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The Evolution Of Customer Service (Pt 1)

The Evolution Of Customer Service (Pt 1)

October 19, 2011

In rural India, you don't get good customer service automatically. You have to earn it.

This is not a post about customer service through the ages. This is about the evolution of an individual customer service relationship between workers in a particular shop (Puthooram Margin Free Bazaar, Varkala) and a foreigner (me). Because in rural India, time-honoured shop assistance traditions such as 'the customer is always right' and 'service with a smile' don't apply. There is a surplus of staff, just as there is in Mumbai or Bangalore, but you have to earn good customer service. It takes time and patience, and goes through several phases.

This post is about the first phase: denial. As in, the act of refusing to comply.
A phase that gives no hints as to the treasures that await further down the line.

My first visit to Puthooram Margin Free Bazaar, which had opened only weeks before, I went to buy tomatoes, a cucumber and a packet of chips. I also planned to cast my eye over the various imported food items they apparently stocked because whatever the opposite of kryptonite is to Superman, that is what imported food items are to an expat in India.

Full of hope I set forth
, excited at the opportunity to offer my custom to a newly opened establishment in my neighbourhood. I had convinced myself that not only would the proprietors be delighted to sell me goods, but that they would also inquire as to my purpose for being in India. I would tell them I was not merely a tourist but in fact working in the area, and they would be surprised, and I would congratulate them on their impressive array of imported food items (even if I wasn't that impressed). By the second visit, we would start to develop our own little rituals of conversation and silly in-jokes. By the third, we would be ready to call each other friends.

This was not the right attitude.

As I walked into the store, I noticed they had shopping baskets by the door. Baskets! In a Varkala supermarket! What a treat! I took one with a smile and looked around at the staff, expecting a welcoming response to my entrance. The three young ladies chattered in Malayalam over by the bakery counter. The four men all carried on with what they were doing – an older gentleman behind the counter reading a Malayalam newspaper, a boy and a middle-aged man noisily retrieving various vegetables for a couple of waiting aunties, and a moustachioed guy staring blankly at a sack of rice. Nobody deigned to glance in my direction, let alone smile.

I went first to the vegetable area. When buying vegetables in Kerala, be it at a large supermarket or a roadside veg stall, you normally tell a staff member the items on your list and wait while he retrieves them for you. I waited patiently for my turn as the aunties barked instructions and the two men weighed out potatoes, onions and bananas. Neither of the men looked at me. More aunties appeared, barging me aside without actually touching me (as only Indian women can), and were served before me.

After about five minutes waiting, the middle-aged man finally turned to me and said, “Yes?” His tone was sharp, a one-word rebuke to my lack of assertiveness. It seemed to imply that, given my obvious state of emasculation, he was doing me a favour by serving me at all. I tried not to sound meek in my request for tomatoes half kilo and cucumber one piece. He seemed to scold me again, wordlessly, when he thrust a red-and-green-tinged plastic bag into my hand. I placed it into my basket. They were the first items in there. Shameful items, I thought. You have christened this basket, and its carrier, with dishonour.

I wondered which method of service the young ladies would use. There are two methods, you see. One is to follow a few inches behind the customer and give a steady stream of information about every product the customer's eyes linger upon for more than a second. The other is to completely ignore - which is what the ladies of Puthooram Margin Free Bazaar did. I generally prefer the latter as it allows me space to browse the store without feeling watched over, but in this case, I wondered why they hadn't so much as glanced at the tall saip since his entry. Oh well. I selected a ten-rupee packet of Caribbean Sweet & Hot Lay's chips and continued to the imported food items.

Jars of gherkins. (Never liked them.) Tins of button mushrooms in brine. (A waste of bad mushrooms.) Packets of pasta. (Thought I might as well grab one while I was there, not that you can't get them in Varkala town.) Laughing Cow processed cheese in a round cardboard container. (What a joke. Who's ever seen a happy cow, let alone a laughing one? Desperate even for artificial joy, I grabbed it.)

It was time to cash up and go home, start regrouping for next time.

I went to the counter, where the older man remained engrossed in his newspaper. I hovered in front of him for a moment as he continued reading. It was like waiting at a red traffic signal that never goes green, and you just have to say 'screw it' and go after a while.

“Hi,” I said.

He turned the page with exaggerated slowness, grunted a little and looked at the basket in my hands but not at me. He gestured for me to place my basket on the counter with a nod of his balding head and an indignant wave. I did so as he cleared a small space by shifting his paper half a foot.

“Yes,” he said as he began unpacking my items one by one. I say unpacking, which doesn't seem the right word for a basket filled mostly with air, but his manner was so laboured that no other word seems appropriate.

“I live just down there,” I offered in despair, pointing half-heartedly in the direction of my house.

“Yes,” he said again, as absentmindedly as the first time. Not biting. We completed the rest of the transaction in silence. No, he didn't tell me how much my items cost; instead, he punched the number into a calculator and slid it vigorously under my nose. I paid and gave a nod of thanks - my voice now meek and useless - and departed with red spots of embarrassment blooming on my cheeks.

As I say, this was just the initial phase. I could even elevate it to the status of a rite of passage; painful, sure, but necessary. Next time, I'll show you the rest of the customer service evolution between myself and the staff of Puthooram Margin Free Bazaar. It would eventually become a symbiotic relationship as purely healthy as any other in my life. But after that first visit, as I sat in my house comfort-eating The Laughing Cow cheese without purpose, I had no idea. 


    19.10.11 10:59 PM
    I think you are too soft for the indian retailers BARNS . You need to start shouting like the rest of them auntys.

    People in india don't go to shop for services, they go to shop for bargains and bartering for prices, and the shop which does the both, always wins the customers even if cutomer service = zero . If you by any chance get service on top of this , Thats bonnus.

    I always have said to you india and indians will never change and you should know it by now, and if you don't you will never know.

  • Vijay
    19.10.11 01:19 PM
    Can't wait for the next step in your relationship's evolution!
    And I agree completely with Susmita.
  • Susmita Sen
    Susmita Sen
    19.10.11 09:42 AM
    The descriptions of the quintessential Malayali attitude to outsiders are so minute and accurate that they brought back vivid memories.
    And yes, if you choose to get upset about the apparant lack of hospitality, then too bad for you. "This is all you get. Take it or leave it" is the message I heard loudly proclaimed by the silence offered to anyone who does not speak the language.
  • satish-oneeyeclosed
    19.10.11 07:16 AM

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