Customer Service: A question of a Chicken or the Eggs?
Commercially speaking India is a fascinating experience. But it can be a confronting place to be for a marketeer. Ordinarily, on a day to day basis, consumers filter out a lot of the hype in product and service marketing and, knowing this, marketeers are slack on holding themselves to account on the veracity of their claims. The end result is a lot of overblown hyperbole and corresponding low expectations. When you come to India you - as if born yesterday - fall victim to a new gulf between claim and reality. You sign up for the "deluxe" room only to find it doesn't have hot water. Business in India has very ancient traditions obviously, and while most focus today is on the call centre and IT industries, India has been open for international business since before Romans were buying spices on the Keralan coast.
In such a spiritual culture, karma plays such an important part in the way business is done. As a culture of pay-it-forward, reciprocation and transparency begins to rule amid a new social media world, a lot can be learnt from India about how to conduct business in this new environment. While traveling in India for a few weeks, I've had the opportunity to observe and learn some things that can inform the business of online and particularly social communication.
Of course, like anywhere, there's a lot that is wrong with the way business is done here. Just as a Rikshaw driver might tell you he does know of the destination you want to go to just to get the fare, only to admit later that he does not; so Indian IT services firms have been known to talk-up their skill set in an area to win the business, only to reveal later on that costs have blown out because they did not understand the scope of the project.
What so often prevents a business from poor conduct, aside from the law of course, is accountability. I have seen that some operators here - with a belief that bad business conduct will be repaid by the cosmos by way of bad luck - better understand that a good online reputation based on excellent customer service is repaid in more business. Equally treating customers badly or dishonestly leads to consequences for their online reputation by way of negative feedback that visits bad Karma on the bottom line.
Echoing the methodology of the "experience architect", in a world of social media the only way to manage online reputation is through actual conduct on the ground. As is often said, the character of a brand is no longer dictated by the messages emanating from the marketing department, but is instead the sum of the online conversations about that brand.
For example, in Jaipur we found someone who understands this at a more sophisticated level than even most blue chip, stock-exchange-listed corporations. But this wasn't a Harvard Business school graduate, Janu (of Junu's Private Tours) can't read or write English. But he implicitly understands that not only his customer service but also that of those services he recommends, reflects directly on his personal brand online. Despite his unfamiliarity with English, he is acutely aware of how his TripAdvisor, Blog and other social testimonials figure in where he ranks on Google and what he must do to not only grow that, but protect its positivity. Knowing how aware of this he is makes him more trustworthy and credible. He knows he can't afford to inspire bad feedback online, and knowing he knows that increases your confidence in the integrity of his word.
But as a result, in a country where it often feels that nothing comes for free, Janu understands the pay-it-forward rule. He routinely checked in with us as we travelled the road trip around Rajasthan he designed and arranged for us to check we were happy; and it was second nature to invest his time into going out of his way to ensure a positive experience, even - and sometimes expecialy - when there wasn't an earn in it for him. He had a great way of describing his ethic in terms of chicken and egg. He said he wanted the eggs, not the chicken - whereas he felt many hawkers in India were happy to slay the chicken for an immediate win; he conversely was happy to keep the chicken and get eggs into the future. Too much modern business seeks to slay the chicken and doesn't consider the future eggs.
A good example of the chicken mentality is another Indian experience we had. In search of a particular kind of memory card reader, we sought the location of a branded-goods shopping centre where we might find a well-stocked electronics shop. We stumbled across bold claims of a new "Ashok Cosmos Mall" in Agra and we set off across town to it. After the typical arduous danger and fume filled journey, we arrived at a venue that could boast only a small supermarket and a Macdonald's. None of the shops had been filled. What we had read was vision and hype. But what did the owner care? The marketing had worked, and would continue to work when the shops were filled. Our disappointment was not an issue. This is he traditional attitude of most modern businesses. The Old Regime. Your disappointment is not an impact on the bottom line - as long as you don't share it with anyone. We were a dead and eaten chicken - but there will be no eggs.
Except in the world of social media. Here, bad experience becomes the brand-defining experience online. That is why future business will have to follow the Janu model and not the Cosmos Mall model. Architecting the experience will be more important than Architecting the message.