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Monday, Nov 27, 2006

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Opinion - Consumerism
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Columns - Offhand
Marginalised customers

I have coined two new laws of my own to depict the helpless plight and impotent rage of customers in a milieu dominated by the buzzword of customer delight by prompt service: First, marginalisation of customers proceeds at the same pace as the advance of competitive markets. Second, the shriller the hyperbole on the importance of customers, the worse-off they will be and the more intolerable their treatment at the hands of goods peddlers and service providers.

You ask, and legitimately, whether there is any distinction between the public and private sectors in the operation of the laws. A big and capital NO: The public sector had always been bereft of any sensitivity towards the needs and feelings of customers, and to no one's surprise, it lumbers on in the same unconcerned fashion. The private sector, suddenly faced with a meteoric rise in the number of customers it has to deal with, has raised round itself bureaucratic firewalls putting the Government in the shade and belying its bombastic and pretentious ads.

Egregious callousness

Write-ups in the media of industrialised countries on customers' torment have no qualms about naming names, and that is what keeps the executives on their toes and their product and service standards high. In India, the media are generally coy about pointing fingers at the egregious callousness of the private sector, while being unsparing in the case of the Government and the public sector. The result is to confirm the private sector's illusion that it is the world's chosen messiah in regard to all that is best in governance - efficiency, responsiveness, service delivery, customer delight, the works.

Try getting a service mechanic from any of the private firms to attend to your malfunctioning microwave-oven, washing machine, refrigerator, or computer and you will realise how frustrating the experience can be. The call centres will ceremoniously register your request, but in nine cases out of ten, nothing will happen for a couple of days, and certainly none will put in an appearance on the day and time promised. You will have to be constantly nudging them, sometimes for days, before the job gets done.

Forget the unresponsiveness of the service department. Try getting replies to communications from any of the companies that are household names and boast in their annual reports of allocations of huge sums for training staff in customer orientation. You will see that they beat government offices hollow in indifference and sloth.

Disembodied voice

Adding to the customers' woes, even the facilities supposed to help customers only succeed in driving them up the wall. For more than a week I have been wanting to contact the PRO of the Chennai Regional Passport Office over phone and bumping into a wall every time. The office has four general purpose numbers, and one for the Passport Officer, and on dialling all of them, you hear a disembodied voice saying: "Welcome to the Passport Office! Press the Star and dial the extension number or wait for operator assistance." After a couple of minutes, you hear rings at the other end, without anyone picking up the telephone, and the busy tone comes on.

Having suffered this mental agony about a dozen times in the course of a week, I sent two e-mail messages addressed to the Passport Officer, but ten days have gone by without any response. Tell me, what is an average citizen supposed to do in the circumstances? Tear his hair?


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