I can clearly recall accompanying my grandmother each morning, to the neighborhood temple during the vacations I spent with her at Kochi. At the time, I was only about ten, and Kochi was quite a large city. Almost each time I went with her, we would pass a greengrocer that was on the way. On the way back home, she’d mostly stop by at the shop to pick up some essential items. On seeing her, the shopkeeper and company would be extremely welcoming, and gave a diligent ear to the often-long list of items she wanted. Many times, it was usual for the staff to make a timed guess of what she wanted and kept them ready so that we could pick them up on the way home. She also enjoyed the privilege of having the shopping delivered to our doorstep, irrespective of the quantity bought, or the price, and with no extra charge. Oh yes, she could pay at her convenience too, and no, there was no interest charged. There was no Internet shopping, but still the grocer had learnt her shopping list pretty well. So had the pharmacist, and the sweetmeat monger. Interestingly, it so happens that my grandmother was not the wife of any hotshot politico-business tycoon. She was just a normal middle class widow. It turns out that, like her, throughout India, there are a million other people who enjoyed such benefits. Shops were customer centric to the core; personalized to the core. This trend replicated into almost every service, barring a very small few, which a household would require within the village, or even areas within the city. Roughly 10 years on, there is a more glitzy shopping experience that attracts me, and million others like me. We love the malls, the KFCs and the Lifestyle outlets big time. We love how they look and what they sell, which may seem obscene for our grandmothers today. We love to ride to the malls time and again but one trip to that dusty dilapidated grocer store longs to be avoided for as long as the sun rises in the East. While the modern stores obviously have superior products, better presented and maybe, at more attractive prices, most of them fail to preserve that magical essence of being customer centric. They lack the will of going that extra mile to serve you, purely out of humanity. It also applies to most other business, from banks, car companies, garment stores to telecom companies. Oh, and I must say, banks rank high among the list of customer non-centric brats. Banking salespeople rank among the most irritating of tele-callers, asking for your data afresh each time even if you have already given it to them, and yet make you run around the bank for something as simple as looking for the cheque deposit box. Telecom companies make you go through a lengthy and complicated automated call system that (even they know) is of no use to actually solve your issue. If you walk into a store to buy a new TV, chances are that you’d have paid the full amount (as they insist in most cases) and checked out within a few minutes, but will have to wait for at least a day before it is delivered. You might have paid fifty grand, but it’s still a favor that he’s doing you, so just shut up and wait! Oh, and the guy who delivers the TV will say fixing it is not his job, for which you’ll have to follow up with the OEM guy. And since you don’t pay him anything, he works at his will too. If you did buy a digital TV connection, then you need to wait for that guy to come after all this is over, so that you can finally watch something on your new TV. Seamless experience anyone? This is what happens typically. Lately, salesmen in India are of two types; those who flood you with marketing calls, promotional offers (almost always misleading) and false promises, until you buy the product and the others, who don’t acknowledge your presence, and are lethargic to serve you. For the latter, one wonders why he bothers to have the shop open but for the former, once the cheque is written, it becomes a different story! So did all these prestigious b-school pass outs miss the boat to Customer Service 101? Maybe yes, maybe not. But what they do fail to master and practice is true customer service that has to be hands on, down on the shop floor, irrespective of whether you’re clad in pinstripes or pyjamas. So easy it might be to dismiss shortfalls in customer service due to unprecedented business growth, but to the end customer, it wouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t. After all, one can survive on past credibility for only so long! Ironically, this is in the country where service was so much more personalized before even the IT revolution kicked in; in the country where Mahatma Gandhi penned his famous customer-service mantra.