The great consumer divide

The great consumer divide
Comment E-mail Print Share
First Published: Thu, Sep 25 2008. 10 05 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Sep 25 2008. 10 05 PM IST
Have you ever been in a store and asked for an item, only to be told it’s not carried? And then you poke around a bit — and find it.
Ever seen many waiters hovering about but none able to deliver exactly the variation off the menu you want?
The customer comes first? The customer is always right?
Not in India.
In the first of a few columns dedicated to customer service on 29 August, I wrote about Bharti Airtel and the need to better empower workers.
The response to that column was overwhelming, both from readers and Bharti. My Friday morning began with a call from CEO Manoj Kohli thanking me for my honesty and assuring me the company was aware of its shortcomings. We ended the call with him handing over contact information for ombudsman Tina Uneken (she’s at tina.uneken@bharti.in). Dozens of you got in touch — with success, I might note.
Now, let’s dig a little deeper. Given the last few weeks we’ve had, as this economy cools amid consumers facing sudden and incredible choice — be it shopping, mobiles, insurance or banking — customer service will play a key role for those left standing.
A great divide marks the lives we customers lead and those of the workers serving us. You can train someone to spread mayonnaise or fold jeans, but will they ever really learn to anticipate and understand and feel customer needs?
Different people have different answers to that question — and training warrants its own separate discussion. But one element we consumers do have control over is our reactions to poor service. That is to say, I can be in an American mall and someone might not get me the right size, but I probably won’t yell at them at the top of my lungs and tell them how worthless they are. But in India, I see it all the time. And I confess to also having raised my voice, then sighed many times in a way that flusters a worker even more and lets him know exactly what I think of him.
For explanation, I turned to the person whose job entails understanding the onslaught of customers at Big Bazaar and Pantaloons, among other outlets, for Future Group. Damodar Mall (what a fitting surname) was just named group customer director.
“Even in the simple things in life, people are more involved here,” he said. “They are very careful what they spend on and the behaviour appears choosy… Indians are more frugal and use products longer.”
This sentiment, coupled with general attitudes towards those who “serve” and class and caste, further fuels the divide. Many institutions are singularly devoted to bridging the gap: employment firms, the government, finishing schools. But is it possible?
“What is missing most is exposure,” said Vinay Sharma, chief operating officer of Elements Akademia, a chain of vocational schools. “Their upbringing might have faced hostilities…harsh realities. Now they need polish in how to talk to a customer.”
For a reality check, I roamed the Great India Place mall in Noida this week. At Shoppers Stop, a young man approached and asked if he could help. I told him I needed a cotton kurta; he brought me silk. Really, he wasn’t helping so much as hanging around. But thinking of my task, I remained calm and began chatting.
He earns Rs5,000 monthly; my total bill alone that day would top that.
“So do you like working here?”
He shrugged. “It’s only my first week.”
That explained it. I looked around and saw dozens more clerks, stacking clothing or standing guard. Most customers were being left on their own.
Bad customer service? No, actually.
That, says Mall, is the way it should be. While he agrees that better and more intense training is needed, maybe the answer lies with the consumer also understanding his role in the new formula. Empowerment of workers is great, he continued, but the best part of the retail boom is the chance for the consumer to be empowered.
“For the Indian customers, they are still shifting from general to modern trade, from service stores to self-service,” he said, adding that the transition will take some time.
He used the example of a woman buying sanitary napkins from mostly male shopkeepers, possibly even someone known to her and her family. Isn’t it better now that she can go pick up her own pack? Once upon a time, Mall reminded, Indians couldn’t sit or lie on mattresses or beds for purchase. The advent of the department store and home furnishings showrooms has changed all that. He added, “Maybe the biggest service we can provide is to keep the customer service person out of the transaction.”
Perhaps the entrance of Westerners’ brands might bring their do-it-yourself attitude, too. That’s one way to conquer the divide.
Your comments are welcome at widerangle@livemint.com
Comment E-mail Print Share
First Published: Thu, Sep 25 2008. 10 05 PM IST
More Topics: Airtel. | Big Bazaar | Pantaloons | Mall | Columnist |