, I’ve had a fair share of such incidents and they continue to-date. Having a product on the Supermarket shelves exposes you so much to these conmen/women. They traverse these shelves picking up contact numbers from products and will call you under the guise of placing a big order. They even try to make the matter so urgent and tend to offer money that is above your expectations.

Other conmen come in form of companies. Uchumi is one such company that conned us suppliers of millions on its way down the drain. Due to their branding, they always gave this impression of “We are too big to fail”. This led many of us SME suppliers to blindly continue supplying well knowing that when they pay, we shall get one fat cheque. The day they closed, I believe some suppliers closed shop.

In essence, while you’re out there struggling so hard to come up with a presentable product or service that can rake you some money, someone else is working so hard to con you of the money you are desperately trying to make. As a result, over the years, I have gained some sixth sense ability that helps me sense conmen (at least the unsophisticated) from afar. These are some of the flags that should always trigger you off;

  • Unprofessional Conduct: For someone that wants to do serious business with you, they had better exude some sense of professionalism. I agree there are those cases where the people you are dealing with are purely unprofessional by nature but with the large undertakings, if the prospective customer is making attempts to do things in a manner that doesn’t augur well with basic business processes and principles that is a flag right there in your face. Why for example should I meet you in a car park to supply a hotel food products? Why should first design for you a website before you can pay me even a commitment fee? Why should I undertake that research you need before we have a contract signed?

  • Rushed Approach: Most conmen will want to rush you into their proposition. A few days back we had someone who called and asked about our fish products. A day later he followed up the call with another and this time he was making an order to a good amount of the product. He then requested that we meet in the city centre at a place he would confirm later. At this point, I detected him as a conman and the next time we received a call, I told him to try sourcing our products from the supermarkets. He’s not called back ever since.

  • Changing of Numbers: Most conmen will use different numbers to call you up. This helps them to try and conceal their identity. Sometimes when you call back, you realise that he/she used a public phone to raise you. Another flag right there.

  • Clarity: Conmen are hardly clear in their communication. They will ask you one thing then later alter their request without any particular reason. Before you know it, when they learn of another product or service that you have, they go ahead to quickly express interest in that one too. That is a flag.

  • Talk Big: These conmen usually talk big. They will paint this picture of you getting a lot of business through their contacts. They will lead you on and depending on your appetite for quick gain, in a matter of hours or days, their plan comes to fruition. Thereafter, they disappear into thin air.

As a small business, take care in your search for the ever elusive customer. Be content with the few you have got so far and do the best you can to keep them on board. The mass numbers will eventually come your way if you lay the right strategies. Overnight success is a preserve of Hollywood movies. The tried and tested approach is one of slow but steady progress.

Watch out for conmen/women.

Follow @wirejames on Twitter

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