Thursday, June 02, 2011

Kasht-kar-ani-mar = Customer


Yesterday’s Mint carried a news (Read article by clicking here ) about Vodafone sending legal notice to a customer for “defaming” the company on Facebook. The customer, in turn, has threatened to go to the consumer court and also file criminal proceedings against the company.

I am not sure about the merits or the specific details of the case. But, to me it appears that, Vodafone’s action is not just directed at this single customer but is also intended as a warning signal to other irate users and beligerent customers not to mess with them. As one of my Twitter buddies quipped – it would seem that they have changed their credo from “ready to help” to “ready to sue”. I am also reasonably certain than many consumer and service companies will be watching from the sidelines the outcome this wrangle with active interest.

Packing a punch

The news had a minor import for someone like me as well (and, would make the wife worry silly after she reads this post) – beacuse I am also one of those vocal customers – who doesn’t take a major lapse in service silently. Email and Social networks have made lodging complaints easier from the days – a cartoon in Punch once beautifully portrayed – when you could only fume through the ears and curse “Wait, till I write a Letter to the Editor of The Times”.


PPC vs CPC

I would like to believe that I am not a habitual cribber and have no aspirations for becoming a ‘consumer activist” (though – I know some have turned it into a very paying profession). But I am a stickler for service. A friend told me, in airlines parlance I would be classified as a PPC rather than a CPC - the former standing for “potentially problematic customer” and the latter being “chronically problematic customer”.

adat se majboor !!

What to do – adat se majboor hoon !! My mother was the favourite cousin “sister” of a large bunch male cousins whom she grew up with. And, being the only “bhagne” (Bengali for bhanja) – I was spoilt silly by all of them and , as my Dad always complained, each one gifted one of their personality traits to me. (May be I should talk about it to my shrink and then blog on it !!) The one who had probably influenced me the most – taught me to never crib about service in a tea shop and be grateful for what you receive – because it’s worth more than what you pay for. But, when it’s a five star – who charge you a bomb on the promise of a moon – they better live up to their standards. Over time – I have extended this principle beyond hospitality industries to other service providers such as airlines and banks – all of whom try to sell on the basis of “experience”, reliability, trust etc and manufacturers who guarantee “quality”.


whose call is it anyway ?


As we turned into a consumer economy and there was an explosion in the service industry – be it banks, airlines, insurance and hotels, on line shopping, travel booking – it meant a boom of the “call centre” culture. Taking a cue from their counterparts in the west – the customer service cells in companies and service providers quickly withdrew behind an impregnable wall of call centre numbers and impersonal customer service email ids. So much so – if you check the websites of many of these companies or banks – you won’t even find the postal address and general telephone number of their offices, just in case you think of sending them a letter by post or call to speak to a company official. And, about the kind of support or problem resolution you get from the call centre staff – less said the better. It is very well brought in the recent TV Commercial of a cell phone company –featuring the Kapoor brat in a stand-up comedian act.

me zozzoo ?

I for one have been a zozzoo all along - a die-hard Voda / Hutch / Max customer from the time of inception of mobile telephony in India. All our family connections (except my official Blackberry) are Voda. But, it is also a fact that – very often I have had to seek the favour of friends in the organization (or the Corporate Relationship Manager ) to resolve problems with my accounts – almost inevitably running into dead-end with Customer-Care. Recently, when I switched to 3G services for my Blackberry – I encountered a problem for which the “technical support” of our corporate service provider gave me the most ridiculous explanation. Again, I to get it sorted out only with the intervention of a friend in that company.

On a trip to London sometime back – as I came out of the tube station I received an SMS message from my bank saying that my international credit card has been blocked due to some “suspect transactions” (had used it to recharge my Oyster Card just before that) and advised me to call the customer care number (in India) for help. First, it took me a god 3 – 4 minutes to get to the customer-care executive by-passing the recorded phone menu. Then – after validating my T-Pin and answering a slew of personal identification questions – the lady at the other end asked if I could tell her the amount of the last bill statement. When I told her that, I have an automatic direct debit instruction to my bank for the card and, therefore, didn’t remember the amount of the bill – she wanted to know – what were the last 5 transactions I had made on the card. Dammit – it was 9 O’clock at night in the UK and well past midnight back home in India. So from where on earth could I get her all those details. I asked to speak to her supervisor – which she first resisted but finally got her on the line after being kept on hold for another 5 minutes. And, mind you all this was happening over an international ‘roaming’ call – which was costing me Rs 150 a minute.

Voda wins again...


On returning to India I found a Rs 6k charge on my phone bill – which in fairness I couldn’t claim as a re-imbursement from the company. So, I first spoke and then wrote to customer service. I got the same standardized reply that, I should have informed the bank before leaving the country. I couldn’t understand, what was the point of having an international credit card – if I had to intimate the bank every time I travelled abroad. Next, they would probably want me to take their permission before stepping out of my house. Exasperated – I wrote to the expat CEO of the bank. Promptly, I got an email from their Head of Consumer Banking and a call from the PR Chief and in no time my telephone bill was settled. It was just a co-incidence that, in the final analysis, it is the cell-phone company (Voda in this case) which was the biggest beneficiary.

In my own experience, when complaints per email or “feedback forms” have not elicited any response – a simple mention on Twitter and Facebook has gotten the company – an airline or a large hotel chain - moving.



David vs Goliath


I hold no brief for any rogue consumer. But, I think this case could have wide ramifications on the system of consumer complaint redressal in this country. As I have mentioned earlier – I don’t know the provocations for Vodafone to contemplate such an extreme step. But, in India – where consumer rights is still at a very nascent stage – it’s very often a David vs Goliath story. If company officials become inaccessible and customer service remains – unresponsive, insensitive or incompetent - social networks could well become a legitimate forum for airing consumer grievances. But, if the Voda case is perceived as an act of intimidation - which might encourage other companies to follow similar method of dealing with inconvenient situations – it wouldn’t augur well for development of a healthy consumer culture in the country and might call for intervention of the government or courts to protect the rights of the ordinary consumers - who would not have the might of giant corporations with formidable legal muscles.

nursery lessons

In the nursery of consumer marketing where I grew up – we were taught, for every one complaint that reaches the company there are at least a hundred dissatisfied consumers who don’t bother to call or write but simply walk away for good. So we learnt to put up with serial offenders who would routinely insert rusty iron nails into packets of tea or insects in cold drink bottles and claim compensation from the company – for the sake of the many consumers who may have faced genuine quality issues.

One may ask – how does the same system work in western countries – especially when most of the “call centers” are located in India or other 3rd world countries. The answer to me is “accountability”. Abroad, no company can get away with their responsibility towards consumers by simply “outsourcing” customer-care. They are acutely aware of where the buck stops. The fallacy here is that, sometimes Indian companies think that by 'outsourcing' the process they can also shirk off their accountability.

A senior associate working for a public-sector "mini-ratna" had once told me jokingly – their definition of a customer. For us the customer is neither a king nor a queen - he or she is just one of those millions of faceless individuals for whom life is “Kasht-kar-ani maar” - said Singhvi-saab with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eyes. Dying by banging his head against the wall - used to be the lot of the Indian Consumer till not so long ago. It would be indeed sad, if professional arrogance makes some our leading consumer companies start thinking like public sector companies used to in licence and permit raj era.

But, till then I will think twice before I tweet next time when I suffer from airline rage, cell phone gripe or hotel blues. Or simply think of the lovable voda pug as an antidote to anger !!