Life in UK – TFL.GOV is fabulous!

A great way to get people here in India to think you are unhinged is to start a conversation with ” I think a local government body can provide good customer service!”

If ever that award was instituted, Local government body and Good Customer Service would easy win nominations here for Oxymoron of the Century

But some places and institutions manage making the utterances of these 6 words in the same sentence possible.

Here is the email 2 days ago I got that started me thinking on that happy tangent.

I envy you if you read this email note and went ” So? what’s the big deal ? TFL did what it had to do.”

If your thinking was on the above lines, you most likely live in a enviable part of the world. Because here, this kind of email, if they ever got it and read it, would at once alert people that Leonardo’s character has drugged them for an inception attack. For NO WAY in the real world would a local govt body show this level of care and commitment to it’s tax paying citizens. Most agencies here have a motto about what it should do to it’s customer and that motto rhymes with ducking.

TFL London operates one of the slickest and most helpful websites for sheer utility I have ever come across (and I surf a LOT).  And this in the same city which also headquarters British Airways. So all the more commendable.

This email demonstrates thought, care, advance planning and a fantastic scenario anticipation process over there at TFL HQ. Envy to all London residents.

And to those shoulder shruggers who want to take it all for granted, please come to Delhi NCR and spend a week here. Or even better, go use the Bombay version of the Tube. I promise you, you will GET this post on Day 2.

Airtel vs O2 – A Lesson in Customer Service

We who scrounge in this Kafkaesque spiritual and cultural desert in Big City India still have a few things going for us. Customer Service. I know. I’ll wait for you to finish your ROFLing.
Allow me.

Last month I had an O2 pre paid number in London for a month. Worked fine. Can’t really complain. Won’t praise it but….. It was Meh. But I had a query about Hotspot services that I wanted resolved an I thought I would speak to someone in support.

You know how they say particle physics is tough. This is tougher. Really. It cannot be done. Like going into and then actually exiting from a blackhole. It cannot be done. I went to the website to look for a number. Nothing. It cannot be done. UK (or maybe any and all first world countries where labour is expensive) is making it impossible for a customer to speak to a human with a pulse. If the website doesn’t answer your query, forget it. It cannot be done.
Thing is here I was, looking to GIVE O2 more money so I could use the HOTSPOT service if only someone could just help me understand the basics of it. They made that impossible.

Cue Airtel in India.

Airtel. “Great when it is working. Good luck when it isn’t.” Default universal motto for most firms here in NCR. Anyway I landed into IGI, got into Meeru Cab (is it me or are their cars now coming off the Bollywood stunt car parking lot AFTER live action shooting), and in about 9 minutes I called Airtel, got through to a rep, sorted the issue and in less than 10 minutes I had hotspot. 10 minutes. Something I could not get o2 to help me with in 21 days! This is exactly why I have been with Airtel for a decade plus. they probably have 20X the customer base of O2 and still 9 mins to get a issue resolved with a real person.
This is damn bloody good! Let me forever remember this incident every single time people moan about the sucky customer service here. Somethings in the third world is as good if not better than the first.

On Hiring : Hire for Interesting, not ‘Normal’

When an organization is screening a potential candidate for a customer service manager role, what is the hiring team looking for ?

Interviewing is a hit and miss game and after 200 of them recently, I have sort of given up on them as a dependable tool in filtering people. Too many false positives. And the cues I took to fall into the false positive pond are treated as ‘reliable signaling markers’ by most hiring teams.

– prior experience in that role in another company in the same industry

– a graduate degree or mba ?

– basic ‘comm’ skills (whatever that means)

– ‘experience’ handling people

I think next time here are three qualifiers I am going to impose on the potential hire who is going to manage a group of CSRs ?

– have you travelled to more than 4 countries outside of India in the last decade ?

– have you read more than 3 books in the last 6 months ?

– have you eaten 6 dishes not native to this country in the last 2 years ?

Risk aversion in hiring is one of the most potent ‘vices’ a company unconsciously practices and something that never shows up on the ‘risks to business’ section of the K10. I can bet the majority of the Fortune 500 companies that were listed in 1962 in US and who no longer exist today REALLY went for the norm most of the time.

I think if we want creativity, fresh thinking and a non-standard out of the box approach that is going to define the next decade of customer service here, it will be wise to hire the smart and the interesting versus the ‘industry norm’.

The Norm has a very short lifespan and winner actively shun it or redefine it. Remember the Apple Motto ‘Think Different’. Applies here.

The likely connection between Profitability and Good Customer Service

ka-ching! : An imitation of the sound made by a cash register, used when someone’s action will result in more money.
Wow! : In this context, the exhaled sound from a delighted customer walking away from the transaction. Usually precedes the Ka-Ching.

Click to enlarge

So the greats (Amazon, Zappos, Apple, Southwest) easily manage both on the above two sounds with reassuring frequency.
The Losers (Go Air India!…or any state managed or funded institution) easily manage the other end of the equation. Communism is an ode to this quadrant.

Interestingness as always is on Quadrants 2 and 4 (top left and bottom right)

Your local bookstore (Coffee shop? Lending library ?) may not be raking in the moolah but you and I sure damn love them don’t we ?! (remember Meg Ryan’s store in ‘You Got Mail’ ?)

And when you have a quasi-monopoly or a govt granted one, profitability can be had even if customer respect is forever elusive. On a longitudinal scale, sustainability is hardest I suspect for THIS category.

And the incompetent managers of the Air Indias of the world need to know pumping money without any real focus on improving customer service is a definition of ‘hopeless financial black hole’ (heard the phrase ‘Putting house before cart?’)

Now my last contention is the Greats have a different more subtle challenge. Everyone falls for the universal lie that a profitable company just totally needs to grow (bloat) on and on and keep at this growth. So the profits fund that. But great customer service is based on a very ‘intimate’ hard won culture nurtured by the early folks and it gets more diffused due to this growth. A real paradox. Few companies can manage the balance. MOST lose the way somewhere. You want to be as small as possible and as big as necessary. The puzzle is not about scale; it’s about scalability. Read Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1’ for more on what happens when original culture binds no more and you can’t scale.

So now this above is THE challenge to the winning CEO, not just dealing with the more easy decision of where to open the next outlet.

Evolution of the Experience

Earlier in India, universally, customer service was shoddy. Out of 100 companies that served you, you could bet 90 just didn’t give a damn. Esp if it was not for a luxury product. Like just another random restaurant. a railway ticket. the phone company.

Today, it’s 50-50. And I find this exciting. We have come a long way. I twittered that the landing into Delhi was bumpy and someone in Spicejet read the tweet and called me and investigated the episode and gave me an update. HDFC’s customer email address is managed by a smart caring team. Flipkart blows me away with how good and fast they are. Justdial, Meeru and EasyCabs customer service response time probably puts Amazon,Zappos and Apple to shame.

Airtel is a 50-50. ICICI is 50-50. Sometimes you meet a great rep, sometime a buffoon.

Air India, Indian Railways and The Govt are just proof there is nothing than cannot be bad and then made worse .

This is an exciting time to be involved. You have a chance to make a huge difference by helping the good get better because no company is more sincere than the one that is good and trying to improve. Really trying. They need the help and you as the customer owe it to them and the guy behind you in line (your neighbor, your brother in law, your kid, your mom) to help the enterprise go from good to AWESOME.


So tweet about what they else could be doing, email the customer email ID, blog about the experience, call the helpline. Don’t be malicious about a bad episode. Be constructive. And rave when they get it right.

Just don’t think your responsibility and the relationship is over when you are done making the payment.

Hacking the Service Code

‘Smart’ pundits who love climaxing to epigrams sometimes dub China the ‘world’s factory’ and India, it’s ‘back office’. Although I would contend this is an irritating reductionism masking an aversion to in-depth research or independent thinking or worse, both, the economic nom de plumes can be taken as a go-point for some mental base jumping.

I am going to focus on India’s moniker here: Back Office to the world.

If we remotely aspire to get anywhere close to being dubbed ‘Good’ in that busy food court, we who toil in its white collar kitchens have to dish out two things well :
1# Consistently good customer service (to both customers calling from Boston and Bombay)
2# In an accent and tone that is readily understandable to the customer who is calling in.

On #1 I have now started wondering what is the process that leads someone to be good or great at customer service ? …….Is it having a role model in the workplace who you can model after and leech knowledge off ? Is it being exposes to said good service that allows you to understand it and dish it out when it is your turn to carry the water ? Is it exposure from international first world travel and targeted reading ? Or is it just smarts melded to a thin rule book dangled over some delicious promissory carrots to the good and the great in the area ?

I am slowly becoming skeptical about accepted wisdom that it can be taught in a 50 by 25 beige walled classroom with a 46MB, 112 slides power point deck by a 28 year old girl of dubious credentials and limited real world curiosity. But then Southwest, Zappos and Apple are doing something right that gets them to the top of that enviable Everest. Even if it is simply hiring the right people who are plug and play in that area.

If India wants to dethrone the reigning champions of the CS game (U.S.A) we have to hack this code and pirate the plagiarized innards of the process to the capable and the interested.

Make Complaining Painless for Customers

Feedback is called the Breakfast of Champions. How easy do you make it for your customer to give you feedback ? How easy is it for you to give feedback to your favorite brands ?

If the process of giving feedback is onerous or exhausting, and your excuse is ‘Our business model is complicated and spread across a huge geography’ I recommend you read up on Zappos and Amazon and how they ended up where they are today. Remember that pithy saying: If you want to find a shortcut way to do a job, give it to a lazy man – he will always finish the job with a minimum of energy output. Make it so that the laziest fan of your product/service can give you feedback with no excuse. Disclaimer : Of course if you are a seller of shoddy products or services you are most likely not too keen to make it easy for your unfortunate ‘victims’ (they are victims more than they are customers) to get in touch with you. Also if you are government entity you positively don’t give a fish. And the very worst thing you can do is install one of those eternally optimistic ‘suggestion boxes’ that will be used to collect cigarettes butts and paper waste for all its life. That was last a good idea in 1967.

Jeff Immelt, GE CEO gave this advice to a deputy: “Spend a ton of time with your customers. Especially when you’re new, the first thing you should do is go out to customers and ask them how you compare with competitors, how your service is, what they think of your products. ….(inside the company)…people tend to get enamored with your title, and people want to look good in front of you. Customers will give you the reality. They don’t care about your title, they just want value. You’ll never get anything straighter than from a customer.”

Now, India, following a global trend, is selling a record number of smart phones. Customers are getting wired faster than ever here. Are you now making it easy for them to reach out to you now that they have some cool, always connected tools to do it ? How easy is it for your customer armed with a BlackBerry/iPhone/Smartphone to email you feedback that helps you get even better at what you do ? And remember, loading your bloated flash heavy company web address on a Smartphone on GPRS/EDGE/3G is a painful exercise on the best of days so an email address that pops right off would be a very smart move if you want lots of feedback to improve your breakfast. Make it a priority. Better still get a twitter handle and a facebook fan page that is monitored by living breathing young marketing whizzes at your company.

Your feedback mechanism should factor in laziness and RESPECT it when the feedback process is being designed.

But what if you are a successful, well-known brand. Do you meet the standard? 4 days ago I was waiting for a train in a random metro station here in Delhi and I noticed something. Too few signboards at the station to tell customers INSIDE the train which station they are at. I love the Metro. And so wanted to pass this feedback to help them get even better at their customer experience. So I googled ‘mail address for customer feedback to DMRC’. Landed me on the ‘contact us’ page all right but no email address. So I called the helpline. I got a bored guy who gave me what looked like a very dubious email address ( I emailed him anyway.

No response from Anuj so far.

I thought about the episode and decided to really test this theory on how easy Indian brands compare against the best in making it easy for a customer to get in touch with them to possibly help the brand get better. And who better to have on your side with that project than you OWN customers. Did you know MOST of India’s top brands assume you ONLY have a grievance!!

The Project :

First I googled the name of the Top 10 brands on the planet.

The experts in this, at tell me they are :

  1. Coca Cola
  2. IBM
  3. Microsoft
  4. Google
  5. GE
  6. Mcdonalds
  7. Intel
  8. Nokia
  9. Disney
  10. 10.  HP


Next I googled the name of the Top 10 brands in India. Brand Equity (of the venerated Economic Times newspaper) tells me India’s top 10 most trusted brands 2010 are :

  1. Nokia
  2. Colgate
  3. Lux
  4. Dettol
  5. Britannia
  6. Lifebouy
  7. Clinic Plus
  8. Pond’s
  9. Fair & Lovely
  10. 10.  Pepsodent

Source :

Then I typed the EXACT same search term for all of these 20 brands. Search string was ’email address for customer feedback for [brand name]’

Added ‘India’ after the brand name for Indian firms.

ex: email address for customer feedback for Disney

ex: email address for customer feedback for Lux India

I added India after the brand names in India to help make the search success chances sharper.

I avoided any site not directly affiliated to the company domain name. Here I noticed a company called GetHuman in US that really tries hard to make it easy for someone to get in touch with a human being in a company.

All searches was run from on a Firefox version 3.6.16 browser.

Here are the results of my project (click on the image to enlarge it):

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

And since I used nothing but a laptop and decent web browser anyone can try this for their brands.

Interesting tit bits :

Coke and Zappos both use a company called to collect feedback and the site looks very robust. Someone is doing something right at

Indian brands are appalling in how difficult they make it for a customer to get in touch with them. They assume you are a complainer right from the start! Only Pepsodent and Pond’s are web 2.0 savvy and Colgate and Fair and Lovely hate you.

If Jeff Immelt is right and if you really never get anything straighter than from a customer, how can you make it easier for her ? Think about that today.

Oh and did I mention India became the Cricket World Champions last night !!

Trust Your Customer

I shop occasionally with Amazon and iTunes online but I am a Über-customer of Airtel, India’s communication behemoth. I have been with them over a decade and use pretty much every damn service they provide : Mobile Service. Broadband Service. BlackBerry Service. iPTV service. GPRS service. Landline service and two mobile numbers. They sell it and I’ll most likely buy it. Their service uptime is phenomenal.

Two days ago I made a purchase in error on Amazon. I bought a book I didn’t intend to for my Kindle. Realized it after an hour or so that I had done this. I emailed Amazon explaining how I goofed up and if they would kindly refund me. An amazon rep emailed in about 17 minutes telling me my refund has been processed and wishing me a good day. Something similar happened with iTunes a few weeks ago. Response time measured in the minutes in that case too.

About 3 weeks ago I tried to pay an Airtel bill through ‘MCHEK’, an Airtel bill payment system that debits your card. I always pay my Airtel bills through mChek. Very slick service and darn convenient. But this time I got an error message saying their payment platform was down. So I had to wait a day or so before it was up and running and unfortunately I was late paying my bill. They promptly added a ‘late payment fee’ when I paid the bill.

I emailed Airtel to reverse this fine they charged me as : 1# it was because of THEIR platform I was late 2# As a faithful decade long customer I deserved some better treatment and trust from them. (“Sir, you say it was down, good enough for us, here is the refund, have a good day!”)

Airtel has wonderful TECHNOLOGY but like most Indian firms, they think the race ends there, when the hardware is in place (or the building, or that gleaming foyer). But investment in customer service probably ranks in the P&L column ‘Pipe dreams of 2056 A.D’; A moron from their customer service called me, who displayed little IQ and understood even less. He said something along the lines of “PROVE TO ME SIR YOU ARE NOT LYING and we MAY consider reversing that charges. MAYBE!!”.

I think most customer service calls should just go straight to an IVR that truthfully intones “We’re sorry. The person you are trying to reach is unable to give a fu*k right now. Please find someone who cares and try again.” Like Marvin the robot would say in Hitchhikers Guide.

I like Airtel. I do. But they can so up their game and decimate the competition if they understood that trust is a two-way street. If you want the customer to trust YOU, then you damn well start trusting the customer. Treating folks who keep you in business like they are trying to bankrupt you out of it is a great way to ensure they defect to the firm that doesn’t.

Box 11 below nails it.

The farce that is Security Theatre

EVERY DAMN TIME. I get frisked every damn time I enter a mall, a theatre, a hotel here in NCR (delhi-gurgaon-noida region). This here, as the debate rages over in the US, where many are very vocally deriding the silly invasive body scans and accusing of it just being security theater. If those earnest checks over there by US Homeland Security with the available funds and resources in that country is derided as lame and unnecessary, what hope do we have here with our barely literate security guards ?

My gym is inside a mall and the guards at the mall entrance don’t even bother opening the bag I walk in with. They frisk my body though. Because I am the dumb terrorist who will strap it to the groin ?? I think in 5 months all they have checked is if my gyming is making my buttocks firmer. A precursory press of the gluteus maximus is what I get every damn day. I suspect they even have a schedule. It’s the left cheek on even days and right on odd. So many many times I, on an impulse, wanted to see a movie but the ‘no bags policy’ drove me away to my dependable bit torrent. My money stayed in my wallet when it could have been in the theatre owners.

You don’t drive too far in your vehicle in the city you live in not because the roads don’t exist or the car is uncomfortable but because the hassle is directly proportional to the level of that activity. Testicular cupping without purpose is fun for no one. I hope. Ultimately, we are not peddling security. We are peddling the illusion of it . And it still costs a lot to mount and run, it is pretty ineffective and it annoys and drives away core constituency members. The money could be better spent on less intrusive technology that is just as effective. Read up on how Israel managers airport security.

So know how to pivot.  Spread the idea that shopping, movie watching and other mundane activities are safe and easy options. The odds are it is.

The dilemma of hypersuccess

Since some of us were naive students asked to mug the begineer concepts epoused by Kotler, we students were de facto led to believe that the success of a product or service we sold is a good thing. More success is a great thing and hyper success the holy grail.

Now place yourself at customer# 53912482 of ….. Bombay Metro at 8 am, Uber, The City of Bangalore/Dhaka, The Woodstock concert,  tourist traps like Venice/Taj/Eiffel tower/Lady Liberty/Times Square, AT&T’s data service in Manhattan or the evening commute on TfL.

These are all ‘products’ that became, in various degrees, hypersuccessful and this actually lowered the tone of the user experience. And the users colluded to buy the product en mass, without conscious coordination, most ‘product managers’ fail to anticipate or prepare for this outcome. They are usually busy planning for the other scenario (what if NO ONE comes to the dance!!?!)

I suspect there is a threshhold in the lifecycle of a popular service/product when its supporting systems’ ability to deliver  a consistent user experience in line with the original mission statement is compromised and the product experience turns negative on account of this mass assault. Mapped out I think it will look like this :

As a owner/manager we need to work not just at ensuring we plan to prevent a scenario of a too little user base (call this a ‘flop’ or a ‘dud’) but also map what the infrastructure is  capable of handing the upper end and still delivering on the intended user experience. Because somethings sometimes become too successful for their own good.