Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | Customer service tips from India’s home-grown business

With new restaurant openings in smaller towns, service quality has dropped

Indians’ collective horror at finding a caterpillar in the biryani at the Ikea store in Hyderabad suggests that we hold multinationals to higher standards of service quality than we do our local eateries. It is true that the big brands from developed markets have ushered in a new customer consciousness that wasn’t always present in India.

For instance, by giving customers the simple option of being able to return products ordered in case they don’t find them suitable, the world’s largest retailer Inc. has won itself a large and loyal customer base.

A RetailWire report states that according to the National Retail Federation, 11% of sold products in the US are returned. For Indians being able to do that, after years of having to haggle even to return a defective product, it has been a major achievement and probably explains the rapid embrace of online commerce in the country. Following Amazon’s example, Flipkart and indeed all other online retailers, offer the same no-questions-asked facility to their customers.

Yet, to think of this as some major breakthrough idea alien to India isn’t quite right. For years, the friendly neighbourhood kirana shop owner offered the same service, though to be fair, it was mostly limited to the regular rather than the occasional customers.

One industry that’s crying for such breakthrough in customer service is the food business, specifically the restaurant business. With even smaller towns now witnessing a virtual bonanza in new restaurant openings, the quality of service has dropped to abysmal levels. Here, the direct import of new concepts without any sense of their context and relevance has been the chief culprit.

Some years ago, when the first tablets made their appearance, a few brave restaurateurs decided they needed to be used at their outlets with the result that patrons were handed over these spiffy devices by waiters and asked to place their orders directly through them.

It led neither to significant staff cuts nor more efficient service. In fact, by ignoring the importance of that initial exchange between customers and a knowledgeable waiter, it killed the whole relationship between the two that is built over the course of a meal and is often the reason people keep going back to their favourite eating place.

Equally pernicious is the use of cookie-cutter feedback forms asking customers to rate their experience at the end of a meal. It is a downright irritant when all that customers want to do is pay and leave.

The best restaurants, and their number is declining by the day, still insist on doing it in person. At Sanadige, a coastal food place at Chanakyapuri in New Delhi, as soon as you are seated, a well-informed waiter patiently explains the menu options to customers and around the time the meal is ending, the manager comes by for a chat about the meal, apologizing for any discrepancies and recommending a particular dessert. It is an eminently more civilized way of garnering feedback.

In the late 1980s, Jayaram Banan who started the iconic Sagar Ratna chain of restaurants would stand at the door of his first outlet in New Delhi’s Defence Colony, greeting customers and thanking them when they were leaving. Sagar Ratna flourished under his watch, going on to become a household name. But after he sold a majority stake to private equity (PE) firm India Equity Partners in 2011, the chain clearly lost its way (He has bought the stake back in 2017).

It’s an oft-repeated story. Well-run family outlets lose their character and their service standards under new-age “professional management". No better example of that than Nirula’s, one of Delhi’s iconic food chains, which effortlessly breached the gap between generations, becoming the go-to place for the young and old alike.

Yet, following its sale to a PE company after the Nirula brothers decided that the entry of MNCs like McDonald’s and KFC represented a real threat to their business, the chain floundered and is today just a sad relic of its glorious past.

Franchising is clearly the order of business among restaurants in India, but in doing so, that human touch which turns eating out into a memorable experience is being lost.

Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage. The Corporate Outsider looks at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.