Post-liberalization India – Free For All?

My Airtel broadband was down (second time in a month) so I called Airtel customer service number from my Airtel mobile number. For about two hours, I couldn’t get through ‘cause the “network was busy”. Finally four hours later when I tried again, I got through. By “got through”, I mean, I got through to the irritating menu system. I punched in my account number, reason for calling, type of problem and finally over five minutes of this annoying IVR later, a real live person came online. And her first question to me is, “what is your account number?”

What the hell is wrong with this company? All this song and dance on their stupid menu is just a delaying tactic? Why should the customer provide the same information twice? That too in its entirety! And lo behold, after giving my account number, she asked me the reason for my call. After being told that my broadband was down, her immediate question was when I last paid my bill, the snide implication being that perhaps my payment delinquency was the reason for non-service.

First, that may well be the reason. However, shouldn’t a telecom company of Airtel’s size have at least sorted out these basic customer service questions? Should these questions need to be asked to the customer instead of being shown on the customer service rep’s screen as soon as I call? After I told her to look it up herself, it took her a good minute to figure out that my payment in fact was not overdue. And then about seven minutes after I was connected, did she actually get to (attempting) to solving my problem. Attempt ‘cause problem was not solved. All I got was a reference number and an unapologetic four hour wait time.  So about eight hours of work day downtime, pretty much the whole day.

Where’s the mea culpa? There’s none. This is the same company that will send reminder text messages for bill payments, even before the payment is due! And a day late will attract late fee charges. However, there’s no refund for service downtime. There’s also no refund if they add some “service” to your account without your permission. Those annoying “hello tunes” is a classic example. Suddenly callers are hearing some embarrassing song instead of the classing ring tone; yet can you get a refund without a ridiculously long phone call with some untrained newbie on the other side? The thing is, each such transgression costs the customer very little and thus disincents the long annoying phonecall; however, the volumes make a large amount of money for the company.

This kind of annoying in-your-face, bordering or outright illegal “marketing” and deterrent reparation processes is not isolated to Airtel.  All service companies that have grown helter-skelter in the past few years, notably telecom and financial services companies have done so on the back of predator marketing, ill-equipped infrastructure, and of course speed-trained (hence untrained) customer service representatives who are unable to handle even the slightest deviation from whatever crap script they get to read from. Where the customer is at fault either due to neglect or due to plain ignorance (in the case of many new users of service), customer will pay. If the company is at fault, even then the user will pay.

This raises a serious question. In a country where the population is not previously exposed to organized retail and/or service, who should bear the cost of educating and organizing the customer? Post-liberalization, large multinational companies flocked to India salivating at the prospect of one of the world’s largest consumer base. However, since per-capita incomes are so low here, profits are driven by volume as opposed to high margins. This means that the marginal value of each customer is very little and hence, it makes dollar/rupee sense to reduce after sales-service to a bare minimum to the point of ignoring the customer.  However, it is not acceptable for these companies to reduce their after sales service standards (to reduce costs) to such an extent that a new user would almost surely get lost in the maze. If adequate levels of customer service are not profitable, then they shouldn’t be in the business; taking advantage of an unexposed and unorganized populace is pure predatory.

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3 responses to “Post-liberalization India – Free For All?

  1. You are right aboout the post sales service of most of the Indian companies. However this is not limited to India only, you could find this at many globally known brands as well where yoou fight your way through IVR after punching countless options and numbers and the first person would ask you some of the questions again.
    However to be fair with Airtel (or similar companies in India), you would be surprised (or may be shocked) to learn that some of the customers actually clueless what IVR ask them to do and end up to customer care (Insider’s experience). Regarding unwanted hello tunes, I read a while ago that a lawyer successfully sued Vodafone for changing her ringtone.

    So I guess you have raised a valid point here regarding educating the general population about organised retail and service as well as organisations to raise standards for after sales service.

  2. “In a country where the population is not previously exposed to organized retail and/or service, who should bear the cost of educating and organizing the customer?” Answer is “Market” . If market is allowed to take its toll then the problem of standards will reduce tremendously over some time. Problem is the political-economic situation in India does not let market forces act completely to the fullest extent. Another cornerstone to improving the overall quality is to have an independent regulator(and i mean really independent) and a quick judicial redress system. This is the job of the government instead of distributing sub standard pulses through the PDS.

    Obviously this is not going to happen any time soon, since the political-industrial nexus is too strong. I am amazed at how trivial problems like this need a fundamental solution, such a making election expenses transparent and limitless so that politicians don’t depend on black money of the industries to come to power and then advance their interest.

    Whew sorry Ruchi, I just managed to take your problem with airtel into a full blown problem with the system … but you know what.. its the sad truth.

  3. I share your feelings! Once Airtel decided to give me free sports updates for a month! Every few minutes, an annoying SMS would be received by my phone updating me on some sport event. I went mad on days when 5 day test matches were happening, when I got updates every 5 min.

    On calling up customer care, they had the audacity to tell me that I shouldnt’ be worried as it is free preview for 1 month and later only it would be charged!

    I called up minimum 25 times in a month to get it stopped. At the end it stopped only when they decided to stop the free ‘preview’.

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