9623 comments on the last article: Thank you indeed.

Yes, I am guilty of not having responded to all of them (yet) but there is no way I am going to leave them unattended indefinitely. Revealing a little routine to you, I have budgeted around 2 hours every Sunday afternoon, which is between 4 and 6 PM to respond to the comments. Most weeks, I manage to get to anything between 90% to 95% in this period and the balance, I attend to late in the night, between 10 and 11 PM. Because the volume has grown, 4 times the usual, the time allocated is proving to be grossly inadequate. So I have decided to add another two hours on Sunday morning, between 6 AM and 8 AM to this, so before you read my next write up, not only I would have completed responding to all the comments but also, made a way to make the exchange near to real-time, that is by allocating 30 minutes each day of the week, between 9:30 and 10 PM. We will see how it goes.

Thank you again!

Going by the most requested title, I wish to talk about “service in the age of Pandemic” with this article. 

Guided by the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as customers and bussiness mature, expectations that they hold from one another also evolves. In the last decade or so we have witnessed ‘service’ move up in the value chain, from being one more thing that organisations did some more reluctantly than the others to the prevalent norm now in which superior customer service/experience is increasingly being showcased as key business differentiator. Service in the modern age has gained strategic importance. Enormously successful service stories can be found in the growth of : Apple, Amazon, Legos, Zappos and Hyatt.

You can’t deliver an exceptional experience without investing time, effort and money in building a customer-centric culture in your organisation.

If the customer service department is often projected as solely responsible for both driving and delivering customer experience in your organisation, then the pathology is suggestive of the absence of customer-centricity in the thought process of the organisation. Service, unfortunately, is one of those things that requires involvement from everyone, so either everyone in the organisation is delivering customer service or no one is. It is binary in that sense. Remember a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Customer pays to keep you in business and therefore there is every reason for you to serve them to the best of your delivery capability and fiscal ability. You can’t cheat or shortcircuit your way into the heart and the mind of your customer, it just does not work, that way.

I draw on my 1.6-decade long experience delivering service to say that ‘Best service is when the need to seek service is not felt by the customer, so no need for service is the best form of service’.

It is not easy to attain, and given how complex, conflicting and competitive the business landscapes can get and how dynamic, ever-evolving and demanding customers expectations are in today’s world: the road to customer service is constantly under construction. It won’t be wrong to say that your best service experience will be the one that you’ll deliver in days to come (the underlying assumption being that you’ll learn from your experience of past delivery)

COVID19 disruption has also given an unusual opportunity to organisations to wipe their slate clean, hit refresh and reposition themselves as caring service brands, even if their past has not been a particularly peppy or pompously proud one. Question is how to do it? It is vital for us to recognise that for the case of service to exist and for a brand to gain from its benefits in the shape of unflinching customer loyalties and becoming a magnet for new acquisitions, the business itself has to sustain commercially. Business adapts to survive the changing economic, societal, and political climate in the geographies that they operate in. So let’s spend some time to understand the shift that COVID19 has brought about so that our plans can become informed.

McKinsey conducted a study to understand how the pandemic and related economic turbulences have impacted buying behaviours in the Asia Pacific (India, China and Indonesia) region. Before I present some of the findings from the study, we must compulsively apply cautious optimism on our outlook and accept that different regions within a continent-sized country like ours can experience different pandemic progression and economic revitalisation. Impact on no two sectors of the economy is alike too. So, let’s comprehend the below findings in that light.

  1. Discretionary spending amounts to 1/4th to 1/5th of the GDP in the Asian countries.
  2. There has been a dip of 90% in the overall discretionary spending.
  3. Acceleration in intent to use digital channels over stores to experience products has been found.
  4. Citizens are hopeful of recovering the money that they lost by the end of the year.
  5. The ticket size of purchase has changed: Large items like the vehicle, construction and jewellery have been put off indefinitely.
  6. 1/3rd said that they plan to spend less than initially planned.
  7. Trusted brands are at the top consideration for their purchase, alongside purchase being good value for money.
  8. Guilt and unease coming from the social context have also prevented large spendings.
  9. Higher intent to visit exclusive brand store than multiple brand outlets was expressed.
  10. Getting it first time right is more valuable now as customers do not have the luxury of ‘touch and feel’ of the physical store or the cash to lose on trial and error.

Let’s superimpose -5% GDP growth outlook that the reputed Moody has proposed for India, on the changing customer behaviour that we just read about. Value polarisation is palpable. The unprecedented rise in unemployment has accentuated the damage the economy is suffering from contracting demand. India is slowly reopening, supply chain interruption instigated loss on value, however, is of a scale that can’t be recovered easily. Therefore, writing them off seems like most practical though not as a fiscally prudent option, at the moment for most businesses.  

Thankfully, we are not without intelligence, ground realities and evolving market reactions are unfolding at least in our sight if not pleasantly and predictably, at every turn. We no longer have the benefit of reaction time, though, adjustments are required to be made on near realtime basis. How do we then approach service design, should our customer service philosophies change, are the questions that are on top of the minds of the business leaders today? Let’s address those. Organisational goals have to be re-written not just the financials but also performance and learning goals, to accommodate the recent developments. From the customer service perspective, the one metric that organisations must go after, in my view, is. 

Reducing customer effort: Lesser the customer has to toil to use your product services the better will your chances of beating the competition be.

Harvard researchers have tabulated multiple studies to gauge how customers deal with difficulties that brand inadvertently put in their way and how do these difficulties influence their decision making on purchase and continuity. Here are some of the findings that can be used to formulate an effective service strategy. 

  1. High effort interaction is more likely to lead to churn.
    1. Hard conversations had just 6% chances of conversion while easy conversation had a high 80% propensity.
  2. Difficult category interaction doubled from 10% in pre Covid19 times to 20% in the pandemic.
    1. Financial hardship related interactions appeared most difficult to handle for the organisations. 

Actions :

At this stage, it is essential to conduct a detailed customer journey mapping exercise, to understand how easy or difficult are each step of the engagement are for the customer. Remember, to conduct this exercise from the point of view of the customer and not from the perspective of operational viability. You can use any of the below methods.

  1. Focus group
  2. Survey 
  3. Intelligent control group study. 

If you can, make sure that this special project is managed by someone who did not design the existing process. It is vital from an intellectual integrity perspective and also to actively avoid, conformance bias. You have to study every aspect of customer engagement, from start to end, of the relationship.  

  1. Interest 
  2. Exploration 
  3. Education 
  4. Sign up
  5. Subscription 
  6. Usage 
  7. Complaint handling 
  8. Feedback
  9. Billing
  10. Communication 
  11. Upgrade
  12. Churn 

Every aspect of your existence in the customer’s universe of both ‘experience and expectations‘ must be studied. Map all the processes in a manner that output of one process becomes the input of the next process, in a long and detailed ‘input – process – output’ string. Then code each step on a level of difficulty. You can mark them based on the time needed for customers to interact with your offering Vis-a-Vis the best in class in your industry segment or on the simplicity of understanding and the cognitive effort that your setup mandates the customer to put in to fully comprehend your product/service. Label them, as high, medium and low. 

As you have the entire process in front of you must know that processes marked as low must be made even simpler; target to bring down the existing complexity/time taken by at least 20%. The medium and high must be restructured, reorganised or altered, as the case may be with the highest sense of urgency. It must be done as of yesterday. When you conduct these exercises be mindful of the limitations of the environment in which your staff must be working in, given the distributed and digitized delivery that seems to have become the new normal, in the work from home era of delivery, things like:

  • Unstable phone connections.
  • No one to ask support from (in person). 
  • Patchy internet connection.
  • Hardware issues. 
  • The noisy environment of operation. 

These limitations have to be accommodated when you form your responses, in the new (to be) process. 

‘Customer advocacy’ is critical, you have to champion the cause of the customer, never let it go out of sight. I outline it over again here because process mapping is going to be a longspun, difficult and daunting exercise. Remember, that when you hide behind policy limitations you give the customers a reason to choose your competition over you. You have to find a way to do what your customer expects you to, keeping in mind that the service offering has to remain competitive, lucrative and at the same time financially and operationally viable. On the rare occasion that you have to say no, make sure that your delivery is as empathetic and as information-rich as it possibly can be. Note that customers do not reach you to find eloquence but resolution. Even if you were to put conversationalists par excellence like Dr Shashi Tharoor, Dr Raghuram Rajan, Dr Richard Hans, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy- the customers may still walk out unhappy and unserved if the issue is not resolved to his/her satisfaction in time lesser than he/she expected to and is willing to invest on your brand. It is hard …very hard .. but that is the fun of it all if you ask me.

There is another element to the COVID19 crisis- what must be done here and now. What must the first responders of the service industry do, to save the day? Thankfully, a well-researched framework from Harvard is available for it as well.

Professor Ted Waldron (Harvard business school ) and Professor James Wetherbe (Texas tech university) in a jointly conducted research have come up with the ‘HEART concept’ of dealing with customers at the time of crisis. What you’ll read now is my understanding of the framework.

  1. Humanise your company.
    1. Remind the customer of what they love about the experience and the products, that they have been using.
    2. It is vital to say that you understand what they are going through.
    3. If fiscally possible find ways to re-pay them from your profits.
      1. Like extending warranty or subscription etc.
      2. Downtime waiver.
  2. Educate customers about the change.
    1. Customers must know the changes that you had to bring in the way you operated, to deliver in these unusually tough circumstances.
    2. Customers are smart and most importantly they are also living through the horror themselves, so communication, at this stage if kept sincere will be received with greater warmth than usual. 
  3. Assure stability.
    1. Customer needs to know that you’re going to be around. That you are committed to making it work.
    2. List all the great things that you are doing and are willing to consider to make the transition seamless for the customer.
  4. Revolutionise offerings.
    1. Underscore the product, process and tech innovation that you’ve introduced in your business. Demonstrate a few if possible.
    2. Communicating more is better.
  5. Take on the future.
    1. ‘Going above and beyond’ is to be illustrated to the customer
    2. Convey the things that you have learnt from the crisis.
    3. Your customer should know that you as a brand are willing to listen and to learn. 
    4. The humility of the brand is respected by the customer. 

Thus far we have covered, 

  1. Changing customer behaviour.
  2. Service philosophy re-design.
  3. ‘Here and now’ action items. 

The last thing that I wish to bring to your notice is the emergence of the digital.

As you can see in this chart, close to half of the adults in this country are ‘online’ and so should you be. Because to reduce the customer effort you should be present where the customer is, the customer should not have to invest energy in shifting mediums to find you. The trick is not in achieving digitization alone, you will have to make digitalization and digital transformation; all three of them happen to gain long lasting competitive advantage. Organisations need to find a way to make digital more human so that it can compensate for the loss of real human connections that people are experiencing with the COVID19 imposed social distancing. 

The character of technology is impersonal; no matter who you are ‘cmd+C’ is only going to copy; therefore there is a need to massage the message well so that customers on the digital platform, feel how human your intent is.

I hope this has been helpful, see you on the other side.

Stay safe.