01 Mar 2016 19:03 IST

Customer service is still the best differentiator

Contrasting experiences at a Paris hotel and an e-commerce major prove the point

Since India’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s and the sun-setting of the licence raj, the country has seen an explosion of choices in every possible product segment. There are more than a hundred models of cars, scores of banks and dozens of telecom service providers to choose from.

For the price-sensitive Indian consumer, cost is clearly an important differentiator that drives traffic to companies. But as the market matures, it is good customer service which will start to matter more.

The principle

Customer service has always been centred on a simple and enduring principle — the customer is right. A company may have its business processes well-defined to a science, but satisfying the customer is vital.

A happy customer means a repeat customer. Word-of-mouth marketing lowers customer acquisition costs as new customers try the company out. On the flip side, a dissatisfied customer may abandon the company forever, taking with him some prospective ones.

I had a truly out-of-the-world customer service experience last summer. For our Paris family vacation, we had booked our stay at Hotel Campanile, near Charles de Gaulle Airport, following recommendations from Tripadvisor.

The good

On April 8, we left our room around 9.15 am (after our room had been cleaned) and took the shuttle to ride the RER train to the city. We were gone all day but I returned at around 8.15 pm. As we were planning to check out the next day, I began to pack our belongings and noticed $400 in cash missing from my cash envelope.

I had hidden this envelope in the inside compartment of my travel pouch, which contained our other trip documents, including non-cash cards. The entire pouch was in my laptop bag, which was full of other travel ware, such as cables for our tablet, phone and USB chargers. The bag was hidden under the study table towards the wall by my night stand, neatly put away. All these precautions were necessary because the room did not have a safe. While I did carry debit cards, I always carry cash because I don’t trust technology to work all the time.

When I travel, I also make it a habit to keep a record of the currency I carry. On this trip, I had with me $689 when I arrived at Campanile: six $100 bills, four $20 bills and nine $1 bills. I know for a fact that this stack was unchanged on April 7 and April 8 in the morning as I checked documents before leaving the room for the day.

Only the Euro stack was depleting as we spent for the day. But that evening, I found $400 — four $100 bills — missing. The thief had left the Euro stack of notes untouched in the hope that I would take an inventory of Euro notes only and find nothing amiss.

The next day, at checkout, I complained to the hotel front desk. I was convinced that the hotel maid, the lone person who had an access card to our room, was the culprit. But I had no proof of this. Worse, I had no proof of loss. The entire complaint was based on my statement. And because language was an issue — I don’t speak French — communication was even more difficult.

It took a total of 30 e-mail exchanges over the next 60 days, a formal police complaint filed in French at Rossy and lots of patience, and finally, the hotel’s management reimbursed me the full $400 by wire transfer in a stellar example of customer service.

Why did the hotel do this? Perhaps the hotel had received prior complaints of theft from rooms cleaned by the concerned maid. Or they could verify that the room was entered again during our absence. Electronic keys do, after all, leave behind digital footprints.

Or they surmised that if I was as precise as I had been documenting events (right down to how many dollar bills I had), I must be right even if they couldn’t pin down the culprit. My persistence at pursuing this complaint over 60 days must have simply added to the caricature they formed of me and the case.

The bad

My experience with Flipkart last month was nearly the exact opposite at first, although the company came through in the end. I had ordered a wireless headset for my 74-year-old mother so she could watch TV without having to turn the volume up for everyone in the room.

Flipkart delivered the product. Since I was travelling, my mother signed for it and put it away for me to install it on my return. After I returned, opened the package and plugged in the piece, the unit would not even turn on. I tried plugging it into different electric outlets but the device simply had no life — it was defective.

I logged into Flipkart to return the merchandise — I was confident it would be a hassle-free experience because giant Flipkart billboards outside the train station in Pune claimed exactly that — if you wanted to return something, Flipkart was the e-commerce retailer to shop at.

My first disappointment was when I saw that the returns box was greyed out. Trying to find an email address to write to them required a lot of work because Flipkart buries the contact form deep into its website. Calling them was worthless because the voice response system kept disconnecting me.

When I finally spoke with a customer service executive, I was told I could not return the product because I was late by a day. It turns out that the manufacturer accepted returns only within 10 days of delivery.

My pleas that I was not at home bore no fruit. I told him the unit does not even turn on. He insisted that my mother should have inspected the package and called Flipkart within the 10-day timeline.

I asked that my issue be escalated to a supervisor. I told several managers that their 10-day return policy was completely arbitrary and their huge billboards in Pune were deliberately misleading.

After spending nearly 90 minutes over the phone and threatening to sue them in consumer court, the company agreed to have the piece picked up and promptly issued me with a full refund. How many other customers pursue such a fight and how many are eventually successful?

A utopian future?

In 2009, Amazon, already known for excellent customer service, acquired Zappos which had become famous for free shipping, free shipping for all returns, and a 365-day no-questions-asked return policy. To this day, Zappos is the platinum standard in retail, which is why it continues to operate as its own distinct brand.

No one expects Indian companies to charge like and offer service comparable to a Zappos. But if they want to cultivate a culture of customer loyalty, they should note that all roads lead towards the likes of Zappos, not in the other direction.

To read more from the Worldview section, click here .

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