“The goal as a company is to have customer service that is not just the best, but legendary.”

Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart

Comparisons, they say, are odious, but can also be therapeutic and insightful. It’s clear from my recent family holiday in Goa and Rajasthtan that the Indians may already have overtaken us in serving the customer.

wordle image for Customer Service Latest Score India 1, England 0When Ramesh brought a birthday cake and his personal best wishes for my wife with room service coffee, we were pleasantly surprised because we hadn’t even told the hotel. Staff had overheard us talking to friends about the anniversary in the foyer, and had delivered the ultimate in service – anticipating a customer’s needs before they’re expressed. There’s something worrying and mysterious going on here for those of us working in the supposed ‘developed’ economies.

Just A Cheaper Alternative?

What hits the news about India is the threat to our call centres, R & D, software development, and even white collar jobs from a highly educated, English speaking, and above all, less expensive off-shore alternative. But instead of crying foul, we need to consider – and quickly! – what we can learn from the service revolution going on in this vibrant and rapidly emerging former colony.

Instead, we complain. “Just imagine your train enquiry on how best to travel from Swindon to Manchester being handled from a call centre in Bangalore?” sneered a representative of the UK call centre industry only last year.

But you don’t have to imagine it today. And what’s more, it’s both more friendly, and in my experience, more accurate. It’s easy to dismiss this shift to ‘off-shoring’ as just a cheaper alternative, but it turns out that the reality is more surprising. Maybe, we could argue, it’s just because the Indians are hungrier for success, but there’s also freshness, a willingness in their approach that puts us to shame. I’m a heretic when it comes to judging things by Customer Satisfaction Indexes (CSIs). Like the rest of us as customers, I go by feel and experience.

So, what is the Indian experience?

Telephones, including international calls, are not just far cheaper than ours, but the operators are more genuinely helpful, airline check-in staff and flight attendants friendlier, taxis invariably turn up earlier than the appointed hour, and drivers seem delighted to help with bags. The economy class lounge in Mumbai airport is as good as a BA business class one, and room service in hotels arrives before you’re out of the shower.

Above all, there’s a palpable desire to make the customer feel good. While we merely discuss the virtues of emotional intelligence, the Indians, on the whole, practice it.

Look, I know the ‘yes, buts’. The desire for tips from wealthy tourists helps, and the subcontinent is still plagued by poverty, injustice and rampant corruption. My experience as a pampered and relatively wealthy visitor may not be that of the average local, but this is missing the point. When I boarded my UK charter flight on the return from Goa to Gatwick (Excel Airways, since you ask, definitely one to avoid) it was a sharp re-entry to UK service surliness. Attendants who grimace when you ask for the vegetarian meal you ordered – do you really have to have ‘vegetarian?’ – thinly veiled contempt when you ask for a glass of water because they’d rather sell you expensive designer water, and a generally feeling of resentment toward the customer, which conveys that you are lucky to be on board experiencing the miracle of flight in any shape or form.

Let’s see how this is playing out in a key part of the UK service industry, the ubiquitous call centre.

Coal Mining and Data Mining: Same Fate?

It took about 200 years for coal mining in the UK to peak, decline and almost vanish. The social cost in affected areas was enormous, and although it’s easy to say that it was a necessary social and economic change, the last death-throes of the raw materials industry, it’s hard to do this without some compassion for the communities destroyed.

We have no realistic way of saying whether or not the miners were good at their dirty, unhealthy and once necessary jobs in the Old Economy. But with data-mining – and I take this to encompass call centres, now often labelled ‘contact centres’ – we are all direct customers and know exactly how to calibrate our level of satisfaction or disgruntlement.

This industry, the flagship of the Service Economy, has only a 20-year cycle to run, and we have already reached the half-way mark.

Let me justify this prediction. All industries go through the boom-to-bust cycle at a more accelerated pace than before. From electric typewriters to digital watches and mainframe computers, the writing was on the wall even as these industries reached their zenith. The assassins are threefold: technological advance, instant worldwide accessibility of knowledge, and customer demand.

Applying this to coal mining, newer, cheaper and more desirable sources of energy stuck the knife in the UK’s workhorse at a tipping point in the late 1970s. And when coal itself was needed, it became cheaper to source it from, say, Poland.

The same threats are currently challenging UK’s call centre industry, where an estimated 1-in-50 of our working population draw their wages. India is not the only destination for these jobs. But remember that the highly-trained, English-speaking middle classes there are already absorbing a significant percentage of America’s and Britain’s better paid research, software development and pharmaceutical industry jobs.

Much newsprint has been consumed in covering this. My aim here is not to rehash this, but to sound a loud warning call that the decline of this industry is as inevitable as that of coal mining. We have to radically re-think our loss of leadership in the service industry, rather than lashing out as in the recent shameful abuse of Indian call centre operatives by aggrieved Westerners.

Polish coal may have been indistinguishable from the Welsh stuff, but off-shore service will increasingly become better than the home-grown variety. And, at least for now, significantly cheaper.

This is where we are hoist with our own petard. Large-scale UK service providers have on the whole been too driven by cost rather than quality. Forget all the seminars, videos and literature on 'Customer Service Excellence'. Forget them because the guiding ethos, systems and resourcing of large corporations has already done so, despite 'Customer Focus' consistently featuring so highly in the Top Ten of company values.

It’s the small signs that show what’s going on. Let me be unfair and pick on the call centre industry again. (As customers, we’re all unfair, and fundamentally disloyal; we’re not a market, we don’t give a fig for statistics on customer response times, we just know how these organisations make us feel!) Try asking people in one major credit card company to call you back and you are met either with blank indifference or a fearful explanation of why they’re not allowed to do that. The same management who preach that the customer comes first at regular Town Hall love-ins are either initiating or managing systems whose rewards are for financial performance at the expense (sic) of taking care of the customer.

Many similar tell-tale signs – lengthy call queues, brusque and inflexible operatives, incomprehensible touch tone menus to name but a few – indicate that most of our companies are, to use an old expression, inwardly rather than customer-focused. Driven by cost control, not customer happiness. No wonder it’s said that the UK runs on an inexhaustible fuel, suppressed customer rage!

So how can we complain when service moves off-shore for reasons of cash? The big kick in the tail is that quality often improves as a result. If not always yet, then sooner than we think.

Everything Automated?

Of course, even for India it is later than they think. Of the accelerators of change, the greatest threat is expressed in the maxim:

Anything that can be automated, will be!

If you’re over, say, 35, you will probably argue vociferously that you can’t stand dealing with machines and that there’s no substitute for personal customer service. Much as I hate to say it, that almost certainly makes us dinosaurs. The younger generation of teenagers – now dubbed ‘screenagers’ – operate on the principle that the screen is real and you are virtual!

Just as only the most perceptive of futurologists might have guessed 20 years ago how much our working lives would be driven by technology, the degree to which service will be automated in the future is unguessable. And that will be the threat to economies like India’s, at present winning the battle for jobs in the service sector initially on price. Will those jobs even exist in 10-to-15 years time, except as niche, highly exclusive service providers?

Was this all an air-flight dream? You may have noticed how freely the mind floats on a flight, uninterrupted by mobile calls and emails. But suddenly we are back at Gatwick and I know this is a waking dream. The baggage is late, the long-term parking bus driver dumps us unceremoniously far from our car and the girl in the parking booth charges us a full day extra because the flight brought us in two hours late.

"Says so in the contract", she shrugs before returning to her game of patience on the computer screen.

Driving home on the windswept M25, I recall Joni Mitchell’s wonderful line about why she couldn’t live in Europe: “Too old, and cold, and settled in its ways”. Maybe it’s the weather that makes service surly here? That’s it: blame God; our service industry has blamed everyone else. That’s why the latest score is India 1, England 0. I hope we can make a comeback, but I suspect we’ll need a new coach for our national team. Maybe someone from a warmer part of the world?

Originally published: 19 Jun 2006


Copyright © 2015 Nigel Barlow. All Rights Reserved.