Are all customers equal? Or are some customers more equal than others?

A couple of days back, I visited the local branch of a bank to get a Demand Draft. When I reached the counter, the officer greeted me with a smile and put out his hand to collect my DD Application, coolly ignoring three customers who were already waiting there. I returned the smile and the greeting, but did not hand over my DD Application. Instead, I gestured to him to first attend to the other customers. After he had collected their DD Applications, I handed over mine to him and sat on a chair in the waiting area. Instead of processing the DD Applications in the sequence in which he had received them, he processed my DD Application first and handed it to the clerk sitting next to him with an audible instruction to print my DD immediately. I received my DD within 3 minutes of handing over the application! (The norm is 10 minutes.)

This was my first encounter with this particular officer since he had only recently been transferred to this branch. Then, why had he given me preferential treatment even though I had clearly shown that I didn’t want it? The answer is simple. On the basis of appearance and attire, he had decided that I am a ‘privileged’ customer, while the other three were ‘non-privileged’ customers!

In most banks and offices, I have seen that all customers are NOT treated equally. ‘Privileged’ customers are generally treated well, while ‘non-privileged’ customers generally have to put up with curt behaviour.

Customers are classified as ‘privileged’ or ‘non-privileged’ on the basis of economic status, political ‘connections’, skin colour, religion, caste, educational background, profession, etc..

Even when there are machine-operated systems, the bank/office personnel manage to give ‘privileged’ customers preferential treatment. For example, many banks have a token system for cash transactions or for updating Pass Books. Tokens are issued by a machine, and customers are attended to strictly as per their token numbers. However, the treatment given to each customer generally (not always) varies. Most of the time, care is taken to ensure that ‘privileged’ customers are issued only new notes or notes that are in good condition, while ‘non-privileged’ customers generally get the older notes. Pass Books of ‘privileged’ customers are updated immediately, while ‘non-privileged’ customers are often asked to wait or to collect their updated Pass Books the next day.

What is the solution? In his book ‘A Better India: A Better World’, N. R. Narayana Murthy states:
“Technology is a great leveller. It does not distinguish between the rich and the poor. For, example, one of my younger colleagues who is a janitor at Infosys is happy to use an ATM because it does not discriminate against him – unlike the clerk at the manned bank counter.”

I have myself seen how ATMs do not discriminate against customers on any basis. The last time I visited the ATM near my house, one person came out after using the ATM and another who had been waiting went in to use the ATM. I waited for my turn. The first person was the young man who delivers milk to all the residents of our apartment complex. The second was a woman who works as a billing clerk at the local supermarket. The three of us received service in the sequence that we had reached the ATM. The ATM treated all three of us equally.

Introduction of technology will definitely help in reducing the inequalities in our society. Till some years back, a telephone at home was a luxury that could be enjoyed by very few people. Today, almost everybody has a mobile phone. There are many such examples.

However, will all this really change our ‘mindset’? Will it lead to a truly egalitarian society?

What do you think?

(This post was originally published on Nov 09, 2013.)

Honesty is the best policy

One afternoon, a new customer entered our office and asked to meet me. He told me that one of our existing customers had asked him to contact me, and gave a brief description of the equipment that he needed urgently. I confirmed to him that the equipment he needed could be supplied by us. The price was Rs. 20,000 + 10 % Sales Tax. Luckily, we had one piece in stock! He immediately confirmed that he would buy the equipment and would give us a cheque for Rs. 22,000. At that point, I asked him what exactly he needed the equipment for. After hearing his reply, I told him that the equipment we supplied was too precise for his work. I informed him that his requirement could be fulfilled by a similar product supplied by another company. That equipment was less precise than ours, but the price would also be lower by 50% or more. In response to his request, I gave him the address of that company.

After the customer left, my colleague, who was a few years my senior, expressed his exasperation at the fact that I had turned away a customer who was about to give me an order with full payment. “You are totally unsuitable for sales!” he declared. I shrugged and replied that my conscience did not permit me to let the customer buy something that he did not really need. If that meant I was unfit for a sales job, so be it!

This incident was soon forgotten by us since the particular equipment was among the lowest priced items in our product range.

About 6 months later, the same customer came to our office and met me. He had received a huge export order, and had to increase his production capacity. He gave me a list of the equipment that he needed. I told him that we could supply all the equipment in the list, but, again, I wanted to be sure that the equipment that we supplied would be most suitable for his requirement. After discussing for a few minutes, I confirmed that our equipment did meet his requirement. The total cost would be Rs.1.8 million + 10 % Sales Tax. The equipment could be delivered about 4 to 5 weeks after we received an order with 10 % advance. He immediately confirmed his order and gave me a cheque for Rs. 180,000. I was surprised that he had made a decision so quickly. I asked him if he had taken competitive offers from any other suppliers. He replied that he did not need any competitive offers. Based on our earlier encounter, he was sure that, if any other equipment was better suited for his requirement, I would have told him so myself!

After the customer left, I turned to my colleague and said, “We got a huge order on a platter today because, that day, I LOST the order but I WON the customer’s confidence!”

(This post was originally published on August 10, 2013 as Is honesty the best policy?)

Even a ‘common person’ can successfully fight for her/his rights!

I’m quite certain that, after reading my post Axis Bank pays Dipika Pallikal compensation of Rs. 500,000 for deficiency in service!, quite a few persons would have thought that Dipika Pallikal would have got justice only because she is a celebrity and a resourceful person.

On November 9, 2014, newindianexpress.com published the following report under the headline Conductor Pays for Fleecing Disabled Girl:

“A physically-challenged girl has won a compensation of Rs 27,000 from a TNSTC (Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation) conductor who charged her extra for a bus ride in 2011 even though she was granted concession by the Tamil Nadu government. The order was passed by the Villupuram Consumer Court on Friday.

R Rajeshwari (21), of Assur village near Vikravandi, had boarded a Villupuram zone TNSTC bus with her father to go to her native from Tirupati on August 8, 2011. When conductor Sampath came to collect the ticket fare, she produced the concession pass for physically-challenged persons. Sampath, however, claimed the pass was not valid outside the State and demanded that she pay the normal fare.

When Rajeshwari and her father tried explaining to him the government norms printed on the pass, the conductor reportedly behaved rudely and charged them Rs 198 each instead of Rs 49.50. As per rules, a physically-challenged person holding the pass should be charged only one fourth of the actual fare in all TNSTC buses. The concession is also applicable to one of the persons accompanying the pass holder.

After collecting the necessary information from TNSTC officials, Rajeshwari filed a case against Sampath in the Villupuram Consumer Court in August 2012. When the case came up for hearing on Friday, Magistrate R Ganesan ordered Sampath to pay Rs 27,000 as compensation within two months.”

Ms. R. Rajeshwari is not the only beneficiary of her victory. Henceforth, every TNSTC bus conductor will think twice before denying any passenger her/his rights!

Ms. R. Rajeshwari, who appears to be a ‘common person’, has taught all of us ‘common persons’ that we can, and must, always fight for our rights!

Handling customer grievances

My post Sweet gesture or publicity stunt? was about a customer who received a package from Snapdeal containing a bar of Vim soap and a brick instead of the Samsung Core 2 Duos smartphone ordered and paid for by him. The issue was resolved a week later, but it’s clear that Snapdeal took their time to respond to this customer’s complaint, if one goes by his first comment on Facebook: “Beware of Snapdeal guys!! It’s a fraudulent e-retail company. We have lost our money and there’s been no response from Snapdeal whatsoever.”

Quite a few persons have found that, when they have complained regarding defective products, poor service, wrong billing, etc., the supplier of the product/service does not respond or claims that there was no mistake on their part.

How should customer grievances be handled? I will share one of my own experiences.

About 16 years back, my company had introduced a foreign manufacturer’s brand in India by displaying the manufacturer’s machines at an international trade show at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi. Most of the exhibitors at such trade shows try to ensure that their exhibits sport ‘SOLD’ boards. Despite our brand being new to India, we had managed to secure confirmed orders for all 3 displayed machines from one customer well before the trade show had started.

Immediately after the completion of such trade shows, the customs clearance of machines sold during or before the trade show is done at the venue, with the venue being treated as the point of entry into India. Machines that remain unsold are ‘re-exported’ to the manufacturers.

After this particular trade show, the customs clearance of all sold machines was delayed by almost one month for some reason.

Immediately after our customer’s machines reached his factory, our service team started the installation and commissioning work. Our Service Manager reported to me that, on a couple of occasions, the customer had remarked bitterly that he had incurred a loss of about Rs. 150,000 due to the delay in customs clearance.

The customer had not spoken about this matter to me. Neither the customer nor we were responsible in any way for the delay in customs clearance. However, I felt that it was not fair that our customer had to suffer this loss for no fault of his. I reported the matter to my Managing Director and suggested that we should pay the customer Rs. 75,000 as a gesture of solidarity. My MD accepted my suggestion without any question.

The day after the machines had been commissioned, my MD and I visited the customer. After ascertaining that the customer was completely satisfied with the installation and commissioning, my MD handed over a cheque for Rs. 75,000 to the customer and explained that this was our way of sharing our customer’s anguish.

The customer was pleasantly shocked!

Did we do this as a ‘sales strategy’? No. We did this because we felt this was the correct thing to do. (16 years back, when this incident took place, Rs. 75,000 was a much more substantial amount than it is today!)

What do you, as an observer, have to say about how we handled this customer grievance?

How would you have felt if you were the customer?

What would you have done if you were the supplier?

(This is a re-post, with a few changes of Handling customer grievances, which was originally posted on October 01, 2013.)

Sweet gesture or publicity stunt?

About 2 weeks back, Laxminarayan Krishnamurthy received a package from Snapdeal. He was shocked to find that, instead of containing the Samsung Core 2 Duos smartphone ordered and paid for by him, the package contained a bar of Vim soap and a brick! He described this on Facebook on October 24, 2014, stating, “Beware of Snapdeal guys!! It’s a fraudulent e-retail company. We have lost our money and there’s been no response from Snapdeal whatsoever.” On October 28, he commented, “Snapdeal has finally promised to return the money within 5-6 working days!!”

On November 3, 2014, Firstpost reported that Hindustan Unilever Limited sent Laxminarayan Krishnamurthy a Samsung Core 2 Duos phone with a letter that read:
“The pictures you posted online show that our brand was used in this incident. Vim is one of our iconic brands with some great consumer franchise. We felt bad about it, not to mention what you went through. Here is a small gesture from our side to cheer you up.”

Opinion is divided about Hindustan Unilever Limited’s action. While some people agree that it’s a sweet gesture, others dismissed it as a publicity stunt.

What do you think?