Of Companies and Customer Obsession

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
Working from a customer backward makes businesses successful

Customer service is one of the most important pillars in an organisation and can play a significant role in the success or failure of a company. Amazon, one of the largest multi national companies in the world, has put customer delight into their core by making it their goal to be Earth's most customer-centric company. To achieve that, Amazon has 14 leadership principles that form the company's core tenets and is taken very seriously when it comes to hiring. Customer obsession is their first.

I'll give you an example to illustrate this point. When running my own startup, a one-man show, I used Amazon's AWS as my cloud provider. Apart from the fact that Amazon AWS was (and still is) the market leader in cloud infrastructure, it was the only service that I'd used. I'd experimented a little with Google cloud, but it hadn't quite reached the stage that I needed. One day, I received a call from IBM and the lady asked me to try out IBM's cloud services. I asked for additional details and was told that I could use their services for free for a month. I said that a month was too short. AWS provides their services for free for a year. Besides, I was not familiar with IBM's service. For me to read, try out a few features and run POCs to check if moving to IBM was feasible or not in addition to my regular duties was not a practical request. Explaining this, I asked for some extra time - at least six months? She said she'd get back to me, and never did. Later, I received similar calls from IBM, reach conversation going along the same lines - Sometimes agents refusing my requests, while other times they said they'd get back and then would not get back.

I, of course, continued using AWS. On another not-so-fine day, much to my chagrin, I discovered a huge bill from AWS. The problem, I later realised, was that my reserved instance had expired, and I'd forgotten to renew it. For the uninitiated, a reserved instance is a way of telling AWS that I plan to use a machine for a year and they give you substantially better pricing. A failure to let them know that would default to hourly pricing which is relatively quite steep. How steep is steep really? An hourly-billed machine of size X for one-month costs the same as a yearly billed reserved instance of size 2X. I could've used a machine of double the size for a year for the amount I now had to pay for a month. As a tiny startup, that was a heavy price to pay. I was cursing myself for not being careful. I did write to AWS regarding this with a request - I explained my problem, and told them I'd buy reserved instance for a year, but could they adjust the billing such that it applied retroactively? A support agent called me, understood my problem, and said that he'd waive the hourly bill. I couldn't believe my ears! I profusely thanked him for understanding and helping me out of a pickle. But what's more important to note are two things - One, a customer service representative was empowered to take such decisions, while IBM miserably failed. I'm pretty sure that mine was not the only company that didn't like such a short trial period. It's a risk that they should be willing to take for a long term win. Two, I've not only become a life long AWS customer, but I also became their cheerleader and a strong proponent, encouraging everyone to use AWS because of their phenomenal customer service.

Mainly, it reflected two great leadership principles of Amazon - Customer Obsession and Ownership. Ownership is when you feel that the company that you're working for is owned by you. It's very different from doing things like a chore to get things done.

I'll give an example of this. I wanted to buy a small bag from a shop in a mall. By the time I'd reached the shop, the people inside had brought down their cage-like shutters a bit, indicating that it was closing time. The salespeople were still inside, lights were fully on. It looked like they were just sitting around talking, and it wasn't much after their closing time that I'd reached there - perhaps a few minutes. I said - "Excuse me, can I look at a few bags?" She quickly replied - "We're closed". Period. If it was a business owned by you, I guarantee you that your reaction would've been different. A customer had come to buy something from your shop, and you're creating a barrier. You're not providing any alternatives. It was amusing. I'd think that a commission on sale works very much like Ownership that incentivises you to drive to closure, but that didn't work.

Many customer service representatives have become like robots. Perhaps that's why many bots are able to take up the job of initial customer interaction. I've chronicled my terrible experience with MakeMyTrip here where people didn't even try to understand what went wrong. Perhaps, one of the most pathetic customer experience I've had is from a company called Orchid DMC Singapore PTE LTD. It's a company that organises tours. Ordinarily, I never book any packages tours. I strongly dislike my fate being tied to the behaviours of others. Due to paucity of time, I'd gotten a part of my tour booked through this group. To avoid nonsense, I arranged for a private airport drop from the hotel. However, due to some other passengers delaying getting back to the bus, my schedule went awry. That didn't leave us enough time to have dinner. Moreover, the company arranged it such that I reach the airport several hours earlier than when I was supposed to be at. I had let go of it at that time, not thinking much about it. However, due to the delay, we'd very little time left for dinner - a delay caused by someone else. I immediately left a message with their "hotline". I said that we were having dinner, and asked him to reschedule - the man was quite rude and went on to explain to me that he had shared the itinerary with me a week earlier. All my conversations with him failed because this man was not trying to understand my problem from the customer's perspective.

Being technically correct is often not the right approach. Goodwill is not earned in this manner. Things don't always go according to plan, and a certain leeway should be given. Ironically, this same company had scheduled a ride and they were unable to fulfill it due to circumstances beyond their control. Now, if I go back and tell them that they'd shared their itinerary with me, it makes no sense because a refund in itself may be insufficient because of such short notice. The money refunded is too little compared to the broken experience for us, which cannot be recovered unless I come back another time.

Dealing with customers is an art and requires empathy, first and foremost. People started and Customs at airports talk rudely to people. They act like people are morons who don't know basic procedures. All along, however, they forget that what's second nature to them because they see and do these things daily, the person who has come to the RTO or to the airport doesn't do it every day. Sometimes it's once in a lifetime, and a certain level of patience, understanding and empathy is important. Not saying things like - What are you waiting for? Or passing sarcastic remarks.

There are countless incidents that I've seen myself that show a great lack of good customer service. That's why I love concepts like Amazon's Day One, leadership principles like Customer Obsession, Ownership and others. They're very simple concepts to understand, but companies are often lacking in this finesse. I, on my part, would never recommend companies like "Orchid tours, Singapore", MakeMyTrip and IBM, and would by our out of my way to discourage people from using their services, the opposite of what I do for AWS. In the end, your customers become your biggest cheerleaders or opponents.


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