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BW Businessworld

Analysis: Be True To Yourself

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The case touches upon two little understood realities of customer service in India. First, most sales staff cannot afford the products they are selling. Second, products try to position themselves on the basis of superior features or customer experience, whereas, in reality, it sells on the basis of price.
 
If a brand wishes to offer a ‘5-star’ service, it has to ensure that its staff and customer touch points reflect the brand’s values. It then has to charge the customer a price that reflects the premium image, is commensurate with the cost of that service, and earns a profit. When you offer a 5-star service with 3-star prices, the result is a Kingfisher business model.
 
Low-cost airlines try to offer superior service without doing what it takes for the customer to perceive the premium value. So the customer is unwilling to pay more, and the brand incurs costs higher than what its low prices can justify, without satisfying the customer, whom the brand has conditioned to expect more.
 
It is possible and profitable to sell a premium brand that offers superb customer service, as the Taj or the Oberoi hotels demonstrate. It is equally possible to make money from a low-cost airline, as Ryan Air or Easy Jet do. In both cases, the customer is aware of what to expect for the price they pay, because these brands have successfully communicated what they stand for.
 
Rather than wallow in self pity, Samoga airline’s Ajinkya Dubey should consider what he needs to do to address the challenges of having a workforce whose backgrounds are far removed from the brand users. This is coupled with the master-servant relationship between the so called ‘upper class’ consumers and service providers. One obvious but little emphasised solution is training. While brands train on product features and processes, little attention is paid to how the staff reflects the brand values, or even if they have the right background. In a Nike store in the US or Europe, the salesperson will look like an athlete and will ask you about your stride when running! In India, it is often a pot-bellied man who does not know the difference between a running and a walking shoe. Similarly, one often sees a glamourous girl at a cosmetics stand,who either intimidates a less confident ‘smalltown’ girl who aspires to buy that brand, or is actually ignorant of the finer points of the product and puts off a more discerning customer.
 
Successful low-cost airlines have flight attendants whose average age is over 40. In India, it is half that. Both the cosmetics girl and the young flight attendant are there because the brand manager (or more likely, an egotistical owner), feels he needs glamourous people since ‘that’s what my brand is’. Most domestic airline passengers just want to go from point A to B in a hassle-free manner, preferably on time. Surprisingly, only Indigo advertises (with singleminded focus) their fine on-time performance.
 
A lot of the training given to entry-level staff in retail is conducted in English, rather than in their mother tongues. This results in the trainee feeling unequal to the task and feeling inferior to the English-speaking customer. Often, the salesperson struggles in English when she can speak confidently (and be understood perfectly well), in her mother tongue. When faced with a ‘VIP’ customer, very few managers support their frontline employees. Staff are empowered when they are respected by their superiors. Sadly, too few companies are willing to put employees first, or tell a customer that behaviour that is abusive or affects co-consumers is unacceptable.
 
There is a new generation of Indians, born afterliberalisation, who do not subscribe to the old notions of a class divide that plagues the older generation. Companies should tap into this generation and hire freshers on the basis of attitude and competency, rather than poach people with prior experience or a particular skill set. The right employee, given training and support, can be as empowered as her Western counterpart.
 
The airline industry in India, in particular,has not educated customers adequately. Actively publicising rules that help passengers arrive on time, or make the flight safer, can help change customer attitudes. Most passengers are well behaved,abhor boorish behaviour and would understand the problems airlines face, provided there is transparent communication.
 
The media often highlights high air fares, contributing to the perception that airlines have a lot of cash to spare. The reality is that airlines and airports are bleeding. Various taxes contribute to a disproportionate share of ticket costs. Airlines go to great lengths to ensure flight safety. That few people realise this represents the industry’s failure to communicate effectively. In contrast, Ryan Air actively publicised the fact that they were a no-frills airline and needed far
lower operating costs to offer low fares.
 
In India, there is nothing low cost about a low-cost carrier. But not all airline promoters seem to have grasped this.
 
An IIM-A alumnus,the author is presidentof Cocoberry.Previously, he waswith GoAir
 
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-11-2012)