Remember the party of 2007?

The mobile went off every other minute with a phone call from a broker, a lender, a bank offer of free money, easy cash, guaranteed returns.

Munish Hingorani now says he should have known better. After all, he was a finance graduate.

“December, January, I fell into it when I felt left behind by the market," said the 39-year-old exporter in Mumbai. “In times of greed, people get sucked into it. I am no exception."

But then came this month that has really left many more behind.

Abruptly, the calls stopped coming — except earlier this month when millions of mobiles across the country beeped with a new text message. ICICI Bank sent this note: “Your deposits with ICICI Bank are safe. Your bank is well capitalized, with good liquidity. Please do not listen to baseless rumours. Happy festive season."

Given the state of flux that the world’s markets and, notably, its financial institutions find themselves in, this seems a good time for me to continue the series that began on 29 August about customer service. Namely, I hope financial institutions use this jittery time to reflect on how to keep and win over their customers.

Their track record has not been great. In fact, the two columns I have already written on the poor state of service here were each met with pleas from readers to address the especially dismal state of their banks, brokerages and other lending institutions.

Consider this comment from one reader: “There are private banks that leverage technology beautifully on the Internet...the moment you get to their customer find the executives remain so unconcerned that you swear not to bother them again. So...the moment you interact with their people — you find that the people dimension of their services remains poor."

My own experience has been quite terrible, from problems with banks accepting my signature to money transfers delayed to being directed to countless “relationship managers" who always seem to specialize in just what I don’t need. But an email from Hingorani made me rethink my quibbles over simple things such as banking hours (10am, for the record, is way too late a start time) and all the separate counters for separate tasks. Even more dangerous, he warned me, is that service agents don’t understand the products they are selling.

“You feel like a fool talking to those people," he said, saying he couldn’t get over the use of words like “dude" to address him. “A lot of the new generation has started believing that the stock market can give returns of 50-60% a year. This is the way they tried to sell the financial products."

The silver lining of the markets’ meltdown, he says, is that “India has realized this ultimately has a risk attached to it."

What does that have to do with customer service?

Well, given the fact that few institutions will now focus on enticing new customers, they need to shift attention to master handling the ones they have. It’s an area banks have been especially useless at, says Sandeep Shenoy, a strategist and research head at PINC, a Mumbai-based financial company.

“There is a customer paralysis," he said. The relationship “is transaction-oriented, not customer-oriented".

The irony, he notes, is that the same state-run banks that were seen as sleepy, bureaucratic and prehistoric are the ones that the newer entrants might model to get service right.

“With state-owned, you don’t have the expectation," he conceded, “but the level of interaction is so high. At the branch level, the national banks are way ahead. The staffing has got interactivity; they know how to handle a mass culture."

I thought back to my dealings with the State Bank of India (SBI) versus Citibank. The picture at SBI has certainly never been pretty — crowded, taking numbers, staff on breaks — but every time I need to send money, whether to my uncle in Guwahati, my brother in New York, my maid’s family in Orissa, SBI gets the job done. At Citibank, it’s anyone’s guess whether and where and when the money goes. This made Citi’s thwarted takeover of Wachovia disappointing; Wachovia has a reputation as a fabulous retail bank with great service (disclosure: I am a Citi customer and investor).

In India, newcomers may adopt Six Sigma and CRM (that’s customer relationship management in English) but even those agents who cater to high net-worth individuals (rich people in English) often lack a level of knowledge that those consumers would need. Those are the services that banks will likely now shed.

Shenoy adds: “In this kind of downturn, you want three million customers who are careless and keep cash in banks."

The challenge will be to get us careless customers a lot more careful service.

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