I’m Mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.

A coherent rant and an enquiry into the current state of customer service.

—This is a 10 minute read—

If you’ve ever seen the 1976 movie Network, you get what I am saying.

If not, Mr. Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch, who won the Oscar for best actor that year for this role), is a TV news guy who has a mental breakdown while on-air. He breaks into a memorable monologue, a coherent rant about the banks, crime and unemployment in his country (now remember this is the US in the 70s). He urges his viewers to open their windows and yell “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”. And that, that is step ONE towards change. And to challenge the status quo.

Using Mr. Beale’s theatrics to make my opening statements, dear reader, I want to reach out to the activist (and on some level, dissatisfied) consumer in you. And here’s my attempt at a coherent rant. MY CALL TO ARMS.

Something that really makes me “mad as hell” is bad customer service. How companies and corporations spend millions and trillions to build brand equity, achieve customer acquisition targets, religiously work towards bettering costs to serve, retention, average user profitability, customer lifecycle values (and other cool terms they teach you in B-School) and that one storefront guy or customer care representative or that one delivery person…just blasphemously turns it all into Zero/Shit/Nada/零/शून्य/ صفر. In exchange for your trust, your choice and your money, you –  the customer (the king or queen) get badly dealt with.

I am coming from a school of thought, having worked for a Delhi based boutique consulting organisation, that prides itself on going above and beyond for its customers, where understanding and serving the customer needs patiently and with empathy is HYGIENE.

When it comes to customer service, are we expecting too little? Or have we been conditioned to expect less? For example, in developing nations like mine, where in terms of a business evolutionary state we have only just now gotten comfortable with the plethora of new products/services being brought to us (primary case in point E-Commerce). And don’t expect anything extra in terms of ‘how’ that value proposition is served to us. Very often there is an absence of a benchmark, given no previous use experience with respect to a particular product or service.

How about just good old decent customer service be the basis of a brand, instead of just Big Bucks advertising. A principal strategy to attract and possibly garner loyalty of customers, and by extension achieve business and demand sustainability.

A B-School grad imparted with all this business wisdom (which we all know is just common sense really, but you don’t find out until you’ve gone through B-School), out of helplessness of not being able to explain all this (above paragraphs) to the my customer facing executive, in my moment of customer injustice. This same person, more often than not is underpaid and overworked and ultimately has the power to affect my perception of a brand and future decision making as a consumer (so counterintuitive right?!).

I instead attempt to write about it and search for a possible follow-up action and solution to this business problem.

Currently, the options I have (more of less) to act in that searing moment of customer service injustice:

1) Social Media: Share with your friends on Twitter/Facebook that you’re pissed off, and tag the respective business. And some social media manager for the brand addresses, escalates and/or follows up on the issue.

What are the monetary implications of having a non standardised, “brought to my attention so I will fix it” approach. The big brands might be able to afford to have a dedicated person do this, what about the smaller and medium sized brands, who as it is want to carve out a niche in markets with those big fish, and often their differentiation efforts are through individualised customer service. Even if the process of addressing these issues is laid down, can this interface be further streamlined? or can’t we do this without the bad publicity and then fixing it approach.

2) On-ground feedback: Press the smilie face button thing in the store (unhappy, normal, smiling etc.) Or Fill out the feedback form and stick it in the box.

Whats the incentive for me as a customer visiting the store to press that button? The integrity and sanctity of these in-store feedback mechanisms? Follow up action? Transparency of the process?

3) Email for customer complaints and redressal (complaints@xyz.com): Exists for almost each business, but how effectively is it currently being used? Only fire-fighting use? Insights to proactively address problems?

4) Consumer complaint forum: Whats the ease of using these consumer forums that are primarily thread-based? They are highly fragmented (dime a dozen). Which is the one go-to? (depending on type or service/product, your geography etc.) Is the business that you want to address present on this online forum? What’s the net return of this process? Standardised way to register your complaint? (as one primarily has to go through the trouble of writing a post)

5) Randomised feedback call backs: “Hello sir/madam, you recently used our service, how did you like it?” – Good/Bad/Average etc.

Objectivity of these scales? How much insight can be derived from this? Very often this business initiated feedback attempt or CSAT check is much after the incident of bad service has taken place etc. and the customer doesn’t really care enough to give any qualitative feedback.

What about smaller businesses who don’t always have the infrastructure or manpower and other resources to even do these sort of things, who are perpetually just in a fire-fighting mode of doing business, whose operational issues are self consuming and can possibly downward spiral.

WHAT IF

I could capture your feedback through an easily accessible medium (a platform – app, online, phone..whatever), in a moment when you are just freshly unsatisfied and irate. You’ve just had your “BAD customer service moment” and you actually care enough to give comprehensive customer feedback, and not just one word or letter feedback (which has limited insight besides basic analytics inference for the business end). The information is captured in a way (audio/visual/text etc.) easy for the consumer.

I let this business idea slow cook for a week, and naively didn’t bother to google if there were any existing startups in the Indian ecosystem (at least) who are trying to address this business problem. Turns out there are (BIG SURPRISE!) a few. Two names that bounced off – Akosha and Haptik. Akosha is doing this from their own Point-Of-View, one of the founders is a lawyer and therefore they started out as a consumer court redressal support tool, which would fill out a complaint form on your behalf and forward this to the business, and if required to consumer forums. They of course have had their own pivots, to move beyond just being customer complaint assistants to personal assistants, now called HelpChat, where they do a plethora of assistance services, for e.g. book your tickets, file a customer complaint, order your food delivery online etc.

Given my background, I look at this from the “B” perspective, where the business is at the receiving end of this information.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR EACH OF THE STAKEHOLDERS?

Business:

  • Another avenue to understand and communicate with its consumer
  • Piercing insight into actually understanding what the customer wants and what has transpired, and going beyond just the CSAT SCORE (how is that even measured?)
  • Realtime insight into level of customer dissatisfaction (maybe because to start off this is of higher priority, fire-fighting for the business)

Customer/Consumer:

  • Collective bargaining, actionable impact, feedback, and reparation (monetary or otherwise).
  • Not everyone has the time to write out a whole letter about what injustice in service was met out to them.
  • Non-judicial pathway to get to an end. Consumer courts are often dirty and a slow painful process.
  • That information of who to contact often is not readily available, varies with each business.

DREAM A LITTLE DREAM (72 STEPS AHEAD OF MYSELF)

Business Process Improvement: demographic who could possibly give out the best advice to a business (pissed off customer) can be used to drive innovation and better understand the customers/consumers (I know I’m using this word interchangeably). Possibly how training and re-training is to be done of customer facing staff.

Open innovation: a collection of highly engaged targeted demographic for any business that can help ideate and offer preliminary insight into projects and initiatives to pursue. Solve structural and incidental issues in the customer service delivery process for any business/industry type. How about if businesses measure there customer facing employees’ effectiveness using this rage(feedback) that this angry but highly honest customer helps them pinpoint.

Management control mechanism: A coefficient to measure service quality and customer satisfaction (like Gini coefficient), for a start, to incentivise its employees (at a branch/region level) as a key realtime CSAT lever. Possibly a business-wise rating focused on their customer service capabilities (Think Fitch rating agency, but for customer service and helps the consumer/customer choose between alternatives).

PRIMARY CHALLENGES I SEE

  • Carving out niche within existing competitors.
  • What sort of complaints will I be able to address using this?
  • Critical mass – what user profiles to go after at different stages of this idea implementation (think urban early adopter to rural consumer), also critical mass of individual business-wise complaints.
  • Differentiating from consumer forums – focus on non-judicial redressal
  • Platform governance – integrity of information
  • Assumptions – the consumer actually cares enough to actually use the platform, having that ridiculously imminent incentive to lodge the complaint, without compromising the ethos of this customer feedback mechanism.

Just to name a few…

WHY AM I WRITING THIS? WHATS IN IT FOR ME?

  • An attempt to write something original, for once. Move beyond being just a curator of information, thought.
  • Gather more information into the current competitive landscape for this business problem.
  • Counter against my cognitive biases.
  • Enquiry as to whether we can out-lean and out-MVP these existing start-ups?
  • The possibility to start an open-ended conversation, to learn from your experiences, CO-CREATE, COLLABORATE.
  • Putting out this thought into the Interwebs and in turn the universe and explore where it takes me.

Therefore dear reader if you like the sound of this pitch that I have made so far, help me in understanding your experiences and specific incidences where you’ve had to face bad customer service in return for your patronage – by filling out this one-page survey.

I look forward to your comments, and having a discussion from here on…

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