Customer Disservice in the Name of Service

What could be the height of customer service – this question was answered by a former Managing Director of LIC of India during an informal gathering – and he had described it as a hypothetical episode:

“A customer walks into the LIC office, a multi storey building in south Mumbai, gets his life insured, climbs up to the top, and takes a jump from top which would definitely result into his death. While he is falling down, an LIC official extends his hand out of the window and presses a cheque for his claim settlement, so that the claim is in already in his hand when he is hits the ground and is discovered dead.”

Howsoever macabre the narration may feel, the reality of expectations both from the point of customer and customer-service personnel is captured realistically.

Marketing chases growth through a combination of four basic approaches –

expand the possibility for consumption,

enlarge the number of occasions for consumption,

swell the number of consumers, and

increase consumption per occasion of consumption.

A simple example for any typical mouth-wash will show the above approaches in practice. Let us understand the product and its evolution.

We have probably been cleaning our teeth ever since humans began using tools. From toothbrushes made out of sticks, to dental floss made out of horse hair, we have always been mindful of our oral health. But what about a mouthwash and when did we start swishing liquid around hoping for cleaner mouths?

There are references to mouthwash in Chinese, Greek, Egyptian and Roman literature, but the most well recorded early instances of humanity using mouthwash comes from ancient Rome, in A.D. 1. The Romans used to buy bottles of Portuguese urine and use that as a rinse. GROSS! Importing bottled urine became so popular that the emperor Nero taxed the trade. The ammonia in urine was thought to disinfect mouths and whiten teeth, and urine remained a popular mouthwash ingredient until the 18th century. [So much for the modernists of the world who ridicule, deride, mock and scorn at the medicinal use of urine of cows and auto-urine therapists like Morarji Desai]

People have used some strange combinations – besides urine – as mouthwash. Tortoise blood was once thought to disinfect mouths and clean teeth, and mixtures of berries, mint leaves and vinegar or wine has also been used as mouthwash. In the 12th century, Saint Hildegard von Bingen advocated that swishing pure, cold water could remove plaque and tartar.

Known as the “father of modern microbiology,” Anton van Leeuwenhoek is credited for discovering oral bacteria in the 18th century. Upon his discovery, he experimented with a variety of solutions that could kill the bacteria. Leeuwenhoek discovered that he could immobilize and kill bacteria by dousing them in ammonia and/or alcohol. It is around this time that alcohol became the most popular ingredient used in mouthwash – and it is still used today!

In 1865, English doctor Joseph Lister became the first surgeon to perform an operation in a chamber that had been sterilized with antiseptic – a practice that was very uncommon. After Lister’s practice was discovered to reduce mortality rates, it became a more widespread practice.

Inspired by Dr. Lister, Robert Wood Johnson and Dr. Joseph Lawrence modernized surgical sterilization practices and established the iconic company Johnson & Johnson. In 1879, Dr. Lawrence created Listerine – a mouthwash used for cleaning mouths and sterilizing surgical wounds.

By 1895, Listerine was sold to Lambert Pharmaceutical Co. and dentists began to observe the cleaning power of the mouthwash. In 1914, Listerine became the first prescription mouthwash to be sold over the counter in the United States.

Today, we can buy mouthwash for gum health, to help with plaque build-up and to prevent gingivitis. There is mouthwash for just about every oral ailment that we can have. [expand the possibility for consumption].

We are advised to use mouthwash every time we brush our teeth but also before every social interaction [enlarge the number of occasions for consumption].

Mouthwash is for everyone, adolescents, adults and the elderly, with normal oral health [swell the number of consumers].

We are advised not to dilute the mouthwash, its pungency being an indicator of its efficiency and to use sufficient (more) quantity of mouthwash – as per the measuring cup provided free – every time we use it [increase consumption per occasion to consume].

In the pursuit for such growth in sales, more particularly in case of consumption of services, machine driven CRM software has had a field day. CRM specialists can be heard professing, “If you are not focused on receiving and using customer feedback, you are missing out on an amazing growth tool. Gathering customer feedback throughout the entire customer journey is of great importance to the buyer life cycle, marketing campaigns and the entire consumer experience. As focuses shift to improving this experience, continuous feedback will be required.”

There are other claims of the kind, “Due to the recent technology and digital transformation boom, an entire ‘customer revolution’ has taken place and a new breed of informed and socially engaged Customer 2.0 has appeared. No longer is price or product the reason why a customer does business with you. Today, it’s all about the customer experience. To be competitive, you need to go above and beyond expectations and deliver a great experience.”

While all such exaggerated statements are correct, the missing link is treating a customer as a human being with ‘individualized identity’ and not as a commodity.

A sad and inhuman experience a few months back is an example of how customers are undifferentiated items of a commodity. [This is not a made up story and I have documented evidence to prove it should the hospital in question wish to challenge it].

Smt xxxxxx Gupta, mother of my close friend breathed her last at a premier private hospital in Jaipur.  Since CRM systems of hospitals maintain Customer-records in the name of patients, their automated CRM system sent a message “Dear xxxxxx Gupta, Thank you for availing services at Fortis. Request you to spare 60 seconds to share your experience with us. Click here: https://tinyurl.com/y3pufy8n?id=FxBCHqV8a

The system did not capture that Smt xxxxxx Gupta was already dead. My friend, a higher-ranking vice-chancellor, was crestfallen with the experience. He responded, “on behalf of my mother in the heaven, I am sending you the following response… ‘your customer service manager is welcome to visit me here in this tranquil and serene place (cremation ground) for a feedback’ …”

The CRM system was at its best in replying to late Smt xxxxxx Gupta, “Thank you for your valuable feedback.   We are sorry to learn that your experience wasn’t up to your satisfaction. We have taken your feed back into consideration and shall take appropriate action. We wish you good health always.”

The counter-response to the reply supplied by my friend against the request for feedback from late Smt xxxxxx Gupta is rubbing salt in fresh wounds.

What has really gone wrong? The answer is simple – the CRM database refuses to acknowledge the difference between a customer and a consumer. In this case, Smt xxxxxx Gupta was a consumer while her son was the customer. The contact details captured were of the customer but the feedback was being solicited from the consumer. The CRM system did not know if it was seeking feedback from the consumer of the customer. This is a case where the consumer is dead and the post sales feedback has rendered a disservice to the customer.

I have had personal experiences of receiving unending trail of phone calls from Maruti Authorised Nexa Service Stations chasing me for feedback, so much so that upon my refusal to provide feedback, I have been chastened by the customer service executives that I was legally duty-bound to provide the feedback. I have evidence to prove that the nuisance did not stop much until after I had escalated my suffering and harassment to the senior management of Maruti Udyog Limited.

These days, I and my spouse are suffering at the incompetent, uncaring and arrogant customer service team at Axis Bank. They are very good at hitting the self-esteem of their customers. We have been their customer since last 25-years. I have taken up the matter with the RBI Ombudsman and hope that the service failure is now dealt with quickly and squarely. A similar unpleasant experience with Corporation Bank was dealt with by their management very quickly and humanely where I was treated with dignity. They have succeeded in retaining me as their customer.

It is unfortunate that many service providers use Customer feedback to soften and pre-empt customer reaction to lapses in service rendered rather than any genuine concern for better customer service or improved customer experience.

It is time for the customer to stop taking bullshit from marketers and service-providers. It is time for the customer to REJECT such marketers and RAISE VOICE against such disservice.

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First published 17 Dec 2020

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“Likes” “Follows” “Shares” and “Comments” welcome.

We hope the conversations that take place will be energetic, constructive, and thought-provoking. To ensure the quality of the discussion, comments may be edited for clarity, length, and relevance. Comments that are overly promotional, mean-spirited, or off-topic may be deleted.

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Published by

Mukul Gupta

*Educator, researcher, author and a friendly contrarian* Professor@MDIGurgaon

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