Monthly Archives: July 2010

My Experiments with Customer Service ….. Part IV

From the Crucibles of JPS Customer Value Academy           

                                             Just Plain & Simple                                                                

                                            ….. Helping Create Customer Value

The Indian Optician, May-June, 2010 Issue

Management journals and literature are full of writings on customer service. There are numerous ‘Tips’, ’10 ways to improve’, ‘How to’ types of articles floating all over. One wonders what it is that really lies at the core of ‘ Good Customer Service ’. The ‘made easy’ types of write ups probably do help in some ways, but they handle the topic in a very simplistic and superficial manner, without touching the essence of ‘why’ there are differences in so called ‘customer experiences’ at different places, by different people, at different times ….. What are the motivations and drivers behind such ‘experiences’ ?  The question keeps coming to my mind again and again. I tried thinking of various customer service experiences that I have had in the space time continuum ….. at different times, different locations and through different people. Is the issue really so complex or is it possible to resolve the equation and lead to simplicity lying on the other side of this complexity !?

Many years ago, infact, it was almost about 30 years back, we were on a trip to Himachal Pradesh, the hill state in Northern India. Tired through the long and winding road journey from Shimla to Chail and extremely hungry, we stopped at a local ‘dhaba’ (roadside eatery) just outside Chail. It was mid-day and quite a few people – locals and tourists – had stopped at the dhaba for lunch. A matronly middle aged lady sat behind the tandoor (clay oven), baking fresh ‘rotis’ and overseeing the activities of the dhaba. There were two kids in their early teens, one boy and one girl, most probably her children, serving customers who were seated on wooden benches and ‘charpais’. The pace of activity was quite hectic, with the two kids busy serving food and the lady multitasking by giving instructions from her strategic location, welcoming customers, taking orders, baking rotis and supervising. As we walked in, she welcomed us and asked us to take a seat. The boy came to take our order. We asked what all was available and he rattled off the menu items rapidly. Being students then and with limited budgets, we did our calculations and placed the order. In a short while, we were served hot, freshly cooked, deliciously smelling food in absolutely clean dishes ….. and it looked appetisingly attractive !! However, there was one bowl of ‘kadhi’ ( a North Indian delicacy), also served. We pointed out that we hadn’t ordered the same and they should take it back. The lady, from her perch, said “I have just made it fresh. Why don’t you taste and tell me how it is ? This will not be charged for”.

Thirty years and much customer service literature and related experiences later, I have not been able to forget this incident. The picture is still so clear and vivid in my mind ….. The serene surroundings of Chail, taste of the food, humility and warmth, aroma of freshly cooked ‘tandoori rotis’, cleanliness of the place, radio playing in the background, noise of customers chatting, orders being taken, instructions being passed, the smiling lady with her two children ….. all the elements combined together made for a great experience and above all, the ‘genuineness of the intentions with which the lady asked us to taste her simple, but freshly prepared kadhi’ !!

It was obviously not a ‘sampling’ exercise, with ‘calculations’ of trials generated, conversions expected and future revenues therefrom, that she was doing, hoping to entice us back again and again. She would have known very well that we would probably not go back to Chail again for a long time and even if we did, maybe would not have remembered or gone back to the same place. But the ‘authenticity’ of intentions was amazing.

Zooming forward to the first decade of the 21st century ….. with tension due to the financial crisis brought down on mankind through American Greed.

A few years back, I had to take a home loan. In my effort to understand the process and various offerings better, I called 3-4 banks. All it needed was a call and they would have their agents (sorry, or was it relationship managers !?) swarming all over, calling you incessantly, willing to promise anything and to meet you anytime, anywhere. I even asked one such agent to meet me outside an auditorium at an odd hour after a show and sure enough he was there, with all the brochures and details and promises, ready to get me to sign immediately. “Sir, we will get the loan sanctioned tomorrow”, he said !!

After the initial market study, I zeroed in on one bank. Let’s call it ‘I-Bank’ (Apart from their attractive schemes and promises, they have a great advertising campaign on ‘friendliness and transparency’ ….. “I See, You See, We See” things clearly !?) I signed up for a floating rate of interest. A day after I signed the papers, I wanted to clarify about something and called the ‘relationship’ manager who had been handling my case ….. all I got to hear was the caller tune on his phone and over the next few days, I got used to the tune. He had got his ‘kill’ and was probably on the hunt for the next !!

Over the next couple of years, recession hit and interest rates went up. So did my floating rate. Then one heard about low interest rate options on home loans and I asked about my ‘floating rate’, only to be told that it was for new customers only. Sure enough, I-Bank had its old customers trapped in well, so why bother about them, when they could attract more customers with attractive discounts. Don’t we know from various marketing lessons that ‘getting new customers is more expensive than retaining old ones’ ? And I-Bank was very sure that with old customers shackled in well, it could spend more on new customers by way of throwing extra discounts, not to mention the costs of unleashing their so called relationship managers on them as well. It was as if I-Bank was desperately trying to prove right the above point of ‘acquisitions of new customers’ being more expensive. The intentions with which they went ahead and the approach they adopted, I am sure they ended up alienating a lot of their customers, which, ultimately would prove to be definitely detrimental going forward.

With higher interest rates now (while there were options of moving to lower interest rates with other banks, after paying foreclosure charges etc., I am keeping that out of the scope of the present discussion, purely because it will get into balancing of interest rate savings vs foreclosure charge and I am restricting myself to the customer service domain here), I decided to start part pre-payment and gradually reduce my already high interest and EMI burden. Armed with a cheque book, when I managed to gather enough to make a respectable pre-payment amount, I went to I-Bank. I was pleasantly surprised when the person behind the counter said that they now had a scheme whereby I could get a much lower rate with a small conversion charge. All I had to do, he said, was to take an additional insurance policy from their company in the name of my wife, the co-applicant. But, I told him, I already had an insurance coverage in my name, on the full loan amount. “Sir, this is the bank policy”, he said. In any case, the new interest rate looked quite attractive and I agreed. He said the terms would get approved in a few weeks’ time and I would get then get documents. That was the last I saw and heard from him.

After the ‘few weeks’ passed, I called his phone number to check about the documents and it would be either switched off or I would get to hear the caller tune. I went to the branch office to inquire about the documents. That is when, on asking for details, to my surprise, I was told that the actual interest rate I would get would be higher than what he had told me and that there was no need for the ‘mandatory’ additional insurance policy. This person happened to be from the ‘insurance’ department, manning the counter for a few days and in the process, was ‘motivated’ to sell additional insurance policies. So much for genuineness and authenticity of intentions and that too in a well known, well promoted organisation of the modern financial world.

It took me four months of continuous follow up to get my premium refund, but the ‘promised’ interest was still refused. This was after innumerable calls and Emails (I have more than a hundred and fifty mails in a special folder that I created) and navigating through extremely difficult and unfriendly complaint system on the bank’s website ….. you have to experience it to believe how difficult it can be or was made to be (intentionally ??), inspite of technology used for the purpose.

The ‘kadhi’ offered by the smiling lady in the tandoor in Chail, originated from such genuine and pure ‘intentions’. How does one compare the same with those of the ‘well trained’ relationship managers in highly evolved financial institutions of the 21st century, supported by ‘pleasing’ advertising and high technology ?

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JPS Customer Value Academy

Just Plain & Simple                               

….. Helping Create Customer Value

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