Walking the Talk on Service

The Economic Times - November 2002

Services are in. I am told that the only part of our economy that is thriving is services. And that even if you are marketing 'hard goods' like consumer durables or office automation equipment, in this new world of product parity, the service package that comes along with it is a bigger driver of market share and margins. However in practice, it appears that the actual design of services is quite disconnected from what the consumer actually wants. A lot of service initiatives seem designed to address the frills but not deal with the fundamentals. And even the frills are not perfectly frilly, if the highly personalised letters I get from hotels and airlines and travel agents and banks are any indication. They press the flesh in print very well, with the almost hand written signature which I am sure costs a lot to print, but they don't bother to get my gender right.

I saw an ad for a leading brand of air conditioners extolling its service quality. The husband yells at the wife for not setting an alarm for 4 am, saying that he may have missed his flight. Don't worry dear, she says, I have called the company service mechanic at 4 a.m. Sure enough the doorbell rings. I guess the company research showed that what people really wanted was day and night service. But my survey shows that what people really want is a minimisation of time between paying for the air conditioner and being able to switch it on. And a window that looks exactly as it was before, no ugly wood frames that need to be painted. And expect that the air conditioning company will do all this in a quiet, efficient manner without having troops stomping through the house for days on end. Of course this is harder to achieve than dealing with the odd 4 a.m. call, but it has more lasting impact on building real value for the brand.

Working couples complain that they can't get a refrigerator service person to come home after 9 pm or on Sunday. My cable net operator is not very helpful on Sundays, when you have the time to browse, but can't seem to connect. The technician on duty says "I am just the technician, my server is ok, don't know what your problem is, please call the manager tomorrow, today is Sunday". He is a small guy with no pretensions to great customer service, so I forgive him. But what about a leading 5 star hotel chain that I called on a Sunday morning hoping to check out holiday destinations for an impromptu impulse break, and make a reservation? I got told by an answering machine to please call on Monday (dummy, don't you know the world is closed on Sunday?) I am the persevering customer, so I called the sales manager on Monday and she said the same thing. I explained to her that daddies with money, who usually foot such bills, are busy people, and are usually amenable to family pressure and holiday planning on Sundays, and staying open on Sunday represents a great sales increase and brand goodwill building opportunity. She said that paying over time for Sunday work was uneconomical. First, I want to know whether a sensible cost-benefit has been conducted before this conclusion has been reached. The benefit is probably missed sales, or a missed opportunity to sell a low capacity utilisation hotel, or just a missed opportunity to have a leisurely dialogue with all the decision makers of the family present, which may result in much more long term business. Second, I wonder whether low cost ways of staying open on Sundays have been adequately explored. Example, a special Sunday panel of part timers to whom calls are automatically forwarded, who are trained to provide basic information (where all, rates, availability etc.). I am certain that people who want to make money by working just one day a week must exist! The lady also told me that it was all on the Internet, so why couldn't I spend the precious 'captive husband' time surfing the net? My turn to ask: so why don't they use the Internet to support their Sunday part time panel, and serve me better (cable net costs Rs. 1000 only per month and is on line all the time)? Is there a rule that says that company web sites are meant for end customer use only?

More on five star hotels. One in Khajuraho did not have a single bit of tourist literature in the rooms and said that the MP Government had not printed any. Knowing the amount that this hotel chain spends on printing direct mailers, and on researching their impact, I wondered why they couldn't afford to spend just a little bit more, which would go a long way in making customers better about the room rent plus taxes. And it's not just Khajuraho. In many other tourist spots, a bit more spent on knowledgeable travel desk staff would make more money for the hotel. But the logic seems to be that if travel desk services are outsourced, why bother. But there is a distinction between who is responsible for the front end of the service and how you choose to deliver it. Outsourcing does not mean abdication!

In spite of so much claimed expenditure on computerisation, and so much effort at getting locked in service contracts, the number of places where they ask you repeatedly for address, directions, phone numbers etc. is horrifying. Relationship management is not about nice letters periodically mailed. It is about building institutional memory about the customer.

My mobile phone provider has given me my very own relationship manager whose job is to keep calling me and insisting on visiting me in the middle of my busy schedule to tell me about their services. Yet for almost anything I really need, I am told to present myself in person to their gallery. I am tired of explaining that if my cell phone is a productivity enhancement tool, then I should be able to call someone who can instantly locate my last bill on the computer and say it makes sense for you to move to this new tariff scheme. I don't care if he doesn't know my name or my wedding anniversary.

But what really gets my goat is waiters in five star hotels who arrive with your tea order at 6 am and begin to chat "so, how are you this morning, did you sleep well"? I would much rather that the money spent on hiring English speaking waiters be deployed to cut the tea arrival time by half, preferably with a leak proof tea pot.

The mantra is very simple - look for service improvement activities that minimise cost to the company, and maximise perceived value to the customer. Cut out those elaborate customer satisfaction surveys and soul searching on how to get from 7.43 to 8.21. Address the real issues. Forget the frills.