Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Consumer Insight # 4 : Fish Rots From The Tail

There is a book titled " Fish Rots from the Head ", written by Bob Garratt, talks about the role of Board of Directors and the crisis in the boardroom. As the title of the book indicates, Bob feels that the decay of the company often starts with the passive attitude of the Board of Directors.

But I have a different opinion.

Yesterday I went to my bank which is India's largest private sector bank. I have limited my visits to the bank owing to the horrendous customer experience and has been relying on the passive but decent ATMs.

I have been banking with this bank for last five years and I must say that none of the officials including the Branch manager whom I have interacted during the opening of account works here now. It seems that people here changes every week.

I would say that its a clear sign of decay and decay starts with the tail . If Board of Directors are Head, then the front office ( customer service) will be the tail isn't it ?

In a classic article titled " Best Face Forward " in HBR December 2004, the authors Rayport & Jawroski clearly states that in this competitive world, customer service or rather customer experience is the only available competitive advantage.

But we can see that many companies turning a blind spot when it comes to customer service. Your company loses its competitive advantage the moment you outsource customer service. Firms spent lot of money bringing the customer to the company. But when the customer reaches out to the company, it gives a raw deal.

Why do companies do this kind of basic business stupidity ? There is only one reason - cost.

Customer service is a costly business. Its costly because it involves people. And most businesses look at human resource as a cost center . So for a business , it makes perfect sense to avail cheap labor through outsourcing its customer service. If China offers a cheap customer call center service, I bet most of the Indian companies will outsource from China.

So firms reduce the number of their customer service staffs . The existing staffs are given double workload. Often these guys forget how to smile . These people are under severe emotional labor. They have to give their best face forward irrespective of their emotional situation. These guys/gals may have their personal/professional problems but cannot afford to show it to the consumer. So their stress level will be equal or higher than those in the sales field.

How many companies are sensitive to these issues ? To add to this issue, some firms give sales target to the customer service executives.

But for a customer, what is lost is the experience . In most of the new generation banks , customers are just numbers. In a rush to reduce the human interaction ( which is costly) companies invest in technology believing that technology can replace human interaction.

Its true that when comparing to rude staff, machines are better . But not always.

What the companies need is a judicious mix of people and technology. We are forgetting that we are living in an experiential economy. Customers - whether small or big, are looking for experience especially in the service sector.

When the market is growing, all these customer service issues are set aside . Firms look at break-neck growth . The key focus is customer acquisition. But market does not grow indefinitely. At some point of time, growth will stop and what you have will be the existing customers whom you have forgotten.

When you go back to these customers who was given a raw deal, you get back what you have given them.