Dec 30, 2008

The Culture of Service

Hullo! Its been awfully long and hope some of you are still here :)

Sometime back an acquaintance asked me to put together my thoughts on 'service'...what customers expect...what retailers do, don't do and perhaps should do. I was reminded of some of the strange...contrasting experiences I've had.

I remembered how I felt when I first visited UK. I had walked into a Candy store late one evening. I was the only one at the shop apart from two girls who managed the store. They noticed me getting in but did not say much…nor crowd around me as I browsed through what the store had to offer. At first it felt weird…perhaps I was even a little offended when I thought they did not acknowledge my presence there. They asked me the mandatory ‘are you ok…there?’ I gave them a confused nod. I browsed for a few minutes and walked out. It took me a few more visits to realize how liberating this experience was.

Contrasting this with my experience in India – where the minute I set foot in a shop…I expect to be followed around…asked questions repeatedly about what I want…and if nothing else watched by the sales staff from close quarters. This happens at restaurants too where if you are not surrounded by waiters standing barely two steps away from your table all huddled up…your conversation is constantly interrupted by waiters coming and re-filling your glass of water the minute you’ve had a sip from it.

Perhaps this ‘over servicing’ attitude is rooted in our cultural beliefs to treat ‘Guests as God’ and thus - Atithi Devo Bhav. Or may be it originated from a cautious mindset – with only a miniscule number of shops having CCTV cameras or any surveillance system, ‘following the consumer’ must have seemed like the safest bet to prevent pilferage. Over the years we became accustomed to being watch, followed, questioned, interrupted - though with more people traveling across the world…this is changing.

Nevertheless the notion of what good service means is therefore largely context and culture specific therefore.

Kingfisher airline was able to turn this around positively by delivering some of the little things that made a service difference. They refer to their customers as not just passengers but as guests, have someone escort you with your luggage as soon as you arrive at the airport right up to the check in terminal. In fact Kingfisher Red was the first low cost airline to serve water (and now even food) on board, when competitors were charging for it. Being charged for water does not just translate to a monetary cost. The annoyance value it brings with it and the associated ill will a brand earns is far more. During consumer research we often heard people complain about how even when a stranger shows up at the door he is not sent away way without being offered water – and to think of it that ‘charge us for water’…their tone almost suggested that it was blasphemous!
In fact I’ve heard my mother say that - offering a thirsty person water to drink is like doing a good deed.

Whether you are a low frill brand whose offering is based on giving the consumer a bare minimum experience or a regular brand trying to survive recessionary times and cutting down on service … it cannot be a blanket cutting down the service experience - the trick would be in figuring out – what goes and what stays.