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Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Why we need to fix ‘Service in India’ first

The concept of service as a differentiator and a business proposition needs more of the spotlight than it currently gets. It’s no small feat that services contributed 56.5% to India’s GDP in 2012-13 (National Council of Applied Economic Research). While ‘Make In India’ does encompass services, its greater accent has been on manufacturing.

For a country abundant in human capital, it’s a no-brainer that services can be a big contributor to both business and employment. Juxtapose this with the rising demand for services as witnessed in the radio taxi or the laundry segment, which is an unorganised market of 2 trillion, and you see the potential.

In addition to the business potential in services, the other aspect is the rising need to spruce up our act around pre- and after-sales service. The first wave of the consumption curve in India was about putting more products—mobile phones, cars, televisions, and DTH connections—into the hands of millions. The differentiator in the second wave will have to be the service that comes with the hardware. In an Ipsos survey in 2013, nearly 50% people believed that customer service was more important than the price when buying a product.

But there are three big cultural barriers to the idea of service in India.

1. Jugaad—Celebrated as our key to innovation, jugaad is nothing more than a coping mechanism. It’s a way to survive when you don’t have access to resources or a proper solution. In many ways, jugaad is an enemy of good, thorough service that aims at delighting the end-consumer. The culture of fixing things makes people skip steps in the processes.

Jugaad means that ward boys are deemed qualified to stitch wounds and administer injections—as it happened in a Bulandshahr district hospital. It means that your neighbourhood garage will weld the hole in the silencer of your car, so what if your car now sounds like a Ferrari and its oil consumption drills a well in your pocket? Before the passport delivery system was cleaned up with IT-enabled systems and processes, jugaad meant that you had to pay touts to get your passport under tatkal—a scheme created to help people in urgency. We need to kill jugaad in service, the path to excellence cannot be via a patli gali (short-cut lane).

2. Dignity of labour—Despite Mahatma Gandhi’s best attempts at it, India doesn’t recognise the dignity of labour. There is a class divide between the served and the serving. This behaviour is often at display in restaurants, where we beckon the wait staff by a fingering gesture or a whistle or other power-coded methods. Our attitude to hostesses in flights is similar. Even our elite diplomatic officers have been in the news for underpaying their domestic help.

This cultural underpinning undermines service as a profession. It makes it difficult to attract quality talent to the service sector. Even today, many middle-class parents balk at the idea of their kids working in the hospitality sector. The belief is that you would rather get served, than serve. There can be no culture of service till we recognise the dignity of labour. Service brands need to instil this culture, internally and amongst their consumers.

3. Free-service culture—As Indians, we have always been uncomfortable paying for the intangible. Even in the most expensive restaurants we are reluctant to leave a tip. We find it difficult to pay for pure knowledge and information. Remember, it’s been a common practice not to buy a newspaper, but to borrow it to read it. Similarly, doctors who dole out medicines without a prescription are often more popular in smaller towns. It’s easier to pay for medicines that are tangible, than pay for pure consultation.

We need to fight the ‘free service’ culture. This will come about partly with the evolving consumer mindset, but also by building superior services, worth paying for. It’s not enough for the new set of services to deliver convenience; they must deliver a superior experience, too. The growth in businesses such as laundries, spas and premium taxis point to our increasing propensity towards such services. Our job, then, is to spot the right need gaps and deliver superior services, with delight.

One thing that you can’t miss in today’s India is the boom in e-commerce. However, despite the investment slugfest, what has failed both global and Indian players in e-commerce is the last mile delivery. If last year’s Diwali-sale experience is anything to by, there’s no fun if your Diwali gifts arrive in Christmas. Before service and its delivery turns out to be the bane for this booming sector, we need to fix it. For this Diwali and many more to come.

Dheeraj Sinha has just launched his second book India Reloaded; he is also the author of Consumer India—Inside the Indian Mind and Wallet. He is the chief strategy officer, South and South-East Asia, Grey. This column takes a new look at the myths and assumptions about India and its consumer market.

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