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Case Study: Customer Service For Profit Only

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Sriram Iyer was surprised to hear the introduction to the casually dressed Anil Guha. This was the Chief Operating Officer of Trix India! What unusual coincidences life presented. They were at a CII forum on ‘Customer service in the context of the 2000s’ and Guha was the guest speaker on customer systems and service efficiency.

When the Q&A session began, Sriram promptly asked, “If a customer encounters a problem twice, what is the system you have to ensure the problem is flagged and thrown up for investigation at the brand level?”

“That is an unusual question!” Guha replied, “At Trix, it will get lost in the statistics. The probability is 1 in many thousands; Trix has never had a problem getting repeated.”

Sriram: Despite the fact that the same problem has occurred twice, your system rounds it off as ‘not significant’? It does not cease to be a problem. Does it not bother you from an R&D point of view?

Guha: No point worrying about something insignificant, so won’t waste my time! ... Next?

Sriram was not surprised anymore. This laid back attitude cut across the rank and file at Trix India; his experience had shown him that.

Last year, his daughter Ursula received a Trix laptop as a gift from her cousins. One morning, less than two months later, she woke up to find the right side, outer side base plate was totally cracked. Teary eyed, she dragged her father into her room and showed it to him. Sriram was surprised but immediately took it to the Trix service centre (SC). The local manger said, “Yes, it is in warranty. But because it is an external damage it cannot be covered under warranty; You will have to pay Rs 7,000 for the hinge and the entire base plate, which will also need to be changed. Otherwise you cannot open it and if you do so the screen will also crack.”

The warranty did say that it would not cover damage due to misuse. Ursula swore she had not dropped or banged the laptop. But her mother suggested she may have been careless. And poor Ursula was most disappointed. She had wept the whole day.

Sriram left the laptop at the SC, accepting their verdict that the damage could not have happened without the user being careless. The laptop had to be repaired. But he said to the guy, ‘Be sure it is not the hinge that is at fault. I do not want this to recur.’

In a day, the SC called Sriram and said,“You are lucky the hinge is okay, we are going to change the base plate; your laptop will be ready in four days.” Based on this, the repair cost would be Rs 4,000, the SC guy said.

Sriram gave them the go ahead. On Day 6, he called them up and asked, “Is it done? I am coming to Mango Street, I can pick it up.” But the laptop was not ready. The service engineer told him the part had not come. He suggested that Sriram wait for 3-4 days. Several days passed and on Day 11, Sriram went to the SC wanting to know what was going on. The engineer said, “This is a cosmetic part, we don’t carry inventory of these parts. They have to come from Singapore or Hong Kong.”

Sriram: Then on what basis did you message me that the laptop was ready? This is a model you are selling currently in India! How long will it take? You give me a date, please! It is part of warranty and already two weeks are gone. We can’t use the laptop.

But the service centre blamed the company and said, “We are the franchisees; we can’t do anything about policy.” Sriram then asked to speak to the manager. The manager was called. Sriram recognised him as he coming out of his cabin. This was the same guy he had come to for a problem with a Trix TV last year! When Gulab Rawal came up to him, both caught up in their mind their mutual recognition and discomfiture. “Oh, it’s you, Mr Iyer!”

Sriram: Yes, we meet again! I do hope we are not going to see history repeat! But already the symptoms are identical! What is your policy on the matter of laptop parts? You are charging me Rs 4,000, despite being in warranty, on a false assumption that I damaged the laptop. I am paying, but now after telling me the laptop is serviced and ready for delivery, I come here and am told that ‘Oh, parts have to come from Hong Kong’. But nobody can tell me how long that will be? This is so slipshod!

Rawal (embarrassed by the attention they were drawing from other customers): I need some time to get back to you. I will put it in the global tracking loop so that once recorded your need will be accessible to all service centres globally. I am sure the chain will access the part faster that way.

Sriram’s colleagues at work were also involved in the case. Soon, another contact at Trix Global emerged, through one of his colleagues. This new person said, “Arre, yaar, you should have come to me. But now once you are registered in the global track system, I cannot do anything!”

Sriram: What would you have done that these guys cannot?

New Contact: I would have told you to register under the global warranty quota. Then, I would have shown it as an ‘outside’ repair, as if a foreigner had come on a two-day visit to India from Hong Kong, suffered a product breakdown, etc., That way, you would even get the service free! Did that mean they had the inventory? wondered Sriram, taken aback. He was slowly seeing the underbelly of Trix and its secret dual policy.

After his experience with getting his Trix TV repaired last year, Sriram was not expecting much now from the laptop division. But he felt he must get the area sales manager involved if he must get his laptop back. He obtained the ASM’s number from the SC and called. The ASM informed him blandly that he was aware of Sriram’s case.

Sriram: What is the wait time now? It’s already been so many days...No one seems to have an idea! I don’t expect this from Trix!

ASM: Look, we are doing our best. If that is not good enough, you are free to go to consumer court!

Sriram was taken aback by this unexpected assault. “How dare you talk to me like that?” he yelled, as others in the SC winced. “Of course, I will damn well go to consumer court! But you are not the brand, you are only a paid employee so you can lose your job for abusing the brand, bear in mind!”

Others at the SC began to calm him. A furious Sriram walked out.

Next morning, the SC manager called Sriram and put a date to when the part would come. Peace returned. The part did come exactly 27 days after they committed and finally the laptop was repaired. Ursula was delighted as Sriram placed the laptop on her table and opened it. Right before his eyes, the laptop cracked in the same spot, in the same pattern, same shape, while he was opening it!

He got up and went straight to Mango Street. The manager was away, so a service engineer attended to him. “Give this in for repairs, sir,” he said. “The part will have to be ordered and it will take 27 days....” he rattled off in practised manner.

Sriram threw a fit. “This is getting to be a joke. This laptop came from repairs this morning! You need to replace that laptop! ... baat karta hai... What nonsense! Where is the manager?”

A fuming Sriram decided he was not going till he met the manager. After two hours, Rawal, the manager arrived. He shot off an e-mail to the head office saying, ‘This should be repaired free of cost’.

Sriram: Please tell me, what is the story? Kahaani kya hai?

Rawal: Kya bolegaa, sir! They don’t want to listen. We are the service people, we know design defect when we see it. But the company does not agree. It wants customers to pay. Kantaal aa gaya! (Am fed up).

Sriram now began to prepare for war. He returned to his office, immensely annoyed over the lost time and the stupid inefficiency of companies that consumers believed in because of their global image. There was already an e-mail from Trix India. It said: The part cannot be replaced free of cost. You will have to pay Rs 7,000.

Sriram replied: ‘If you think I am going to fund your experiments with faulty design, you have another think coming. Watch this space...!’

But an automated system replied to him, ‘You have not agreed to the estimate. Please pick up your equipment and take it back.’

Read Analysis by: Chandan Dang & Rajan Chhibba

Sriram went to the SC again. He walked right into an angry fight between the SC and another customer. Seeing Sriram, the man said, ‘After warranty I spent Rs 18,000. That computer has not worked for seven months!’ Everyone there was an aggrieved customer. When his turn came, the service manager said, “I am unable to help you. I did what I could. I made the request. I even told ASM to come and see the product problem. But woh nahi aayega... Company has a standard stance on this. They won’t budge.”

Sriram: But there are two claims: one, refund of Rs 4,015 because the problem could not be corrected; two, this time the repair should be done free of cost because it is clearly a manufacturing defect or a design defect. I will now take this to the streets if I have to...

Rawal: Karo, sir... I hope they see how wrong they are...

Nothing happened for a week. Sriram drove to Trix’s office in the far suburbs. At the reception he asked to see the seniormost sales manager on the premises. The reception said if there was a service problem, I should meet the service manager.

Back at the Mango Street SC, Sriram waited for 45 minutes, calling all levels of people but nobody came out to meet him. By now furious, Sriram began to shout. He had had enough. Other customers gathered around him and soon they were all sharing issues they had with Trix. The raised voices did not augur well for Trix.

Out of nowhere, a slightly senior looking man in blazer emerged and taking Sriram to a corner, he shook his hand. Sriram realised this was the peace corps. So, he said, “What would you do in my place? What would you think of a company that avoids addressing the issue, whose service team is clueless, whose ASM tells you go file a suit in the consumer court...! What would you do?

Slightly-Senior Man: You tell me.

Sriram: Give it in writing that you won’t repair this!

Just then, another man came up and showed the complaint to the senior man on his tablet. Sriram noticed two photos sent by the SC of both panels — the one that broke the first time and the one that broke the second time. And a comment from sales: One-off occurrence. Does not warrant leniency.’ Sriram read that and gagged. “Leniency? You owe it to me, dammit! How about respect?” Sriram was hollering by now. “Is there anybody here who takes responsibility for the brand?” And out emerged another even more senior-looking man. He was the assistant VP of the SC.

Apologising as he sprinted towards the lobby area where Sriram was raving and ranting, the new man said, “Sorry, I was in a meeting, simply could not...”

Sriram: In a meeting? I have dropped all my work and come here to save a Rs 40,000 laptop. But you don’t worry for a Rs 40,000 crore brand?!

The assistant VP,  Sumedh Chary, remembered Sriram so well. Sriram’s Trix TV, a wall-mounted model... the SC had taken it for repairs from his residence and as his luck would have it, the service engineer went and lost the bolts that held up the TV. And when Sriram asked, Trix’s SC asked him to pay Rs 6,000 for the bolts! And now Sriram recalled to Chary, “How do you expect me to have any faith in anything you say or do? The last time, your guy was acknowledging that he had lost them, yet you asked me to pay. Do you recall? And what was your plea? That your head office was not approving the cost. How was that my problem, Mr Chary? But you made it my problem!” But the repair itself was a nightmare, Sriram recalled. Four times in 15 weeks he had to take the TV back to the service shop. And even after four attempts, they were unable to fix it. Finally the engineer told him to get the repair done in ‘private’.

Frustrated Sriram had dug out an old electric repair chap, Alam bhai, someone who used to repair his transistors and recorders 20 years ago. He fixed the TV  for Rs 3,000, including installing in it an original Trix motherboard. But Trix did not replace the bolts!

Chary chaffed at the memory and said, “Ok, let me give this my best shot. I need the MDs approval to get this done.” And sure enough, the next morning Sriram was told, “Ok, we will replace it free of cost.”

But what about the Rs 4,000 he had paid the first time? Trix did not send a written reply, but a telephonic reply was given to him: That transaction is over. You have paid for it, and that cannot be refunded.’

Sriram pondered on the condition that India was in, where senior management of companies in which society placed great faith, rampantly abused right behaviour . The service staff was where the brand really fought hard to survive. He now recalled Madan Johri, the service engineer, who had said, “We had sent photos of the crack to the main office and told them that it was a design fault.”

The front end was saying, Serve the Customer. The back end was saying, Damn the Customer. Madan explained: the moment you book a complaint, a copy of it goes to Trix India, to Trix APAC and to the HO. If anything has to be replaced free of cost, it needs to be approved by Trix India first. The chaps who say ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ are tucked far away into the system and you cannot get access to them.

The mindset was becoming clear: the Trix India system was not designed to service individual customers. Is customer service really a service, or is it a profit centre? Is it not a means to enhance a customer’s brand experience? Or is it a live R&D operation funded by the consumer? Given this, is Customer Service a service or a business opportunity? 

Read Analysis by: Chandan Dang & Rajan Chhibba

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(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 05-05-2014)

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