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How not to be cheated at the petrol pump

By Sudhir Bisht
Last updated on: October 04, 2006 16:48 IST

I received a mail from my friend Joseph who is employed at an automotive spare parts company in New Delhi. He narrated to me how he was duped at a petrol station recently. He drove into his neighborhood petrol station one late evening and paid for 30 litres petrol that was duly dispensed by the salesman into his car's fuel tank.

Joseph is regional manager for his company and travels across Delhi and Haryana in his Maruti Esteem extensively. He loves his car as much as he loves his girlfriend. Although most of his colleagues have graduated to more expensive models, Joseph remains loyal to his car as much as he remains loyal to his college-time girlfriend. He was even blindly loyal to the petrol station that has cheated him so shamelessly.

"I have been buying from this station for the past five years and though I was tempted to switch over to another new swanky station with dazzling dispensers, I didn't do so because of my old association with this petrol pump. This station has old weary looking pumps, but I liked the salesmen there, the way one of them would rush to talk to me, while his colleague dispensed fuel in my tank. I never suspected that they would dupe me. Now I am angry and sad. I suspect they might have cheated me in the past too," writes Joseph in his elaborate email.

Now this is what happened at the petrol pump: after paying for 30 litres of petrol, Joseph moved out but soon realised that fuel indicator showed that the tank was only quarter full.

He immediately came back and pointed it out to the salesman, who feigned ignorance and then said that the fuel indicator could be faulty.

Joseph then demanded that the complaint book be provided to him but the salesman refused, saying that the book was locked up in the salesroom.

An exasperated Joseph had almost given up when he saw a board that was conspicuously displayed on the salesroom wall. It carried the phone number of the oil company's sales manager. He began dialing the number when he was stopped by the salesman mid-way.

"Sir, you are our regular customer and you haven't had any complaints till date. So why get into the hassle. Let me fill additional 15 litres for you free."

Joseph happily accepted the offer, but realised later that the salesman wasn't an angel to have given him the fuel for free. He e-mailed me to ask me as to what must have happened.

Breaking some myths about the petrol pumps: Most are NOT cheats!

I am asked this question many times by my friends: 'Do petrol pumps cheat? Do they adulterate petrol with solvents and diesel with kerosene? Do they sell short?

My answer to the first two questions is always an emphatic 'NO!' Petrol station dealers, as a group are as good or bad as any other group of professionals. It is just that they are a more maligned lot.

Let's consider any other professional body of workers and then benchmark the petroleum dealers against them:

  • Do all government schools teachers offer private tuitions?
  • Do all the shopkeepers sell at MRP?
  • Are all doctors devoted to their patients earnestly?
  • Are all police officers epitome of honesty?
  • Are all journalists objective in analysing major events?

Just as there is no definite "YES" or "NO" to any of the questions above and just as there are some rotten apples among all sections of society, it is also true that some petrol station dealers might be cheats. But one cannot call all petrol dealers cheats, because they aren't.

Having worked in this industry for 20 years and knowing many dealers of almost all the four public sector oil companies and of Reliance, I can say with some degree of certainty that majority of oil dealers don't indulge in adulteration.

I can even say that not more than 15 per cent dealers indulge in any malpractice. Adulterating petrol or diesel has been on the wane with the interventionist attitude of the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas. Strict measures taken by the oil companies -- like increasing the frequency of joint inspections and surprise testing of products by mobile labs -- have also helped in curbing the adulteration menace.

Adulteration is quite low in large cities, but still prevalent in remote and rural areas. But even in rural areas only a few dealers indulge in this.

As regards to third question of short measuring, my response is 'YES.' I agree that quite a few dealers don't sell you five litres when they charge you for five litres. Some of them will sell you short by 0.3% to 2% in the metro cities, and up to 5 per cent short in smaller cities.

Some dealers sell 0.3% short because the margin on petroleum products is less than 2%, and the high electricity costs, credit costs, rising wage bills and, most importantly, the handling and evaporation losses eat into their margins leaving them with no other option but to sell short.

If one takes into account the pilferage by tanker drivers who are engaged to transport fuel from the oil company installations to the fuel stations, it would even emerge that the business model is an unviable one for survival. Dealers thus deliver short.

Can we do something to end short-selling?

To be honest, I would answer this question with another emphatic 'NO.' It is worthwhile to note here that the customers also don't feel the pinch if the dealer sells 0.3% short (15 ml in 5 litres, that is) since the customer has no way of noticing it.

The customer must, however, be on guard against big-ticket duping that may set him back by a few thousands every year. Here's how it can be done:

Select your petrol pump with care

1. Wherever possible patronise company-owned and company-operated petrol pumps (COCO) that are manned by the oil company officials themselves.

A note of caution here: many petrol stations claim they are COCOs whereas the fact is that they are run by contractors.

One of the best company-owned stations that I know of is an HPCL station behind Hotel Ashok in New Delhi.

The Reliance COCOs are also excellent in respect of delivering the correct quantity of fuel.

2. Another method of identifying stations that don't sell a lot less than one pays for is to go to those stations that are patronised by three-wheelers. This may not be possible in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore as all 3-wheelers have shifted to CNG, but this rule-of-thumb can be applied to those cities where 3-wheelers still run on petrol (Pune, Hyderabad, etc.). These auto rickshaw drivers check mileage after every refill and use their own methods like dipping a foot-ruler into the tank to know if the pump has delivered the correct quantity or not. And they are always right in their assessment!

3. It is best to patronise stations, which have the newest pumps like the multi-product dispensers (MPDs) installed to service customers. MPDs are believed to be quite tamper-proof and hence they will deliver correct quantity of petrol. I have even found that many dealers complain about MPDs delivering excess quantities due to the voltage fluctuations!

Many high selling stations in big cities are equipped with MPDs. I can say from experience that the old mechanical pumps can be easily manipulated to sell short.

Often check your car's mileage

1. One good way to know if your regular filling station is delivering short or not is to top up your tank. It is dangerous to top up the tank to the brim. The best method to top up the tank is to get the fill-up from a pump that has an auto-cut-off nozzle.

The moment the nozzle cuts off the fuel supply, stop filling up at that point. Note your car's odometer reading. Let's suppose that the odometer reading is 8,000 km. After a few days, come back to the same pump and again fill up using the auto-cut-off nozzle. Note the odometer reading again. If the odometer reading reads 8500 km and on the second turn you bought 30 litres petrol before the pump nozzle cut off then your car has given a per litre mileage of (8,500-8,000)/ 30 = 16.6 km per litre.

2. You should repeat the same exercise at other stations. The station that gives your car the best mileage per litre is the best station for you. In fact, this exercise should be carried out as many times as possible to eliminate any inaccuracies that might creep into the results due to varying traffic congestions on different routes at different times.

Be alert when you enter a petrol pump

1. Always ensure that before the fuelling process is started the pump board display reading is set at ZERO.

What might have happened in Joseph's case is that the customer who was serviced at the pump before Joseph bought 15 litres of petrol and when Joseph's turn came, the salesman started filling up his car tank with the pump display showing 15 litres. He stopped after the pump display showed 30 litres. Joseph thought that he received 30 litres, but in reality he got only 15 litres.

2. Come out of your car while the salesman fills up your tank. Many salesmen at some petrol pumps indulge in sharp practice. I have known a station in Delhi, where the moment you position your car near the pump island, a salesman will come near you and engage you in polite conversation while his colleague at the other end would pour some of the petrol not into your tank but in a container hidden from you!

It is therefore best to come out of your car and stand near the point of sale to ensure that you are not at the receiving end of any such sharp practice.

3. Instruct the salesman to deliver the fuel slowly. Unbelievable as it may seem, the fact is that several pumps (even the swanky electronic Z-line pumps) are adjusted in such a manner that if the fuel is dispensed at a fast pace, the quantity actually dispensed is less than what you pay for based upon the display reading on the pump board. It is advisable that the salesman is instructed to deliver petrol at a slow pace.

You may end up getting more fuel than you pay for, much to the chagrin of the canny dealer. I would add here that not all dealers have perfected this manipulation of pumps and that only a few dealers practice this 'art.'

Lodge a complaint if you feel you have been short-changed

1. Oil companies are quite swift in attending to the complaints that they receive in writing. It is no use asking the salesmen for the complaint register. He will always say that it is locked up in the cupboard or may cook any other excuse. It is better to lodge the complaint on the Web site of the oil majors or send a written complaint to their office.

The phone numbers and the office address are prominently displayed at the station and the complaints are quickly attended to.

2. Being informed about your rights helps. It is your right to know if the quantity being dispensed to you is correct and it's the dealer's duty to provide all necessary assistance to you. Consumer rights and the duties of the oil companies are contained in the Citizen's Charter issued by the oil companies and endorsed by the Union petroleum ministry.

Each station is required to keep a five-litre calibrated measure (certified by the Weights and Measures Department) and you can demand that the measure be filled up in your presence to let you know the if the pump is dispensing accurately or not.

I would even suggest that in case you feel strongly about something, please call up the field manager of the respective oil company and fix an appointment with him at the petrol station. He will personally enlighten you about the various checks for assessing the quality of the product, like the simple density test. He may even agree to draw samples of the product and will deliver it to the ISO accredited laboratory. He will also deliver to you the test results. Oil companies have changed over the years and the field managers deployed are amongst the best officers working for the oil PSUs.

So next time you enter a petrol station, be alert so that you are not duped.

Also don't forget to tip the salesman if you are happy. These guys are poorly paid and if we all leave some small change for them, they may even give up this sharp practice.

The author is a management consultant in the field of fuel marketing with over 20 years of experience. Currently, he is based in Nigeria, helping a former Shell company set up best retail and customer services practices.

Sudhir Bisht
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