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Case Study: What Is Your Answer, Joseph?

“Internationally we are known to be rude, aggressive, tip poorly, treat retail staff like personal servants and then complain about poor service.” — V. Rajesh, retail consultant, in his blog An Indian and a Retailer

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

Rajeshwari, all of 18, stopped cheerfully by a scattered queue at Namma Retail and said to a customer, “Sir, just get into the line, please.”

Rajeshwari, who had passed her 12th Boards, was from small town Tiruttani, and was studying for her B.A. degree, long distance. She had just been appointed at Namma and felt very smart and efficient in her lovely peach and white uniform. Her orientation and training had been exciting and Rajeshwari had learnt a lot about how consumer experience in retail can be made better and better by staying alert to chaos.

And that is what she had done that morning. At cash counter 2, she saw a huddle that would cause Lakshmi, the billing clerk, great difficulty and delay the processes as well. Three customers had already placed their baskets on the 24-inch console and were talking over each other’s voices, getting closer and closer to Lakshmi. It appeared there was some debate on a marked price. As a result, the others in the queue also got into a huddle to participate and opine. Stocks that were coming in from the left, got held up and access to the gift packing counter was thus blocked. Rajeshwari had the good of the customers in mind when she asked Chandu Bhagan, a customer if he could please get into the line.

But Chandu got annoyed. “You don’t see others? You see only me? And how long can I waste my time? Your store has no order!”

Chandu, a customer of 20 years, had now made Rajeshwari responsible for the whole store. But Rajeshwari did not give up. Even more gently than before she smiled, nodding her head like an understanding sister and said in her not-very-good English, “Once you get into line, everybody will also.” Chandu now raged like a bull. “Shut up, and do your work. Where is the manager? I want to speak to the manager!”

Rajeshwari had heard ‘shut up’ only from the mouth of very villainous characters in her local Tamil movies. Her face went red as she felt the tears well up from her heart. Noticing that, Jagdish, a supervisor led her aside and went up to Chandu and said, “Sir, please talk decently to the ladies.”

That was all that Chandu needed. He exploded, “Instead of correcting a badly-behaved employee, you are telling me?” Then, turning to the other customers who stood around confused, he raged, “This is a third-rate store! No quality or manners!” With that, Chandu pushed his basket to a corner and stomped out, while customers mumbled about queues and system and propriety and kaliyug.

The store manager Ganapati came out and purveyed the scene. With a sideways jerk of his head he indicated to Jagdish to ‘come inside’. Supervisors around the store, informed by another floor staffer, Lingam, urgently messaged each other on their WhatsApp group. Presently they handed charge to their floor staff and adjusting their shirts and patting down their hair, marched towards Ganapati’s back office.

Ganapati: What, all of you have come to do vakalat for a disgraceful Jagdish? (Then, turning to Jagdish) Your duty was to admonish that girl and comfort the customer! Instead, you go and thrust your chest out and think you are Thalaivar?

Jagdish: You did not see how he spoke to her! It was not her fault.

Ganapati: It was not her place to ask him to get into the queue!

Jagdish: What?! Where did this rule come from? If customer is breaking rules, we should not say?
Ganapati: Customer is King.

Choked into silence, Jagdish walked out. They sat in a huddle, nine of them at Thambi’s 99 Dosa Cart. This was most absurd. And now, Rajeshwari was suspended. There she sat, in the centre, crying hopelessly, as others swore to bring her justice.
Thiruvel Joseph, the GM of The Namma Group (NG), had recently taken over his role as overseer and training head. Namma Retail, was a part of NG, as was a fashion garment chain Menaka Design. Joseph had just heard out the senior staff at Namma Retail. For the moment, he called Ganapati and told him that he had been apprised of the situation (as he had been watching the CCTV). “I saw how that customer behaved and was tempted to watch how our people dealt with it. So, for now, wait till I get back to you.”

Joseph made notes of the episode, and he also wrote to Aryaman Aiyer, a trainer and group coach whose help he was hoping to enlist for his retail staffers. Aiyer had asked Joseph to save some of the CCTV footages to examine some of the posturing that went on between staff and customer.

Some days later, Joseph was at Menaka Designs, to observe behaviours. His eyes caught a very young couple walk in, all happy and cheerful, with a store bag containing an expensive Chanderi-silk kurta ensemble and a complaint. Kanchana wanted to return or replace her expensive suit and quite a brouhaha broke out over that, causing a teary-eyed Kanchana to run out of the shop. Joseph was taken aback. Calling Qazi, the sales head on his mobile, he heard the whole story. It turned out that there was a prelude to today’s drama.

The prelude: Two weeks ago, the newly wed couple, Kanchana and Kannan, bought the suit at Menaka and sought to pay for it with their gift vouchers. At first, Prithvi, the cashier went into a huddle with his colleague Babu, when he saw that the voucher had been bought in Cochin, whereas they were purchasing in Chennai. The colleague shook his head vigorously signalling ‘OK’ but Prithvi probed further. At which point, Kannan had got annoyed and jabbed his finger at the sentence that said, ‘Can be used anywhere in India’. Babu smiled apologetically and told Kannan that the cashier was new.
Kannan: At least, train your staff before putting them there!

just then, another shop sales assistant came in a hurry and engaged the cashier in an animated conversation of urgency. “Just keep this, that customer will come now, and did Murugan leave the tags with you? You must tell him to…”

Kannan got annoyed. “You mind?” he asked stiffly. “You don’t see that I am already doing a transaction with the cashier? Don’t you guys have any etiquette? How can you engage in conversation with each other regardless of a customer standing here?”

Deepti, another sales staffer, who was folding garments that had to be bagged, said in Tamil, “Customer seems to be American returned. Don’t get him annoyed.” Kannan who knew the language, held his peace waiting to see if they got nasty in their exchanges. Just then, Deepti told Cashier, “Ey, Prithvi, that ‘5 per cent off’ starts today, 6 p.m., so you can give them 5 per cent off.”

Prithvi (in Tamil): Don’t keep telling me what to do, I don’t know, is it? It is not 6, besides. Only 5.45.” (All numbers too spoken in Tamil.)

Kannan who read the LED panel of the machine on his side, saw that Prithvi did not factor in the 5 per cent. “Did not the lady say I am to get 5 per cent discount?” he asked patronisingly.

Prithvi: It’s not time yet. We have to follow rules. The charge slip will reveal time and if I grant discount I will be culpable of error and will have to pay for it out of my pocket.

Kannan: Ok, then, I will come back after 20 minutes.

kannan browsed some more and came back with a small glass and copper lamp that was priced at Rs 850. Prithvi resumed billing, and said, “You are entitled to a 30 per cent discount voucher on your next purchase. That offer has to be used in 10 days …”

Kannan: So, bill me for the lamp, I will pay. Then bill me afresh for the garments so I can use the voucher.
Prithvi (shaking his head): You cannot do that, Sir.

Kannan: Why? Where does it say so?

Prithvi: Sir, these offers have meaning. It is intended to make you visit the store again. Can’t split the bill…

Kannan: Nonsense! I am not splitting any bill. And you please be cashier, not auditor! Here I am trying to spend Rs 10,000 in your store and instead of being happy, you are making it difficult for me!

“Prithvi...!” said Qazi and gestured to him with eyes closed and a gentle shake of his head to suggest that he will handle it. Then, to Kannan, “Sir, you are absolutely right, you can do that, why not!” and then Qazi directed Prithvi with the billing.

Prithvi nodded and did as he was told. Now he said, “Sir, cash or card?”

Kannan: Card, naturally!

Prithvi: Master or Visa?

Kannan (now really irritated): How is that relevant?

Prithvi: On Master Card you get 5 per cent off.

kannan placed his Master Card on the cash desk. Prithvi deducted the 30 per cent on the salwar suit and then levied the 5 per cent. Kannan was not pleased at all. “No, nononono, this is wrong. How can you do this?” he said in an interrogative tone.

Prithvi: Sir? Please tell me?

Kannan: Cost of suit? Rs 9,000; discount @ 30 per cent = Rs 2,700; discount @ 5 per cent = Rs 450. So my net discount should be Rs 3,150, but you have calculated wrong!

Now, Qazi who had earlier glided away from the scene to avoid further confrontation and had been watching from afar, sensed all was not well. He came hurrying, “Problem, Sir ?”

Kannan: Naturally. If you use untrained staff, you will only have problems. Let us understand this: I am getting 5 per cent for using my MasterCard, yes or no? Now, I am using my Master Card, but you are granting 5 per cent on Rs 9,000 less 30 per cent, and not on the gross value, Rs 9,000! So, you are giving me Rs 3,015 as discount whereas you should be giving me Rs 3,150!

Qazi glazed for a moment. Kannan had spoken the numbers out too fast! His head reeling, he asked Prithvi, “And what have you done?”

Prithvi explained that he was right. That 30 per cent and 5 per cent could not be added to give 35. Looking at Kannan he said, “Discount is not cumulative. It would be 5 per cent off on 70 per cent of the original value. On what you pay using MasterCard.”

Kannan would not budge and Prithvi would not budge. Qazi was in a quandary. Kannan had some minutes ago declared Prithvi untrained and inept, hence submitting to Kannan’s view would be accepting that verdict. No, no, Qazi was not letting down his colleague.

Seeing the impasse, Prithvi offered a detailed elaboration “See, the 5 per cent is technically only on what MasterCard will pay on your behalf… Not on what the marked price is.”

Kannan: You please don’t talk. (To Qazi): So, tell me, who will have clarity on how the 5 per cent should work?
Prithvi: It’s simple common sense…..

taking severe umbrage, Kannan asked Qazi, “When you have such promotional offers whose first call of duty is it to make this clear to the card user? You are unclear, your cashier thinks he knows but knows nothing. ”

Now, Prithvi got very annoyed. He had been silent for too long. He said, “In that case, please don’t buy, Sir.”

All hell broke loose. Kannan made known how angry he was and Qazi, in a bid to retain the customer sovereignty, said, “No, Sir, you are right. “Prithvi!” he yelled his name, “Please deduct 5 per cent on gross value.”

Prithvi (in Tamil): “You can get into deep trouble for doing this, Sir…”

Qazi (in Tamil): If that is so, then I will pay out of my pocket. It is important to please the customer. Plus, let us not fight with newly weds, paavam.

prithvi reverted to his poker-faced state and put his hand out for the card. Kannan placed the card having understood but not showing that he had, and his purchase was discounted at 35 per cent.

Smiles returned, gratitude was visible and the couple had left. Prithvi greeted the next customer and went on as usual. But when Joseph visited the store next, Prithvi spoke to him in private and pleaded for help.

Prithvi: Sorry, Sir, I tried to do my best but it did not help. Qazi Sir is annoyed with me. I don’t blame him. But I have a duty to perform and making customer happy is not primary. To protect company finances is number one. To tailor the bills to use a voucher is something I cannot encourage.

Joseph: This is a grey area and no one can be held liable. Usually the terms and conditions are spelt out. I know we have not printed the rules but usually the customer knows that these cannot be clubbed; but they demand it all the same. Qazi takes Sales more seriously than is good for our finances ha, ha. We must simplify the promotion to avoid any scope for misinterpretation. Next time, I will sit with you and draft the promotion.

after hearing Qazi’s narrative, it was clear to Joseph why Kannan and Kanchana had been imprinted in all minds. For, today, when they returned to the store, there was a mild buzz among the shop floor staff, “They are back…!” went the chorus.

Kanchana wanted to return the suit because ‘in one wash it has become so bad!’ she said. Deepti, the sales staffer, who had helped her the last time, saw the garment and winced. It was rather badly frayed. Deepti had no idea what could have caused this and called the store manager. Shreya Lajmi, glanced at the kurta and said, “You washed this?”

Kanchana: Yes.

Shreya: Did you not read the tag, it says dry clean!

kanchana was surprised. “Why dry clean? It is cotton!”

Shreya: No, it is Chanderi. Delicate. Has to be dry cleaned.

Kanchana (stuttering and perspiring): I have another dress like this, I hand wash it, it is fine.

Shreya (to Deepti): I also think she has used a brush. The fabric cannot rip like this even if she just washed it. (now turning to Kanchana) Have you never used Chanderi?

kanchana's eyes filled up with the embarrassment. “No, I could never afford such expensive clothes. Because I got gift vouchers for my wedding I bought this, it is so pretty….”

“Well, we cannot do anything,” said Shreya, when Kannan joined them. “Yes, is there another one we can take as replacement?”

Kanchana: They say it has to be dry cleaned only. I did not know.

Kannan (to Shreya): Rubbish! It says ‘Dry Clean Recommended’. That means, it is my choice whether I dry clean or wash!

Shreya (in silky voice): The store recommends dry cleaning. That means you must dry clean. That is very clear. I think you have never used Chanderi before so, … not aware.

Kannan: You please stop telling me my history, instead examine your language skills! Have you bought clothes at Macey’s? At Marks & Spencer’s? Their labels clearly say, 'Dry clean only’ in bold. They don’t use vague words like ‘recommended’ or ‘preferred’! I am sorry, this is unethical and you will refund my money!

Shreya: I am sorry you have all the wrong ideas. We don’t refund where the customer is at fault. This lady has already told me that she did not know how to read the label and that she has never used Chanderi before. Clearly … well, what can I say!

joseph watched this in dismay. Why on earth was Shreya talking like that? He had known her to be a very well-mannered person! And right then, he saw Qazi join them all.

Qazi: Sir, trouble again?

Kannan: I am shocked your garments do not explicitly say ‘Dry Clean’ and this lady here insists it does.

Qazi: Yes, Sir, it says. Here see? “Dry Clean Recommended”.

Kannan: Recommended means that you could dry clean, that is what we suggest. But it does not mean ‘You must dry clean!’
Shreya: I think you need to look up a dictionary.

hurt by the insults hurled at her husband, Kanchana began to cry and ran out of the store.

At this stage, a very distraught Joseph walked towards the melee. By then, a huge argument had ensued and Shreya was saying, “You seem to create trouble with your rudeness every time you are here. The last time too you were so obnoxious!”

Just as Kannan was saying, ‘How dare you!’ Joseph walked into the eye of the storm with, “I am Joseph and I am the GM. You, Sir, come this way, let us see how we can help you.” And with one fluttering move of his arm he signalled to everyone else to disperse.

Presently he had apologised to Kannan who had returned with a wet-faced Kanchana on his arms, and offered to refund the cost. All ended well for the time being.
Later Aiyer, the coach-trainer, analysed. “Although there are justifications in certain instances when the staff are rude, as in the last time when Kannan talked badly to Prithvi, in many cases there is no justifiable reason, like Shreya talking down to Kannan. The only explanation is that Shreya is not bothered.

“Store staff are usually blunt in their use of words, rather crass I would say, mindless even, when they talk among themselves. Stores should ensure that staff use the same manner and style at all times. In a supermarket I was in, an elderly lady was looking for some spice. There was no staffer in sight. She walked out of her aisle and asked for help . Another alley sales girl went up to a colleague in the next aisle where I was, and said, ‘Go to 27, woh buddhi ko kuch chahiye.’ That was most rude.

“These instances are a reflection of the cost pressures in Indian retail and not having enough margins with which to remunerate well. Value formats like supermarkets and hypermarkets tend to hire a very, very basic kind of person who will do the tasks assigned and provide minimal service, but zero on etiquette. That is their quality and nothing can be done about it, unless you train them.

Joseph: Nothing explains rudeness.

Aiyer: If customers respect store staff, it somehow flows back. Truth, Joseph, is that customers can afford to show politeness which they don’t. For example, staff are trained to wish and smile at the customers. Over the years, the staff have stopped doing this because most customers ignore the staff member. If any help is required they might call out with a silly ‘O, Hullo!’ Nowadays, staff who are told to wish and smile, push back and ask, ‘What should we do when customers ignore us?’

What will you answer, Joseph?”

Also read: Anil Menon | V. Rajesh