Death of customer service in India
As I entered the business world in the late 1980s, there were some business axioms that I heard and read several times over: “The customer is always right”, “the existing customer is more valuable than a new customer”, “negative news from the customers travels much further and faster than good news”, and so on.
The famous Bill Bernbach’s “You’re not Alice?” advertisement for American Airlines about airline staff who were so caring that travellers married them epitomized the behaviour of an airline staff then.
But in recent times, the focus on customer care as a core business strategy seems to have lost its importance. Very few service providers have a loyalty programme. Filing a customer complaint has been made not just difficult, but almost impossible. The opportunity to speak to a customer service representative is now a rarity. Twitter and Facebook pages respond with only canned replies.
Why has customer service lost its lustre?
India is now a growing economy. Various economic forces within the country are creating a large pool of new customers on a regular basis. Millions of first-time customers have walked into the telecom industry in the last few years. For millions now, airline travel is quite a regular mode of transport. With waves of new customers entering the market, all that the companies need to do is to divert the first-time customers to their counter rather than a competitor’s.
In this scenario, the main business focus is naturally on building infrastructure to cater to the needs of a self-growing customer base. Conversion has become the new business mantra. The business growth emanating from the new customers has blinded several organizations from taking care of their existing customers.
There is another reason why customer service has slowly died in India. Organizations are upping their efficiency levels. Airlines are trying to make sure that they depart exactly on the dot. But purely focusing on process efficiency in human-facing organizations can have side-effects on customer service.
The employees who are responsible for achieving process efficiency will have to say no to many things, including to a politician who has walked in late to board a flight. What are the emotions of an airline employee as she rejects repeated pleas of a passenger who is requesting for a waiver of the airline’s strict boarding time rule? Behavioural sciences remind us that the ability to say no, having a sense of control, creates a sense of power in employees. How employees are influenced by this sense of power and how it affects their willingness to serve their customers are an area of concern.
As Bertrand Russell said, the fundamental concept in social sciences is power, in the same sense in which energy is the fundamental concept in physics. No doubt this power energizes the employee’s thoughts, speech and action. It intensifies the employee’s quest to seek the achievement of salient organizational and personal goals.
But power tends to show its negative side too. Several studies have shown that as powerful people are geared towards fulfilling organizational goals, and are focused on the immediate tasks, they tend to ignore the people around. In trying to achieve their payouts, the payouts of others are neglected. Power decreases the ability to recognize the emotions of other people and so diminishes the ability to empathize with others’ sufferings.
It is this power that turns fear to anger in adverse situations where your/organization’s goals are blocked. Anger has a tendency to cause conflicts. Anger also releases a swathe of hormones, ranging from testosterone to adrenalin to cortisol—these maintain a heightened state of arousal. There is a reason that one’s anger spills over to others.
The sense of power that the efficient process imparts to the employees, unless managed well, can hamper an employee’s ability to build an emotional bond with her customers. As organizations gain efficiencies, the employees of the organization become more mechanical and customer-centricity plummets, leading to drastic consequences.
About 10 years ago I met the head of an organization that was planning to take advantage of the retail boom that was about to take off in India. He said he had no time to focus on the existing customers. His focus was to open as many supermarkets across the country as possible. He was confident that the combined strength of the organized retail would wipe out the kirana outlets. Today the supermarket chain that focused on expanding his infrastructure across the country does not exist but the kirana outlets, which still have the time to chit-chat and build a personal rapport with customers, are going strong across the country.
The organizations that get blinded by the large number of first-time customers and ignore servicing the existing customers are playing a short-term game. As the number of first-time customers dwindle, they will have no option but to go back to their existing customers. But then it might be too late.
As organizations work towards bringing in process efficiency, they also need to work hard to build a more customer-friendly culture. The goals of an organization should not be to make sure that their planes take off and land on time but that they help hundreds of passengers arrive at their destination on time. The difference is not a semantic one. It is the difference between building an organization-centric culture and a customer-centric culture.
Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.