Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Bell Curve of Apathy

An interesting sidelight to my previous post on poor customer service in India.

Among places where service is key, restaurants rank quite high up (next only to airlines and hotels), and this problem of indifferent customer service is quite acute there, resulting in what I call “The Bell Curve of Apathy” for restaurants:

Service staff apathy, plotted against price, follows a Bell curve.

You eat at cheap Udipis and the random “Restaurants named Sagar” around Bangalore* and the service is remarkably good. Agreed, your expectations may be lower. But the tables and plates are clean, everything on the menu is mostly available. You are served water quickly, and the glass is unobtrusively replenished before it’s ever empty. Special orders are never a serious constraint. Catching a waiter’s eye for a quick follow-up order isn’t hard.

As you move up the chain to the middle range (say, between Rs. 250-500 a pop in Bangalore), things actually start degrading. Again, I wonder if it’s adopting western models which causes this. After you’re seated, since this is a “sophisticated” place, no one shows up for a while. Then someone drops off menus and disappears. You’re now 10 minutes in, coming out of fairly warm weather, and no one’s asked you about water/drinks yet. This is around the time I start missing those Udipis where they’ll plonk down a steel glass with water within a minute of your taking a seat.

Remarkably for a business which makes its best margins on drinks, alcoholic or otherwise, this pattern persists through the meal. You are asked if you want bottled water, but when the meal is ending, you’re never asked if you’d like another bottle, though the three bottles on the table are all empty. If you order a juice or a milkshake or a cocktail, no one ever asks if you want a refill. I’ve rarely had a waiter swing by mid-meal to check on the food, and yes, this is becoming a recurring theme now, top up my water glass.

Once you move up the price bracket though, these problems mostly go away. I’ve been impressed with the top-notch service in the expensive restaurants I’ve been to. I guess it’s true then. The rich are not like you and me. They’re treated better, so who would disagree?

*Bangalore has a remarkably high number of restaurants named Shanthi Sagar, Sukh Sagar or variants thereof. My guess is that some of these are part of a local chain.

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