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

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mani Ayer's two-word mantra

S. R. Mani Ayer,Former Managing Director, Ogilvy & Mather

Ayer was visiting Chennai. I presented with great enthusiasm a campaign we had developed for a client. Little did I know about the two-word weapon he would use to assess it.

Ayer put every advertisement to the ‘So what?' test. It was the quickest way to check for relevance. How does it matter to the audience? How does it matter to the client? Often, these two words removed the puff and helped us discover the essence of what we wanted to say. Much as we dreaded the sessions where we laid out advertising strategies and creative work to SRA, the discussions that ensued were enriching.

Ayer hired me at Ogilvy Benson & Mather in 1975. In my very first interview on December 2, 1974, he said, “I will hire you. I don't know when and where.”

I did not know how to react to this. I asked him if I could call up to find out. “Sure. Once a week.” Thereafter from December until March, I called him every Thursday at 9:15 a.m. sharp. The conversation was simple.
“Good Morning, Mr Ayer. Sridhar here. Any news for me, Mr Ayer?”
“Not yet. Keep in touch.”
Finally, he gave me my letter in March 1975. He sent me to Chennai soon thereafter.

October 11, 1976. Four of us from Chennai had come to Mumbai to attend an account management training programme. Three of my colleagues died in an air crash that morning. I had stayed back to visit my sister, but the Times of India had also carried my name in the list of passengers who were killed. On hearing the news, I rushed to Apeejay House.

Ayer was visibly relieved to see me. You could see he was disturbed but he had to take charge and move on. He asked me, “Is it OK for you to fly this evening?” I returned to Chennai and he arrived the next day.

I saw a great leader, a compassionate human in action in the days that followed. I accompanied him on his visits to the families. He quickly put together a team to run OBM, Chennai. Supriya Das from our Kolkata office moved in to run the office until we could hire a manager. Mohan Menon moved from Mumbai to look after the Creative Department.
Ayer would fly in every week to meet clients, spend time with us and keep us going.

There used to be a Southern Railway Canteen opposite Higginbotham's. We used to have curd rice for lunch there. Ayer would join us for these curd rice lunches.

He and I used to visit Bangalore to meet Vijaya Bank and Binny's. We used to take the Bangalore mail and stay at Barton Court. Travelling with Ayer was an extraordinary experience. He was a fund of knowledge and a great storyteller. I remember one particular trip when we spoke throughout the night until we arrived in Bangalore.

As he helped me grow in the organisation, I began to understand this extraordinary person. Plagued by self-doubt, I often went to him with my resignation. He would listen to me with infinite patience, give me tips on what to do, and I would go back confident and happy. It was like talking to a therapist. He made me feel valued, respected and important. Many of us proudly call ourselves graduates of the Ayer school. He helped us realise our potential — he nurtured us as he would plants in a garden.

When Suresh Mullick passed away, he was keen to bring out a book on him and entrusted me with the task. The project did not take off for quite some time. I was embarrassed about my inaction but Ayer was kind and patient. Finally, we managed to put together an e-book on Suresh. I feel blessed he gave me a task that was dear to him.

He was a boss, a mentor, a coach, guru — no single word can describe my relationship with him. He lit a flame in each of us who worked with him. It is a flame eternal, that will continue. Those of us who were lucky enough to receive must be gracious enough to give. That is what he taught us.

(The writer is a graduate of the Ayer school.)

In niches there are riches!

Leading from the front:Harsh Mariwala, CMD, Marico

Harsh Mariwala of Marico shows the importance of clear strategy and meticulous execution..
Creating a culture in an organisation is easier said than done. It calls for rigorous implementation and the use of training. It calls for constant communication and collaboration amongst the key people in the organisation.

January 31 is a special day for people in advertising and marketing in Bangalore as it is the day the Ayaz Peerbhoy memorial lecture has been delivered to an eager audience over the years. It has been a calendar event for the Advertising Club, Bangalore for years now. This time it was the 29 th such occasion that the lecture was being delivered and the speaker was in no way inferior in achievement to his illustrious predecessors who had delivered it earlier - a who's who of Indian industry, people such as R. Goplakrishnan, C.K.Ranganathan and Kishore Biyani, to name just a few. Harsh Mariwala, Chairman and Managing Director of Marico Ltd, spoke about the exciting corporate journey of innovation that his company had taken over the years with little nuggets of wisdom and experience that had the audience thinking and perhaps wondering why they were unable to do the same with their own companies. The man embodied what his company stood for - understated, yet with the ability to think differently and inspire a whole bunch of MBAs to leading the company from a modest turnover of Rs 5 crore not too long ago to Rs 2,800 crore today.

Strategy is key

One of the most abused words in management literature is that curious word ‘strategy'. I say curious because different people have different perceptions of the word strategy. In the case of my students in business school, they have heard the word repeated so often by so many different people, that they have it coming out of their ears and often are clueless as to what it actually is. But less of my students and more of Marico Industries. Strategy, as any expert will tell you, is basically sacrifice, as when you choose one particular segment you ignore others, and at times the grass can always seem to be greener on the other side. Marico has consistently stayed in areas that have seemed niches (mind you, some of them have become pretty large over the years), areas where it could dominate and where it did not have to contend with MNCs with deep pockets and staying power.

The company that was primarily in the low-value commodity business transformed itself consciously over the years into a high value FMCG company. Often, people in marketing, thanks to their preoccupation with the brand and sales promotions, do not acknowledge the importance of culture and people to the brand's success. Mariwala placed the transformation of the organisation's culture and the dissemination of values as the key factors behind the success of the company and the brands driving it. It is often the ‘blinding flash of the obvious', but simple things such as sharing of information, being on first-name basis with the senior management, higher responsibilities or cross-functional exposure, though often talked about, are not practised with the same zeal with which they are spoken by companies. Clearly, Marico has been doing it, with great success, so that it has become internalised now.

A lot of Marico's success has been due to Parachute, the leading coconut oil brand. Parachute is a brand that most Indians, particularly in the South have used and continue to use, those with hair at least. When Mr Mariwala spoke about some of the innovations that the brand had been doing over the years, my mind wandered (as it seems to do more often these days). Often enough, copywriters in agencies turn up their noses when asked to create advertising for certain products saying these are ‘dull', and my response usually has been, “There are no dull products, only dull writers!”

Similarly, it is easy to view coconut oil as just a commodity, but the company has not and the results are there to show for it. The company did a number of packaging innovations starting with HDPE and also through its specially designed pack prevented freezing, something that is very common in the North of India. The seal guarantee also made it difficult to duplicate, even for the experts that India seems to unearth so often in this wonderful world of fakes and imitations. Parachute entered the rural market through laminated pouches and its flip-top and mini-packs brought in a new category of users. Innovations continued with the promotion of the concept of ‘ champi' with Parachute before shampooing. Suddenly, the category had become visible and attractive to the Levers of this world. And as Hindustan Lever (as Hindustan Unilever was then known), acquired Tomco, it promoted Nihar aggressively and threw its weight of distribution and promotions behind it. Levers even tried to take over the brand and Marico's stock price fell dramatically.

But the company counter-attacked, held on to its market shares, eventually did a David and also did the unthinkable (at that time, at least) by acquiring Nihar in 2006. Strike one for an Indian company against a large multinational! Innovation can often be a treadmill and the companies that are on it refuse to get off and the attempts to morph Parachute from a coconut oil brand to a beauty brand continue with variants, new fragrances and new formulations.

From the head to the heart

Very few people of my age can get away without using Saffola, thanks to the benefits of relaxed lifestyle built around addiction to the couch and the picture tube and a tremendous ability to postpone anything that suggests even the mildest physical activity. We are the people that keep doctors and the makers of Saffola laughing all the way to the bank. Just to put things in proper perspective, Saffola, all said and done could have been just another cooking oil, but it strongly positioned itself on the heart platform, taking the stance of a leader on World Heart Day and propagated walking every day.

True to company culture, innovations continued, like the 15-litre tap to enable ease of usage. But Saffola realised it had the capability and the competence to build on the equity in the health segment as it introduced oil blends and brand extensions such as low sodium salt and products in the area of diabetes and cholesterol management. Over the years the brand has moved from being just another edible oil brand to a health brand.

Marico has moved on to skin care with a bevy of Kaya skin care centres that are making waves all over India as young Indians get more conscious of the way they look and are opening their wallets to the new concept all over the country.

Significantly, the company has been avoiding the franchise route as it wishes to control the quality of service and the output that customers receive.

Creating a culture of innovation

Creating a culture in an organisation is easier said than done. It calls for rigorous implementation and the use of training. It calls for constant communication and collaboration amongst the key people in the organisation. The company too has been empowering its people by committing resources and ensuring that new members are carefully integrated into the organisation. The key thing about innovation is not only about ideas but about their implementation.

So what are the learnings for people who are leading organisations or teams?

Do you believe in your people?

Are you open to ideas?

Can you build a team of ‘constructive yes men' and not ‘boring yes men'?

Can you create a culture where there is a willingness to experiment and learn from failures?

Can you keep being innovative over a period of time however difficult and however expensive?

Success stories are good to read about after they have happened and there are lots of things to be learnt from examples like these. I have probably made it out to be a lot simpler than it actually has been for the company and the people who made it happen. They had a leader who believed in the team and who led from the front without actually getting in the way of his charged troops. It is certainly not a rags-to-riches story but a story that demonstrates that if you have a clear strategy and meticulous execution then niches are certainly the way to riches.

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