Sunday, November 13, 2011

Customer Disservice

The one thing that any returnee expat will invariably encounter is the abysmal quality of customer service on offer in India. 

I’m not what you’d call an unreasonable customer. My expectations are simple: competence, and “do what you say you will”. Yet, notable exceptions aside (Citibank, Tata Sky), no one seems capable of getting the simplest things right.

I’m not the only one seeing this. I’ve had other people, both expats and otherwise, say the same thing. But there’s also this “whatodo, it’s like this only” attitude, especially since there’s really no choice. It’s been a recurring theme in my discussions about my “India Experience”.

I think the reason that it especially gets to us returnees is simple: you are used to better, and importantly, this is not something that you can be prepared for. You gear yourself for the traffic, the noise, the heat, even “IST”. Those are things that you were accustomed to when you left, albeit at a different scale. Those are supposedly the “India challenges” you were expected to negotiate on returning.

But in the interregnum between my flight out almost a decade back and my return last year, urban India’s retail and service environment has undergone a transformation. The arrival of corporate entities has changed buying patterns in all sorts of categories. From daily staples to home appliances to cable TV, you are probably talking to a “customer service representative”. He’s likely employed by a franchisee who owns multiple such stores across the city.

What this means simply is that there’s no “skin in the game” for anyone serving you anymore. Earlier, buying something meant going to a store that was likely manned by the family owning it. If a promise (home delivery, setup, callback when the item was in stock) was made, it was made by someone who had a direct financial stake in your satisfaction and an outcome that made you a repeat customer. If it wasn’t a family member, the person helping you was still competent since he’d probably been with the business for years.

This isn’t some level of nostalgia: go to old school bookstores like the ones in Appa Balwant Chowk in Pune, or the electronics market around S.P. Road in Bangalore, or (personal favorite) Blossom Books in Bangalore. You still have competent staff who understand their inventory, and are invested in trying to make you happy.

The new lot are making up numbers. They are impossibly young most of the time, probably finishing up college and earning some dough on the side.

They are more than happy to make you a promise to close a sale, but at some point, the system takes it out of their hands, and the guy in charge of delivery doesn’t care for the ‘special instruction’ that helped seal the deal. The customer service guy on the phone is probably in a call center in Gurgaon, so trying to close the loop on a sale with the people who initiated it is well nigh impossible. You are now a service request in a queue, a football bouncing across CRM systems, routed through data centers managed by a third entity.

Your ‘feedback’, commonly a phone call, or your reply to a text message follow-up goes into some kind of ether, and has no direct relation to the service you were provided. It’s not surprising, really: in a market with so much growth, customer service is an afterthought. Why bother? There are plenty more where we came from.


Ramanand said...

Oh, there are some of us who will relentless crib about service even though we have not seen better. I think we owe it to ourselves to not fall into the trap of "we are like that...".

That said, I'd say, on an average, service quality has improved in many respects. I know several places in Pune that offer excellent service and thus earn my business again and again. Perhaps, standing out in Pune, renowned for its legendary-customer-insensitivity, may be easier. But I think there are many places, esp. eating ones, here that I get superb service, and many of them are well-established (i.e. around for > 10 years).

When, unfortunately, I have suffered, I have made it a point to be angry and try to tell them exactly what I think of it. I might not have done this a decade ago. That's because in most cases, I know I can find a alternative option with no sweat.

Ajay said...

Paying customers everywhere should demand good service :) I think there's also a generational shift: my parents are willing to let things slide, while I or others my age won't.