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Case Study: Getting The Customer To Perform

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Ajinkya Dubey shook his head in disbelief. How closely HR was connected to safety, ethics and brand image. But the mall owners did not seem to have cracked it. Outside Selfo Mall, while his car waited to be ‘frisked’, two bikes with a pillion rider on each, were waved through by the security guards. Ajinkya was surprised. Why weren’t the bikes being checked? “Where is the need?” asked the security guard, “Open hai na!

Was this lack of training, lack of intelligence, or poor hiring, Ajinkya wondered. Or was it an intellectual lethargy that had overtaken a country that had lost the will to be clean and honest? Why were the lessons of 26/11 forgotten so fast?

The only industry which seemed hyper about safety and security was airlines, and that too was due to an exaggerated perception of air travellers being high profile. We get railway accidents on a daily basis, but no one really bothers. Unless, of course, a minimum of 25 people die... then it gets to feature on TV news. But in an airline, even if there is a so-called ‘narrow escape’ in which no one was in any real danger, it features in ‘breaking news’. The government and service providers spend exponentially more resources on investigating an air crash than a rail accident because ‘important people fly’, thought Ajinkya.

Yet, despite all this, there were jokers like the passenger Deol, who wanted security norms breached so he could be in time for whatever, wherever. Why had Dhannesh Timlu, from Samoga’s marketing, instead blamed Madhur, the check-in clerk, who he felt was poorly hired, lacked finesse, for being tough with Deol? Ajinkya wondered whether the safety attribute of Samoga was a marketing feature or a human resource feature. Yesterday, he had mentioned this aggressively to his colleagues who were deciding Madhur’s suspension, and it led to emphasis on HR’s relevance to brand-building.

Ajinkya was concerned that maybe customer friendliness was side-stepping safety, so that passengers wallowed in the delusion that they were royalty. Ajinkya had been alarmed at the kowtowing that airlines did to appear customer caring. If a flight was delayed for a certain period — due to weather or poor infrastructure at airports, factors the airline was not responsible for — Samoga was obliged to provide refreshments to the passengers. Ajinkya did not understand this. Yet, papers would write stories like ‘harrowing time for passengers’, etc., and TV channels would interview irate passengers, all of whom would cry how no information about flight departure was being provided, etc. That the Met department could not confirm when visibility will improve was never mentioned.

If a train was delayed for even 24 hours, no passenger demanded compensation or free chai. Yet, last winter, when fog delayed departure of a flight, passengers had physically assaulted the check-in staff. One wise person had even called some minister or journalist and demanded that the aircraft take off.
 
Ajinkya had met Madhur, the check-in clerk who had been accused of being rude to a customer. “How come nobody heard the customer shouting at me?” he countered. “This whole business of shouting at somebody is an expression of superiority. More than ‘I am superior’, it reeks of ‘You are inferior’,” he said.

Ajinkya: Maybe you are feeling vulnerable and reading too much into that?

Madhur: I have been a dark-skinned small-towner all my life. Serving in upper class ‘cultured’ society was part of my growing up years. The upper classes still have a sense of entitlement and expect to be served and waited on by the ‘lower’ classes. The only thing that has changed (since Independence) about the class divide is that you can move into the upper class through merit, that is, if you speak English!

Ajinkya: I don’t think all this has anything to do with caste or class! We must reason out things.

Madhur: Class divide can also be born out of where you lie in the organisation ladder. Deol shouting at Priya or me is based on a perception that a check-in clerk is small fry. And his perception is that because he flies, he is upper-class, has an entitlement to be loved, served; that I have a duty to serve him with my life.

Ajinkya felt Madhur’s angst. This was the India that was asking to be recognised. No matter the material growth, India had not, in fact, progressed. Respect was accorded based on perception of affluence and, yes, the ability to speak English, as Madhur had pointed out.

He could not help recall yesterday’s news, a statement made by a politico in the context of an IAS officer’s 40 transfers in 20 years. “It is the government’s prerogative to transfer as it pleases....” Yes, this was the ‘public servant is my servant’ syndrome. That same disrespect. Was it not the government’s prerogative to be respectful and save tax payers’ money by planning the organisation and the appointments? No. It was not. Which explained why another politico quite easily threw a dishonest remark on national TV, casting aspersions on the IAS officer. Damn it, he is a servant, how dare he ask for respect!

Ajinkya shared these views with Noshir Dhondy, Samoga’s customer service head; Jeymini of market research; and Timlu, the marketing manager. In Europe, when a passenger boarded a bus, he recalled to them, it was common for him to greet the driver and almost obligatory to greet his co-passenger. India was pretentious about being a hospitable and warm nation but was, in fact, quite stuck up. In the West, the relationship between a waiter/shop assistant/check-in clerk and a customer was one of equals. A client would not raise his voice or treat the service provider with indignity. It was quite common for a director of a company to play football with his workers, or have a beer with the janitor; and it was polite and even customary to sit next to the driver, be it your own car or a taxi.

So, either the customer was disrespectful or the service provider lacked self esteem. In India, however, bad behaviour was a cultural thing and dignity of labour was non-existent. But in the West, a service provider regarded himself as a professional and had great pride in his work.
 
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But then, argued Ajinkya, it also went to show that self esteem was a function of being respected by the employer. The electrician in the gated colony where he had lived in Eastern Europe was called an electrical engineer, never an electrician. Everyone is educated in his speciality, and takes responsibility for his performance. Equally, nobody interferes with their work or tells them to drop what is being done to attend to a seeming VIP. Consequently, service levels are superior, simply because people know their jobs, are empowered to take decisions, and do not have to deal with customer egos.

Noshir Dhondy: What has this got to do with the airline business?

Ajinkya:
The specifics lie in respect, self respect and dignity of labour. All this impacts the feeling of empowerment. If I feel empowered, it will show in the way I deliver the brand. And you, the customer, will not feel free to yell at me. If Priya had felt empowered, she would have silenced Deol. But the air-hostess who flew me from Varanasi was empowered (unless it was the reduced threat level on a crowded plane), and she successfully silenced the drunk passenger. The fact still remains that the passenger felt more empowered and confident to make advances, treat her without respect. How does he — the drunken passenger or Deol at the airport — gain this confidence to misbehave?

Noshir: Frankly, I don’t see your point. The passenger Deol was in the midst of consuming the product and it failed him, don’t you see?

Ajinkya: What? The product did not fail him. He didn’t follow the operating instructions, such as, check in one hour before departure! In India, passengers who fly form a niche 1 per cent of the population, the elite, to most of whom the check-in staff, flight attendants, baggage handlers, etc., are like servants and are treated accordingly. Have you heard them ordering the handlers around, address them as ‘tu’ and not ‘aap’? Many passengers think ‘we are paying so much, we must get maximum service’. Unfortunately, airlines do nothing to arrest this trend.

Noshir: It comes with the turf! Who should arrest this trend? Whose job is it? The CEO’s?

Ajinkya: Hmm, that would be extreme. Would it not be the brand’s job to talk glowingly about its people? You would worry if your coffee brand was erroneously placed along with competition’s, but not about your salesperson being abused?
Noshir: I don’t see any connection, therefore, I don’t agree.

Ajinkya: A brand’s performance is a function of all the people who perform as the brand, the front face. Looking after them, presenting them as the brand Samoga, is a part of communication.

Brand Samoga must be visible as “Our People”. I don’t know much about these issues but I am saying it as it feels. If our people are presented as people who will ensure a safe and comfortable flight, who are empowered as the brand to perform on its behalf for all passengers, no one will talk down to them. But because air travel is yet considered a luxury, the customer carries his kingship too far. And the brand bends backwards and turns cartwheels!

Jeymini:
How do you feel so, Ajinkya?

Ajinkya: We are the only country that has baggage handlers to lift luggage from the belt, or lift it for weighing. This, when airlines and airports are losing money. Yet they give free newspapers, drinking water, etc.! Everywhere, the trolley is a paid facility; nothing less than a dollar! But we give it free and engage with passengers who whisper asking to waive excess baggage!
 
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We are operating budget flights on many routes, where everything is a paid-for service. But we have many freebies! The whole ethos has to shift, the brand has to be represented and that education must come from the airline. My people are working just as hard on the low-cost carrier (LCC)! Whereas costs must be trimmed.

Vasant Chib
(OpsCom member): There is merit in what you say, but please also see that we are also hiring unsuitable people. In less than 10 years, the industry has added more airlines, new routes... The staffing has to come either from an existing industry or fresh recruits. So don’t you think training has been inadequate too?

Noshir: The staff have often not experienced the product. Many shop assistants selling upmarket products would not be able to afford them. When faced with lack of product understanding and an ‘upper class’ customer, the staffer worsens the customer experience.

Ajinkya: Now you see how HR and marketing need to work closely in building the brand? Angry customers after a point worsen stress levels for staff. Then staff could retaliate or be passively aggressive or simply ruin service quality.

Noshir: Customers will be who they are. It is we who have to cope, deal, adjust.

Ajinkya: But should not the brand communicate with the customer how it expects to be used, or educate him about where he is falling short? Here, brand Samoga can be used only according to safety rules, which requires the user to check in an hour before flight time. Failure to do so makes the brand not available to the consumer. But if the consumer gets angry, he can abuse the brand. So if the brand must deliver, consumer needs to use it appropriately!

The market composition has changed. The product has changed its offerings, but users continue to see air travel as a premium service and themselves as special. They demand attention and comforts, not realising what a budget flight is! They get noisy when they find out that there is no free coffee with a dazzling smile.

The people resources are the same, but the brand’s offerings are different... A passenger is rude when his demand to ‘adjust’ 10 kg of excess baggage is rejected! In the US, the desk staff will tell him curtly ‘You are wasting time’, and the passenger will pay the charge with a dazzling smile. But here I have seen how the consumer whines and asks for rules to be bent, taking that much more time at the counter, so that the next passenger is delayed, will shout at the check-in clerk and trash the airline for lousy service!

Jeymini: Part of the brand is the customer. And he plays his own image game. Some places he likes to show off his own image (‘Don’t you know who I am?’), some places he is genteel. In places that have an elite feel, or are very high priced, customers behave better. So a high-profile person would not shout at a receptionist or waiter at the Taj, but would not hesitate to do so in a small restaurant or a no-name hotel. That’s the high-class/low-class perception at work. The Taj represents ‘people like us’ therefore ‘we should show them we know how to behave’.

Similarly, people who are a terror to service providers in India will behave impeccably abroad, again because of the (mistaken) perception that the white man is ‘also high class, like us’. Watch the abundant ‘Please May I’ and ‘Thank you ever so much!’. So is there a perception that the budget airline, the LCC is ‘not people like us’ or low class and so should be disrespected?

Noshir: Maybe you are right. The customer does not feel the LCC deserves his elegance. Till the coming of the LCC, there was just one set of behaviours. Interestingly, there are shifts from the earlier segment to the LCC and even with the market growing, barely 1 per cent of Indians fly. Naturally, this 1 per cent is the top of the socio-economic ladder. I am also not sure there are real new users. It is the same socio-economic band economising and moving from full-cost flights to LCC. I have not established this, but ...

Jaymini: That definitely explains; there is a perception that since air tickets are expensive, one should get the same service as from, say, a 5-star hotel. This creates unrealistic passenger expectations in terms of the service they want from airlines. So, we have a situation where some passengers tend to treat airline staff like servants, order them around...

Ajinkya: My point too. The product is changing, you cannot define the brand with beautiful smiles and service as USP. This warrants training the brand deliverers in new skills, like being able to tell you, ‘you have to pay for drinking water’, without making you feel poorly about it.

Noshir: These are basic skills, Ajinkya; we train our crew a lot.

Jaymini: The point he is making, Noshir, is redirect the expectations of the customer...

Ajinkya: In the rest of the world, an LCC offers a service quality and facilities that are really no different from a train, because that is how their model is and that is what the working class person expects. In India, a lot more is offered, but customers still want ‘free food’, choice of newspapers, beautiful flight attendants, freebies, etc.

Jeymini: True. Customer feedback will consist of things that the LCC never intended to provide anyway — no blankets, coffee is pathetic, etc.

Noshir: My dilemma has been simply this: as an LCC, my service levels cannot change. Airlines like Kingfisher did set the bar high on service, but that level was not scalable and there are very few who want to pay a premium for that service. So, even those who are paying only marginally more than a LCC customer, get service that is very good by international standards, but customers still want more. Where does Samoga Lite stand in the face of this?

Jeymini: And what will happen if you dropped the ‘service’ parameter? Don’t talk about it...
 
Noshir: Ha ha ha! How do we stay in a service industry and not talk service levels? But let me tell you, the overall level of service in India (compared to train and bus), is among the best in the world. And I have said this in many forums — we have the right attitude to service and the country’s airline businesses will thrive on this.

Ajinkya: That adds up. But does it explain why the industry has always positioned the air hostess as a desirable goddess of beauty and perfection?

Noshir: You will not unearth any serious revelations apart from the finding that it ties in with the consumer’s perception that he is royalty, ‘therefore treat me like that’.

So now they were back to the Madhur-Priya episode at the airport and the badly behaved customer, Deol, whose angst was analysed by Jeymini as: you exist to serve me, how can you show me the door? Ajinkya thought the consumer’s sense of ‘I’ was greater than the sense of greater good; he worries about safety only when it stares him in the face; just as he does not care about routine physical fitness and waits till he falls seriously ill. But airlines worry about safety whether it was a LCC or a full-service flight. The people who delivered safety and timeliness did not come cheap for a LCC. Fire was fought the same way, rescue was performed using identical equipment, danger meant the same thing and the desire to save was identical too.

Yet with safety being so critical to airlines, more people tried to flout it!

Ajinkya wondered where lay the anomaly. Airlines had a higher threshold of patience towards a drunk passenger, and gave wide berth to him because he was, by default, seen as a VIP. But now imagine a drunk guy on a train: the railway cop will put him behind bars!

Classroom Discussion

How did the King become a monster? Are brands responsible for the demanding consumer?

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(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-11-2012)