Fat, Dumb and Happy

12 July, 2010

For those who know me well, they know that it takes a lot to get me upset and emotional. But one of my few pet peeves is “overpromising and undelivering”, which seems to be a motto in India when it comes to customer service. Having bad customer service is actually acceptable, but bad customer service by those who pride themselves on the promise of customer service is simply unacceptable. Let me elaborate yet another typically Indian moment.

About a month ago, my family and I were headed to the US (like we usually do during summer vacation). The day before departure, there was a fairly sizable charge on my ICICI visa signature card. ICICI sold me on this card a couple of years ago with the promise of unbelievable customer service, a special “concierge” toll free number and plenty of perks, for which they charge a hefty annual fee. What they didn’t tell me at that point was that the toll free number for the so-called concierge service only works from BSNL and MTNL lines. When I first found out about this, my reaction was a natural, “what the &*#%”! And by the way, there is no other number listed for the concierge service.

So, if you are not enamored with Deepika Podukone (BSNL’s brand ambassador, god bless her), or if you are not in a BSNL monopoly area, then chances are you are with another provider and therefore have no access to the concierge service which is one of the key reasons for having the card in the first place. Now that I have beaten that point to death, let me get to the crux of the issue.

At the Bangalore airport (yes, there has to be an airport theme in my articles), I tried feeding a hungry clan of three kids at midnight, and since I wasn’t carrying any Indian currency (what would I do with rupees in the US), I went to the coffee shop and charged using my ICICI card. Interestingly enough, if you fly internationally from Bangalore, beware that there isn’t a credit card POS terminal at eating establishment (or at least one that works). The coffee shop guy took my card and went off into the abyss for about 20 minutes. I thought he had simply taken off. I sent another couple of coffee shop guys to look for the first guy. In the meantime, the flight started

boarding, and we were going to miss the “pre boarding for families traveling with kids” benefit, which is key if you are traveling as a family of five with ten carry-ons (hey, that’s what they allow so why not take advantage of it, as do we with 10 suitcases (2 per individual), even if some of them are empty). So now, the family is getting nervous (but at least the kids are fed), the flight is boarding but my card and the three coffee shop guys are still missing.

After another 10 minutes, the first guy shows up with a smile on his face (which, in India, means something is extremely wrong). I knew there was trouble. Smiling, he said, “your card is declined sir”. Annoyed, I gave him my debit card and he again headed off to what seemed like Chennai. In the meantime, I decided to call ICICI customer service (standard number, not the concierge since I wasn’t calling from a bsnl/mtnl line). For anyone familiar with a bank’s IVR system, the logic is fairly reasonable. Press 1 for banking, 2 for credit card etc. I, of course, pressed option 2. Then the system asks one to enter the credit card number, which I did. What happened next surprised me.

The system did not recognize my credit card number, indicating simply that “the system doesn’t recognize the number. Please try again.” I thought I had mistyped the number, so I entered it again to which the system responded, “you have exceeded the maximum number of tries. “Good bye”. For a second I looked around thinking that I might on “candid camera”; then I proceeded to close my eyes for a couple of seconds and open hoping perhaps that I was simply dreaming and what just happened didn’t actually happen to me. So, think about it. My card has been declined, but I actually cannot get into the customer service system to access a live person to help address the issue. Also note that I am probably in the top .0000000001% of ICICI’s customers from a value standpoint. The flight is done boarding, but I could not get on a flight not knowing what is going on with my credit card. I called into the system again, and dialed extension 1, pretending to be a banking customer, even though I wasn’t one. I got to a sweet lady and I was convinced she was going to help me out. She asked for my bank account number, and I told her I

wasn’t a banking customer.

And before I could say anything else, she said, “hold on sir”, and transferred me to the main menu. My blood pressure was through the roof, my kids were getting worried, Dragon Air staff was threatening departure without us, and the coffee guy still hadn’t come back with my debit card (and I am traveling economy in a full flight, with probably no overhead bin space for the 10 pieces). I hope the readers understand the situation (and hopefully not laughing too loudly). To make matters worse, all three kids had to go to the bathroom right then. I told all of them “do it right here!” (which, in hindsight, was slightly inappropriate). It was more important for me, at that time, to get through to an ICICI customer service person than my kids’ urological health. I managed to get through by pretending to be a banking customer to another gentleman, who indicated that he had logged into my account and had removed the block on the credit card. I breathed a sigh of relief, took the kids to the bathroom, got the debit card back from the coffee guy, boarded the flight a bit more relaxed, and somehow fit all carry on luggage in the overhead bins.

Ah, but the story doesn’t end. After dropping the wife and kids off in the US, I returned to India and the very next day had a lunch meeting where I tried paying with the ICICI credit card which…yes, you guessed it, was declined. I tried again to get through to a customer service person, and finally just called my assistant in the office, who found a friend who was an ICICI branch manager who finally got the block removed. The experience was absolutely awful. Now, I know some of the most senior executives at ICICI, within their cards division. And I certainly hope they read this to understand what is absolutely broken in the system and their overall customer interaction.

The irony is that India, which provides customer service backend for most, if not all, of the major financial institutions in the world, and probably helps develop most of the financial software packages for customer management, has some of the most deplorable processes and systems for its Indian consumers. The reason that the ICICI branch manager gave to my admin was that after the large charge on the card, Mr. Jolly didn’t answer his phone when someone from ICICI tried calling to verify the transaction. Usually, I don’t wait around for a call from the bank after every transaction, and if I am on another call when I get a call from an unrecognizable number, I don’t switch over.

There are N number of ways to verify a transaction like other financial institutions do (email or sms based response are fairly straightforward, rather than actually speaking with an individual). The system, moreover, should have known my history and realized that I am a premium customer, one who transacts heavily and often has large transactions with a high balance (because I charge everything).

While I am on ICICI, let me mention one more item. Recently, I was again overseas when I realized that my credit card bill was due, and I knew roughly what it was but didn’t know exactly. The balance was high and I paid what I vaguely recalled was the balance. It turned out that I was off by Rs. 150. I was shocked to get a significant interest charge on my next credit card statement. When I called customer service, they informed me that in case the difference between a

payment and the statement balance exceeds INR 100, the interest is charged on the entire balance on the previous statement.

That makes no logical sense, but trying to argue was falling on deaf ears, and the request of a waiver of fees (which is common in the US, at least for a first time offense) was answered with a stern, “I cannot do that”. Someone told me post that interaction that it’s advisable not to argue with the banks since they can put you on a black list and make your life miserable. So, I resort to blogging rather than interacting with the bank directly. Let me move on from financial services to telecommunications, another screamingly hot sector in India. I don’t how many of you have visited an Airtel Relationship Center (or any relationship center for any Indian telco).

The ones I have tried visiting are filled with either incompetent people who feel that you are a bother if you disturb their mobile phone play time (typically they are fooling around with apps on their own mobile phones), or the ARCs remind of the New Delhi railway station platform. It’s each man for himself, and the idea of a queue, and discipline simply does not exist. Let me give you the reason for my annoyance and the visit to an ARC in the first place. I, of course, have a data plan with Airtel. Some time ago for some unknown reason, I could no longer surf the web on my phone (which is a nokia E71). I was getting a connection or a packet data error. I went to an ARC, and once I fought my way to the so-called relationship manager (remember, this is a “relationship” center), he told me to dial 121, which is the Airtel customer service number.

Once I went through the IVR maze, I was given cryptic instructions, which required an sms to be sent, and then another 3-4 steps required, depending on whether you wanted to use Airtel Live! Or Mobile Office. I could not get it to work. When I tried calling back, the customer service person asked me to review the parameters that I had in the settings menu and indicated that they were fine. So, he himself, was puzzled. So, the visit to the ARC, as well as the customer service phone call were exercises in futility.

Funny enough, I happened to be at the Airtel HQ in Gurgaon a couple of months ago, and during lunch was casually speaking with some of the management team asking if they could help. Much to my surprise, they did not know the process themselves. Then, I also happened to be next to an Airtel kiosk at another airport. I approached the person and he, of course, told me that he only knows how to activate on a pre-paid plan, not a post paid one. Again, my natural reaction was “what the @#$%”! At that point, I realized that everyone in India has their “ramu or chotu”, someone who at one time might have been an office boy, or a driver but has now escalated to a “jugaad techie” (copyright: 2010. Mohanjit Jolly).

An example of such a person is my kids’ tennis instructor who actually cannot read or write (only finished 3rd grade), but has taught himself tennis, is a mobile phone guru, and knows more about the iPhone than my techie friends in silicon valley. He was able to help with my Airtel dilemma in about 15 seconds.

The purpose of describing the above two scenarios, and the title of this write-up is simply the following: India is going through unprecedented growth in consumerism and especially in very

consumer-heavy sectors – financial services, telecommunications, healthcare, education etc. The tide is definitely rising and as the saying goes, “rising tide is definitely lifting all boats”. The point being that whether it’s ICICI, Airtel, or really most other companies of that ilk, customer service seems to be the last thing on their collective minds. Right now, the single biggest KRA for everyone from the CEO on down seems to be growing the customer base, assets under management, number of branches etc. etc. Customer service and subsequent customer retention, I don’t think are that important right now. I suppose they can afford to be that way because in almost every category demand is exceeding supply or capability of these very companies to be able to handle the customer load. Right now that mindset might be fine, but in the long run, these services (airtime, savings accounts etc.) will be extremely commoditized, and what will truly matter to customers is service.

Perhaps that’s in part what again differentiates a developing economy with a developed one. In a developing economy, consumers often get to experience something for the first time (mobile phones, formalized banking, organized healthcare etc.), so simply getting access to these services is a thrill. In a developed economy, access is a commodity, switching costs are low, and customer service and customer delight become the true differentiators and retention tools. Based on my ICICI experience, I am staying with them long enough to use up my reward points, but am opting for American Express which is just as expensive as a visa signature card, but I know that customer service that is in the Amex DNA and that I will be taken care of, and that I won’t need a BSNL line to be able to avail a concierge. Similarly, in the telecom sector, I am dissatisfied with Airtel’s customer service, but don’t think there are other options since the stories I hear about other providers are not all that different. But if there were an “amex in the telco sector”, I would opt for it immediately.

Bottom line: many companies in the Indian consumer sectors are truly “fat, dumb and happy”, because they can afford to be. The numbers are so staggering that their sole focus is on “landgrab” and adding more and more customers without perhaps a remote inclination or ability to focus on customer service. There is a façade of customer service that seems to be prevalent in all marketing materials, but unfortunately, based on my experience (and I may be an anomaly), it’s a prime case of overpromising and under-delivering. The current situation definitely presents an incredible opportunity for forward thinking institutions to create a fantastic niche for themselves by targeting discerning customers who value customer service and are actually willing to pay for it.

Over time, as more of more of the Indian populus becomes more sophisticated (and they will), and India starts trending from a developing to a developed economy, the premium paid for delightful customer service will only go up. At that point, those who have focused on customer service now will have established leadership, and today’s supposedly sophisticated companies will be playing catch-up. Aside: I apologize if I have ticked off folks from ICICI and Airtel.

That was not the intent. The intent simply was to create awareness of what I feel is wrong with the system, and truly stellar long term sustainable enterprises take the criticism well, and work to continuously improve themselves, which I expect the above entities to absolutely do.


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