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How often do we pause and ponder about industry issues that have a bearing beyond just our rigmaroles? Share insights that can further the common understanding? Or, at the very least, point at things that need to be set right. View Point - an exchange4media platform, will fill this void and become a source of understanding, action and perhaps some inspiration.

Attack of the delight providers


Ashish Misra, Vice President, The Henley Centre

A new mantra has dawned on the firmament of customer relations. Many years in the making the new reality in service delivery is finally amongst us. Let me confess - the increasing awareness of the thrust that companies have started to put into their customer facing efforts has been with me for quite a while but I have been literally assaulted by their intensity in recent times. I admit that the experience has not been altogether negative but it does raise issues on the need for a more strategic orientation to customer service and satisfaction.

But lets start at the beginning - I recently drove into a petrol station in a fairly pensive mood with my mind occupied by quite a few issues. I had barely brought the car to a halt at a service point when I saw about seven attendants swarming around the car. What transpired was fascinating. One enquired if I needed a premium version of fuel [which I declined and I could sense a visible loss of respect], another started cleaning the already sparkling windshield of my vehicle. While all this was going on a third and fourth person had already tried to sell me an engine care lotion [again with no success] and dived under the bonnet to fiddle with the complex insides of my automobile. As this energetic street play unraveled the thought in my mind was that I only required a 'no frill fill up' and head home fast. I did not need this level of service.

Its not service alone, its about exceeding key consumer expectations

Most businesses, whether B2B or B2C, need to segregate their customer satisfaction drivers into two key areas: hygiene and motivation. There needs to be a clear understanding that fulfillment of consumer expectations has a cost attached to it. And also that in a bouquet of 5 core consumer expectations it may suffice to service 3 to a level of hygiene and provide delight in two areas that have a direct impact on new consumer acquisition or loyalty.

Lets take an example, a mobile phone service provider may invest a couple of crores of rupees into its consumer service enhancement programme through training and acquisition of technology. However if the key drivers of consumer retention are service coverage span and pricing of packages then that service provider would be under threat from a service provider whose delight focus is on coverage area and competitive pricing. A clear case, then, for tailoring service delivery to a threshold level and investing aggressively in delight led factors.

The importance of consumer ITEMS

A few years back The Henley Centre, on the basis of extensive research in Western Europe, propounded that in most consumer decision making situations money is not the only resource that matters. The classical paradigm has definitely been that consumers buy goods and services in exchange for a consideration, usually money. Delve a little deeper into the consumer buying process and the truth hits you between the eyes. Consumers are constantly negotiating between 5 key resources: Information, Time, Energy, Money and Space [therefore, ITEMS]. The audit of these consumer ITEMS is critical especially as new brands prepare for launch and need to calibrate levels of service delivery and assess relative chances of success. Lets again take an example from the mobile telephone business. In a given regional market it may be possible that consumers are relatively dissatisfied with the incumbent service provider. However, moving from one service provider to another is Energy intensive business. For today's Time and Energy starved consumers a more efficient offering may not enjoy automatic success. New entrants will definitely need to calibrate deliveries on key technology led aspects and also provide a mechanism that facilitates the consumer's innate desire to migrate to a new, more efficient option.

Caffeine Sutra for troubled times

I am slightly embarrassed as I share the other incident that resulted in my current introspection. I recently walked into a new generation coffee bar in one of Mumbai's upscale shopping locales. I must confess that not having visited a Starbucks ever and having been brought up on a staple of good old south Indian filter coffee this was a lesson on how behind the times I really was. An aggressively cheerful young man behind the counter greeted me. He wished me and enquired about my health. Not being one to share my medical condition with strangers I mumbled something and asked for coffee. He played back six choices and complimented me on my slightly fraying T-shirt. Not clear what any of the choices meant I asked for the only one I could pronounce clearly. A further barrage of choices that included chocolate powder and choice of cream toppings, all of which were going to have a serious impact on my bill size, hit me. All this was supplemented by a rather one sided conversation involving the weather and other inanities. Instead of being a relaxing moment of communion between me and my coffee cup it turned out to be a rather stressful realisation of my failing social skills.

I think the young salesperson was quite personable and efficient and fairly well trained in his lines and approach. The only issue then seems to be that his training did not include a module on approach modification when faced with a surly café dinosaur like me. Fortunately for the coffee business there are not too many of my type left, but an astute trainer would nevertheless build in a module that attempts to handle introverted, coffee illiterate consumers better.

The cost of sustaining consumer delight

In a hundred internal reviews and launch conferences one has heard the refrain that the consumer is king, and that consumer delight will be our only mantra. There is little argument with these statements. In fact almost every study in this area points to the fact that high levels of customer satisfaction have a positive impact on profitability. And further that myriad factors have a causal relationship with customer satisfaction. But every consumer-focussed organisation is also aware of two basic truths:

Firstly those service levels, however ahead of the times they are, become a hygiene expectation within one billing cycle. Today's delight level is tomorrow's necessity and a likely source of consumer dissatisfaction if not maintained. And secondly, a corollary to the first, it is more profitable to raise the satisfaction bar inch by sustainable inch rather than by a delightful leap. As that may not only be sustainable but also save the industry from a situation of declining margins as every player gets involved in an expensive game of 'catch up and get ahead'.

These statements may be heretical to some but most businesses that have introduced new technologies or products into developing markets are well aware of the reality of the situation. Developing and delivering excellence in customer service is a potent competitive advantage. But having once set the level, the cost of falling below expectation has only one consequence, Customer flight - into the arms of a competitive product or service brand.

Strategic approach to customer satisfaction

It has taken less than four years for most customer satisfaction myths to find their level in reality. And many processes are akin to dipping a finger into the bath water to check the suitability of the temperature. In reality, a strategic approach to setting service standards will involve most of the following processes. A competitive audit, assessment of consumer's exposure to international standards and expectation levels, setting service benchmarks, the price value equation of enhanced service delivery, training and alignment of the organisation to building service as a competitive edge and finally a system that tracks and corrects the process on an on going basis.

As the exposure of consumers to service best practices rises, the delivery of satisfaction and delight becomes a double edged sword - open to flanking if you are not up there with the best, and at risk of early marginalisation if you deliver too much too soon. Of course, even as I write this I am aware that many readers are going to violently advocate that there is no such thing as 'too much too soon' when it comes to customer satisfaction.

Acceptance of that point of view, unfortunately, will be the victory of emotion over science.

       
 
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