Thursday, February 25, 2010

The trouble with customer service

Aspiring to create a service differential is a noble thing but make sure your routine services are handled well. While it is all fine to strive to build a service differential it is certainly risky to embark on the pillow trail if the other routine service stuff is not handled adequately.

Customer service or should one say the lack of it, is a great conversation opener. I always wonder which opens up tongues more, the brew from Scotland or poor customer service. I am sure it is the latter and even the most stubborn of introverts have no difficulty opening up to total strangers as their tale of woe about one service provider or the other finds a more than sympathetic listener who is more than willing to share his own horror story. Sadly though, there is a lot of heat that the subject generates and even a few laughs, but not too much light is shed on the way forward. After all, as Indians we love to criticise when the shoe is on someone else's foot even if we do not have something constructive to offer. But there are exceptions to conversations about service and I experienced this when I had the opportunity to interview Dr A. Parasuraman, Vice-Dean of Faculty and Professor at the University of Miami, an acknowledged expert on service quality and a renowned and respected academician. He has one more admirable qualification that I must table – he was my senior at Don Bosco school in Chennai's Egmore, and what better qualifications can a person have to talk about service or for that matter any subject under the sun! Tempted as I am to wax eloquent about my alma mater, my escapades that were part of my life there and my penchant for churning out impositions (with amazing regularity), I shall desist and stay with the less glamorous topic of customer service.

Pillow talk

Parasu, as he is affectionately referred to, had come to India to be the keynote speaker at the Custommerce summit at Mumbai earlier this month. I used the opportunity to spend quality time with him and as always he came up with some interesting insights that have been a feature of his writing and teaching over the years. His ideas made me think about my own experiences as a customer which too are reflected in this piece. He shared an interesting experience of his where he had been to a star hotel which welcomed him with a glitzy ‘pillow menu' in addition to the usual stuff that people who inhabit five-star hotels are familiar with. Even to this social class that has been there and done that a ‘pillow menu' is certainly a rarity and worth talking about.
So what happens when you see a glossy pillow menu listing ten different types of pillows (from soft to medium to hard), one of which would be delivered to your room at the touch of a button? The first is that you are impressed enormously and can hardly wait to rest your head on one of those fluffy things. The second, which does not have to wait till you go to bed and which happens almost immediately, is that your expectations from the hotel skyrocket (how good will this hotel be that actually thinks up a ‘pillow menu') and quickly plummet when the hotel forgets to give you your wake up call in the morning which is something that most hotels normally do without too much trouble. There is an important learning for organisations from this incident. While it is all fine to strive to build a service differential it is certainly risky to embark on the pillow trail as you can so easily end with egg on your face if the other routine service stuff is not handled adequately. As an aside, the innovation too is pretty expensive as you have to create a glossy brochure, actually find different types of pillows and handle the inventory for hundreds of rooms, not to forget the additional personnel that such a service entails.

Routine or non-routine?

Parasu spoke at length about the routine aspects of service and the non-routine aspects of service that companies constantly have to deliver. Let's take the case of airlines - ticketing, checking in people, delivery of baggage are all routine stuff and companies usually have a process to handle this. Of course, let's not forget for a moment that while these are ‘hygiene' factors, the inability to deliver on this could cause disproportionate angst when the airlines slip up on any of these. Parasu argues that while organisations do have a process for the delivery of routine service, they come to grief often when they have to face non-routine service demands. They usually have metrics to measure their performance on routine stuff, like how long it takes or should take for a person to check in, how long before the luggage arrives to the room after check-in, and so on.
What happens in the case of non-routine stuff is quite another kettle of fish altogether. How often have we seen tired, weary travellers anxious to go home after a long and draining flight only to be told that their baggage is not on the same flight! This is clearly a non-routine event and the service provider that is prepared for this, the one that has metrics for measurement and has a back-up plan to tackle contingencies such as these will win the service stakes.

Of course, every industry has its own share of non-routine events. Take the hotel industry - how often have we seen irate hotel guests losing their cool in the lobby when they are told they do not have a reservation, though they very clearly believe they have one! They tell the whole world, even if they are not interested in the story, about how pathetic the hotel is and how it needs to overhaul its reservation systems! We have seen in our own experience in the consulting business too, when a client wants as scope of deliverables something that we are not readily used to, the entire process goes into a tizzy and needless delays occur in submitting a proposal, which in any case is the easiest of the various stages in the consulting process.

A non-routine dosa!

With my mind full of routine and non-routine service experiences I came back to Bangalore, the dosa capital of India (or so we would like to believe). The newest joint making waves in Bangalore is a restaurant called Maiyya in Jayanagar which has people waiting forever (or so it seems) to get into, three stories that are brimming with hungry residents of Bangalore, a stand-and-drink coffee centre and a bakery all rolled in one. We went there as a large group and complicated the normally efficient hotel as we asked for non-routine stuff! Bangalore has this habit of inserting chutney inside the dosa which is a specialty (or a pain) depending on which side of the Cauvery you belong to. I cannot handle it whilst some in my group wanted it that way, our instructions to have a few with and a few without created so much chaos and caused so much angst, with the wrong dosas being served and being returned, and everyone including the waiter was thoroughly aggrieved in the bargain. I am sure that he never wants to see my bald head again and I am sure I am never going back. If only, I thought to myself, if only I could have stayed with the simple, routine dosa the way it is served in Karnataka, I might have never realised the value of the point being made by Parasu, for after all, nothing has such a lasting impression as the lesson learnt on an empty stomach!

Service is in the details

So here are a few thoughts that you can mull over in the context of customer service:
Is more time being consumed in talking about service in your company than actually delivering it?
Is your senior management committed to customercentricity and service?
How well is your technology integrated with your entire service offering?
How closely do you monitor both your routine and non-routine service deliveries?
Do you have metrics to measure and monitor both?
How good are your retrieval mechanisms when something goes wrong, for a retrieval situation can actually provide a wonderful opportunity to cover lost ground.

The reality is that service is hardly as glamorous as it is made out to be. It is unremitting, constant attention to detail, boring, repetitive but with great scope for both irritating and turning away your customers. And yet, there is a pot of gold to be won at the end of the ordeal, as so few service providers make the cut with an increasingly demanding customer.
Are you the one?

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly - Branding on Indian Turf.)

Image Source: InsideSocal


Anonymous said...


I think you write brilliantly about routine advertising stuff and non-routine subjects as well.

Parasuraman, A said...

Dear Sridhar,

Great article – beautifully crafted with excellent content! It accurately reflects our discussion and my views. Thanks much for sharing.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks Parasu, it was a pleasure to talk to you.

Shankar said...

The pillow menu reminded me of a service that I experienced in a very small town in Germany (usually unfriendly to customers). There was heavy snow the previous night. Me and a client were returning to our rooms after dinner in the hotel restaurant. The Concierge confirmed our time of departure. Lionel told him – 8.15 in the morning. Next morning as we were getting in for breakfast the concierge reconfirmed our timing.

When we went out to get into the car (it was parked on the street)we were shocked to see that our car was as clean as it looked on a summer day ! All other cars were completely covered under the snow ! There was a small activity behind this – The concierge sprayed our car with a hot water jet between 8.10 and 8.15 just so that the customer could get into the car and get started without putting too much of a load on the battery !!

Even Lionel (French man but living in Zingen for years) was shocked. He said this will be his hotel whenever he would be in that town again.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Shankar, this is clearly a response of a delighted customer. As they say customer service is expensive, customer delight is free!

Sankar Virdhagriswaran said...

So, the news report I heard (in BBC no less) talked about whether Sachin
is past his prime and this is his swan song or whether he has many more
years to go. So, what say you our expert on all matters relating to cricket?

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Two of the finest players in the world today are Sachin and Ricky Ponting. Both are in their mid thirties and have been playing for years, sachin for two decades. They have both been like old wine, flowering as they get wiser. The game will be a lot poorer when both these guys quit. Throw in a Dravid, Lakshman and a Sehawag in a few years time then cricket will not be worth watching.

Soundararajan said...

Thank you.I read the Article. Interesting and thought provoking.

To be honest,, long way to go .

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes I think the first step is realisation that we have a long way to go. That is an important step in my view.

Suren said...

A very good one , but with one exception our experience of Maiyya was excellent on the Sunday( very crowded ) , as there were 8 of us , they accommodated us with a smile and served us quickly as I was waiting to catch the delayed Spice jet flight to Bombay.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

My earlier experience too has been pretty good, this time I think the order making and taking was perhaps less than ideal!

Dr Kishore Budha said...

The problem can also be compounded when service is understood within the narrow confines of Taylorian processes. The other extreme being its identification with individuals and personalities. For large business organisations, this is quite a tricky line to pursue as one needs to strike a fine balance between managerialism and empathy with customers/consumers.