Mahboob's Journal

Existential Thoughts, Experiential Inferences and Occasional Whacky Connections

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Ringtones of Customer Non-Service

Recently (18-Nov-2010) Airtel launched their new logo. Chairman and Managing Director Sunil Mittal said on the occasion, “Fifteen years ago, Bharati Airtel started its journey in India with a promise of delivering world-class and affordable services.”

When I saw the logo, I felt nothing great about it. Thought it was like a cartoon character’s ear. On the other hand, Miss India and actress Gul Panag liked the logo, the ad and the tune but asked Airtel to focus on their core competency and fix their network. She tweeted:

Probably their network is a problem to customers like Gul. I use Airtel broadband for my home landline phone and the internet connection for my kids’ computer. I wouldn’t comment on their wireless connectivity. But I do have a few peeves over their customer service. I have been their customer since 10-Apr-2006 and this period may not be too long, but in my view, it is sufficient to qualify for a minimal pampering something similar to some loyalty points or special offers.

They don’t even let me know they are aware about a customer who is sticking to them. And when I call customer service the voice tells me it is charged at 50 p per call. I am just one of their 15-crore Indian subscribers and 20-crore global subscribers, so they don't care. Forget pampering a loyal customer. Far from it.

I pay my monthly bill at their so-called “Airtel Relationship Centre”. It’s very convenient to me to go there and pay the bill. Once I drive out of Cyber Towers, within less than 100 metres, I take a u-turn go in the direction of Madhapur police station / Jubilee Hills and reach the centre in less than 3 minutes. Location and short commute are just about the only things that please me about the “Airtel Relationship Centre”.

The centre has about six staff each sitting in front of a computer. However, typically whenever I go there, there is only one person taking bill payments. Sometimes the line is long and I have to wait for more than half an hour. During this time, the other staff members, at least three of them, are sitting without serving any customer. Beats me how you can tolerate idle staff and long customer queues at the same time.

It’s funny. And stupid.

In the book Reengineering The Corporation, authors Michael Hammer and James Champy discuss the case of IBM Credit. This company deals with financing the purchases of IBM’s software, hardware and services by its customers. However, since the loan approval process was taking very long, their executives got into action. They figured that a majority of the loan applications were simple cases, and one executive could perform all the tasks in the loan application process. Previously, there were different people for the different steps in the process. They took the aid of computers and used the technique of people learning additional skill to do more tasks for the company. The results were drastic. The excerpts below explain the complete case study:

In its early years, IBM Credit’s operation was positively Dickensian. When an IBM field salesperson called in with a request for financing, he or she reached one of fourteen people sitting around a conference room table in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. The person taking the call logged the request for a deal on a piece of paper. That was step one.

In step two, someone carted that piece of paper upstairs to the credit department, where a specialist entered the information into a computer system and checked the potential borrower’s creditworthiness. The specialist wrote the result of the credit check on the piece of paper and dispatched it to the next link in the chain, which was the business practices department.

The business practices department, step three, was in charge of modifying the standard loan covenant in response to customer request. Business practices had its own computer system. When done, a person in that department would attach the special terms to the request form.

Next, the request went to a pricer, step four, who keyed the data into a personal computer spreadsheet to determine the appropriate interest rate to charge the customer. The pricer wrote the rate on a piece of paper, which, with the other papers, was delivered to a clerical group, step five.

There, an administrator turned all this information into a quote letter that could be delivered to the field sales representative by Federal Express.

The entire process consumed six days on average, although it sometimes took as long as two weeks. From the sales reps’ point of view, this turnaround was too long, since it gave the customer six days to find another source of financing, to be seduced by another computer vendor, or simply to call the whole deal off.

In their efforts to improve this process, IBM Credit tried several fixes.


Eventually, two senior managers at IBM Credit had a brainstorm. They took a financing request and walked it themselves through all five steps, asking personnel in each office to put aside whatever they were doing and to process this request as they normally would, only without the delay of having it sit in a pile on someone’s desk. They learned from their experiments that performing the actual work took in total only ninety minutes – one and one half hours. The remainder – now more than seven days on the average – was consumed by handing the form off from one department to the next. Management had begun to look at the heart of the issue,…

In the end, IBM Credit replaced its specialists – the credit checkers, pricers, and so on – with generalists. Now, instead of sending an application from office to office, one person called a deal structurer processes the entire application from beginning to end: No handoffs.

How could one generalist replace four specialists? The old process design was, in fact, founded on a deeply held (but deeply hidden) assumption: that every bid request was unique and difficult to process, thereby requiring the intervention of four highly trained specialists. In fact, this assumption was false; most requests were simple and straightforward. The old process had been overdesigned to handle the most difficult applications that management could imagine. When IBM Credit’s senior managers closely examined the work the specialists did, they found that most of it was little more than clerical: finding a credit rating in a database, plugging numbers into a standard model, pulling boilerplate clauses from a file. These tasks fall well within the capability of a single individual when he or she is supported by an easy-to-use computer system that provides access to all the data and tools the specialists would use.

IBM Credit also developed a new, sophisticated computer system to support the deal structurers. In most situations, the system provided the deal structurer with the guidance needed to proceed. In really tough situations, he or she can get help from a small pool of real specialists – experts in credit checking, pricing, and so forth. Even here handoffs have disappeared because the deal structurer and the specialists he or she calls in work together as a team.

The performance improvement achieved by the redesign is extraordinary. IBM Credit slashed its seven-day turnaround to four hours. It did so without an increase in head count – in fact, it has achieved a small head-count reduction. At the same time, the number of deals that it handles has increased a hundredfold. Not 100 percent, but one hundred times.

Well, the essence of the IBM Credit case study is for people to handle multiple tasks with the help of information technology. Now back to Airtel – methinks they can apply that essence to their customer service.

A couple of inferences to conclude this blog entry. Customer service in India sucks. Secondly, top management of companies (like Airtel) does not pay visit and see what is happening on the ground. They would have been aghast to see a few associates sitting freely, and only one associate taking bill payments with a long line of customers who have to wait half to one hour to make the payment. Any senior manager with a little bit of common sense would have corrected the situation in the “Airtel Relationship Centre”. One need not read 2-decade old management classics like Reengineering The Corporation to improve the situation and give better customer service.

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Yeah I agree with you, but you know what, what you pay is what you get, so it is not Airtel is only doing this.
Let’s take Indian IT off-shoring industry and do similar kind of analysis; I am sure you will find tons of similarities.


PS: I am just curious why you spend hours standing in queues when you can pay in three clicks online.

painter 11

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