What we call ‘good customer service’, at least in countries where English is the first language, does not really exist in local India. The closest approximations are at worst a frustrating distraction from the shopping or dining experience, with the assistant or server hovering over you at all times, and at best a disconcerting departure from the Indian norm. After a couple of years living in India, I came to expect unique customer service from every business that I visited – because this is just how it seems to work. You build up a personal relationship with the staff of a shop over time.
This personalised service is not a right. Like a close friendship, it is a reward for hard work and plenty of time spent. As illustrated in part one, my first visit to Puthooram Margin Free Bazaar in Varkala was a disaster of thwarted expectations on one side and pure disinterest on the other. I left with my head hanging heavily on my shoulders and my tail – in the form of The Laughing Cow cheese – held limply in my hands. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I had simply begun a journey, and experienced its only real pitfall. Once I plucked up the courage to return to Puthooram Margin Free Bazaar, and to return, and return again, those rich rewards steadily replaced my unease.
The guys in the fruit and vegetable section – a middle-aged man and a boy in his teens – had treated me with utter disdain at first. I was a pathetic saip, unable even to muscle my way through aunties clamouring ahead of me with their requests. My second visit, there were no aunties in sight and the two men sat idle on a step, glued to their mobile phones. Again, I foolishly waited for them to acknowledge me, still believing that customers set the tone in a commercial establishment. A few minutes passed with no response.
Any conscious attempt to sound polite makes it even more obvious that you don’t want to sound polite. It’s like driving a car round a corner; think too hard about it and it all feels strange: the wheels on the tarmac, the feel of the steering wheel, the imperfect alignment of the car in the lane. Standing there looking like a dork and feeling acutely aware of my ridiculousness, I finally said, “Excuse me.” I modulated the tone and pitch of my voice with what felt like a Toastmaster’s skill, but of course, the desired air of innocuousness was miles from the truth. Instead, I sounded uptight, offended, meek and fake all at once. I even failed to smile convincingly. The middle-aged man looked at me as if I had insulted his mother.
He laboured over my order, jabbing his finger at different types of bananas and fixing me with a deathly stare. “No no, the other ones.” *jab/stare* “Um, the green ones.” *jab/stare* “Sorry, the other green ones.” *jab/stare* “Yes, those ones please.” (They weren’t the bananas I wanted. They weren’t even bananas. I just couldn’t bear to continue.)
Being an overly sensitive foreigner, I took the middle-aged man’s silent irritation as an attempt to injure me personally. So, the next time I came back, I made a vow not to smile under any circumstances. He never smiles for me, so why should I smile for him? The boy, meanwhile, hadn’t even looked at me yet. Equally unworthy of warmth, then.
What began as a retaliatory display of passive aggression became commonplace. I slowly understood: the buying and selling of vegetables is not in itself something to smile about, unless you are excessively fond of vegetables. My conscious lack of smiling had no impact on the man and the boy’s behaviour other than to speed up the transaction. Words, which had once been such a vital part of any polite interaction, fell away into the background. Why speak when you can simply do? And why smile when there is nothing to smile about? My forays into buying fruit and vegetables became textbook examples of efficient, streamlined trade. And from this base, the rewards eventually blossomed.
Not surprisingly, it was I who cluttered up the transactions once more – but this time with assertiveness. One day, I expressed my shock at the rising price of onions. (Anyone who was in India in early 2011 will remember this conversation well.)
“Twenty rupees one kilo?” I said. “That is tooo costly!”
“Yes sir, India is having onion short-age. Onions coming from other countries only, Pakistan and all.”
I saw an opening and seized the opportunity to make a silly joke. (Anyone who knows me personally will know my silly jokes well.)
“Yes, India is having short-age, but–“ I gestured wildly to the huge bins of onions on the floor– “–you are not having short-age! You should give discount!”
This brought the same reaction I imagine you’re having now: a sort of piteous half-smile. But it was a smile nonetheless. The next time I went, he picked up the joke:
“Today onions price is less. But we are having less of onions also.” He fixed me with an expectant grin.
“Ah,” I said, waiting for the punchline.
“So for you, double price!”
I laughed, perhaps a little too loudly. It didn’t matter. Now was I in. He immediately reassured me, “no no sir, that is joke, you don’t worry okay”, such a torrent for a man who was once barely monosyllabic. I had to smile at how far we’d come.
After that, it was all plain sailing. We each thought up our own silly jokes about small things like the weather. We would discuss the cricket with earnest enthusiasm. He and his young off-sider – whose smile became so familiar and so gleeful that I might have resented it if it weren’t so hard-won – would drop a few extra beans or chillies into my bag after putting in on the scale. I started taking any excuse to collect items for a salad or a fruit cocktail. This newfound ease at buying fresh produce did wonders for my diet.
At the same time, I was developing a kinship of sorts with the other staff in the supermarket: the generally disinterested gaggle of young women and the bored uncle behind the till. They, too, would come to understand my shopping habits as well as anyone; in fact, their attitudes towards shopkeeping helped reshape those habits for the better.
The evolution of customer service continues. (Does it ever really end?)
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