Your Call is Valuable, Oh So Very Valuable.

I grew up in a Tata family. My parents worked for the Indian Group of Hotels and ‘the-customer-comes-first’ idea was deeply rooted in the work they did then and continue to do today. A couple of months back when a representative from a windows fitting company was over at my parent’s home, patiently explaining to my mother a failure in their installation, I found them bonding over their common experience working with the Tata Group and how that had taught them to interact with customers. Clearly customer relationships is something they, as ex-Tata employees, were not only accustomed to take seriously but were also extremely proud of. It got me thinking about organisational cultures that emphasize customer relationships, a subject that I find to be very popular, based on recent experience both at CKS and outside. Let me begin at CKS.

We are currently working on a project with LIRNEasia, an ICT policy think tank based out of Colombo. It is a compelling argument that has set this particular project off, based on Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty (1970). In his book, Hirshman identifies two distinct options for customers (or employees or citizens) dissatisfied with a service of a company (or organisation or government). The first is “exit” or leaving without trying to fix things. The second is “voice,” that is, speaking up and trying to remedy the defects. Although Hirschman’s analysis is closely tied to American political and economic traditions, but it is possible to apply the framework to situations and services closer home. Our project focuses on the urban poor in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, in particular on micro-entrepreneurs and their relationship to three kinds of services – telecommunications, electricity and government business registrations or licensing. The premise is that success of the telecommunications industry over the years has much to do with their customer relationship management practices, that are in turn, due largely to their use of ICTs. For example, prepaid users of mobile services are constantly reminded of how much money each call of theirs cost, and how much money remains for them to use. The project requires us to identify such elements or practices that we could transfer and translate to public service industries such as electricity and business registrations.

Indeed a couple of months from now, I will be writing about what we find out, but a recent meeting with an executive from one of India’s leading telecom players, suggests that the telecom industry is in a bit of self-doubt themselves. This particular telecom operator has recently launched a number of Relationship Centers that act as one-stop shops for all things mobile related, whether it be bill payments, new connections, data services or purchasing devices and accessories. Seemingly, the perceived successes of the telecom sector’s ICT based customer relationship management hasn’t cut it for them, and they are seeking new avenues of improvement.

There are other examples of an escape to technological solutions that I’ve come across recently. A good friend has just released an android app that helps you, as a customer, cut through the IVR hoops that you often have to go through to get in touch with customer care representatives. No doubt it’s a service that has use, but what happens when the customer care representative isn’t able to answer your question, if they are rude, unhelpful or incompetent? I’ve spent hours on end talking to customer care representatives of my telecom operator, trying to find out what happened to the Rs. 2000/- that I reloaded my phone with so I could be on international roaming while traveling in the Netherlands. I am only too sure that you have found yourselves in similar situations as well.

This brings me back to the almost boastful conversation between my mother and the representative from the windows fitting company about customer relationships. It isn’t enough that my mother (who now owns and runs a beauty salon) has a software (a technological solution) that maintains a database of all her customers, that allows her to know when a particular customer came last, what services they took, which operators they prefer or how much their average bill amount is; what matters is that she stands behind the cash register, often smiling, using all this information to interact with every customer who comes in, no matter how painful the interaction. I haven’t read Hirschman’s theory too closely, or dug deeper into the Tata ethos, but I do wonder how the human element factors into systems designed for voice or exit. Can those human elements be systematically garnered so that this very necessary aspect of any service based industry – customer relationship management – can go a long way in enhancing service delivery and establishing business advantage? Only too eager to find out.

About Namrata Mehta

Namrata Mehta or @littlenemrut, is Director of Innovation at the Center for Knowledge Societies, New Delhi. She has an undergraduate degree in Sociology from Delhi University, and a postgraduate diploma in Experimental Media Arts, from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore.
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