Catalyst

Who's listening to the customer?

SRAVANTHI CHALLAPALLI | Updated on January 19, 2011 Published on January 19, 2011

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How has customer service changed in the past decade? What is or isn't better, and why?



Do you react violently to bad customer service? Press 1 to fling the phone, 2 to yell yourself hoarse, 3 to pull your hair out, 4 to dissolve into tears, 5 to do all of these, 6 to reach a customer service associate … never mind if it seems to be set in stone that the often gauche, infuriatingly polite and patient jargon-dripping voice from over the phone, most often unable to help, is the ‘face' of customer service in the modern world. And what delicious irony that to criticise a company on its Facebook-the-flavour-of-the-season page, you have to register your ‘Like' for it first!

Sounds familiar? Or is that an exaggeration? Hasn't technology made it easier to do routine – and tiresome – stuff with just a few clicks? But more on that later. How has customer service changed in the last decade, which started off with people getting more comfortable with the Internet and now moving on to social media where, it would seem, it's so easy to draw a company's attention to how it hasn't paid any attention to its customers.

When Godrej's customer service desk received an e-mail at 1 a.m. and a complaint followed just seven hours later - and well ahead of office hours - that it had gone ignored, it served to show how demanding customers have become, says Ravi Bhat, National Head – Service, Godrej Appliances. Listing the advancements in customer service at Godrej (which are similar at many other companies), he says Godrej has a 24-hour call centre, every mail is replied to, and that every customer who has booked a complaint gets an SMS saying it has been registered, and that someone would be calling them to take matters forward.

What did you expect?

“Promptness has become very important. Earlier, the promise of a visit on Saturday has moved to ‘Saturday between 12 and 1 p.m.' – customers don't have the time to wait indefinitely. Also, earlier there would be somebody or the other at home all day, at least the help, but that's not so now, so most service visits are made after 7 p.m. or early mornings or on the weekend,” he points out.

The companies agree the customer has become more demanding than ever, but Sandeep Kulhalli, Vice-President (Retail), Tanishq, makes the point that in the case of modern retail, “merchandise and experience are both novelties, and customers will take time to become more demanding”. “We're at a cusp in retail where different generations are experiencing it – personalised services are part of the lifestyle but there are also the youngsters who don't want any interference but would like to go, just buy and leave,” he says.

Customer service activists observe the huge technological revolution in the past decade has changed customers' expectations drastically. “I don't think there's any way in which we can say customer service hasn't changed,” says Ramesh Venkateswaran, Director, SDM Institute for Management Development, Mysore, who is Chairman of Custommerce, a movement for customer-centricity. One can now bypass the dreary queues and book railway tickets online and bank and buy through the Internet, to name just a few tasks. The flipside: Because of this, the barriers have dropped, several businesses of the same kind have proliferated and customer service has become a hygiene factor.

“Companies are investing in technology thinking it will make the customer happy but they are spending only to be in the business. In the race to be there, they are only focusing on customer acquisition and not retention,” he says, but the question is whether these enterprises have the back-up systems to manage the load.

The human touch

G. Shankaran Nair, President, Corporate Strategy, Servion Global Solutions and Convenor, Custommerce, points out that various customer satisfaction indices point to rising frustration with customer service globally. He believes it reflects the fact that customers are dealing with organisations through remote channels more and more, unlike earlier. “Customers are much more empowered and enabled today, and the core driver of that is technology, but it has to be sensitive,” he says. Venkateswaran says speed of response is a necessary ingredient in the expectation but that does not mean an automated response. ‘Hi-touch' is as necessary as hi-tech. People want a voice, and a transaction is not just sales, but the total experience with the organisation, he adds.

C. Srinivasan, Vice-President, Sonata Institutional Sales & Customer Service, Titan, says communicating with customers is critical. Titan recently started an SMS service to tell them if their repairs have been done or delayed, and even tries to arrange delivery if the customers find it difficult to go and pick up their watches. The in-shop service centre has to be comfortable as some repairs can be done then and there but take a little time.

Products have become commoditised and customer service is the differentiator, says K. Balakrishnan, Managing Director and CEO, Servion Global Solutions, and Board Member – Custommerce. Some problems can be handled remotely but some others need the human touch. “When we reach out to our banks, it's for far more complicated problems than checking our account balance. Customer service has improved in absolute terms but relatively, expectations are set very high. The technology shouldn't be implemented mindlessly, but conscious of the customers and their lifestyle,” he says.

Jeevendra Prasad, Head (Customer Service), LG India, says customers are now playing an important role in R&D efforts. In-house research is conducted to identify consumer needs based on product specifications and expectations. The company has also hiked the number of service centres to 1,100 and claims to call back consumers immediately, fixing visits scheduled within a day in a promised time slot.

When social isn't simple

All those BrandLine interviewed agreed the advent of social media was both a boon and a bane for brands. Cheese customers off and you will surely find yourself at the receiving end of much clamour from Twitter, YouTube, et al as many companies, big and small, have found out to their embarrassment.

Says a spokesperson for Parle Agro, “Social media is here to stay and consumers will share both the good and bad experiences. The consequences are there for all to see.” The company started experimenting with its Hippo brand of snacks on Twitter, aiming to track stock and reinforce Hippo's sales and distribution. “Soon, we had tweets coming in from consumers all over India. We identified shops and localities where Hippo was either not available or had run out of stocks. These locations were then replenished within hours. This also helped identify high-potential markets where Hippo sold out fast,” says the spokesperson, adding that how the brand handles and engages its consumers will help minimise, if not negate, negative impressions.

Chris George, CEO, EBS Worldwide, a technology-based marketing services group, points out that in the year 2000, the Internet was more a reference medium but is now woven into the fabric of customers and businesses. “Whatever the issue, it's no longer country-specific,” but goes across the world in seconds, he says. It can be misused to be unfair, says Balakrishnan of Servion, adding that it's not very different from real-world word of mouth. “Social media has given that right to individuals to question an entity on a larger platform,” he adds. Servion's Nair says most of the satisfaction/dissatisfaction is also determined by/related to whether there is a direct link between the customer and the manufacturer/service provider. For instance, unhappiness with a soap or a toothpaste may not meet with the same level of despair as a faulty mobile phone service as, in the case of the latter, there are several means of registering a complaint directly with the latter. Of course, this also depends on how invested the customer is in the product. Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, brand-comm, says the biggest challenge is to institutionalise customer relationships. National banks and similar, older enterprises such as the LIC are making an effort because they know customer service is important; for the newer companies, technology spells customer service but is more an impediment than anything else, he remarks. He also draws attention to the double standards: “As a customer, I may expect very high standards, but as a service provider, I may give excuses. This mindset needs changing, and ultimately, it is vital for senior management to be involved, otherwise there can be no major change,” he says.

Is the top brass listening?

Published on January 19, 2011
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