Thursday, August 11, 2011

Service? What service?

What's the problem with customer service — money or the lack of empowerment?

All of us are consumers and some of us are service providers and every consumer is different in her own way. Some of them are constantly teaching us a thing or two while most of us obstinately refuse to learn or change. Having made some dramatic statements that run the risk of sounding pompous, let me cut to the chase and to my own story and see if there is any learning. It started on a Sunday afternoon, which, incidentally, happened to be the third day of the Nottingham Test which was at an interesting stage. At least, it was, when I was watching it at the airport waiting for my flight to be called. England and Bell were just turning it around.

I am sure you are asking me why any sane guy would travel on Sunday evening, particularly on the third day of an important Test match. But then I am a committed executive (!) serving his company and (hopefully) his clients in the bargain and more importantly because I wanted to start a training programme at 9 a.m. the following day. At times my own dedication shocks me!

But less of me and more of my travails as a customer, as I flew into Mumbai on the day that city received the maximum rainfall this year.

King, pauper or in between

As I am a King Club Member, I flew with the “king of good times”. After all, who wants to be a mere passenger when he has the option of being a guest at Mr Mallya's house? The flight was on time, which was great news to a passenger to whom delayed flights are as common as Praveen Kumar's altercations with umpires, who are reluctant to raise their fingers to fervent and frantic appeals. But that was later. Before that, I settled into my seat ready to watch a third-rate Hindi movie as has been my habit for several months now. I kept pressing every button in the seat and kept looking anxiously at the screen as a teenager might at the bill when he takes his girlfriend to an expensive restaurant. There was no light at the end of the television screen and there was neither a C-grade movie nor a news channel which might have the score at the bottom of the screen. I almost lost it.

But then I remembered I was on good behaviour (which my family might not believe). I have these bouts of geniality, which, sadly though, are not all that frequent but come to the rescue of service providers. So I politely asked the stewardess what the problem was. She smiled sweetly. Sometimes I wonder how airline stewardesses can smile after pouring scalding hot coffee on your thigh! While she had done nothing as exciting or as hot, she said politely that the entertainment system was not working.

Of course, while there was a glossy brochure in the pouch which listed all the programmes and which is one of the reasons why I travel by Kingfisher, the reality was that the entertainment was not working. While mechanical failures are a fact of life, human failures are a little more difficult to stomach.

I wish, I only wish someone had made an announcement or better still made an apology for the entertainment not working. Is that too much to ask for? Do guests have a say, or is all this talk of treating passengers as guests a mere line?

Ian Bell has a good time

Whether I was having a good time or not, Bell was having a great time as Indians were treating him to long hops outside the off stump and full tosses on the leg stump. He was being truly treated as a guest in the Indian dressing room. Well, soon the batsman was thinking of scones and tea and trooped off for tea even before the umpires called for the break.

The Indians woke up and pulled off the bails and the dozing Bell suddenly realised that the party was over. Soon the Indians had a couple of guests in their dressing room as they tiredly sipped their tea. The English captain and coach promptly made their appearance. After all, mental disintegration is complete when the opposition team is not allowed to have its tea in peace, right? Anyway, they asked Dhoni to reconsider the appeal and Dhoni, perhaps recalling what his ancestors were regularly doing till 1947, agreed, albeit reluctantly.

I had missed all that though I was being flooded with Blackberry messengers and text messages. I went to my hotel, keen to catch up.

Who wants TV; radio is the medium of today

Our hosts had put us up in a hotel called VITS. I had never heard of that hotel, but trusted the judgment of our hosts. I was pleasantly surprised to note that it was from the same group as Orchid, a hotel I had stayed in several times in the past and where the South Indian restaurant Vindhyas had effortlessly increased my weight.

The room was nice, the layout similar to the Orchid and I switched on the TV set, in pleasurable anticipation of an Indian revival. Imagine my horror when I realised that the TV set had a mere 15 channels and Star Cricket was not one of them!

My geniality evaporated and my scowl matched Harbhajan's expression, which has been a feature of this English tour. But one of the features of the Ramanujams is that we don't take things lying down, particularly when it comes to the gentleman's game, more so when Dhoni had done the ultimate gentlemanly thing even if it was under duress!

I called the duty manager and there was a Maharashtrian gentleman there. I asked him in my sweetest tone as to why there was no Star Cricket in the room and as a Maharashtrian whether he watched the cricket at all. One of the basic principles of service providers is not to try to be fresh, particularly when their customers are angry. Perhaps thinking he would endear himself to me, he said that he too wanted to watch the cricket but what to do the cable had a technical problem. I asked to speak to his boss and he said I could do so the next morning.

I was quickly losing it and ran the risk of being banned as I asked for the number of the boss. He politely refused. I was ranting now and asked for the technician. The technician promptly arrived and said in his truthful way that Star Cricket was not being subscribed to. I was mad, but not mad enough to not follow the match and did so on my computer, as I heard the Test Match Special as I had done three decades ago, even as I waited for the next morning and the general manager of the hotel.

The morning after

Morning followed murkily, India was in the doldrums and I was getting more annoyed by the moment. I promptly met the Front Office Manager of the hotel, who was all smiles and said he knew about the problem and would fix it. I reminded him that the match started at 3.30 p.m.

I went back at 5 p. m., after the sessions, hoping against hope. Well, nothing had changed, neither India's fortunes nor the TV channel. When I confronted the manager, he said he had called the cable operator and there was a ‘technical problem”. I was amazed.

Did he really think I was born yesterday? Even an eight-year-old would know that it was DTH, which could be subscribed to at short notice and I had volunteered to pay! In hindsight it was probably better that I did not watch India's humiliation but my misery was complete when Geoffrey Boycott compared India to Bangladesh and unfavourably at that on radio, my now trusted media partner.

I walked morosely out to dinner to the restaurant to be greeted by posters of Mr Kamat, the owner of the hotel (someone I admire enormously), speaking of his inspirations. I just thought that he might have been better served worrying about his customers. But then who am I to complain about big hotel magnates? And yet as a customer, I started wondering about what ails customer service in the hospitality industry specifically and in the country in general. What was the problem? The money or lack of empowerment?

Do we empower routinely?

I believe we handle routine service issues well but get into trouble when the issue is non-routine. Should the lobby manager have been empowered? Should the manager of the hotel not have tried to be “smart” with his guest and told him something that was patently false? Should I have quietly gone away thinking dark thoughts? Sadly, I am today's customer. I have a voice and I will share it. But, if only, if only the hotel had shown the slightest empathy for me or even tried to handle my problem I would have been satisfied. I would have told the whole world of how much they cared. Solving a customer's problem is the easiest way to her heart and wallet.

But is someone listening?

I flew back by Kingfisher. The entertainment system was not working. Now, of course, I am used to this.

And yet, I believe some good came out of all this. I was so mad at everything that I cancelled my trip to England and shelved my plans to watch the third Test at Edgbaston.

Who knows, that might well be the change of fortune that India needs!

Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, brand – comm.
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The Freezing Point of a Customer Iceberg

A Customer Iceberg as explained by Avinash Narula, the man credited with this concept, is simply put; every dissatisfied customer who in time turns into a Customer Iceberg. The more unhappy he is, the more dangerous a Customer Iceberg he turns into.

The concept though simplistic is very relevant to companies at many levels. Dissatisfied customers become even bigger icebergs when they are ill treated continuously. Customers are way more vocal of their concerns these days with innumerable avenues to express their disgust with companies available. Social media has become the favorite melting pot for many Customer Icebergs. They seem to find haven on these outlets and companies have to dedicate resources to tackle them at this stage. But to do this, companies need to thoroughly understand the threats posed by this phenomenon.

Like an iceberg, only the tip of the Customer Iceberg is visible to a company at times and therefore they react with very little decisiveness. The hidden part of the iceberg is where the danger lies as companies ignore the damaging abilities of these Customer Icebergs until they get hit head on by it. If companies can dedicate resources and time to discover threats before they run into them, they can immunize themselves from mass attacks from unhappy customers.

Working this concept to your advantage is what every company should aim at. Breaking down customers into various sizes of Customer Icebergs and laying out plans to tackle them should be top of mind for every company. Customer Icebergs are not a phenomenon new to companies but at the same time it also is something companies have shown great incompetence in managing. So can this concept be a tipping point for customer service in companies or drown like so many other ideas bandied around?

This is what we think, what do you think?