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Fast-tracking customer service in a slowdown

By Kanika Datta
March 06, 2009 11:05 IST
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The 'sale' signs on shop windows have begun to fray and every day brings worse news of more rollbacks and cutbacks. The experience, you would think, would sober companies and service providers and encourage them to focus on that one element that is inevitably overlooked in a boom: Service quality.

Inexplicably, nothing has changed. People are palpably spending less and less -- even in malls, havens of the black money spending that was apparently keeping the Indian economy in better shape than others. Yet credit card companies, banks, mobile phone services and even time-share firms persist in a mindless and increasingly fruitless quest to coax the customer to spend more. The approach remains reactive -- discounts, add-ons et al -- rather than opportunistically pro-active.

Acquiring new customers is important, but surely hard times provide an opportunity to ensure that existing ones are happier (management consultants call them 'sticky customers')?

The tendency to squeeze the sale when customers are spending less is common to large companies as much as small ones. Thus, for instance, one petrol retailer has recently added free window-cleaning services for customers tanking up (it's another matter that the window cleaner looks hopefully for a tip when he's done). Alas, the retailer's ability to process a credit card remains as inefficient as ever (the problems of no power, defective machines, inept attendants and so on persist).

It could be said that petrol doesn't come under the category of discretionary spending, especially in Delhi where decent public transport is still rare, so this window-cleaning retailer has no incentive to become more efficient. But he's clearly feeling the pinch: Retail sales of petrol have slipped. And given the competition in the locality, there is always the option of going to a more service-oriented competitor (who has also lately included a window-cleaning service, by the way). 

A radio broadcaster -- which was struggling with huge losses even in the good times -- recently called to find out if I was satisfied with the service. This would have been touching, had it not been the fact that the query disguised the real reason for the call: To hard-sell what the British call a 'bogof' scheme (buy one get one free).

As this last experience shows, there is a counter-intuitive problem with sales-target-driven hard-selling: It often creates a disconnect with the customer. This was starkly evident last week when a colleague lost her credit cards. The service executive who took her call registered the complaint all right, but overlooked her obvious anxiety to reel off a special scheme while he was about it. Sometimes, it pays to back off.

Bigger companies are cleverer at disguising the sales spiel. Where, say, a sportswear company offers discounts on products in increasingly desperate increments, a smart young salesman of photocopying machines persuasively argued that the machines he was selling would never be available so cheap and would help the buyer save costs.

This is a probably a version of 'provoking the customer,' a technique recommended by three authors in an article in the March edition of the Harvard Business Review.

The article is all about making the sale even when companies are slashing budgets. Accompanied by the mandatory complex charts and graphs, the article provides just two examples of companies that managed this successfully. One is an unnamed tech company. Another is Sybase, the data management and mobility company. Sybase, the authors said, proved successful by telling 'prospects what should be keeping them up at night.'

Well, good on Sybase. It was selling something called a Risk Analytics Platform, which will have great sales value anyway given that high risk-taking greed has brought the world economy to its knees.

The article is pitched cleverly at a time when top-line growth has become every company's nightmare. From a customer's point of view, a far more thoughtful article in the same issue talks about the pitfalls of standardised processes that, as everyone knows, have the potential to produce bizarre outcomes. The authors argue for an element of 'artistic process' or 'judgment-based work.  Art is needed in changeable environments (for example, when raw materials aren't uniform and therefore require a craftperson's adjustments) and when customers value distinctive or unique output (in other words, all customers don't want the product or services to perform the same way).'

Downturns, slowdowns and recessions provide a great opportunity to make an organisation more genuinely customer-focused or 'artistically inclined.' When the cycle turns, as it inevitably does, the art of customer service becomes a sustained competitive advantage.

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Kanika Datta
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