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Surviving European Customer Service

Surviving European Customer Service

April 28, 2010

Asians could teach the West a thing or two about good customer service…

It’s been a while since I wrote something positive about India, but the events of the past few days have reiterated my belief in the fact that despite all our flaws and inefficiencies, we are still a nation of many exceptional attributes. Among these – great customer service, a tremendous capacity to adjust and an ability to handle unexpected situations with poise. The West can boast of its prim and proper robotic orderliness, but its inability to maneuver through events that fall out of the ‘tick mark zone’ is exposed time and again, especially under extraordinary circumstances. So when one thing goes wrong, everything else follows, like a house of cards.

During the past week as the whole volcanic ash saga played out, the so-called conveniences of the automated world that Western societies swear by came crashing down. For those like me, stranded due to cancelled flights and yearning for a human voice to listen to our ordeal, all we were met with were jammed telephone lines, websites which had suspended key functions and mounting mobile phone bills as we waited for hours to an end on premium number lines, trying to get the mess sorted with a call centre executive. I had a booking on a British Airways flight from Zurich to London with which was cancelled. I made repeated calls to their helpline and was told I would have to wait in line for 50 minutes on an international call after which I might be connected to an agent. Three attempts later (the phone got disconnected after 15 minutes) I gave up. Left with no option, I made a trip to the airport but was told with stoic lack of concern by the BA authorities that they couldn’t help me – my only option was to call their automated helpline. The same thing was repeated with my insurance company too. For 3 days, all I did was speak to automated machines!

The whole experience was infuriating not so much for the fact that I was stranded, but more so because of the complete absence of help from the same companies that hard sell dreams to customers during the good times. My experience with the Indian travel website (, though, was diametrically opposite. A concerned representative called me on an international number and asked me whether I wanted my connecting flight from London to Mumbai rescheduled for another date, or if there was anything else she could do to assist me. She even went to the extent of phoning the airline (she didn’t have to do this) and reconfirming my flight on the day of my departure. In general too I’ve noticed, Asians do a far better job when it comes to customer service. In hotels or restaurants for instance, we far supersede our Western counterparts when it comes to hospitality. The basic courtesy, for instance, of offering water when seated is largely absent in restaurants in Europe or the US. Moreover, waiters are rude if you do not order alcohol and share dishes. The service in even the most basic Indian restaurant on the other hand is warm and friendly.

Even if you leave aside the travel or hospitality industry for a moment, this lack of skill/intent to deal with a crisis manifests itself through many different realms of day-to-day existence in the West where machines have taken over the jobs human beings are supposed to do. Unfortunately, while machines are programmed to make things easy for us, they can’t ‘adjust’ according to external changes in our circumstances. For that we need human beings! So, this culture where human contact is kept as minimal as possible doesn’t really bode well when you are dealing with customers used to seeking and receiving (with a smile) human help as often as possible.


  • nirupama
    25.03.12 10:44 PM
    NIkhil, I loved reading through your candid recount of that experience. I totally share your views. While it's true that we can some good things from the West, there are certainly some areas where they would do well to learn from us too.
  • chandra
    25.07.10 10:01 PM
    even i think we should not over-generalize
    the Ebookers bothered to give an explanation....a similar indian company would have never done that.
  • Nikhil
    03.05.10 10:08 PM
    While I would appreciate the concern showed by Ebookers...I still maintain that they left passengers like me in a lurch when we needed their support the most. When I called their office in Switzerland and was connected to a customer service rep, I was told very rudely by him that they had no connection whatsoever with ebookers UK and thus they will be unable to help me out. Now that is a case of dysfunctional operations!
  • The NRI
    The NRI
    30.04.10 08:22 PM
    FAO Ebooker Team,

    It is admirable that you sought out this post and took the time to give an explanation for the poor service that the author experienced. If nothing else it shows that you are at least concerned about what your customers think of your organisation (more than can be said for some).

    I leave it to Nikhil to add his own comments if he feels the need.
  • ebookersservice
    30.04.10 06:34 PM
    Sorry to hear you had some difficulty contacting us by telephone during the recent travel disruption. We experienced a large influx of enquiries from consumers anxious about the impact on their travel plans and as a result we did experience longer than normal wait and response times.

    I completely appreciate your frustration at having to wait in an automated telephone queue but can assure you that real people were working both on the telephone lines and behind the scenes assisting customers.

    With regards to the premium line issue that you raise I can confirm that we actually removed this as soon as the crisis broke and listed a regular number for consumers to contact us on.

    It’s our belief that with a motivated and service focussed workforce who have access to robust technology platform that it’s possible to deliver high levels of service to consumers wherever they are based.
  • Raja
    29.04.10 08:09 PM
    May be we shouldn't over-generalize.
    On a trip to India, I had bad experience with American Airlines and Air Sahara. The experience with Air Sahara was worse 'coz they didn't even let me board the aircraft because of extra luggage and because they refused a payment via credit card. On making formal complaint, AA apologized and given me travel vouchers worth $400. Air Sahara still spams my mailbox. Needless to say, they didn't care to address the issue.
    If I'd hear similar stories from some other people, I'd say that I see a pattern.
    I was in India when some big storm struck the Eastern part of India, and AI & IC flights from Kolkata were cancelled. Not only that none answered any phone calls, no AI/IC representative was available at the airport, either. Some news channel showed that people had reached the airport at 5:30 in the morning to catch 6:00/6:30 flights, and all they could find was empty counters of AI/IC.
  • Aline CineHindi
    Aline CineHindi
    28.04.10 03:20 PM
    Hello NRI team,
    You have an absolutely great blog, thumbs up! It will be a pleasure to follow your posts. Keep up the great work! Good wishes to you all from the Hindi Cinema Blog team in India, USA, Dubai and Europe.

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