On the occasion of this column completing a year, let’s take a break from bemoaning bad products to introspect and realize that we customers can be, yes, obnoxious at times. Scientific names have been used to classify seven insufferable types, who make the service sector staff come close to homicide.
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I. Giftus ungracious (ungrateful giftee): Some are unmoved by free gifts given by companies as part of marketing offers, some others are grateful. And then, there is a sub species who will yank open the gift horse’s mouth and count its teeth. Free bed sheet with subscription? This group will call the magazine’s helpline several times to see if they can exchange their bed linen for that exact shade of pistachio green. Last year, I witnessed the hospitable staff of Club Mahindra in Coorg face a challenging moment when one of this species dismissed the welcome drink as too dull. “Is this any welcome? Get me something more interesting,” he ordered the waiter, who continued to smile while probably wondering what mix of exciting drinks will silence the gent forever. Grace is not a word that this group is familiar with. Their motto is to squeeze the daylights out of the freebie to maximize value.
II. Genus entitulaire (the entitled): Members of this group feel that their distinguished bloodline—their great grandfather was a landed gentry in pre-partition India or their nephew is deputy collector of Sitapur district—entitles them to special treatment in a business establishment. They swagger in as if they are majority shareholders of the company and demand that lines be broken and their needs be given priority. They usually throw a tantrum because the service staff have seen through their delusions of grandeur and ignored them. Or, they take the manager aside and tell him in a quiet, menacing way that as the police chief’s cousin, twice removed, they really deserve to get access to that reserved lounge. Though typically crass and loud, a variant can be suave and polished but just as acquisitive. This set hasn’t yet caught up with New India where who you are matters much less than it did in 1985, so they throw a fit in places where their old economy ways no longer work.
III. Familia feudalis (the feudal lord): The characteristic of this stratum is that they assume that all service staff of airlines and hospitality industries are their personal serfs. The fact that they can be summoned by pressing a button gives them an illusion of being medieval sultans, who can beckon these genies many times, any time. Their origin lies, perhaps, in our feudal system. On a flight I took, a young man took a feedback form from a flight purser and thought this may be a good way to amuse the giggly girl next to him. He warned the purser that he would be monitoring him through the flight.
For the next hour, he kept buzzing the purser and asking inane, laughing triumphantly to the lady every time the crew member appeared and patiently answered him. It’s an example of the casual cruelty inflicted by feudal lords on service staff who cannot protest because they are chained by “the customer is king” credo.
IV. Lascivious indicus (Indian lech): This group innocently believes that air hostesses have one more duty apart from asking questions like “veg or non-veg?” which is to serve as alluring companions to male passengers. Make no mistake; they are not habitual sex offenders. They are merely males who see gaggles of pretty women and think that airborne flirtation is included in the ticket price. In other situations, these are the ones who chat up girls in their bank’s call centre after checking their account balance or make cheesy comments to hotel stewardesses or crack stale jokes to salesgirls who struggle to smile at them. In a tragi-comic way they are immune to cold stares, snubs, mild warnings and other defences that women employ to stave them off. They are not dangerous, merely annoying and unaware that the joke’s on them.
V. Regula ruptura (the rule breakers): Their sole objective is to be the exception to every clause. If only children under three do not require a ticket, they will urge the hapless guard to let in four-year-old Monty for free. If no food is allowed in a venue, they will smuggle it in and when caught, try to talk themselves out of the situation. They don’t understand “fixed price” or “no discounts” or “arrive 30 minutes earlier”. To them, rules are man-made whims, mere words which can be negotiated. They rely on their sheer tenacity for nagging serving personnel to garner concessions.
VI. Customiser extraordinaire (compulsive customisers): It was early morning and the lady on duty at the airline’s lounge wasn’t expecting anyone. Surprised when a senior citizen walked in and asked for breakfast, she offered sandwich, cookies and samosa. “No!” thundered the guest. “No fried, no fat! What else do you have?” “Juice?” the lady suggested. “But is it sugarless?” And so it went. This type walks into a waiting lounge and expects the free food to be according to their doctor’s prescription or package tours to be slightly modified. They ask baffled salespeople if they can skip buying an item in the carefully designed bundled offer. They are a sub-group of the “rule breakers” who don’t want to violate rules completely but are fans of the bespoke concept.
VII. Preceptors managementa (the management guru): A sample could be someone who has either freshly rolled off the MBA assembly line or is a grey-haired veteran who has attended too many leadership seminars. Such customers approach the problem of shoddy service academically, tracing it to its roots in the business strategy. A long queue can inspire them to see the glitch through the prism of the McKinsey 7S Framework, while sharing the analysis with the people in the line. They may call the manager in a fast-food joint to discuss the Kaizen methodology for a better floor plan. They are hard to spot until they start speaking, which is why their victims never know when they can attack.
Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues.
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