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Case Analysis: The Angry Shopper

Shoppers have a role to play in motivating the staff to give good service, which they do not fulfill

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There are multiple dimensions to this reality of service issues in retail. These are social, cultural, socio-economic as also organisational. Coach Aiyer’s comment about cost pressures in Indian retail especially for value formats is very true and cannot be wished away. The larger issue is with regard to customer expectations and that is the first dimension I would like to explain.

Thanks largely to the maximum retail price (MRP), Indian shoppers do not have any idea with regard to the tradeoff between cost and benefit. In most countries abroad, value formats offer basic and minimal service as they offer very low prices. For example, in many instances, the shoppers have to put their purchases into bags by themselves. However, this is not the case in India and shoppers would wait for someone to not only put their purchases into a bag but also carry it out to their car. Simply put, having manpower in the store to fulfill such expectations costs money. Ironically shoppers want all this and also discounts!

This expectation is influenced by MRP which is a common, uniform reference point across various types of stores. However, the expectations of shoppers is not linked to the price or MRP but actually is defined by the store environment. A modern, air-conditioned store is expected to provide better service from the small, neighborhood kirana and yet sell products at MRP or maybe even lower than that.

A related example is from the airline industry in India. When Air Deccan was launched, a large number of fliers flocked to this airline because of the cheap ticket prices and would then complain loudly about poor service, etc. These customers wanted the low prices and also the services being offered by the full fare airlines. This was driven by their perception of what airlines should do regardless of the price of the ticket. After more than a decade of low fare airlines, fliers today have accepted the unbundling of services. They are grudgingly ready to pay more for every incremental benefit, like better seats, food, etc.

The MRP price benchmark, which helps define value, remains fixed. As such, Indian shoppers do not value the varying levels of service in the different kinds of stores. Simply put, a shopper expects the staff to smile, wish, assist, etc., when purchasing something in a modern trade store. On the other hand, in a kirana store, the same shopper purchasing the same product realigns their expectations to a much lower and functional level.

The next dimension, which results in poor service, is the social, cultural and, to some extent, educational context. The store staff are largely drawn from the lower socio economic strata while the majority of shoppers in modern store formats are from the middle and upper strata. This results in an unintended conflict because of the growing up influences and conditioning.

First, let us understand this influence on the shoppers who frequent modern store formats. Such shoppers have grown up with servants doing various tasks in their homes, schools, colleges, etc. Most, if not all, of the menial jobs are done by servants. The interactions with such servants are often curt to the point of being rude. As such demanding instead of requesting becomes a behavioural norm simply because of this growing up conditioning. The education system does not help in any way since children are rarely taught life skills, especially basic manners.

On the other hand the schools reinforce the divide between servants and others by having ayahs, helpers, etc. Although teachers enforce a strict code of behaviour in their interactions with students, guidance with regard to interacting with service providers is rarely given. This leads to a behavioural conditioning where service providers are looked down upon and treated poorly.

I have often witnessed shoppers being rude and demanding very similar to Chandu Bhagan. It is also a common occurrence where supervisory staff tends to blindly agree with the shopper as it is easier to do so. Simply put, the shopper can become angry, shout and vent. Unfortunately, the staff do not have this luxury!

Customer service training is also at fault for propagating the maxim of ‘Customer is the King/ Queen’ without allowing for caveats or exceptions. Although this is a good service guideline to follow, it cannot become a universal, all encompassing reality, all the time.

The same social, cultural and educational context also influences the store staff and hence their service delivery. Some of the key influences and their outcome are:

Confidence to communicate: The most important as also the fundamental issue with regard to the store staff is that they lack the confidence to communicate. Their background very rarely provides them the inputs as also an opportunity to communicate freely. How will they develop a confidence in this regard? A while ago, a training professional from a retail chain lamented to me that all their customer service and selling programmes are yielding no result. My response was a simple question as to how many staff members had the confidence to communicate even during such training programmes. The answer was as expected; most would sit through the programme and get back to work. If a person does not have the confidence to communicate in a closed room among peers, how can they be expected to communicate to strangers? The training programmes overlook this fact and end up talking about what needs to be communicated instead of making the participants confident enough to communicate. Language is another big constraint and trying to make the staff communicate in English does not help when a person already lacks the confidence to communicate.

Ability to handle aggressive shoppers: This low level of confidence also influences the capability of any staff member when confronted with an aggressive shopper as seen in the case of Rajeshwari. Apart from the lack of confidence, training inputs that emphasise that ‘Customer is King/ Queen’ or ‘Customer is always right’, only serve to make the staff even more diffident and defensive. This ends up creating a vicious cycle where rude, aggressive customers continue to be obnoxious simply because no one challenges their behaviour.

Motivation: The third and important aspect that is influenced by the socio-economic background of retail staff is motivation. The blunt reality is that their life is filled with hardship and scarcity. Yet they stand there amidst an abundance of products, many of which they can never afford to experience. Add on the layer of poor salaries and insensitive customers. This combination is enough to dishearten and disillusion the most enthusiastic person. As mentioned by Aiyer, many staff member question the directive to wish customers when there is no response in most instances. In a manner of speaking, shoppers have a role to play in motivating the staff to give good service, which they do not fulfill. On the other hand, they reinforce the imagery that they do not deserve good service and training alone cannot resolve this.

In the case of most value retailers, these aspects are either ignored during training or dealt with in a very cursory manner. This is again a function of cost pressures and lifestyle stores, which have more of an elbow room, are able to fare better. They are able to hire better quality of staff as also give more training to enable higher levels of service.

This brings up the moot point as to why Shreya, the store manager, was so aggressive from the start of her interaction. A store manager of a lifestyle store such as Menaka Designs should not behave in such a manner with any customer at least not initially. It could be that she knew about the situation created by this customer earlier and decided to go on the offensive. However, that does not fit the profile of a lifestyle store’s manager. So, in the absence of any other information I can only assume that she got out of the wrong side of the bed!

Last, but definitely not the least, is the role of the other retail functions with regard to service delivery. Although the store staff are the face of the retailer and invariably bear the brunt of any service issue, they are not to blame in most cases of service failure. Take the example of the problem due to the gift vouchers and the discount offer. The fault lies with the person who missed out on printing the correct terms and conditions while instructing the staff to enforce the same. Similar is the issue of the garments exchange. The actual culprit is the manufacturer who has printed an ambiguous wash instruction but the staff end up bearing the brunt of the shopper’s angst. These instances are indicative of poor systems and processes as also a lack of adequate checks and balances before execution.

My repeated refrain at various forums is that training is not an alternative to poor systems and processes. This seems to be relevant for the Naman Group and something that Joseph should realise and act upon. It might be better if he were to seek help from a retail expert instead of or at least in addition to a coach-trainer.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


V. Rajesh

The writer is a retail and shopper behaviour expert who has also authored several books. He is currently engaged in knowledge sharing initiatives such as consulting, training and teaching. His site’s short URL is http://bit.ly/vrajesh

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