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Wednesday, January 18

Great customer service is about consistency

Couple of years ago at Pothi.com, we were working on a Hindi poetry book. It was a collection of poetry of the father that the son was publishing.  It was a very big deal for the son. He had organized a family gathering and book launch in his home town. We were working on a tight schedule but the books were shipped with time remaining on the clock. The book launch was on Tuesday and the consignment reached the client on Saturday afternoon. Shortly afterwards, I received a call from them.

Getting a call or an email from the clients after they have received the books is not uncommon. There is something about holding your own printed book in your hands that moves people. It is usually a time to celebrate after the long time spent working on the book. However sometimes, things go wrong.

When our clients opened the consignment, shiny new books came out. However on leafing through the pages, they realized that while the cover was of their book, the interior was something entirely different! At 16:00 PM on Saturday, I came to know of this. Family members were coming from all over India for the launch. Our client was to catch his flight in 2 hours. Something needed to be done quickly if we wanted to avoid the disaster.

The courier services usually pick up their last consignment at 21:00 PM. This left us with 5 hours to reprint the books, bind them, trim them and handover to the courier. With some exceptional work from our production people, we somehow managed to put the consignment in before courier cutoff time. To put it in perspective, it usually takes 3-5 days to produce and ship the same order under normal conditions.

However, due to time crunch, we were not able to laminate the covers on this set. Also we were not sure if the direct shipment to the small city would reach in time. So we printed another set of 100 books next day with proper lamination and shipped them to Delhi on Monday to one of the relatives who was driving down to the home town on Tuesday for the book launch. By God's grace, all the copies reached the client in time and they had a memorable book launch.

I sometimes relate this story to friends and they all look reasonably impressed with how we dealt with the situation. Someone suggested that this is an example of great customer service and we should mention it more prominently. However I do not agree.

As humans when we are faced with a crisis situation, we are often able to pull off things that we wouldn't be able to do normally. This is true for both physical as well as mental abilities. Given that we, as entrepreneurs, keep hearing that having a satisfied customer is very important, we often go out of our way to achieve that in a crisis situation. A well known startup in Bangalore offered a client an air ticket in lieu of a bus ticket when the bus didn't show up!

But this has nothing to do with customer service. This is crisis management. The customer service is the part that makes sure that such crisis do not happen in the first place. It means that as a company, you are consistent (hopefully consistently good) in your service delivery and in your communication with customers. The best example of Pothi.com's customer service would be the author who never had to call me up to resolve any issues. Good customer service is a boring story that is repeated with every customer every day with no drama thrown in.

Why is it important to keep this distinction in mind? Because it is easy to confuse your crisis management with your customer service. Let us say you have a standing offer of a full refund in case a defective product is delivered to your client and you actively fulfill it whenever the need arises. Given the situation of most companies in India, you will be doing something quite rare and your customers will be happy. The more the need arises, the more chances you get to make a customer happy and you feel good. Unfortunately, more such cases mean that your primary service delivery is not working up to the mark. While as a customer, I would be happy that you made up to me in a crisis situation, I will quickly move to someone else if they are more consistent in their service delivery.

The other difference is that the promised delivery levels should be set keeping in mind the sustainability. What you can deliver is a crisis situation may not be sustainable on an ongoing basis. If you require maximum 3 days for delivering something, promise 3 days even if you can deliver in 2 80% of the time.

So in summary, while the grand stories of crisis management make for interesting story telling, a good customer service needs to be exactly the opposite - predictable, consistent and sustainable. In other words, a boring story.

2 comments:

Mayank Dhingra said...

Super Post. Right on the money.

"Perfect service in order to prevent a customer service contact."

It's still easy for a startup to fix an issue but ensuring perfect user experience without any issues is the real nirvana.

Indus Khaitan said...

Normal, well-oiled customer service is non-event for a company doing it well. We don't hear anything as companies do what they are supposed to do.

The stories we hear are always about the crisis and how someone made somebody's day.