Ever since Peter Drucker said that the primary goal of any business is to acquire a (paying) customer, and accountants have repeatedly told us that keeping a customer is cheaper than trying to acquire new ones, especially in mature businesses, companies have been focusing on customer service and feedback to achieve both objectives.
However, based on my own experiences, and anecdotes one gets to hear from acquaintances in private conversations and on social media, one gets the impression that the whole system of addressing customer issues and obtaining feedback has been substantially gamed by employees.
In many cases, the “service” is a disservice, and feedback a rigmarole meant more for the internal employee database.
A few months ago, I sold my 11-year-old car and bought a new one. The sale happened on an online portal, and experience of the sale was so seamless and fast, with money arriving in the bank quickly, that I was on cloud nine for some time.
But soon after I sold the car, I kept receiving calls asking if I wanted to sell a car, often from the same company that bought it in the first place.
Clearly, customer data has not been updated or even leaked to others not authorised to receive it.
Next came the new car buying experience.
The car, for which I had to wait a couple of months due to the chip shortage, was preceded by enquiries from some members of the dealership trying to sell me cars other than the one I had opted for, apparently because some other customers who had booked them failed to collect.
No problem with that, but once I took delivery of my chosen car, the feedback system was elaborate and detailed, with more than 20-25 questions on aspects related to the car delivery experience.
I gave top marks on 95 per cent of the queries (10/10), but just to make it look like sincere feedback, on one or two issues I rated the service either 8 or 9 on 10.
That led to an avalanche of cringe-worthy messages from the service agent involved, saying his employers would see anything less than 10/10 as poor service, and requested me to confirm that there was no deficiency in his work.
After several entreaties, I did this just to make the poor man’s HR assessment better, but one was left in no doubt that the feedback system is being gamed, either by employees themselves, or by supervisors who may use these ratings to target people they don’t like.
Companies sometimes seek too much feedback for no apparent purpose, possibly because these feedback sessions are automated.
I once called a pest control service to book an appointment, and later rescheduled it through an app, but both times I immediately got a feedback link. And when I didn’t do so, someone called again to seek needless feedback for something that didn’t need high-quality feedback.
I bought a water purifier some time back, and soon I was called several times by people claiming to work with the company for installation.
That may well be true, but each time they called, they wanted me to confirm my details, including my email address, which they already had.
One wonders why the company that uses these service agents to make such calls do not know that one cannot ask for such personal details. You have to read out the details you already have, and merely ask for my confirmation that the details are correct.
At one point, when I was desperate to get the gadget installed, I called back one of those numbers, and no one picked up. Obviously, some numbers are only for outgoing calls, and calling back will get you nowhere.
On another occasion, I was seeking to cancel my membership of a time share holiday company despite having 15 more years of “free” stays left. All I wanted was an exit, despite the huge loss to me.
But it took me a year and four months to finally get what I wanted even though I was crystal clear why I wanted out: I had no use for the time share any more.
In between, I went on receiving endless emails telling me my matter was under consideration, and tele-calls from the company repeatedly asked me why I wanted to quit the membership.
Reasons once given are seldom read before the next call comes. And SMSes offering me discounts come even today, long after the membership has been closed. The do-not-call registry simply does not work.
A few months ago, my housing society got a notice from a piped gas company that on a certain appointed day, gas supplies would be shut for a few hours to check for leaks.
But it came with a warning: if anyone was not there when they came, the gas supply would be cut off, and requests for reconnection would take at least two working days.
What kind of customer service is this where a company threatens its customers that if they are not found at home at a particular time, its services will be stopped?
In the end, it was discovered the leak checks had already been done a few months earlier; the agency doing these checks had forgotten to log them into the company’s database, and hence it was assumed this hadn’t been done. Much heart-burn over nothing.
Problem-solving over service deficiencies are even more traumatic sometimes. You call the company, and you get straight into the IVR, which asks for all details, and if you press one button wrong, you start all over again.
After several tries, once you are on wait for a human to attend to your woes, you get to hear a lot of music and receive assurances that though “all our operators are busy, your call is important to us. Please hold or call after some time.”
Most of the time you hang on, for experience tells us that later is not always better.
What is most annoying is the fact that often the operator does his or her best, but is still unable to sort out your problem.
The call is usually preceded by an announcement that “This call may be recorded for monitoring or training purposes”, but usually there is no evidence of this happening.
Maybe this is because call centre executives don’t stay long enough to get trained, or their supervisors are tired of listening to complaint calls and just handle it like a chore, for feeding that voracious tiger called customer database.
I did not mean this to be a personal crib session, and the reason I have not named any names is to share these real stories of customer disservice so that something can be done to improve services, not to blame anyone for my own issues with the company. That would be abuse of this column for achieving personal ends.
Where do I find customer delight? Usually, it is in the purchase process itself, and in showrooms and dealerships, even online retailers.
The problem happens once you have bought something and then, god forbid, you need support or servicing.
Companies need to get their customer service and feedback act right. Being polite and friendly is not the same as good service.
You have to address and solve the real issues customers face, not offer them polite platitudes.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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