Thursday, March 12, 2009

Go on, surprise me!

Empathy with the consumer should be the guiding principle of service..

HDFC, the pioneer of the housing finance industry in the country, has raised the bar over the years on both technology and service ability.

On February 1, in the middle of the night, a shock awaited me. I got a frantic call around midnight that my mother was unwell. We rushed there, only to find that she was seriously ill. Her pulse was failing and one of us had the presence of mind to call the emergency care of Wockhardt hospital on Bannerghatta road in Bangalore, close to where we stay. Even as my mother continued to struggle over the next half hour we sat around hoping against hope that she would be okay. The emergency unit arrived from the hospital in time with all the paraphernalia - ambulance, stretcher, life-support equipment, a team of five including the duty doctor. They tried to revive her, even as we kept watching and praying. Sadly, it was too late. They left saying that there was very little they could do and it was all over.

Amidst all the grief I still realised that they were providing a necessary service and had to be paid for it. I asked them how much I should pay and at first one of them said that I had to pay for the injection. Then he called the hospital and said there would be no charge for the emergency visit of the entire team. While my mother was a patient of the hospital and used its services regularly this was still something that any hospital would have been justified in charging for. Today, a month later, I am able to talk about this and with effort even write about it. But clearly there was an element of surprise in their handling of the situation. Given the reputation that some hospitals have of being more commercial than they ought to be, this sensitive handling of a tragic incident came like a breath of fresh air to someone who was in a state of shock.

Outstanding service

My friend and service expert Ramesh Venkateswaran and I run a service programme called ‘Honeymoon for Life’ in which he asks participants to recount experiences where the service provider has gone beyond the call of duty and surprised the consumers and a range of examples are recounted by the participants from small establishments like pharmacies to credit card companies to banks. It rarely ever has been a hospital but then I have my own true-to-life example. So what happened here? Marketing and service is all about empathy, that all-elusive quality that great salespeople possess. Are you able to put yourself in the customer’s shoes? Are you able to go through the pain she goes through and offer a solution or relief? Are you able to surprise her? Usually hospitals shock us with their bills and service charges, but here was a pleasant surprise. However, one must quickly clarify that this is not about money and at that time money was the last thing I was thinking about. It was the gesture that completely caught me and my family unprepared, so much so that it made an impact on me. I am certain that I am going to be the hospital’s goodwill ambassador unless and until the hospital does something that tarnishes the great impression that it has made on me.

Developing with the times

Here is another example that is perhaps not as dramatic but still surprising that pertains to the old reliable HDFC. My association with Housing Development Finance Corporation as it was called goes back three decades as one of my best friends joined the company when it was founded in 1977. Over the years I have watched it grow in stature, size and reputation as India’s premier housing finance institution. I am sharing a surprising experience with the home loan company that happened more than a month ago.

But let me start with my association as a customer a small matter of 20 years ago when I took my first housing loan for the princely sum of Rs 3 lakh. Difficult though it may be to believe today, one could actually buy a decent two-bedroom apartment in the city of Bangalore for a little over this money in the late Eighties!

Don’t worry, I will not wax eloquent about how my starting salary in the bank in 1973 was Rs 372 or how a bottle of beer cost all of Rs 5 in Bangalore. I shall stay with HDFC and my experiences as a customer over the last two decades and how the institution has evolved in my own experience as a customer. When we talk about a brand, I think it is important to consider its guiding principles when it was started, however dominant the brand may turn out to be years later as HDFC most certainly is today.

More so in the light of our experiences with the Satyams of the world! HDFC has been the pioneer of the housing finance industry in the country and has from day one been a conservative financial institution, conceptualised as it has been on the lines of the more staid State Bank of India than the more adventurous Citibank. It is perhaps worthwhile to recall that other financial institutions that have come later in the home loan space and lent recklessly (at least a few of them) are now struggling with a higher percentage of NPAs than required or necessary. It seems there is a price to “risk” that they are now discovering, to their chagrin!Cut to the present

I have had many opportunities to interact and deal with HDFC over the years and have found them to be friendly, efficient and courteous, definitely in Chennai.
Sometimes we tend to forget the principle that financial institutions have to be less and less about money and more and more about people and service. Also we tend to confuse technology with service and forget that it is just an aid and not a substitute for service. And technology when harnessed effectively can actually delight and surprise the customer as I was able to experience just recently with HDFC.

Just last month I took a housing loan from the Chennai office of the company. The procedure was quick, friendly and I was handed over a cheque for the loan amount in a matter of ten minutes. Even as I got ready to leave with the cheque and shook hands with the person handling my case my mobile phone buzzed.

I picked it up to see a text message welcoming me to HDFC and giving me the password for me to check the position of my loan account on the net. I was floored because clearly HDFC had transformed itself over the years from being a conservative, stable financial services company to an organisation that had upped its service delivery to the next level without losing out on any of its basic functioning skills and competencies. It also made me quickly revisit my own perceptions about the institution being staid.

Clearly HDFC had raised the bar over the years on both technology and service ability.
So here are a few, possibly uncomfortable questions that are easier to pose than to answer:
How good is the service level across different teams in your company?
When was the last truly outstanding example of customer service?
How frequently does it keep happening?
Does your company make this part of the company’s folklore?
How often are there reaffirmations of commitment to service from senior management?A time to take stock

All of us have customers that we have to take care of. We have the option of providing a minimum of acceptable service as most of us manage to do (often with great difficulty), but rarely ever do we raise the bar and if we do it is done by one outstanding, committed, empowered individual but rarely does it extend through the length and breadth of the company. In troubled times like these with customers on edge, outstanding service can and will be the differentiator. The truth is staring us in the face but many of us just seem to be looking the other way.

So let’s start surprising our customers, lest we experience shocks!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is a CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)


Raghavan said...

Good read -- and some (inadvertent?) mileage along the way for HDFC Bank, Wockhardt, etc.

We are so inured to poor customer service all around that even small, unexpected gestures prompt us to sing hosannahs.

Recounting such pleasant experiences is all very well, but
heads of organisations, particularly those in the service business, might do well to introspect on whether they or the firms they head treat their clients/customers in the same, caring way.

Let me recount -- without naming names -- my recent experience with two PR executives from two different firms operating in the same Advertising/Branding/PR space. Both had prominent jewellers as clients. Their immediate mandate was to interest the media to do an "in-depth" story on their clients. Fair enough. Comes with job. But the way they approached their tasks was as different as chalk and cheese.

One had done considerable research on her client, she was fairly conversant with the jewellery retail business, she knew who all in the store the journo might be keen to meet and was ready with the names even before hack asked for it. she took care of the minutest detail while arranging for the writer's travel and stay... and even kept tracking him via SMS till the point he reached his destination safe. She worked overtime on the follow-ups, ensuring the journo got all the extra information, additional photographs, et al. he required. That was not easy as it sounds, as that particular client, relatively innocent of the ways of the media, was not always forthcoming.

Now, take the other person. The assignment was the same. Different agency, different client That was the only difference. But she had not done her homework. She knew pretty little about her client, leave alone the jewellery trade. She had pretty little understanding of the jouno's requirements specific to this assignment. She tended to be pretty laid-back when it came to simply -- but crucial -- things like answering calls and emails from the journo.

You get the picture? A firm's reputation is often made - or unmade-- by people who interact directly with the clients, prospects, and the outside world at large.

In this instance, two young women left a quick impress of the firms they represent on the mind of this particular writer: one highly positive and the other downright negative.

The first lady was so good that though she was no longer with the same agency by the time the writer finished his assignment, he felt impelled to take the trouble to trace where she was just to convey his thanks for a job well done.

I leave the owner of this blog to figure out whether his organisation has amongst its ranks at least a few client-facing employees with the same deftness of touch -- and persevarance without seeming overbearing.

If the answer turns out to be negative, it's time for some introspection.

- Raghavan

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

My response is as follows
I agree with you that good customer service is so rare that we go bananas when someone does something slightly out of the ordinary.
Yes branding is all about interactions with service providers and every one who interacts with you adds or dilutes the brand experience and the brand of any company is built by its executives and the heartening thing is like you have said, expectations are so low that any small difference can mean a lot to customers.

Sundar said...

Mr. Raghavan: Your excellent reflections on two service provider reps. are so vivid and underline the principles on which this business element is built. Thanks to you, more such examples will help the readers in formulating and improving their abillity to understand the PR, customer service, expectations, limitations, human and financial costs of running a business and its effect on the service provider's attitude/behaviour....

Yet, the self esteem and self worth of service provider reps. and their superiors, the satisfaction they derive from providing service and the proper behavioural response of the client form the core to complete the PR journey. this was so evident from the write up of Mr. Raghavan.

By the way, there are times when contrarian view on the articles written are difficult to reconcile with the original thoughts. However, I would think that the reader's comments, in spite of being an opposing point of view, only add to the expression of the author, as a whole. Hope this is given reasonable consideration.


Ram said...

Thats right. In a product parity situation customer service is the differentiator. And I feel service is more of intention than actual service. You need to see the warmth in the person who is dealing with you rather than someone who gives you the impression that he is unhappy with his job and looks'Recessionary'.
End of the day the need for customer service actually comes out of the fact that every individual deep down thinks he need to be cared for and he is second to none and therfore needs to be pampered.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes i guess the challenge is that we are not finding the people who are naturally geared to serve or are motivated to sell.
Our training programs too seem to focus on skills and processes, which though important, fail to address the larger, more important issue raised by you.
A larger problem, how does one institutionalise this practice in a company with diverse skills and motivation levels?

Ram said...

Cant agree with you more. The only way is for organisations to lay greater empahasis on the people who act as an interface with customers and more than training them through theoratical techniques, you need to motivate them empashising the importance of their role and how they can actually make or break a brand. Also it is very important for them to know they are being continously monitored either through cctvs and also through recordings of telphonic conversations. So any attitudinal changes or flippancy on their parts is quickly detected and immediate action is taken. Companies need to know their 30 sec commercial and a full page ad can be negated within minutes by one wrong customer interaction in any corner of the country. But it is quite a demanding task to maintain the same level of customer service quality when so many people are involved.I guess the secret lies in making sure you appoint the right people in the first place.That is critical