** There is a website visibility blog series, which is in the working. Meanwhile, pitching in with this post. **
The inspiration for this post comes from some interactions with Indian brand managers, where we got a suggestion that Social Media may not be on their priority, simply because there isn’t enough of their target market, out there, just yet. When we talked about possible brand reputation risks, and suggested that at least a good social media monitoring exercise should fall in place (quoting cases like the Domino’s story, for example), responses suggested that ‘there have been numerous complaints of cockroaches found in Coke bottles, but that has not hurt their sales growth one bit’.
So why are we like this, in India? Why does customer service come low on priority?
I have personally had outstanding experiences with companies like American Express (for lost traveler checks), Southwest Airlines (for last minute change of bookings, etc.), Cort furniture rental (when I had a short 4 month stay in the Bay Area) etc. I have also heard / read stories of other customer-centric brands like Nordstrom.
But ALL of these are from outside India. I cannot think of one outstanding customer service experience that I would like to talk about, in an Indian context (perhaps, Orange County, Coorg might make the cut for me). Considering that I have spent far more time within the country than outside it, this makes for a generally pathetic state of affairs. Why so?
My analysis of reasons why Indian brands are not too concerned about customer service is:
- There are just too many of us! When you have a bad experience at a restaurant, curse your way out and promise to never step in again, does that impact that restaurant’s business? Not by much. There are new suckers who are willing to try him out, each day, day after day. Think about a mobile phone or mobile service provider problem?! With millions of new users coming in each month, do they feel threatened by the dissatisfaction of a single customer?
- Our ‘chalta hai’ culture. We accept mediocrity. Of ourselves. And hence of the service we get. We are a service provider (to an internal customer or an external customer) as much as we are a service consumer. And when we are prepared to accept mediocrity of ourselves as a service provider, the same comes back to us as a recipient of service. And in our true ‘chalta hai’ spirit, we accept it!
- The slow legal system. So the automobile garage short changed you. You can even prove it. What good does that do? You know you do not have the time for the painfully slow courts of law. And other than taking the law in your own hands, you do not have any other resort. So you resign yourself to your bad luck while the garage continues to give shoddy service.
- The lack of an effective consumer movement. Again, we have a more active consumer protection mechanism than earlier, but for the size of our economy, it is still too little, and too late. There is no serious case of ‘consumer backlash’. Even with the high media attention that the ‘fertilizer in Coke and Pepsi’ case got, I do not believe their sales were dented by much.
- The lack of a strong, single point media vehicle that can go after these cases. Yes, when it suits them, mainstream media takes up some of the cudgels. But there are always other ‘breaking news’ fighting for the minutes or the column inches, and the brands at fault, just need to wait out the time. On the other hand, there has not emerged in the online space, any strong brand that can just work to take up the cause for the consumers. At least, none with a serious brand recall.
- The freeloader attitude that many of us have. Why can’t a brand offer “30 days free replacement” in India? The kind that is a par-value service offering in the western worlds? Because it would be a disaster. Unfortunately, coming from a ‘shortage economy’ legacy that we do, we have a tendency to grab whatever is on offer for free. If there is a 30-days free replacement, you would find the longest queues for returning these, on the 29th day, after using the items for those many days. Likewise, brands may assume that any leeway given in terms of customer service could end up getting abused. In a restaurant that I know, they will not allow on a single table, people having a buffet and a la carte meals. Because they fear that the smaller a la carte ordering folks, will end up sharing the one free unlimited buffet that is ordered! Unfortunate, but true representation of the average Indian L
It is for all these reasons that we do not see brands and companies getting particularly aggressive towards excellent customer service, and we continue to suffer, as consumers.
Moreover it is for these reasons that companies often do not much care about Online Reputation Monitoring, as they figure that it does not matter!
However I strongly believe that brands and companies are missing a trick, as they ignore this Online Reputation monitoring effort, and believe that it does not matter in India.
- Online memory is longer. While stories that came in the newspapers or on TV are fresh only as long as the stories are alive, online, these stories do not die. They are searchable, they are accessible, and they can haunt you at the least expected moment of time!
- Snowball effect. What could start as a whimper or one dissatisfied voice, could soon convert into a community of dissatisfied users, and then become a snowball. Dissatisfied customers in Cochin, Mangalore, Patiala, Lucknow, Pune..wherever.. are now connected. By the medium known as Social Media!! And in size, their voice is amplified and the whimper can become a big holler!
- When social goes mainstream. Domino’s went from YouTube to the New York Times in 3 days. When such transitions happen, God help your brand. You do not really want to wait for that to happen. Stem it while you can, should be the mantra.
- You may have many customers, but you have few bankers, investors, joint venture partners. Once you slide down the reputation path, and have tons of bad press (well, more like bad ‘web-content’) , then you may just find it getting tougher to get bankers to trust you, to have investors putting in money or giving you a decent valuation, or to get joint venture partners. Because of our population, customers may still come, but margins may go down, as the premium factor disappears!
- And what about people? Good resources do not want to work with companies having bad reputation. Not when they have a choice. If you choose to ignore the complaints, customers will write, blog, tweet, shout. And these noises will keep good talent away from your company!
- This can haunt you at the most unexpected and inopportune moment. When you are going for the IPO and your papers are filed, your competitor might just pull out all that dirt from the web and social media archives, and ensure that it gets the maximum visibility. Since content does not disappear here, you always carry this risk!
It should be clear then, that even if you are selling in a seller’s market, reputation matters today! And especially online reputation or reputation being created via Social Media conversations. It is important to monitor Social Media for social chatter about your brand, your competition, your vertical, and be alert on any unusual developments.
Of course, it is critical that the company gets customer focused in the process, and does not allow much customer ire to happen, in the first place. In many cases, these may be a significant cultural change to bring about!
Do you think Social Media will impact our attitude towards customer service? What is your opinion on Social Media’s role as a reputation builder/breaker? Looking forward to a great discussion.
** Social Wavelength offers the service of Social Media monitoring. Social Wavelength will use industry standard software tools to tap all conversations around a brand. This can generate a very large amount of data, though. Our social media executives then work to ‘clean up the data’ and tag the conversations on various parameters, enabling effective and actionable reporting to clients. In cases where brand reputation sensitivity is extremely crucial, Social Wavelength can also offer 24×7 Real Time Online Reputation Monitoring and Reporting. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. **