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Marketing Tuesday: The Customer is King – or Just a Maharaja?

I flew half way across the world day before yesterday- further even- due to certain mishaps that occurred along the way. While doing so I came to certain conclusions. Here’s how it all unfolded…

I flew half way across the world day before yesterday- further even- due to certain mishaps that occurred along the way. While doing so I came to certain conclusions. Here’s how it all unfolded…

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I missed my connecting flight from Paris to Bangalore: courtesy of “technical difficulties” on the part of an unapologetic Air France. After several bouts of heated discussion, a thin-lipped airline representative informed me with some finality that I had two choices: either spend the night on the floor of Charles De Gaulle in Paris and take a flight to Bangalore the next day, or more appealingly (so he implied), wait eleven hours in Paris, board a twelve and a half hour flight to Singapore, (which incidentally flies right over India), wait another four hours at Changi airport and finally board a flight to Bangalore. Given the option of a seat and some food as opposed to a hard floor and no sustenance, I unwillingly chose the former.

Stiff, exhausted and smelling decidedly less fragrant than I considered optimal, upon my arrival in Bangalore many, many hours (and several airports) later, I discovered that all three of my bags were missing. After being barked at by the security inspectors, given an unwarrantedly hard time for carrying golf clubs by an oversized Air France official in New York, and being firmly told off by what felt like an army of misanthropic airline officials everywhere, I marched up to the customer service desk in Bangalore, tough, prickly and ready to do battle.

The response I got threw me off guard. Instead of insisting that I was wrong, that it wasn’t their fault, and that there was nothing they could do, the airline officials at the desk in Bangalore were nothing but polite and accommodating. Their manner took me by such surprise that I spent the first few minutes regarding them with extreme suspicion.

My trip, many others like it, and the differences in attitude I have experienced over the years between New York and Paris on the one hand, and places like Singapore and Bangalore on the other, got me thinking along a somewhat broader spectrum. Customer service has always been a big deal in India, and indeed in most of South Asia. Fortunately or unfortunately, the general idea in South Asia seems to be: “The Customer is Always Right,” dissatisfied patrons are appeased at all costs, and even if the results aren’t great, pleasing the customer is such a mantra that there’s an air of extreme servility to much of India’s service industry.

Making trans-cultural comparisons on such a personal level is obviously subjective, but as someone who has lived a good part of my life between the United States and India, the opportunities to do so are frequent and often lead to speculation that if based on shaky foundations, is at least food for thought… In wondering why the service industries between South Asia and the Western parts of the world are so widely disparate, I came upon a couple of possible explanations.

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First, that the concept of “chains” is still at an infantile stage in most South Asian countries, and as a result the “Customer Is King” ideology continues to pervade most aspects of the service industry, even those that do not need to follow it, primarily out of necessity and the fact that well, this is the culture here.

Walk into a restaurant, bar, store, hair salon, tea shop or gym in India, and people rush at you from all angles, eager to serve, or if not, at least always there to make sure if anything goes wrong you have an outlet for the satisfactory redressal of your grievances. Why? Because they need to make sure you come back… For a small store that is just one amongst a thousand others out there, customer loyalty can be the straw the breaks the camel’s back.

Secondly, and relatedly, overpopulated countries, like India, are still more about fuelling their service industries with manpower than automation. This propagates different ideals about customer service: with more of an emphasis on personal communication.

The first time I walked in a Target in the US, I placidly stood in one place, waiting to be approached by a store representative who would naturally guide me to anywhere I needed to go. I soon learned to find my own way around…

In India, if you’re going to walk into any big department store, you have to learn to fend off over enthused sales representatives who are only too willing to help. (Like everything else in life, a middle ground would be wonderful.)

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And finally, the service industry is still undervalued in South Asia as compared to North America and Europe. Apart from the wages often being abysmally low, the respect many service related professions elicit is far less in South Asia: If the bartender or maitre d’ thinks you’re out of line in New York or London: unless you’re really a hot shot- you’re out. In India, well, The Customer is Always Right.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not implying that things work smoothly in South Asia — bureaucratic tangles, fractured communication lines, and general chaos all ensure that even if the customer is all important, things will go wrong. It’s just the way in which the recipients of these wrongs are treated and regarded along the way that is so markedly different.