Startup Service Aggregators

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Startups with business models revolving around aggregating services have their days numbered, unless they offer a significant additional benefit (than the underlying services they aggregate) to the end customer . Because without it, they’re just tech-backed middlemen looking for their share of the pie for merely connecting two parties, which is a tough ask in an increasingly connected world.

Serves you Right

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“Quality in a service or product is not what you put into it. It is what the client or customer gets out of it.”
– Peter Drucker

We recently bought a cordless telephone from Croma (for the uninitiated, Croma comes under the Tata umbrella). Took it back home and it was not working. Late next evening mom and I made another trip to the store to exchange it. We entered Croma around 8:30pm, I suppose the store is open till 9:30pm or so. The salesman at the telephones section directed us to the Customer Service Dept at the back of the store. There we were directed to a small office cabin and asked to wait.

Right outside it was what appeared to be a desk where customers were guided and assisted with easy EMI and payment options. It seemed to be bustling with activity, with 2-3 customers waiting their turn, while an enthusiastic employee briefed each customer with her available options, found work-around solutions for delivery criteria, payment modes, etc. And here we waited patiently.

A few minutes later, an employee came by and we briefed him about the faulty telephone. He informed us, matter-of-factly, that the Customer Service dept closes at 8pm, and that the representative has left for the day. He said he’d check with someone. We waited another 5-10 minutes. And all this while, the “easy-payments” desk was abuzz. I was bored and sleepy. Someone told us that we’d have to come back the next day, anytime before 8pm. Mom expressed her displeasure. That was when someone took us to a senior manager on floor who promptly approved an exchange. It was past 9.

How unforgiving the present day customer is, cannot be over-stated by any measure. Companies offering services must go the distance while delivering the same. In this case, by service I do not mean the consumer products that Croma sells, but what they offer in the name of “customer service” or “after-sales service”, call it what you may. And it isn’t about Croma. Or any other biggie for that matter.

So if you’re offering a service (read customer service), offer it completely. Or don’t offer it at all. That’s about what you choose to offer customers. It’s different if, with a stiff upper lip and folded arms, you flatly refuse prompt after-sales service during a sale. But if you do offer it, do everything necessary to make it the integral part of your bigger sales cycle.

Nobody gives a shit if you have a nice big air-conditioned waiting room with a big board that says “Customer Service” if it isn’t manned, or if you close it hours before the store closes. If you’re open to business, you have to be open to customer service as well.

Because you could find a hundred different ways to entice people to buy more, ease payments, etc. but if something doesn’t work, until it is fixed, it is not a product that doesn’t work, it’s “their” money that’s just sitting there and not doing anything for them.

Layers of BS

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Ever realized how much time we spend each day either building a thick layer of ‘unnecessary’, and/ or scraping a thick layer of it.

Rather than build quality products and services, we tend to build our own imaginary features, declare our products/ services to be the absolute best without the real stuff to prove it. Facts are covered up, hyped, or even distorted.

And customers on the other hand, while listening to people brag about their ‘best-in-the-galaxy’ offerings, have to spend most of their waking hours in a state of suspicion, of products and services they buy, of people they interact with, of ideas and suggestions they are given. Because, more often than not, there’s always a layer of bullcrap that customers are mentally scraping and making their own deductions. And usually, the more the BS, the poorer the impression they have of what you have to offer.

Sellers will ridiculously inflate prices. Buyers will be aware to some extent, and both will go through the motions till they arrive at a common ground. And it isn’t just about price. It’s the same with quality, safety, and a lot of such critical factors. One hypes it, the other either falls for it to whatever extent, or doesn’t at all.

Rather than spend time in building quality products and services, we have come to rely more on confident BS based on an illusion of supposed facts that we have created, and what we pass on to every new employee at most companies.

More emphasis is given on teaching the shortcuts, rather than on the product/ service or business know-how. Employees too would rather learn some quick fake facts about something they’re trying to sell, rather than know what they offer, inside-out; so that they could perhaps better understand it, better understand the customer, and help build an even better product/ service.

Guess the meaning of ‘learning the ropes’ has, over the years, slipped down the very same ropes.

Our innate attitude is towards avoiding that extra mile, towards quick fixes, rather than in the direction of building something that lasts.

The way I see it, that extra mile today usually saves several hundred extra miles in the long run.

Compromise? Don’t!

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Several foreign countries have been following the professional hire-n-fire policy for several years if not decades, now. We Indians on the other hand, still go strong on references and the ‘chalta hain’ (a Hindi phrase meaning ‘it’s alright, no big deal’), ‘adjust maadi’ (maadi is a Kannada word meaning ‘to do’, in this case, asking someone to adjust) and ‘ki farak paenda’ (a popular Hindi phrase meaning ‘what difference will it make’) attitude.

Do you think Infosys would have been what it is if they fed their ever-increasing hunger for talented workforce with just about any relative, friend or a friend of a friend? Sure they would’ve filled seats in a jiffy, but I strongly doubt Infy would’ve made it even half as far.

I remember some elders telling me years ago, that it’s all about networking, all about the contacts you have, etc. And sure it worked brilliantly when I was watching the Godfather movie. All the ‘offer you can’t refuse’ and ‘I will call upon you to do me a service in return’; but it doesn’t seem to have a very good effect in the corporate world. If favours are done or asked for in any manner that’s less than at what they call ‘arms’ length’, it is, without doubt, going to compromise on something.

Close friends don’t feel uncomfortable in declining requests if they have reasons to. And they feel comfortable in expressing the inability to do so, and it doesn’t in any way, affect the friendship either.

But in our rat race, we’ve gotten so programmed with the whole ‘doing a favor, asking a favor’ routine, that it comes like second nature, often at the cost of compromising on something else. Ki farak paenda after all, aye..?

And don’t you feel its way beyond time that we Indians graduated from call centre jobs. And even if we were considered good or whatever at being the so-called ‘back end’ to the world (no pun intended), I ask you now – can you think of any one company, where you’d feel genuinely satisfied with the level of service, were you to call their helpline? Hell, even I’ve worked with a call centre, years ago, so I know what I’m talking about. And believe me, in the past few years, interacting with call centres of the likes of biggies like Vodafone, I can genuinely relate to the frustration and helplessness that foreigners may have felt over the years, when we’ve struggled to ‘resolve an issue’ for them. And while I still have some hilarious memories from work at the time; the general process was flawed then, and its flawed now. So after almost a decade of BPOs, the least we could have done is worked on and simplified the process; made more sensible options on the IVR, made the agents more efficient at what they do, taught them to ’empathize’ with customers rather than doing a mindless line-by-line delivery of a script. And finally, if it isn’t too much trouble, ensure that the ‘issue’ was resolved. But I guess ‘woh bhi chalta hain yaar’.

So put a bunch of ‘chalta hain’ attitude people in a company, and what do you get? Then put a bunch of companies with a large number of ‘chalta hain’ attitude employees in them together, and what do you get? And while we’re at that, what if we have a nation with several such companies, then what do we get?

What I’m guessing is, a strong probable cause for the next slowdown, where there is a strong possibility that India would play host, because employees and organizations compromised on several little things, and just drifted along, till a point where, just like the gig at the CWG, products, services and efforts start collapsing in front of bigger audiences.

Compromise then, just became a real dangerous word for me right now, something representing slow degradation. How about for you?

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