The Customer is King

I recently read through “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh who started, the worlds largest shoe store, and it surprised me how quickly the company multiplied around a simple decision – be customer focused. It’s almost cliche when a company says they are customer focused or care about their employees however at Zappos it’s genuine.

At one point within the company they were debating whether to outsource customer service, but they decided it was a core function of the company and that should never be outsourced. That decision is what defines Zappos today. It’s not some new technology they created, it’s not some cool application they coded, it’s just basic customer interaction in helping a customer with their buying needs.

Have you heard this story before? I have, it’s called Nordstrom. Nordstorm is a large department store chain in the US that was known for their customer service back in the day (I don’t know about today, have not visited in years). Like Zappos they also wrote a book documenting their path called “The Nordstrom Way to Customer Service Excellence.” In one story, a customer wanted a refund for tires that were bought.  The salesperson refunded the money to the customer even though Nordstrom does not sell tires.  I’m guessing the salesperson figured they could take the tires to the actual store and get a refund and then payback Nordstrom. I’ve noticed more and more companies emulating the Zappos model in the apparel vertical including Bonobos. They have a heavy internet presence but if you need assistance you can call them on the phone and talk to a “customer service ninja” who can guide you through the process.

As I mentioned before Zappos was looking to outsource their customer service department and of course India was at the top of the list.  If Paul in the US can help a customer at $15 an hour, then someone named “Paul” in India can do the same thing much cheaper, it’s all about labor arbitrage. So naturally you would think Indians living in India would have access to amazing customer service everywhere…WRONG.

It’s almost a given that you can expect poor customer service in India, whether it’s a store, restaurant or your mobile phone provider. I believe it’s because there is so much pent up demand that these companies are just trying to scale to meet the demand.  At some point when the market is saturated you will see companies offer true customer service.  In the meantime the companies that are providing a high level of customer service are growing exponentially such as Flipkart.  Flipkart is what happens when Zappos meets Amazon, they are an online bookstore with excellent customer service. I swear by them, I might goto Crosswords to browse books but I usually end up going online and buying them from Flipkart.  I recently order a book on a Monday night and by Tuesday evening I had it in my hands…that customer experience just blew me away.

I would love to see a company like Bonobos or J. Hilburn start in India, considering India has such a rich textile history. Imagine the customer service they could provide by sending a “tailor/ninja” to the customers house, take measurements and then show various fabrics available. Then come back a week later for a trial fitting and then deliver the final product in a couple weeks. This would also solve the issue I always hear from entrepreneurs that getting commercial space in Bombay is very expensive and throws every business model out the window.

Honestly, there is no excuse for an Indian company to provide sub par customer service today.  With all the technology that is available via forums, Facebook, Twitter, help desk software, blogs, podcast, etc…you can constantly stay in touch with your customers and find out if they are happy or have issues. By getting a customer addicted to your customer service you have locked in a customer for life. Granted you might end up targeting early adopters but these same early adopters will tell all their friends and family about their experience just like I did with Flipkart.

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  1. Good points Manish. I hv heard a lot about this Tony Hseih book-will try to get hold of it. I do not think lack of customer service in India is linked to availability (or not) of relevant technology. Some Indian businesses, esp family owned do it the old fashioned way. But more often than not, service is lacking and I feel could be attributed partly to:
    1. Foremost, as you rightly say, there is so much demand, even shoddy product/service is finding a relevant buyer(buckets of consumers at various price points). There is more margin of error, so they are focused on growth, than on optimizing current customer base.
    2. For reasons above, businesses prefer to spend money elsewhere or consider that hiring people to take care of customer queries/issues is a ‘waste’. For them its still peripheral. I am actually surprised to see the (bad) quality of most Indian websites- when supposedly we help design other world class sites.
    3. Cultural and trust factors are also at play. For a lot of US businesses you quoted, they work on the premise of trust and fairness (that when customers complain, they have genuine issues; and if they want to return a product they are not just misusing the facility). Many businesses in India fear that they will be taken for a ride if they extended similar flexibilities or consideration. As a culture, we like to complain a lot but don’t necessarily put our money where our mouth is! (i.e. pay higher price for better service)
    As you would by now know, in US, you are taken at face value and are innocent unless proven otherwise. In India, its guilty unless proven otherwise! Comes with having to compete with millions.

    But nevertheless, as people experience world class service elsewhere, they will start expecting and demanding it in their day to day interactions too. Hotels/Airlines are at the vanguard of this- having honed their chops servicing Intl tourists, you find the customer service way better than in US (I am sure you appreciate the smile and food at Jet Airways vs the peanuts and the attitude at an American airliner these days)

    Keep sharing,
    -Manish Jain (your namesake with a geography swap!)

  2. India is really one of the fast growing economy and there is tremendous boom in e-commerce industry.At other end internet usage has terrifically increased during past three years.At the moment there are more than 71 million internet users and still increasing. However customer is the king for any industry but trust regarding online shopping is not that much in country like US or UK.Recently I purchased a book from online shopping store I had same experience which I had in London while shopping on Amazon. At the same time they are providing very nice customer service. However I need to explore other e-commerce site as well but I believe that it will take some time for every Indian customer to accept online shopping as a routine task as if in advance country like US.

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