Sucheta Dalal :Customer service is a nagging problem
Sucheta Dalal

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Customer service is a nagging problem  

Sep 25, 2006

The head of one of India’s top banks said something very perceptive last week. Many of the complaints about bad service, he said, came from Indians who had never been abroad or experienced the service quality there.


He was reacting to a blog where readers complained bitterly about a seven to 10 minute holding time at the bank’s call centre for a response. The maximum intolerance is from the under-35 age group, which is tech-savvy, knows what automation ought to deliver and demands it forcefully. These customers either ignore or are unaware that online help in top US companies can often take anywhere between 30 minutes to two hours. In fact, that is the reason why the call centre business is rapidly moving to India and has led to economic prosperity and more jobs here.


This is the age group that has not dealt with the shortages of the pre-liberalisation period, when waiting periods were counted in years, not minutes. And when the biggest favour anyone ever wanted was to jump the queue for a phone, a gas connection or a Bajaj scooter. Anyone born after 1985 has grown up during the post-liberalisation honeymoon, when a rash of new banks, phone companies, airlines, care and durable goods’ manufacturers were wooing them or their parents for business. They also grew with the big advantage of a jump-start on using, understanding and adapting to rapid technological developments that have transformed business and shrunk distances.


Many of us, who are captivated by Paresh Rawal’s scheming customer who is irritated at Domino’s unfailing half-hour pizza delivery, tend to expect a similar service quality from all multi- nationals (MNCs) and Indian companies with global aspirations or pretensions. But look closely and you will find that the fast-food companies— Domino’s and even Mc-Don-ald’s—are a big exception and not the rule. But, they have corr-ectly raised expectations all-round.


As customers, our question is: if Domino’s can have a person on the line in under five telephone rings and deliver a Rs 100 pizza free in 30 minutes, why sh-ould we be so much more tolerant when it is a few lakh rupees in your bank account, or the servicing of notebook computers, music systems, white goods and automobiles that cost tens of thousand rupees or more? If McDonald’s can transform its business for the Indian market—drop its Big Mac from the menu, go totally vegetarian in certain locations, develop products for the Indian palate and offer home delivery —why can’t others adapt? Why not indeed. But, look around and you find that MNCs rarely do much better than the competition in terms of service standards. And some are even quick to pick up the worst of India and incorporate it into their operating systems.


Globally, the toll-free numbers advertised by companies promise more than they deliver. And even websites are at pains to ensure that customers cannot get through to individuals, so there are no names, phone numbers or direct e-mail IDs to people in charge. Even in India, consumers chafe at this faceless service that is touted as being prompt and efficient. The only ones to provide a semblance of home service are the white goods’ manufacturers, es-pecially the Korean companies.


Most firms clearly do not want to innovate for customer satisfaction, though high technical skills are available for low cost and better standards are perfectly feasible


Consider these examples. Aqua-guard, whose sales strategies are part of B-school case studies, couldn’t source ordinary pipes connecting its taps to the purifier for nearly two weeks recently. A case of poor sourcing turning into bad service quality. Refusing to replace products with chronic problems is widespread. Maruti Suzuki even dragged a customer to the apex court, but refused to replace a car with chronic problems under warranty. I had a similar experience with Philips a few years before. The product was replaced gracelessly when I finally discovered its internal rules and lodged a strong protest.


It is the same with computer companies. When it comes to servicing the notebook you cannot do without, you need a day off to visit a support centre at the other end of the city. If you are lucky, they will actually have the part. Four visits to fix my IBM Think pad got me to switch. IBM now follows Dell Computers’ example and offers ‘on site next business day warranty’, but only for a few high-end models. The rest still need to carry it in.


This probably happens because most MNCs will offer identical service standards across the globe even if they can do better in India, where technical skills are available at a fraction of the cost. I was disappointed to discover that the cult company, Apple Computer, is no better when it comes to servicing. Its help lines are inadequate and it is struggling badly to deal with the problems of the newly launched Macbook Pro. Similarly, Honda Motors topped the JD Powers surveys on service standards for years, but it has still to recover from the bashing that its reputation took after the deluge that all but drowned Mumbai on July 26, 2005. Its inability to react to the situation cost people to lose their insurance claims and fairly serious losses. A year later, it is still grappling with service issues.


Unlike McDonald’s, most MNCs clearly do not want to innovate for unique and growing markets like India, where high technical skills are available for a fraction of the cost and better standards are perfectly feasible. Sometimes a flat world works to our disadvantage!



-- Sucheta Dalal