My water purifier, endorsed by no less than a Bharat Ratna, went kaput. None responded to our service request on the App, the only point of contact. When he did show up, the service guy was from another company and, hence, didn’t take any responsibility for the delay in service. Calls to the customer care number said they entertain only sales queries. Pre-pay was the only option to use their services.
A couple of years back, a high-end television from the biggest Japanese brand in India had a problem with its power unit. The company was legally responsible for supplying the parts but had no intention of honouring them. They insisted we buy a new TV; even writing to the global CEO didn’t help. No one expected me to invest the next few years of my life fighting a court case for a TV set, and the calculated risk worked well for them. The cost of parts is high, and access is so tricky that repairs are discouraged while encouraging new sales.
As customers, we have stopped expecting customer service from airlines or hotels after booking. Cancellations, modifications, and refunds are terms that belong to another lifetime. Even genuine data entry errors are your responsibility that you must pay for. Bank relationship managers are least interested in any help you may need; they are only interested in selling you the new product for which they have a sales target.
Most businesses today begin and end at selling. Many outsource everything else – be it product or service, manufacturing or delivery – and focus only on selling. No wonder we see a huge gap between misleading advertisements and reality.
The Genesis of all this lies in the days when beverage brands were the world’s biggest, focusing only on marketing and outsourcing everything else. The brand was their biggest asset; the consumer products were merely flavoured carbonated sugar water variations. However, most other businesses owned or at least took responsibility for the complete business cycle. They manufactured, sold and provided post-sales service. There was a human that the customer could go to in case of problems.
However, I have observed the pattern of abandoning customers once they make the sale so many times that I forced myself to ask why. Till a couple of decades ago, everyone in banks or neighbourhood stores would respect and welcome customers with smiles. They would make an effort to keep them happy for continued business. So, what has changed?
One is the transition of the payment cycle from post-paid to pre-pay. Today, we pre-pay on the promise of delivery. Once the business has received the payment, it is least bothered about you. Until the arrival of e-commerce and online transactions, we dealt with real humans instead of bots, so human trust was involved. Not to forget the negotiations we could do for price, value, quality, or quantity. Two, we usually paid after the product was in our hands or the service utilised. We used to pay for hotels at checkout, giving us some leverage to deduct for non-delivery or substandard service. Today, that advantage is wholly gone.
From a business perspective, with money in their kitty and practically no options for any refund, they have no motivation to keep you happy. Their goal is achieved before you see and feel the product or service. That is why appealing advertisements and influencers are vital for businesses. They also know that your decision to select them was dictated to a large extent by price and promotion, so there is no risk associated with ‘word of mouth’ bad publicity. Yes, ratings are there, but we all know how easily they can be influenced.
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I had booked online at a five-star property in Delhi, so I had to pre-pay for the room and the facilities I would use. It took 45 minutes to check in with no apologies or welcome drink. When I ordered room service, I was asked to pay before I ate. At that moment, I wanted the industry to remove the word hospitality from its name as there is nothing left of it anyway. The staff was indifferent and cold—something I never associated with Indian hospitality. The reason is that there was an invisible Online Travel Portal between me and the hotel handling rates and payments, creating a visible disconnect on the ground. A similar hotel in Varanasi billed me for breakfast included in my room tariff on paper, saying it was a problem with the said OTA and they could do nothing about it. Whose customer am I is a question – one I paid to or one who has to deliver? No one knows.
It reminded me of the couplet from Ramcharitmanas, where the Kevat (boatman) refuses to take ‘Utraai’ or the disembarking fee. The word carries the inherent meaning that you pay after you cross the river. Inherent here is achieving the customer’s goal and satisfaction and acknowledging the relationship that the business cherishes. But it is more meaningful when you have a direct relationship with the customer and not through some invisible algorithms that both of you are oblivious to. I hope businesses realise that, in the long run, there is more to business than just selling and getting your money.
First Published in The New Indian Express on Sep 10, 2023