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:

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.


First published 17 Dec 2020


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Is Journalism Dead?

Journalism in India was once a profession, so we had heard. It has now become a trade. It has no more moral function than the selling of pizza, a fast and convenient food item of suspicious nutritional value. Journalists and press no longer regard themselves as responsible advisers of the public. To give the news uncoloured by any motive, to present a certain view of public policy which it believes to be for the good of the community, to correct and chastise without fear all those, no matter how high, who have chosen a wrong or a barren path, is not regarded by journalism in India as its first or foremost duty.

To anoint a hero, and worship him, has become the principal duty or mission of the journalists. Under this new configuration, news is replaced by sensation, reasoned opinion by unreasoning passion, and appeal to the minds of responsible people by appeal to the emotions of the irresponsible.

The script is written by drum-beaters to glorify their heroes. Never has the interest of country been sacrificed so senselessly for the propagation of hero-worship. Never has hero-worship become as blind as we see it today in India and may the rest of the world. There are some honourable exceptions, but they are too few and their voice is never heard.

Entrenched behind the plaudits of the Press, the spirit of domination exhibited by the politicians, has transgressed all limits. By their domination they have demoralised their followers and demoralised politics. By their domination they have made half their followers fools and the other half hypocrites. In establishing their supremacy they have taken the aid of “big business” and money magnates. For a long time now, in our country, money is taking the field as an organised power. The questions which, we, the people, are not willing to answer are:

WHO SHALL RULE – wealth or man?

WHICH SHALL LEAD – money or intellect?

WHO SHALL HOLD PUBLIC OFFICES – educated and patriotic free men or the feudal serfs of corporate Capital?

For the present, Indian politics, instead of being spiritualised, has become grossly commercialised, so much so that it has become a byword for corruption. Journalists and media have become willing accomplices. Politics and journalism have together constituted a kind of an intolerably insanitary sewage system.

Though it may be interesting or even entertaining, the foremost value of news is as a utility to empower the informed. The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments. Media used to be a carrier – a carrier of news, journalistic opinion, entertainment and advertising. Today, media has become synonymous with press and journalism. Coupled with social-media, print, television, internet and other in-pocket-media makes news which the journalists follow and report. Journalist and newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, the “Father of Journalism” (born as Jozsef Politzer in Hungary in 1847) must be turning in his grave in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Where has this so called pillar of democracy gone – wo haben wir erreicht – donde hemos llegado – où avons-nous attaint – यह कहां आ गये हम…….?

(first published 23 Aug 2020)


“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.

Focus on people’s love, not hate- Oh! Marketing Guys

Remember (?) advertising for ‘Dove’ – as in “Dove is not a soap – it is one quarter moisturising crème.” This refers to calling attention to the positioning of the product category but refuting it for the brand in the same category. This is not positioning Dove as not being a soap but highlighting a product attribute which other brands in the category may not have – it’s competitive parity method of positioning a brand against a category – the point of parity being that ‘Dove is in fact a soap’ yet the point of difference being – it is different from all other soaps in terms of its product attribute resulting into a differential (superior) consumer benefit.

Marketing for products promising sustainability has usually seen their positioning as what they “weren’t.” (it is analogous to saying ‘Dove is in fact not a soap’ which was never the intent or the meaning in its communication actually). Products promising sustainability are a different product category in terms of their attributes (points of difference) but using parity of benefits with a less sustainable category, which they wish to take on. The proposition here is same consumer benefits, entirely different attributes and an Extra value proposition of sustainability and ethicality.

Notice these:

  1. Mock Meat isn’t meat. (Good for vegetarians and vegans). Mock meat, also known as meat analogue, faux meat or vegan meat, is a cruelty-free substitute for animal-derived meat. It looks like meat, cooks like meat and tastes like meat but it’s healthier, better for the environment and doesn’t involve killing any animals. Today, mock meat brands are emerging in India, and are armed with numerous kinds of textured meat. You could literally replace meat in any recipe with mock meat and it will be the same. Some brands are on the market –
  • Veggie Champ
  • Good Dot
  • Vegeta Gold
  • Vezlay
  • Vegitein


  1. Solar isn’t fossil fuel. (Good for environment) The climate change openly call for the world to make a shift to an alternate fuel; a fuel that brings with itself both the dependability and usability of fossil fuels. Some players in India’s solar industry are:
  • Tata Power Solar Systems Ltd.
  • Kotak Urja Pvt. Ltd.
  • Moser Baer Solar Ltd.
  • Indosolar Ltd.
  • Photon Energy Systems Ltd.
  1. Soy milk isn’t a dairy product. (Good for vegans and people with dairy allergies) Some brands on the market:
  • Sofit
  • Soy Milky
  • So Good
  • Soyfresh
  • Soyvita

Positioning against the negative helped companies attract consumers who were revolting against the polluting impacts of standard manufacturing practices and products. But doing so ignored what potential customers still wanted, whether a product was sustainable or not: delicious in taste, high on performance, reliable in terms of quality and comfort, and overall satisfaction.

Many eco-conscious consumers have given up meat grudgingly. But that doesn’t mean they don’t miss the savoury taste of a good burger.  It is not a good idea to build a brand by telling people not to eat what they love; instead, encourage people to eat more of their favourite food — just a healthier, more humane, more sustainable version.

Consider the following suggestions and examples for focussing on people’s love rather than their hate –

  1. Consumers shopping for fuel-efficient cars were convinced they had to sacrifice safety and speed. People don’t just buy a car, they invest in a brand. Build a brand on what most of the drivers would value above fuel efficiency – delivering the high level of quality and performance – but bringing along fuel efficiency too.
  2. Women don’t want to give up make-up. But beauty products contain many toxic chemicals. What’s the choice? Risk cancer or go make-up free? The opportunity lies in developing innovative products that provide the same level of beauty as their conventional counterparts conforming to new standard of safety which you set to lead the industry.
  3. Most domestic gadgets, appliances and lighting brands can stretch the technology and stress their technological prowess but declare, “Saving energy is a beautiful thing.” Not that it saves money or is good for the planet, both of which are true.
  4. Government is enacting plastic bag fees and other laws to reduce use of plastic bags. Retailers and departmental stores are on a mission in stopping the use of throwaway plastic bags by encouraging shoppers to BYOB (bring your own bag). There lies the opportunity of empowering people to take an active role; giving them a shopping bag which they would love to flaunt: an inexpensive, durable, fashionable and affordable bag they can use over and over and over again. Business could be expanded to co-branding operation so that other businesses can take advantage of the good will that the brand creates in the marketplace and appear to do right by association.
  5. For decades, selling more sustainable products was hindered by limited access to customers because of established channels of distribution — many of which were hard, if not impossible, for purpose-driven brands to infiltrate. Today, organic dairies and cow-milk dairies are surviving by resurrecting the home delivery “milkman.”
  6. Women silently face problems in public washrooms because of unhygienic toilet seats, making them prone to infections. Archit Agarwal realised the problems while compiling a report on the condition of public washrooms. He joined hands with a colleague to plunge into entrepreneurship. They built a novel sanitation device, which allows women to stand and urinate eliminating physical contact of body with dirty toilet seats and with it, the risk of infections. In this social media era of revealing tell-all and first-person narratives, explaining a new product with a compelling origin story sells.

Marketing driven with the purpose of sustainability need not compromise with the wants of the consumers. In fact, sustainability is not anti-consumer satisfaction; it provides additional gratification for the customer and more opportunities for differentiation.


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Envisioning Organizations as Brand Ecosystems

Doctrine of a corporation as a legal person, separate and distinct from the personality of the members who compose it, has been defined and propagated by lawyers and judges. Unless it is a dummy, a corporation would have an organisation comprising of people. How would one describe an organization? One way could be through anthropomorphizing the organizations.

Usually one single word captures the personality of an organization – such as – overbearing or happy or joyful, and so on. This one word description is a collective for the “behavioural” aspects and “personality traits” of the organisation. Does the organisation have fair policies or unfair practices – perhaps an espoused technical superiority of products that is mostly based on copy-paste practices with little advancement led from research effort and innovation?

Who are you and why should we care?” Since the 1950s, companies have turned to externally focused branding methods to answer such questions that consumers ask from them about their businesses. Today, companies face increasingly hyper-connected customers in sceptical marketplace where they want to know the substance beyond the sizzle of advertising. For branding to remain the economic engine it has been over the past 70 years, there has to be an acceptance of the fact that transparency is the new mantra of communications. This amplifies the importance of a strategic approach that engages every corner of the organization — the whole system — in ensuring the walk and talk are aligned.

Where a corporation is signified, corporate brand is the signifier. Borrowing from Edgar Schein (Schein, Edgar H with Schein, Peter: Organizational Culture and Leadership, fifth Edition, Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley, 2017) – if organisation is the body (Artifacts), mind (Espoused Values) and soul (Basic Underlying Assumptions) of a corporation, it is inside this organisation that the corporate brand is conceived, carried, birthed, nurtured, groomed and delivered to business arena as an economic contribution from the corporation. In this vain, organizations can be re-imagined as brand-ecosystems and that may well be the next evolution of branding. This perspective transcends the shiny veneer of the shallow and superficial efforts focused on external communications, first introduced by the men of Advertising, and takes on the responsibility of connecting the sizzle to the substance, a connection which the customers, employees and the world are seeking.

This framework of “Organisations as Brand-Ecosystems” thus defines these components of organizations that must be managed in order to build trustworthy brands as image, identity, culture and vision.

Image is the impression carried in the minds of the audience (customers, consumers and stakeholders) about the culture and the vision of the organisation. Identity is the manifestation of the culture and the vision of the organisation in its policies, products, practices, communications, conduct and response to external and internal stimuli.

Organizational culture is all of those shared norms, beliefs and values that linger in the fabric of the organization. Some of these values are embodied in the policies and procedures while others are an unintended consequence of these same policies, procedures and practices. Vision answers the questions – ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ about an organisation.

In this framework, strategy is redefined as a process of composing the cohesion of the various elements of the system: identity, image, culture and vision. Well-executed strategy produces a tight interlocking of the various elements of the ecosystem. Authenticity and trust, two crucial determinants in attracting and retaining the best and brightest employees and loyal customers, are strengthened, as the twining between the identity storyline (who the organization says it is) and the other parts of the system takes place. This virtuous brand spiral, over time, builds the most valuable asset for any organisation – its reputation – by engaging the most important resource, its people. On the other hand, organizations unable to create this alignment spin into a vicious cycle resulting in dysfunction and distrust of the organization and movement away from the vision of the leadership.

Viewing organizations as brand ecosystems acknowledges the walls that once-separate internal and external audiences have fallen down. Everything is connected, and everything communicates. From thinking of branding as a function owned solely by marketing departments or experts charged with pushing out messaging, this represents an important shift to the realisation that brands are a co-creation, dependent upon engaging all stakeholders in shaping the “meaning” that defines the brand.

When a new vision is introduced that is significantly out of alignment with the existing identity of the organization, a new narrative must be introduced to bring the system into balance and avoid any Identity-Vision Gap. When frustrations emerge among leaders because they feel members of the organization are not, or cannot, deliver on the aspirations for the company, it shows a Vision-Culture Gap. Vision-Image Gap exists when the images held by the marketplace are disconnected from the aspirations of leadership, and it becomes difficult for the organization to move to the next level.  When the organization fails to deliver on the story told to its employees and the marketplace, we say the culture is out of alignment and an Image-Culture Gap has set in. Gaps in the ecosystem are symptoms of weak brands.

Organizations will find the brand ecosystem a valuable framework in producing both a brand that people trust and, over time, a reputation that builds sustainable success.


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3-Point Agenda for Marketing

Sustainable Marketing, Responsible Consumption and Healthier Choices: Agenda for Practitioners and Academics


Outdated values such as “more is always better” are gone and the world needs a roadmap for 21st-century brand leadership toward sustainable consumption norms. Marketers have to commit to consistently use their advertising voice as a force for the good. To drive tangible action, the advertising must appeal emotionally to viewers’ hearts and rationally to their minds.

The Agenda is actually quite simple:

  • Inspiring Consumers and Companies to Make Healthier Choices – encourage imagery about real people not stereotypes, critique the collateral consequences of consumption vis-à-vis the hyped up real or pseudo-benefits;


  • Promoting Responsible Consumption – inducting the dictum from industry “reduce, reuse, recycle” into the consumption equation; example of single-use plastic; and


  • Making Marketing Strategy Sustainable – Sustainability not as a selling proposition but as a core to driving Marketing action – evaluating it through the filters of Socioeconomic equitability, Social and ecological tolerability, economic and environmental viability and above all sustainable for society, environment, and business.


Putting such strategy to action would need creating lust, craving or desire for sustainability which would in turn require a deep understanding of the core human emotions that drive action, and knowledge of how to reliably elicit these emotions in a market setting. The latter is what the Practitioners and Academics have always been doing or at least claimed to have been doing.


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BRANDS have a ‘HALO’ – BRANDS also have ‘HORNS’

“Customers rationally weigh the pros and cons of competing products to select one that best fits their needs,” this is the classical economic view of consumer decision-making; but watch or ask anyone who has compulsively bought a giant block of “Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Silk” at 3:00 am and one realises that purchasing decisions are not always so logically driven. Consumers report a desire to buy sustainable products, but their purchasing decisions do not always reflect that desire.

The psychological processes that influence this intention-action gap are being explored through the field of decision neuroscience. Neuroscientists conduct experiments using tools such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to explore the activation of different brain regions. Certain regions of the brain are activated when a customer makes purchasing decisions. Scientists have observed reduced activation in the reward system in the brain when consumers are viewing ‘green’ ads.

Because consumers are not aware of their own psychological factors at play in decision-making, the best way to capture these processes is to use measures that don’t rely on a conscious response, such as reaction time measures, eye tracking or “fast” choice tasks. By coupling these with more traditional market research methods, such as surveys, one can paint a fuller picture of the rational and irrational components in the product-purchasing process.

Emotional intensity during the purchasing process can be monitored through physiological methods, including electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures brain waves; or galvanic skin response (GSR), which measures the amount of sweat conductance on the skin. These studies have indicated that ‘green’ consumer decision-making involves a high degree of emotional processing.

In a recent study a combination of eye tracking, biometrics, and EEG was used to explore the effect of food cues on consumer choices. The study first measured consumer responses to a variety of brands, creating a hierarchy of brand perceptions that ranged from “healthy” to “unhealthy.” Healthy and unhealthy brands were then paired with healthy or unhealthy foods and displayed to the consumer — for example; a McDonald’s salad represents an unhealthy brand selling a healthy food.

The study revealed two phenomena — the HALO effect, where people believe that the unhealthy foods marketed by healthy brands are better for them; and the HORNS effect, where consumers believe that the healthy products sold by unhealthy brands are more harmful to health. The study has implications for the obesity crisis, as consumers may be purchasing high-calorie foods from “healthy” brands without realizing that they have made an unhealthy choice. It is also possible that these two phenomena could also be at play in consumer perceptions of “sustainable” and “unsustainable” brands.

The consumers are willing to accept a black coloured (product attribute) toothpaste for making their teeth shining and pearly white but they may be unwilling to accept Woodland, Kiwi, Brasso, Silvo or CherryBlossom toothpaste. How about a Colgate Shoe polish?

(Fresh from the conclave of over 2000 representatives from the global community of Marketers and Neuroscientists on June 04, 2018 at Vancouver, Canada)


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