Serving Customers


  Why Customers Stray, And Why They Stay
Good service doesn’t stand out anymore.
Only exceptional service does.

Iam planning to be unfaithful to my cell phone service provider. Dump it for someone else. Oh, we had some good years in the beginning. It was always polite; it worked hard to keep me interested with all kinds of new schemes. It even kept brining prices down. Now I’m spoilt. I have choices. I have dozens of cell phone suitors queuing at my door, wooing me night and day with sweet nothings. All the attention is going to my head.

The smallest little thing can make me stray. There was a time in India when businesses treated consumers as if they were doing us a favour. They made us grovel. Fill up endless forms. Frequently snapped at us if we wanted something. Both they ?and we forgot that we were the ones paying for the service. I have a memory of an Indian Airlines flight where I politely asked the airhostess for a glass of water ?and she said “No.?br>
Goodbye monopolies. It’s revenge time. Customers are striking back. In the last few years, the heat from intense competition has turned both, focus and budgets to customer service initiatives, based on the realisation that a healthy bottom line cannot exist without a happy customer. Where there was not a single person, there are now armies of young elves trained to politely say words unheard of in India before: ‘thank you? ‘please? ‘have a nice day? ‘how may I help you??/font>

We’ve changed too. Ever since customers became King, we have become arrogant. We are spoiled for choices, whether it is a cell phone company. Or an Internet Service Provider. Or a bank, hotel, airline. Pretty much everything except schools and hospitals. Our arrogances rises in direct proportion to our choices. And the hard truth companies have to learn is this: Just because we are satisfied with your service, doesn’t mean we will be loyal.

Take my cellular company, for instance. It made a billing error in my account four months ago, and without warning, cut off my calling facility. I made a complaint and they restored the service within a few hours, apologising profusely, promising it would never happen again. Except it did.

We go back a long way. I did not want to switch to another service. In fact I was willing to pay even the somewhat higher rental they charged. So I let it go the first time. And a second time. And a third.

But not the fourth. I’m done. My complaint has disappeared in the system. No one seems to be accountable.

Today’s consumers have a good deal of experience in purchasing decisions and they bring all this accumulated knowledge to their expectations and perceptions of a firm. We’ve been around; we can catch you doing things wrong. The high profile CEO’s can spend millions of rupees in advertising campaigns. They can knock the socks off each other in pricing wars. They can, in fact, get all the big things right ?and yet, the smallest little thing can send us straight into someone else’s arms.

Once we go away, we are unlikely to come back. All the money you spend courting us through your marketing and advertising efforts is gone down the drain.

A friend switched from an ISP that gave her brilliant connectivity ?but she could not get through to their help line, the numbers were constantly busy. “Forget it.?She said. “Who has the time to keep trying.?Another friend deserted a bank that otherwise gave her a satisfactory service, because she says: “Each time I needed to talk to the manager, he was always distracted, attending to a dozen things at the same time. I never felt fully heard.?br>
In a time of rampant infidelity, how then do you retain customers?

If you think about it, most products are more or less equally good. And thanks to competition, most are also more or less pried. Ultimately, the only way to differentiate one product from another will boil down to service. “Without a stunning, sustainable service advantage, you can take your top quality product and shove it,?says management guru Tom Peters. He suggests not even thinking of it as customer service ?but as Ownership Experience. Ownership Experience is what can set a brand apart. It means much more than a polite agent or bauble thrown the customer’s way. It means a bone deep effort to enhance and beautify the customer’s experience of ownership. It comes from service that is direct, quick, and warm. It comes from repeatedly asking: How can I make life easier (not just cheaper) for the customer?

Time is valuable, stress levels are high. Customers gravitate to businesses that value their time, that are speedy in their transactions and handling of complaints. They subconsciously keep track of the Hassle Quotient ?or how much annoyance they have to go through to achieve their ends. Is the help line always available ?or do they pack up at 6 pm? Is there an office close to where I live? Do they get the job done or do I have to keep reminding them? When I call, do I get a voice recording that says “You are important to us, our agent will be with you shortly?while keeping us on hold for 20 minutes?

The service bar has been raised so much that good service rarely stands out anymore. This means making heroic efforts routinely. Making service an obsession. To me, this would have meant an agent following my complaint down to the end, resolving it and getting back to me. Not making me call back over and over while they played passing the parcel through the system. “When it comes to a stunning service edge, most companies have a long, long way to go, and perhaps a matchless opportunity,?says Peters. “Stunning service is still the best-kept, hardest-to-copy secret in the business world.?br>
Remember, we become your ambassadors ?for better or for worse. Some businessmen friends from Singapore who recently stayed at The Oberoi in Mumbai can’t stop telling their friends about the outstanding service they got there. I recently has such a good experience on British Airways, I made the effort of writing a recommendation to the Customer Services Director on two crew members who were serving me.

The moral of the story is this: In a time of cheating hearts, companies need to build more than a financial relationship. They need to create an emotional bond. The aim isn’t to have customers who are satisfied with the service. It is to have customers who love it.

Simran Bhargava
(From The Financial Express, 
dated February 15, 2003)