How much attention should startups pay to customer support?

[Guest article by Sanjay Anandaram, an entrepreneur-turned-investor. In this article, he shares an interesting story that any startup could face – customer gratification vs. high cost incurred in customer service. Which one would you opt for?]

The CEO of a leading online bus reservations company arrived late for our early morning meeting. I was upset for having been made to wait for what was our weekly meeting. He apologized profusely upon arrival and I could see that he was upset. He looked tired as well. I asked him if all was well. His story took my breath away.

Apparently, a customer had booked tickets through the company’s web-site for the last bus that departed late at night for Mumbai from Bangalore. Upon reaching the departure point, the customer was shocked to learn that the bus had been cancelled (the bus industry is not unknown for springing such surprises periodically) and that there was no other bus available.
Realising the futility of arguing with the bus operator at that time of the night – especially with the operator having washed his hands off the matter. Canceling a bus without providing an alternative to his passengers by simply saying such things happen seemed to be part of his job description! The desperate customer, who had to urgently reach Mumbai the following morning, called the CEO’s company.
The call-centre was just about to close after the last buses for the day had departed and were not at their responsive best. He was naturally livid.

The CEO and his head of bus operations were hurriedly informed about the plight of the hapless customer by the call-centre. The two of them rushed to the bus-stand on their bikes where the customer was waiting – anxious and furious. They then arranged for a taxi to take the customer to the airport, booked the customer on company expense on a 2am international flight that touched Mumbai and finally saw him off. The customer reached Mumbai in time for his meeting the next day.
The CEO returned home and sent an mail to the customer apologizing for the experience, promising to put in place systems to prevent such incidents from occurring in future, and hoping that the customer would give the company a second chance. Needless to say, the customer he was delighted with the high-touch customer care that he had experienced and wrote a long mail full of praise to the company soon thereafter. What could have become an extremely unhappy customer was converted into a customer for life!

The company incurred a big loss on the transaction but earned the lifelong trust of a customer that would hopefully translate into more satisfied customers. The CEO then set about putting in place systems and processes as promised to the customer. These ranged from enhanced call-centre operations and training to better communication with bus operators, including sensitizing them to the importance of customer satisfaction as a win-win situation for all, to putting in place economic incentives for employees and operators.
These were then communicated to employees so that every employee understood the importance of customer care. Customers were also informed about the kind of service they could experience. That every customer would be happy with their experience became the implicit operating mantra inside the company. This fanatical adherence to customer care has seen the company acquire a loyal following not just with direct customers but also with bus operators and partners who too are treated with the same kind of attention and care.

All too often, the focus is on sales and more sales. And all too often, there’s not enough focus on meeting let alone exceeding customer expectations. This is all the more true in countries such as ours where customer service is more often experienced by its absence.
There’s a belief that the customer really has nowhere to go once sales are achieved. The knowledge that one unhappy customer usually spreads the bad experience more diligently than a happy one is little understood. That catering to a returning customer is more profitable than trying to acquire a new customer.
That in the long run, the life-time value of a customer through repeat purchases is what matters rather than a narrow focus on short-term profits. That apologizing for mistakes and working to rectify these mistakes is a sign of strength and honesty.

Treating people with respect and acknowledging one’s shortcomings are what this kind of behaviour therefore naturally abstracts into.

And who wouldn’t like to deal with another if this is the basis of a contract?

What do you think?

[The article first appeared in FE. Republished with author’s permission]

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