Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A service opportunity missed?

Last week, I went to Coonoor to participate in the housewarming ceremony of an affluent friend from Singapore. He had built his house inside the picturesque setting of a tea plantation! You could have tea straight from the plant, if you felt like it! Anyway, let me not digress and stay with the topic on hand which is the permanently intriguing subject of customer service. Before you lose patience, let me get back to the customer service experience that almost knocked my socks off initially, but left me a little disappointed in the end and got me thinking about the entire service opportunity that constantly presents itself to companies. It all started with a phone call to my wife, who was with me, from her boss. Her boss who seemed to be well aware of what was happening at Ooty called to say that Ramraj Textiles, the well-known dhoti and white shirts brand, had just opened a showroom at Ooty and could we please  get him two size 42” linen shirts in white? If the boss’ instructions are important then imagine how critical instructions from my boss’ boss are likely to be! So we dropped everything and made our way in the pouring rain to the showroom. Coincidentally my friend, an acknowledged service expert had spoken about how courteous the staff at Ramraj Textiles’ showroom at Coimbatore had been the previous day when he had visited there. We found the showroom without too much difficulty, placed as it was in a prominent location of Ooty.

The service story
As the showroom seemed to have opened that very day, the place was teeming with people as the strength of the brand had prompted a lot of people to come over.  Footfalls are what any retailer dreams about and there was no issue here. In fact with two levels, lots of people, loud conversations, cartons being carted around … all of which made me ask one of the assistants why there was such a racket. My wife quickly asked me to shut up and like any dutiful husband, I promptly did. But when we went to the shirt section things changed dramatically. When we asked for four shirts of 42 of linen, (I felt like buying them as well), they sprang into action. They realized that they had only one shirt of that size and asked us for a couple of minutes to check their depot and at other outlets. Even as I was standing in front of the counter, the cashier called outlet after outlet asking for this particular type and size of shirt that we wanted. It was amazing to see someone who belonged to the clerical cadre exceeding the call of duty. All he had to tell me was that the sizes were not available and I would have gone away quietly. But he whetted my appetite by asking me to wait while he called various neighboring outlets like Avinashi, Mettupalayam and many others that I can’t recall, finally sourced the shirts at Avinashi and asked someone to put it on the bus and told me that he would pick it up early in the morning and have it delivered. I had already told him that I would be leaving the Ooty Gymkhana where I was staying by 9 a.m. the following morning.

The damp squib the day after
Having whetted my appetite with superior service far beyond my expectations, I waited for the shirts to arrive. 9 o’clock came and went with neither shirts nor even a call from the company. I was a trifle disappointed because the initiative of the previous night at the store had made me hope, unreasonably perhaps. Of course, he had not specifically committed to me as obviously the bus service was beyond his control. But he had my number, could he not have called me and taken my Bangalore address to ship later? As I was driving back to Bangalore there were a number of thoughts that crossed my mind. Is this sort of initiative of calling different depots, checking availability, etc only possible in smaller companies? Is service a function of size? While the junior person showed so much initiative, there was no intervention from the senior person. Do larger companies have better processes and support systems to handle non-routine service needs? Did the company have the capability to deliver in different cities when there was a stock out situation? Is there opportunity for old world companies like these to learn from companies like Flipkart and Jabong that have created new opportunities for themselves by tapping into reliable delivery systems and procedures? Can these companies look at selling online?  After all a white shirt is a white shirt and it is possible to sell and buy these fabrics online. Is an opportunity being missed here?

Mind you, I have a lot of respect and regard for Ramraj Textiles and its shirts. My wardrobe has quite a few shirts from its repertoire. I frequently visit their showroom in some airport or the other and would like the brand to succeed even further and was just a little disappointed that they had promised to deliver something outstanding and then just gave up. I am sure they are not unique in this. I am sure your company and mine is missing opportunities like this every day.

The question is, are you aware of the missed opportunity?

Ramanujam Sridhar is Director in Custommerce and the Founder CEO of brand-comm. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Service Evasion

There’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news, which is for consumers, is that there is now an online, private customer redressal system that takes complaints of customers and solves them by escalating it to higher echelons of customer service in a company. All the grieving customer needs to do is to type in their complaint in a text box on the online consumer forum and the complaint is formalized and sent to people who can make a decision in the company (not to the poor customer-service representative whose minimal powers range from “I will try to help you” to “Sorry, I cannot help you in this matter”). The matter is then solved doubly quick, resulting in a happy customer who still curses the poor service from the company but posts an effusive testimonial on the forum website stating the turnaround time of complaint resolution and money saved. If you want to follow the complaint closely or step-by-step, you would have to pay for it, but paltry in comparison with the amounts you would incur if you did it on your own.
Sounds great and it is in fact a boon for consumers. But what does this mean to the organizations who are the actual custodians of the experiences of their customers? Isn’t the care of their customers solely their responsibility?  The success of such a forum goes to show that companies are seemingly indifferent about customer service. At least when it comes to making sure that a service issue is resolved. They seem to have the first level of redressal in place but are not able to go the extra mile in making sure that the customer gets the required resolution. Frustrated by this lack of commitment to a tangible end, the customer turns to the online redressal forum. It surely doesn’t look good for an organization when its poor service is blatantly highlighted online and someone else credited for resolving a customer problem that they obviously haven’t been able to.
An organization’s responsibility towards their customers doesn’t end at just creating an ecosystem to sell the product; it also extends to creating a post sales relationship. Today’s service providers are pushing the envelope in terms of reach and network of customers, therefore creating an environment to service those same customers must fall under the same ambit. So can we assume our service providers are giving up? Or are we just looking at a shifting focus from treating customer service as an extension of the product, to just plain and simple resolution?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The expectation dry-up?

We have been mentioning that the moment of truth is the point where a brand is made or broken. This is where either a satisfied customer glorifies the product/service or an unhappy customer dismisses it. We know for a fact that most of the time the customer is left dissatisfied. We lay the onus on the service provider and complain that service levels have to improve – and then there’s lethargy. But then there is the Indian consumer who is so used to poor service that she is almost immune to it! In the comparison between expectation and delivery, we can see that since the expectations are so low, it’s no surprise that delivery levels are so poor.

This could probably be attributed to years and years of poor service, long queues and red tape that has adversely conditioned the Indian consumer psyche. It is sometimes due to this mindset, that when something out of the ordinary is provided, the Indian customer is overawed. For example, an Indian consumer is easily thrilled when a DTH service provider promises service in 24 hours and it actually happens! But isn't this what the company has always promised?

So let’s sum it up. It would seem that as an ecosystem we are already meeting expectations and with the considerably low levels these expectations are surviving at, we are headed towards an era of customer indifference. Or we quite possibly are already there. Practitioners have been talking about great customer service for years now but service providers continue to ignore the calls, yet they preach about the Zappos of the world without ever intending to change a single process internally. Customer indifference could soon lead to a drying up of differentiators or marketing ‘hooks’. We would then go back to a market that differentiates on factors like price and product design that we know are unsustainable.

Looks like soon, that DTH customer we spoke about is going to become an exception to a rule no one cares for.