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BW Businessworld

Analysis:A Customer In Me

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I am a customer, I am an employee, I am a boss, I am an employer; I have a sister, a wife and a mother. What is strange is that I forget all these roles when I am a customer. I forget that I was a front-end associate before I became a CEO. I wish all of us can keep reflecting on our other sides when we are in a customer’s shoe or in a boss’s role.
To me a brand is the name given to a relationship between a product or service and the consumer. Except for ATMs, I cannot imagine a brand being created without a human interface at the last mile. Even social media brands get created when two people interact with each other online. No brand can be built without a transactional or an emotional relationship at the product or service level.
The case is no stranger to me as I have seen multiple incidents as described in the case and have also seen the consequences of the decisions taken by us, the brand owners. 
Here is one. A gold card-customer from a very influential family was shopping at one of our stores. Having selected a pair of denim capri pants, she went into the trial room. One of our customer care associates, who was attending to her and waiting outside the trial room, saw a pin on the floor and bent to pick it up just as the lady was coming out of the trial room. She saw him bent down, and created a hue and cry alleging that the young man was peeping through the bottom of the door. No amount of explaining, showing the angle of visibility, sharing the background of the person helped. She wanted the associate suspended after he and the store manager had both tendered her with a written apology.
Being an influential customer, the matter went up to the chairman’s office. She would come every day to the store to see if the boy had been sacked. The management investigated and found him at no fault and therefore decided not to suspend him. But we moved him to a store nearby so that she would not hound the store manager or the associate.
If we do not respect our associates and send out a clear message that we will do everything to satisfy a customer but will also do everything to protect the dignity of our employees, we can never build a great customer service organisation, and never a great brand. 
We also have to decide whether we want all customers to be our consumers or do we want only the right kind of consumers. Let us not forget that if an airline develops the image of a poor customer mix, its clientele will fall. How many of us will like to get into a bar where there is a brawl every day? As much as an organisation is selective in the type of employees it hires, we also need to be sure of the kind of customer we want, given the demographic and the psychographic profiles. 
I am not recommending that Samoga airlines announce at its check-in counter, ‘Rights of Admission Reserved’. However, it needs to be clear in its mind that it will run a respectful and dignified business. 
I remember when we opened our store in one of the north Indian states, there were customers who would come with gunmen as their bodyguards (65-years-old, with rusted guns and a big moustache). We realised that this was a status symbol. We definitely wanted the customer but without his gunman. We made a choice and decided to lose such customers, because we did not want the other customers to get scared and leave. We needed to make choices. The Ritz brand of hotels was built on an impeccable motto: “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen”.
When this kind of a motto is adopted, everybody in the company, from the doorman to the chairman, is made aware of what the motto should manifest. Similarly, in the case of Samoga airlines, it is important for the CEO and the management to decide what kind of a company they are going to build. 
I see a lack of clarity between the functions and, therefore, each function is looking at the situation from its point of view. The top management should deliberate upon this, with a cross function team. A revisit followed by an audit of the values of the company, especially towards customers and employees, is essential. Thereafter, a value book with examples and manifestations of values should become part of employee induction and development process. The management must have clarity on their decision in such situations. 
The customer-facing employees and managers are the ones who have to be fully empowered to take a decision on the spot. Supporting them with counsel, coaching and training is key, as is reprimanding them should their decisions be at variance with the established service philosophy. Such employees’ decisions will naturally be respect-worthy and in sync with brand philosophy.
The author is founder of Trust for Retailers and Retail Associates of India & vice-chairman, Shoppers Stop
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-11-2012)