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I studied commerce, accounting and economics as majors for my college graduate degree. Two of these designated customer as king, in most, if not all economic transaction. Across the globe too, many different economic model of society and government have given way, allowing capitalism to ascertain its supremacy. The very basis of this economic model, profit for the individual, is based on the availability of choices; in the constant battle to find equilibrium between demand and supply. While there are always exception to the concept of demand driving supply, it is just that, an exception. The rule applied to virtually almost all transaction.
The availability of choices to the customer, is therefore a major principle of this economic theory. This allowed new suppliers to enter the market place and fulfill demands of the buyer. The customer (buyer) stopped buying from a particular supplier, if the goods are defective, service bad, and or if the price higher, among a multitude of other conditions. The pressure on the supplier to please the customer is there paramount in this situation. New suppliers are constantly presented the opportunity to enter the market place, and existing supplier is continuously under pressure to deliver and retain its customer base. A simple survey around the neighbourhood, will provide clear evidence of this duel.
I as a customer, am entitled to superior service as a paying customer. The concept of expecting and delivering superior customer service has been an important basis throughout my professional career. It equally applies in personal transaction, but personal transactions are clearly outside the laws of commerce and economics, and are governed by more ethereal laws. My very first job, at NIIT, required me to be constantly searching for delivering quality service to my customers, my students, both current and prospective. It required among other things, for me to sit at the front office, and help with prospects. My first manager, AT as he was known then, talked to us about how even the supposedly “lame” telephone operator was an important role in the organization; essentially stating that their voice and demeanor on the phone played a big role in coloring the organization.
Today, i trot the globe, traveling constantly between two major continents, with a life in two large economies; India and US. I run an organization in India, which is part of a larger entity based in the US. I expect my team members of the organization i run, to now constantly deliver service over and beyond their ability. This then creates a stress, akin to the balance between demand and supply. The problem tho’ is one of two things; either my expectations are unrealistic, or customer service as a principle is archaic. Before you read too much into this particular scenario, allow me state here that my team does one hell of a job persevering to attain the objectives we have set for ourselves. It still requires me to introspect this in the larger economic system, because service to customer appears to be on the wane everywhere. However, in my worldly experiences and search for answers, am thinking will allow me to be at peace in the world, but also hoping i can use some of the learning to help me and my team.
I had sometime back recounted the concept of good and bad customer service in my blogs, specifically one about experiences at my neighbourhood store – Trader Joe’s. I happened to meet up with a team leader or manager, at coffee place next to the grocery store. I struck up a conversation to find how they used their magic to have happy employees, who were able to keep their customers happy. It appears just that; happy employees means happy customers. Ensuring your team is happy, solves a major part of the riddle it seems. The team at Trader Joe’s are provided a lot of freedom in day to day transactions and encouraged to do their best to solve customer problems. Teams are created to tackle different administrative tasks, and setting goals allow them to freedom to execute and function smoothly, without too much of managerial pressure. Allowing your team members to find answers to problems in customer transactions (reasoning), encouraging them to try new things (innovate) and determining the outcomes and correction (analysis) all go a long way in delivering superior service.
The onus then becomes to find a balance between innovation and execution. Innovation in itself cannot provide superior service, because many ideas will fail, and only a few succeed. Rote execution creates boredom, and is soon fraught with errors, and therefore failure to deliver the required service. Solutions and answers begin with understanding the problems. The bane of dreadful service is usually the inability to understand the problem we are solving. Many times what is required is the mindset to understand the pain and suffering of the customer, providing a sympathetic hearing of the problem or even a simple acceptance of the situation or issue (even if unwarranted). Unfortunately in the pressure cooker that we all live in, it is difficult to appreciate your problems, when i am drowning in my own. The corporation’s requirement to find profit, at all costs, is also another reason why even willing team members are unable to offer service or deliver.
The freedom to innovate, reason, and conduct critical analysis, in my mind stand out as key factors that influence the ability to deliver superior service. Like all things, how much is too much, and how little is too little then becomes the main function of a manager. It is not so much the need for an equilibrium between these, but rather the ability to execute and function even while thinking. That is the key attribute that needs to be honed and encouraged amongst the team, including oneself.
Easier blogged, than done!
Last week, things changed dramatically for me. The company i work with announced layoffs, paycuts, and other steps to shore up its financial position. We had had a bad start, and our expenses were simply not reducing in line with the depressed rate of acquiring new business. After a series of meetings and deliberations, the company for the first time in its history decided to layoff employees. The cuts though were very small compared to our size, but yet it had the impact on the psyche of all around.
I survived, as did many others i know. But then there were a few handful, about equivalent to all the fingers and toes an average person has, that were not lucky. I had to communicate the bad news on friday, to an employee working for me. It was one of the most painful decision in my life. As a manager and business owner, i have in the past made painful decisions. But never before have they been communicated to someone who was working hard and resourceful. I had to let go my team member we cause decided to abandon a market startegy to pursue new business in north america.
Till last week, i used to cruise the malls, survey the packed restuarants and parking lots, and generally observe people to see where this economic problem was. Till recently, you didnt quite see it outside, except on TV where the commentators gloated or bemoaned the abmysal truth. The word ‘subprime’ was almost synonymous with ‘the’ four letter word. People i didnt know of at all were plastered over the TV screen and their bad state showcased for all of us. But now suddenly things are crumbling in my circle, it was a friends friend, and now it is a friend i know.
How long this will last, is anybody’s guess? I am thankful, that i have managed to stay afloat so far. But this grim situation seems so machiavellian that it could quickly swerve one way or the other to consume more people and families with it. In one way, it is a good lesson for all of us, greed has its limitations.