21 October 2015 16:05:48 IST

Has customer service improved?

A long-term solution to better customer service might, strangely, start with you and me!

At the turn of the century, when organised retail was just making its presence felt in the country, there was one question on everyone’s lips: “When will customer service in the country improve?” Before I even attempt to answer the question, I must give you the comment made by the MD of Titan Industries Ltd (who spoke at a seminar organised by our company on our tenth anniversary). He asked: “Do you realise what this service person is being paid? He gets ₹8,000 a month!”

That’s the reality! And the people who are commenting on these services are earning at least 10-20 times this amount! They expect the person at the outlet to be prettier than the Indigo air hostess and smarter than the HSBC receptionist. I am exaggerating to make a point but this is a real problem affecting retail and, if I may add, customer service.

When did things change?

I am observing certain changes in the customer service environment and, here, I speak of my experiences as a consumer and not so much as a consultant. I think the greatest impact on customer service reaching out to thousands of Indians is through the understated cab driver. I experienced this a few years ago when Bengaluru airport decided to move 50 km from my house and the cheapest flights, which poor consultants like me used to take, where either at unearthly times in the morning or those that landed after the pubs closed.

A friend, whom I don’t wish to embarrass by naming, an acknowledged service expert, used to give the example of a driver who used the mobile to great advantage. He would land at your house at 4.55 a.m. when the pickup time was 5 am and text you “Sir, I am at your house”. The driving would be safe and conversation depended on you. He would not speak on the phone and invariably wish you by saying, “Have a safe flight”.

The pick-up was even better. He would text you before your flight took off from wherever, thereby checking its time, and meet you at the appointed place. The standards kept rising as he realised my friend’s son had difficulty in getting up, so he would actually give him a “wake-up call” half an hour before the pickup time!

When I saw the Uber film posted on YouTube that has nice, polite drivers in the city I grew up in, I was reminded of that driver and the new breed of drivers who are improving the overall quality of customer service in a manner which no organised retail can touch.

Why has this change happened?

Let’s compare the driver of today’s cab with the retail assistant of yesteryear. Is he more qualified? Not necessarily. Is he trained better? Need not be, the way drivers are being on-boarded by aggregators. Then, what is the difference? My view, not borne out of great learning or theory but based on my own observation, is simple. Today’s driver is often the owner of the vehicle and he realises that any improvement, courtesy, standards he is setting will directly impact his livelihood, his next meal even.

I think they are also observing that the world around them is comfortable with GPS technology so that they can even work in strange cities without worrying about the city and its roads. The other reason that causes friction is the absence of change owed by the driver after the ride, especially when one is rushing to catch a flight. Today, thanks to the mobile wallets that companies like Uber are using, it makes the system even easier for a customer like me, who has difficulty catching early morning flights!

A word about the consumer

Historically, the onus for customer service has always been on the service provider and never on the customer. Yet, the reality is that many of us are ‘grumpy old men’ when it comes to receiving customer service. We have different standards for ourselves and for the service provider.

While we get angry when the driver is late, we often coolly make the driver wait and then ask him to step on the gas. We are insufferably rude, thinking we are superior human beings. This is probably why systems like Uber having the driver rate the customer are important. And this leads me to the most important question of this whole piece.

“How do you rate as a customer”? The answer to this may not be an easy one but a long-term solution to better customer service might, strangely, start with you and me!

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