Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

The Evolution of Customer Service (Part 3)

The Evolution of Customer Service (Part 3)

November 02, 2011

In a land where I am not supposed to even smile at a woman, how can I ask one to fetch me some Cinthol soap?

After my years in India, I have decided that what Europeans or Americans (or New Zealanders) generally consider to be 'good customer service' is bland and unappealing. The ideal is for every customer to be treated the same way, so customer service is, by default, impersonal. This standard has also led to all manner of spirit-crushing in-house customer service programmes wherein a 'customer service consultant' leads you through endless PowerPoint presentations in order to teach you how to maximise up-selling, identify each customer's individual needs (through purposefully generic methods) and check your smile before you go out into the Retail Environment.

As far as I can tell, there are no such customer service programmes in rural India. As discussed in parts one and two, the customer service representatives – ugh, I can't type that any more; let's just call them shop staff – at Varkala's Puthooram Margin Free Bazaar did not offer bland, impersonal customer service by default. This is typified best by the ladies, who offered two types of service, neither of which I would ever call bland.

The first type is to chatter loudly and incessantly – but only to each other. Customers be damned! Work is not for working. It's a social activity, a place for gossip that happens to also sell bread and milk. At Puthooram Margin Free Bazaar there were four female staff, all in their twenties by my estimation. Their long, jet-black, glistening, plaited hair was usually the first thing I noticed upon entering, swaying and wobbling along with the few lulls and many crescendos of their conversation. And in the beginning I would walk right on by, hoping they wouldn't notice me and switch to the second type of service.

The second type is quite the opposite. In addition to the swaying jet-black hair, you get dish-sized doe eyes, a white toothy grin and all that considerable vocal power directed squarely at you – from a distance of two feet. Because once they catch sight of you, and elect to serve you, they will not leave your side until you have safely escaped the store. “What you are looking sir?” God forbid you say you aren't looking for anything in particular, or you're just browsing. If that's the case, your assistant will make it her duty to help you find whatever it is you're not sure you're looking for – by explaining as many things as she possibly can.

“This is coconut oil, very good quality. In Kerala coconut oil is famous.”

“This also coconut oil. Same quality. You use for making dosa, chapatti. Very good quality.”

“Also coconut oil. Also good for putting hair.”

“This is coconut oil in bottle.”

In case you didn't realise, we've only explained our way through the coconut oil aisle thus far. There's still rice, imported goods, toiletries, condiments, sweets, cereals and many more to be explained, all rinsed and repeated from the coconut oil template. I have a headache just thinking about it. A much better method? Go in with a few specific items in mind; then they only need explain those few.

It took me a while to learn this. The idea of asserting anything to a young, unmarried Kerala woman, even the simple fact that I needed some toilet paper or two-minute noodles, seemed wildly fantastical after a few months living in Varkala. Out on the streets, the foreign man/Indian woman dynamic was generally one of averted gazes and absolutely no smiling under any circumstances, for if I – the swarthy saip – were to look upon a fair Malayali maiden with anything other than utmost deference, I must surely be undressing her in my mind and planning an opportunity to corrupt her with my loose foreign character. She, meanwhile, ought not to catch my eye, and certainly not let me see her smile, for I would no doubt assume this to be an indicator of interest in sexy time.

All this is to say that the first, second, third and possibly fourth times I shopped at Puthooram Margin Free Bazaar, I had absolutely no idea how to interact with the female shop staff. The cross-cultural inter-gender barrier seemed insurmountable. How could I get them on side without looking at/talking to/smiling at them? And yet here they were in my personal space, casting society's unwritten rules aside for simple groceries. None of the vegetable-buying aunties were even tutting or frowning at their close proximity to me! I felt like I'd entered the Twilight Zone.

That's when the penny dropped. Puthooram Margin Free Bazaar is not society. It is just a shop to be mastered, with staff to be unlocked. I'd managed it with the fruit and vegetable guys, and I would get there with the young ladies, too. All I needed to do, now that I understood the supermarket's freeness of speech & expression, was be assertive.

So that fifth time, or whatever it was, I marched in with a List and simply dictated the terms of the interaction. A girl approached and was visibly thrilled when I looked her squarely in the eyes, smiled broadly and barked with confidence: “Hello madam! I need one double-pack Maggi masala noodles, one packet spaghetti pasta, one piece Cinthol soap and one large roll toilet paper!”

We now had a degree of understanding that only grew stronger. They knew that anybody so familiar with India-made products could be engaged in idle conversation, rather than the usual stream of explanation; meanwhile, I knew I could speak to them relatively freely, as long as I was respectful. Soon, we were joking about the items (or lack thereof) in the freezer and talking about our families. I wouldn't say we were ready to exchange marriage proposals, but we were certainly friendly. Between the veg guys and the ladies, my visits to the supermarkets had become breezy and almost exciting.

One challenge remained. Customer service is not complete unless it is consistent from the first moment to the last. All my endeavours to this point were worthless without one final effort. The final supermarket boss, as it were: the manager.

[To be concluded.] 

Leave a comment