Waiters at French restaurants— maybe only at upscale French restaurants in the US—have a legendary reputation as unfriendly and at times downright disdainful. Of course, waiters across the social spectrum in India could easily teach their French cousins a thing or two about treating customers shoddily. And these are folks in the service business, where how you treat the customer is supposed to affect your business directly. Yet each of us can easily recount horror tales of poor customer service—be it with airlines, banks, call centres, retail outlets or telecom services—in practically every sphere of our personal lives. To be fair, customer service in India has come a long way since the early days of liberalization. The sheer choice of suppliers and healthy competition in the marketplace has done wonders to improve the manners of most frontline employees of service providers.
However, old habits die hard. A recent popular advertisement for a mobile service provider features a cantankerous old man who is bent upon ignoring, irritating or ill-treating his customers. And, as the Indian economy slows, the impact on businesses shows up first in the fraying edges of their customer interface. India is by no means alone in the decline. From the time of the Roman markets to the gleaming retail outlets of a resurgent Asia and gloomy malls of North America, customer service—good, consistent, delightful—has been a challenge.
Growing up in Chennai, I recall that nearly any retail store I went to had a small sign with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so.” As with many other signs that dot the Indian landscape, such as No Entry—One Way Street or Do Not Spit or Cause Nuisance, Gandhi’s exhortation is “more honour’d in the breach than the observance”.
The service mindset has to begin at home. Indians, much like the Chinese and Japanese, like to pride themselves on being respectful to their elders. However, from our daytime soaps on TV to our overcrowded roads, thoughtlessness and rudeness, particularly towards elders, seems the rule. This behaviour just as easily spills into our malls and stores. If you’ve ever seen a parent admonish or worse yet slap their child at the supermarket, doesn’t it make you wonder how much worse they’d treat that child at home? Similarly, when you receive poor service from any professional service provider, you wonder—if this is how they treat their customers, how badly must they treat their employees?
Again, we needn’t wonder too long. Managers, at supermarkets certainly or even banks, don’t hesitate to dress down their employees right in front of the public. Many large Indian businesses, even when publicly listed, are often run as though they are proprietary firms where employee empowerment is largely absent. Multinational firms have succumbed to an Indian version of the Borgia families where politics and intrigue take much more of a manager’s time than advancing the business cause. However, as with every challenge that we face in India—and they are not only innumerable but often large—this itself presents an opportunity. An opportunity to provide exceptional service—to delight customers, differentiate a business and thereby thrive even in these difficult times.
The secret to achieve such exceptional service forms the very core of Hal Rosenbluth’s The Customer Comes Second. Co-authored with Diane McFerrin Peters, who works with Rosenbluth’s eponymous travel firm. His formula for creating an organization that provides exceptional service is to put your employees first and your customers second. Before we dismiss this as simplistic, it’s worth noting that Rosenbluth Travel has clocked more than $6 billion in annual revenue and has better than 98% customer retention. So clearly they must be doing something right. For the hard-nosed, what-can-I-actionize reader, the book offers specific tips and tools starting from finding the right people and training them all the way to using technology. Any book that talks unabashedly about culture and happiness in the workplace as this one does is a keeper and you should steal it from your nearest library.
This article originally appeared in the Book Beginnings column in Mint.
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