Follow
Anirudha Dutta
I tell you stories beyond the numbers

WoWing the pestilential consumer

Inside Bharti Walmart's Best Price Modern Wholesale Store As India Eases Rules on Foreign Retailers

Home grown Indian retailers sorely lack “customer service” (Image: Getty Images)

 

Call up Dominos or drive into a McDonalds or sit in any TGIF. Whoever takes your order will, without being prompted or asked, refer you to the best deal available at that point of time and suggest that you consider that. They are trained that way and the customer usually feels quite happy at being suggested deals that he would otherwise surely have missed.

Home grown Indian retailers sorely lack such “customer service”. In fact, I have often seen customer service desks at leading departmental stores arguing with customers against exchange of goods and trying to find fault with the consumer. Westside is an honourable exception in my experience.

I am  a regular at Godrej Nature’s Basket and every time, without fail, at the check-out counter, I am asked whether I have a loyalty program membership. Every time I say “no”. And not once has anyone offered me a form or asked me to become a member.

Let me now relate an experience I had at Foodhall a few weeks after it had opened in late 2011. Foodhall is a premier grocery shopping destination and the first store had opened in Palladium, an upmarket mall in Lower Parel, Mumbai. They had an ongoing offer that if you shop for Rs 1,500 you would get a particular variety of jam (worth some Rs 250 or Rs 275) free. My bill was Rs 3,450 and I asked for two bottles of jam. I was told that only one bottle of free jam would be given for one bill irrespective of the bill amount. If that was the case I said they should have split my bill or at least told me that was the case. Worse, nobody out there was willing to take any decision. I shocked them by saying I will not buy half the merchandise, and once they had cancelled its bill I would like to buy them again and thus have two separate bills. A finicky, fussy, pestilential Indian consumer. There are many like me.

So what do I mean when I say ‘WoWing the consumer’? Let me again give you an example from personal experience. This was a Southwest Airlines flight from Dallas to Austin. My then employer had paid the extra $15 or $25 so that I could be among the first to enter the flight and thus have a seat of my choice. I chose 1F–more leg space, and a window. As the flight filled up, right at the end, the steward came in with a visually challenged passenger and asked if any passenger would volunteer to exchange seats with the man since only one seat in the last row remained vacant. I volunteered.

Once the refreshments service commenced, I ordered a glass of beer and a packet of nuts, which totalled to something like $10. To my utter surprise, the steward refused to accept any money and said it was complimentary since I had volunteered to give up my seat. My feeble protests were brushed aside.

This was not all. Imagine my surprise when before deplaning, I was given another voucher of $5 for use in my next flight for a glass of beer or a snack. No need for guessing why. It is over three years since I took that flight and the experience is still fresh in my mind. Sitting so many thousands of miles away, I know one small reason why Southwest is commercially successful and has fierce customer loyalty.

Closer home I see that Indigo does it quite well and Jet Airways used to (and is probably getting its mojo back). Most retailers do not care. Or do not give their employees adequate training, or the churn in their employees is too much to train them adequately on a regular basis. But as they struggle to retain the loyalty of consumers, the next round of  battle for consumers’ mindshare will likely be fought on service standards.

There is an interesting article in Business Standard on February 4–Most Indian retailers stop at rewards. It speaks about reward, recognition and relevance marketing in loyalty programmes at retailers. For most retailers in India, loyalty programmes end with reward points. One well known retailer gives a discount of 5 percent on the spot if you are a loyalty programme member since, most likely, they do not have systems to track loyalty point accumulation and administering the same.

Before I end, here’s another experience from Godrej Nature’s Basket–this one was last weekend. My bill was a couple of thousand rupees and sixty three paise. As is usual, I paid by my credit card. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the bill was rounded off to the nearest rupee. I can understand the rounding off to the nearest rupee because of sheer convenience if I paid cash, but why should it get rounded off if I was paying by credit card? It left a sour taste in my mouth and I am really unhappy even if it was only thirty seven paise!

How can retailers create a great experience for customers? Some answers are there in this article from Knowledge@Wharton–Getting to ‘Wow’: Consumers Describe What Makes a Great Shopping Experience. Next time you meet a retailer or a consumer company, ask them what are they doing to WoW the consumer, how they track it, and how they reward their employees who WoW the consumer.

For more insights on consumers and retailers, please read my co-blogger Damodar Mall’s insights.

Post Your Comment
Name
Required
Email
Required, will not be published
Comment
All comments are moderated
 

Anirudha -- I like your post, resonates with my own experiences in Service Industry as well as my instructions when I served my part in academia. One question I often get asked is, in Indian Context, does wowing customers really improves business. I often see instances of horrible service delivery, but the same customers will still keep coming in. This forgiving nature of the customers gets exhibited in several walks of life -- electing governments, accepting poor road and other state controlled infrastructure, hiring the same Meru cab -- even when they might have dishonored a reservation, going to the same movie theatre -- even though the booking and checkin process always peeves, and the list goes on....
Anirudha Dutta
Dear AJ, Thank you for your comment. you are right - most of us keep going back unless we have had a really horrible experience. And that's because we have limited choice. the moment we have choice, our behaviour does change. Dos wooing consumers improve business? I have a small anecdote which I will relate in my next blog.
Anirudha - ground realities are not only eye openers but also triggers to change/dump brands - not really - the all forgiving and tolerant Indian consumer will go back to the same outlet not because he wants to -but because of the proximity of the outlet which is a bigger driver of customer buying. I also have a different take - being a pestilential customer myself and having being in the Technical/Customer Service industry for over 2 decades, I contribute my 2 cents to brands by giving them "constructive feedback" or in other words "a piece of my mind" and lo behold - my experience is that big brands are more than welcome to bring about the change. Some examples are - when Citibank worked with me to get their IVR system tested. The customer service rep used to demand a TPIN, even though I had entered my TPIN to access the IVR. This is in my head was bizarre as imagine every customer spending 1 minute extra on a call re-validating a TPIN, a huge drain on Citibank resources - which they would bill the customer back as their costs in some form or the other. Quick and dirty maths will tell us that 5000/calls day translates to about 19 heads per month needed for that 1 extra minute - which Citibank would have paid its outsourcer and in turn charge us. Another recent example is of Airtel in Bangalore refusing to install 4G Broadband at my home, because no one had come to give a demo at home. Airtel wanted to ensure that the customer had a good connectivity - before buying the product (as they had complaints earlier from new customers of 4G). The fact that I was referred to Airtel 4G by a satisfied neighbour of mine in the apartment complex I lived in - did not cut ice with the "process oriented corporate". I had to pick the phone and use my contacts within Airtel to convey the stupidity of the "demo rules" and the futility of it for a customer who served international customers on Broadband problems for more than 7 years. The connection was delayed by 7 days but Airtel became wiser. Lastly - have we noticed the exceptional standards of customer service we get at the road side Kirana shopkeeper, mechanic, vegetable vendor, flower seller, barber, dhabha. The reason I strongly believe is that they - represent their brand and protect it with a passion. The customer interaction for them - yields a direct profit in their pocket - attributed to the loyalty they build with love and affection for the customer. "Customer intimacy" is not a jargon for them but a "way of real life". Whereas at the big brands - the man at the door/shop is an employee for whom "brand" and "loyalty" are mere jargons. Things will change if employees of big brand spends a month or two as an apprentice at a roadside Kirana shop/Dhabha - the learning will be of immense value and will be retained for a lifetime. I remember K Gopalakrishnan (Executive Director Tata Sons) sharing how he went through the grind understanding what a "Brand Manager" role at HLL really meant - when he spent 2 months at Nasik learning to be a salesman - in his words "a life levelling experience". (http://www.slideshare.net/gagupta/iim-talk-by-r-gopalakrishnan) If only "life levelling experience" was a mandate for all employees of "big brands" - history of customer service will be very different.
Anirudha Dutta
Dear KG, Thank you for sharing your experiences and your feedback.
Great.Many of Indian stores here in USA too do retain that great Indian character of Lala who would be rude to customers.The people here in these stores do not believe in customer service to the extent that persons on the registery (billing counter) do not have the courtesy of saying thank you to the customer. They have the volume and hence do not worry about attracting non indian customers. Many of the stores keep expired date products and do not believe in update their sales aisles at frequent intervals.
Anirudha Dutta
Thank you, Suresh. It's amazing when under the stress of costs or stagnating demand how companies start behaving differently. Or they simply stop caring. Hubris? Arrogance on part of the companies?
Achyut V Saraswat
A very practical experience on home grown retailers experienced by me
Anirudha Dutta
Thank you, Achyut.
Do loyalty program memberships help? I have membership cards from all the multi-retail outlets and not once have i been told at the counter that i have accumulated points that can be redeemed. I think it's just a way to collect data abt you. Or it's just another failure on part of the company to monitor loyalty points and pass on benefits to the customer.
Anirudha Dutta
Dear Aria, While I am no expert, I feel companies have so far used it just to collect data, except stray instances. This will change.
Unfortunately even Indigo has started resorting to "revenue maximising" practices. I was shocked to find that when i cancelled my booking on the web recently, i did not get a refund to my card. Instead i discovered that i have to call the call centre and ask for a refund. Until then the airline holds the funds as a credit for my next flight!!
Anirudha Dutta
Dear Shrinath, I hope the Indigo management is listening. They have managed to garner customer loyalty but such loyalty can be fleeting when choices emerge.
Thanx for the insight .. true in many so called large store formats and larger the format more are the annoyance. Price has never been a dissuader but a discount mentioned not properly executed has always left bad taste. Optimist that future will evolve on wowing standards and not on commoditized products.
Anirudha Dutta
Dear Ravindra, Thanks for your comments. I hope so too.
Nice capturing of the ground realities. Some of the self-proclaimedly upper crust stores, supposedly providing personalised service to a discerning clientele, are even worse. One called me up with a cheery "Hi RM. How are you doing? I am happy to tell you that I have got you the dress you wanted; it's at the store." I had picked up the call rather distractedly and told her that my father is in the hospital. Pat came the reply, "I am very sorry to inform you that we won't be able to hold the dress for you beyond tomorrow evening"!! And this is a "premium" store! Is it any wonder then that the general purpose retailers don't give a damn?! Maybe with a billion+ potential plugged into fund-seeking worksheets, any one customer does not matter. Or, as my favourite reasoning goes, if they had better brains / maturity, why would they be on the shop floor instead of being investment bankers or telling stories beyond numbers?! :-)
Anirudha Dutta
Thank you, RM. Indeed why would they be... But a little bit of training can go a long way. After all the kirana or the traditional shop selling sarees doesn't goof up like this.
 
 
Anirudha Dutta
Anirudha Dutta is former head of research at CLSA India Limited, a leading foreign brokerage house. While every number tells a story, there are many stories beyond numbers and both are equally important. This blog will attempt to tell some of these stories.
 
 
 
Anirudha Dutta'S POPULAR POST(S)
Most Popular
Anirudha Dutta's Activity Feed
July 04, 2013 09:46 am by WoWing the pestilential consumer – Part II | Forbes India Blog
[...] I wrote the blog, WoWing the pestilential consumer, I had no idea that I will be writing Part II. But two recent experiences and some of the comments [...]
July 02, 2013 07:26 am by Anirudha Dutta
Dear AJ, Thank you for your comment. you are right - most of us keep going back unless we have had a really horrible experience. And that's because we have limited choice. the moment we have choice, our behaviour does change. Dos wooing consumers improve business? I have a small anecdote which I wil...
June 22, 2013 13:26 pm by AJ
Anirudha -- I like your post, resonates with my own experiences in Service Industry as well as my instructions when I served my part in academia. One question I often get asked is, in Indian Context, does wowing customers really improves business. I often see instances of horrible service delivery...
June 21, 2013 07:15 am by Anirudha Dutta
Thank you, Suresh. It's amazing when under the stress of costs or stagnating demand how companies start behaving differently. Or they simply stop caring. Hubris? Arrogance on part of the companies?
June 21, 2013 07:12 am by Anirudha Dutta
Thank you, Achyut.