Tag Archives: Customer Orientation

The Persons You Will Meet at Kala Ghoda This Year

The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (#KGAF) is keeping Mumbaikars merrily occupied this week. They visit the Kala Ghoda Art District (a term I’ve only recently got to know about) not only to shop for elegant/ loud knick-knacks, novelty art created from waste, and beautiful handloom creations (oh, the joys of hand-made Indian clothing!), but also to make sense of the modern art installations (I could never wrap my head around these, never mind what the descriptions say), to be seen as contributing to the Indian arts/ culture/ recycling, and, intriguingly, to take enough ‘selfies’ for the latest fb check-in.


The proximity of the Festival to my office made it an opportunity hard to miss. The hard work that the Kala Ghoda Association puts in to bring such a fascinating mosaic of art to Mumbai each year is highly commendable. Thus, I enjoyed strolling past the numerous colourful stalls, sometimes lingering a little longer at some to drink in the richness of Indian handicrafts. I could not help but notice how much the style of the ‘salespersons’ at each stall varied from one to the next. A simple but instructive chance to observe human behavior, I thought.


If you find yourself at the KGAF anytime (you have until Valentine’s Day), you are likely to meet these nine types of salespeople:

  1. The Passionate Promoter

This person is so deeply immersed in what he makes that his love for the article he sells could make you want to buy it. He talks about it animatedly. He mentions the hard work that goes into creating each piece. He talks about where the money he’ll make from the Festival will go. He talks about how you can reach him for more quantities if you like.

  1. The Laid-back Observer

This person seems like a mirror looking back at me. She keenly observes the crowds of people coming in and going out, with just the hint of a smile playing on her lips. She shows neither with nor without words whether you are welcome to look at what she is selling. She doesn’t mind if you simply pass by without saying anything either, the expression in her eyes completely non-judgmental.

  1. The Chirpy Volunteer

This person is extremely helpful, providing you instantly with the (often atrocious) prices of the items you ask about, or items similar to the one you’ve picked up but in different colours, or items matching the ones you are examining to form a neat set. You could expect to add a shopping bag or two at this stall.

  1. The Snooty Wannabe

This person looks at you as if you’ve landed at the wrong doorstep or, at the very least, in the wrong clothing or footwear or headgear or eyewear! She looks at you with disdain, if not disgust, as if she’d rather not be bothered by riff-raff of your kind. She is probably selling artsy stuff, wearing artsy clothes, and running her artsy fingers over her many rings. When you ask her about any item, she looks at you as if she’s doing you a big favour by deigning to respond.

  1. The Wordless Artiste

This person is probably the ‘Indian’ whose Indian art you are here to admire. He would rather not give away his accent or the lack of his understanding of yours so he simply pushes a piece of paper under your nose so that you can see for yourself what the items in his stall are about. He writes down the numbers when you ask for a bill. You begin to feel for him and his awkwardness in this big unfamiliar city where people speak a language that doesn’t quite resemble Hindi.

  1. The Psuedo-Intellectual

This person seems to take joy in the finer things in life. She has (some) knowledge about the origins, processing and aesthetics of the articles she is selling and transfers it to shoppers generously. She treats each piece like a newborn baby, handling it with care and love. The weight of her words and the slow drawl of her voice seem to add to the value of the article in question.

  1. The Boarded-up Paranoiac

This person is more concerned that people will pilfer goods out of his stall rather than buy them. He keeps a scanty sample of his wares on the counter, with most of them stacked up behind him, away from thieving eyes. He would rather sell a handful of small-ticket items (less than INR 200) than risk showcasing the big-ticket ones (more than INR 1,000) just in case the latter are actually purchased…oops…stolen!

  1. The Bored-to-Death Volunteer

This person could not care less whether he makes any sales or not. He goes through the motions just so as not to appear a slacker but he clearly could be much happier elsewhere at the current time. Not even the sound of money could make him more animated.

  1. The Smooth Operator

This person is lucky to house wares that sell like hot cakes. She is so busy making sales that she has mastered the steps of the process to a T. These steps are:

(a) Customer points to an item.

(b) Before the customer opens her mouth, the salesperson shouts out the price of the item, even as she is handling another customer.

(c) Customer spends a few moments picking out her favourite colours.

Steps (a) to (c) may (or may not) get repeated.

(d) Salesperson mentally totals up the bill and relays it to the customer.

(e) Salesperson roughly packs the items purchased and hands them to the customer with one hand while accepting money for it with the other.

The whole process takes less than three minutes unless Steps (a) to (c) go into a repetitive loop.


Whom would you rather buy from at #KGAF this weekend?


Design Thinking: The Key to a Superior Service Experience

I had the opportunity to visit the office of the Registration and Stamp Duty Department of Government of Maharashtra recently. If it had not been for the signboard outside the office, I would have thought that I was in a waiting room at a local railway station. As a consultant who routinely deals with process redesign and efficiency improvement, I took a keen interest in observing the layout of the place and the movement of people in and out of the office.


The non-air-conditioned room, which had a single unmanned entry/ exit point, was about 20 feet long and 15 feet wide, with a partition halfway along its width and a pillar in the middle of one of the halves of the partition. Rows of four-seat benches squeezed into the space on either side of the pillar. The pillar had extendable shelves, which served as tabletops for persons who had forms to fill out at the last minute, sticking out towards the benches. The combined width of the pillar and these shelves formed a narrow passage for persons streaming in and out of the room, about forty people at a given moment. A part of the other half was enclosed for an unknown purpose – there were no signs on the enclosure. There were no washrooms, pantry, or even a water dispenser visible.


A door, vaguely marked ‘Office’, at the edge of the room led to the space where the actual registration procedure took place. A small indicator on the outside announced the token number of the person next in queue. I could not make out how the tokens were generated or when and where one procured them. Inside the ‘Office, all the three walls facing the door were lined with unmarked open racks and shelves of paper files, almost reaching the 18 feet high ceiling.


About six officious staff sat at the two desks facing the door, surrounded by a dozen clerks, peons and service staff. Apparently, these persons knew where they should be positioned in this vague room without any signages (barring the printed pages announcing that one of the services was now available online). There were persons who came in when their token was announced and looked around inquiringly as to where and how to proceed; these were the hapless ‘customers’ of the Registration service.


Another group of about half a dozen apparently important persons flitted in and out of the room and occupied the space in front of the desks. They seemed to know what was going on and who was responsible for what. They also ushered the ‘customers’ to the appropriate seat at a desk as required. I reckoned that these were the ‘agents’, the ‘know-alls’, the ‘catalysts’ that kept the process flowing smoothly, the ‘oil’ that greased the government machinery. Without them, the so-called ‘system’ would collapse.


The 10 feet by 15 feet space of the office was, hence, teeming with over thirty people at any point in time. A 1.5 ton capacity air-conditioner tried in vain to cool the air.


I wondered… for a service that apparently processes about four thousand documents in a day, valued at about INR 30 Crores (US$ 4.5 Mn), is this the best state of infrastructure and process that the government could provide?


Contrast this with the experience at the spanking new processing centres of the Regional Passport Office in Mumbai. Online access and registration for appointments, tight security and screening at the entry gates, clearly designated and marked zones for different parts of the processing cycle, viz. presentation of documents, checking of documents, approval of passport, authorization of passport, issuance of passport, and exit clearance, all in a seamless manner. There are also water coolers, washrooms with access for the disabled, a well-stocked cafeteria, a baby-care area, a photocopier, and stationery supply. Many thanks to TCS, who streamlined the process and possibly designed the layout for the facility.


Process design always fascinated me but these two experiences at opposite ends of a spectrum really got me thinking about how critical design is to a great customer experience for any service provider. These six key aspects typically go into incorporating design thinking in processes for a service:


  1. Separate areas for distinctly different activities

Activities could be different in that they require different equipment, skills, lead times, validation times, mechanical inputs, authorization, etc. It is best to mark these separately. The Passport Office exemplifies this beautifully. Retail banks have always followed this practice.


  1. Separate entry points from exit points

This is an extremely critical requirement where movement of persons is concerned, especially in areas that require high security. But the biggest advantage served by this tactic is the avoidance of jams in the process, creating a more equal service experience for all. Think about an airport or a subway system.


What struck me most when I first travelled on the London Underground (now called the Tube, but I’m old-fashioned like that) was how I never had to be apprehensive about somebody running into me from the opposite direction. It was such a refreshing experience after several years as a commuter on Mumbai Local Trains.


  1. Maximise the output of bottlenecks by reducing redundant processes

Bottlenecks can often derail a process. Airlines have tried and often succeeded in managing this. Take the airline checking-in process, for instance. Undoubtedly, the most time-consuming of all airline processes (if we leave out security checks at JFK!), this process has been made leaner by resorting to options such as online check-in & kiosk check-in, and separate counters for frequent flyers or premium class flyers or passengers with special needs. Of course, there is tremendous scope for improvement.


  1. Signpost important areas, especially ‘special needs’ areas

Regardless of how inefficient a process a may be, this simple trick can alleviate a lot of customer chagrin. Human tendency is to control one’s environment as far as possible. Just the thought that one knows where one is relative to another place puts an element of control into the customer’s hands. Munich Airport does this very well. It is also one of the few hub airports that cares to put out enough recliners and mark quiet zones for long layover passengers.


On the other hand, a baby products retailer that I happened to visit seemed to have missed a critical opportunity because its circulation space was too narrow to allow the passage of baby strollers that it retails! As if that were not enough, its baby care room had neither any ventilation nor an air-conditioner, not even a fan!


  1. Mark designated spaces to catch the overflow

Any process could be subject to overflows every once in a while, where its throughput gets challenged. It helps to think ahead about such eventualities and design spaces that can handle the spillover. Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital has combined this challenge with addressing a real customer need, when including a large cafeteria with several options of cuisines. It automatically reduces crowds loitering in passageways while giving people a sense of comfort and caring. Dubai Airport, on the other hand, has channelled this opportunity into a revenue earner. One would be hard put to find a place to sit at this airport. By making most of its circulation space a shopping zone, all spills generate bills!


  1. Make space for public conveniences

The need to ingest and expel are two of the most basic human needs. Making these facilities available to those you serve shows thoughtfulness. An unexpected benefit is that you are likely to meet a more amicable customer rather than an irate/ frustrated/ desperate one.


Whether a business is offline or online, the customer and her needs remain the same. Great service design could significantly differentiate your value proposition.



Five Things (Not) To Do When Talking To Customers

Economics tells us that buying decisions are a function of price, the intersection of demand and supply, and a willingness to pay. ‘Willingness to pay’ – such a clever term that can encompass so many biases.

Ever decided to buy from one shop rather than another because the shopkeeper at the first talked to you nicely while the one at the second was too curt for comfort? Ceteris paribus, a rational buyer should be indifferent between the two shops, but buyers still do make different choices based on how the seller interacts with the customer.

Large corporations have been able to remove any personality-driven biases in the customer’s mind by having a faceless Customer Service Department (CSD), aka Customer Relations Department (CRD) or Customer Care Department (CCD), do all the talking with customers. Without a face, however, the brand takes a hit if something goes wrong.

Here are five things that a company should do when talking to customers:

#1: Talk to the Customer

It doesn’t get simpler than this. Open up channels for the customer to reach you and make sure that someone with a solid idea of what your business is about is sitting at the internal end of the channel.

On one end of the scale, there’s Zappos, the American e-retailer, which made customer service their raison d’etre and the phone their main channel of communicating with the customer. Zappos removed the ‘script’ from their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) process and allowed its executives to speak to customers for as long as was reasonable to resolve their issues.

On the other end there is Vodafone India, one of the largest providers of telephony in India, which does not want to talk to the customer at all! When you call them, you could press through their endless IVR architecture about eleven times before you find an option where you can speak to a real person only to be told that your waiting time to speak to a Customer Service Executive (CSE) is 26 minutes! Worse still, you actually have to pay for every extra minute beyond a stipulated number that you spend on the phone talking to the CSE. It would seem that Vodafone India’s processes and incentive structure for the CSD are driven by a single metric – the least time spent talking to customers.

#2 Listen to what the customer is saying

Duh! Instead of rattling off a spiel that your CRM Manual proposes, take the time to actually hear what the customer is saying.

Emirates, the international carrier, has possibly trained their CSEs to record the gist of conversations with their customers, especially in cases where issues were not resolved, such that they are able to make it up to them, if not immediately, then in the near future. So, the next time you are flying them after a customer upset, don’t be surprised if your name is suddenly called out at the boarding gate for an upgrade.

HSBC India, the Indian arm of the global bank, could take a leaf out of their book. Whether it is a new product that they want to tell you about or a delayed credit card payment that they want to remind you about, the CSEs will take a good 120 seconds to trundle through your account status before getting to the point. Never mind if the customer has gone to sleep by then.

#3 Empower the CSE

In addition to imparting a solid understanding of the business to the CSE, give her some teeth to actually resolve customer issues.

Hilton, the international hotel chain, has a transparent and speedy escalation mechanism so the front-desk executive can not only make a note of the grievance you bring to his notice but also propose a resolution that is satisfactory to the customer, without seemingly overstepping his authority.

HDFC Bank, the leading Indian bank, however, is a different story. Their so-called Relationship Managers, who change every three odd months (too soon really to be able to form any ‘relationship), are rarely able to answer basic account-related questions, let alone resolve queries without checking with another two levels in the chain of command.

#4 Time cross-selling opportunities cautiously

Ensure that there are no unresolved issues for an existing customer before trying to push more products/ services down her throat.

Jabong, the Indian e-retailer, has done this beautifully and unobtrusively. A hard-nosed e-commerce player, it has refined its website based on surfer clicking patterns, cookies and cataloguing. Their returns policy makes them stand apart from the Amazons and Flipkarts of the industry. A no-questions asked returns policy in almost all cases, effortless reverse pick-ups, Jabong credits (with a year-long validity) for returned items, and fantastic discount schemes for all seasons, keeps customers coming back.

ICICI Securities, the Indian financial services company, on the other hand, has not realised just how many hand-offs they could do without in their customer care routine. Certainly the time when many of the hands in their extra-long chain fail to pick up the load should not be the time for trying to sell an already frustrated customer the latest product that has been launched.

#5 Be fair

It’s far easier to retain a customer than to find a new one (true with any professional relationship, really), so don’t take her for granted.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Uber India, the taxi network company, will charge a customer for a ride that has been cancelled by its driver at will. It is then up to the customer to petition for a reversal of charges.

FirstCry, the baby and child care e-retailer, on the other hand, has made its EZReturns policy so easy and transparent that the refund could come into your account as soon as you disconnect your call to the CSE, much quicker than the goods to be returned will be picked up from your doorstep.

From ‘let the buyer beware’ to ‘real’ customer care…

Six reasons why #Uber could fail in India

The rise of the new economy has given rise not just to new industries but also to new business models. E-commerce led the wave of what has today become the positioning of choice for many an entrepreneur – the ‘integrator’. With technology playing a substantial role in ‘integrating’ various pieces of the model, several challenges got addressed. The same technology in turn, however, laid out a fresh set of issues that need to be resolved.

For Uber, these challenges centre around seemingly infrastructural but essentially human factors. It has overcome the ignominy that (an) errant driver(s) caused in its early days in India, but its problems are far from over. Here are six reasons why #Uber could fail in India:

Reason 1: Technology issue – Hi-speed Internet, the keystone of Uber’s business model, is not yet the norm even in metros in India.

Reason 2: Trust issue – Drivers don’t trust the navigation feature on their Uber devices, and so, bother customers endlessly for directions, making pick-ups a nuisance.

Reason 3: Agency issue – Drivers, at will, turn off their device, misleading customers as to their actual location. Worse, they can refuse calls and become incommunicado because calls to and from customers are routed through Uber.

Reason 4: Temporal issue – Drivers don’t respect the time estimate for arrival provided to customers. Hence, 5 minutes become 15, 10 become 25. Detours are rampant, sometimes for a snack break, at other times for a brief nap.

Reason 5: Cultural issue – We Indians have an oral culture. We don’t like to talk to an email ID (support@), especially one that doesn’t respond. As a customer, your only recourse to grievance redressal is to force-fit your complaint into the standard set of issues listed on Uber’s website, after which you will promptly receive a stock email from Uber in, no doubt, a personalised tone.

Reason 6: Holier-Than-Thou issue – Uber charges customers for rides cancelled by drivers, at will. That too without any notice. A case of taking the customer for granted, methinks.

A fancy name and a fancy app don’t a business model make; respect the customers – recognise their uniqueness – and their business is yours to take.