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Monday, Sep 16, 2002

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Beguiling Web sites

WHAT is it that the Unit Trust of India (UTI), UTI Bank, India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) have in common? They all have beguiling Web sites, asserting customer delight to be their watchword, and entreating visitors to contact them for anything they want.

If you take them at their word, you will find yourself badly let down. Your messages will go unheeded and even unacknowledged.

Recently, the UTI Bank decided to appoint the investment firm, Solomon Smith Barney, to raise equity capital despite the fact that this firm has been facing charges of shady transactions affecting millions of investors at the hands of the US Security Exchanges Commission, the New York Attorney General and the US Congressional Committee for Financial Services.

Thundering silence is the response to my messages to the Company Secretary, Mr P. J. Oza, of the UTI Bank, and the Chairman of the UTI, Mr M. Damodaran, who is also on the Board of the Bank, to rethink the proposal. How can one trust institutions which show such indifference to well-wishers who, as in my case, are customers to boot?

ITDC's Web site contains a honeyed invitation to use its services for comprehensive packages based on the itineraries and preferences of the visitors to the site. I eagerly left full particulars and sought its help for relatives coming from the US. They have come and gone, but silence has been reigning for the past one year!

The BSNL has Gandhiji's famous statement, "The customer is the most important visitor on our premises" pretentiously inscribed on top of the web page. It implores you to register your complaints about its service.

The net outcome of my taking the trouble on three occasions is — you guessed it: Neither was any action taken, nor was there any acknowledgment. Its Divisional Engineer in Adyar Exchange refuses to meet visitors. So much for poor Gandhi!

If the treatment I have received from Aptech, NIIT, Cyberwave and Asian Paints is any guide, companies in the private sector — presumed to be more alive, alert and competitive — are no better. The dulcet language of their Web sites has no effect on their attitude to customers which conforms to the frustrating traits of Indian work culture.

In sum, organisations which go to great lengths and expense to fill the Internet with their Web sites do not themselves take the promises contained in them seriously and they end up as an eyewash, if not a hoax perpetrated on gullible surfers. Many of them are not even regularly updated by the webmasters, and stale information is allowed to foul them up for months.

On the other side, the number of unique sites in the world has grown from 4.7 million in 1999 to 8.4 million in 2001, of which 3.1 million are public (with free access), 2.1 million are private (with conditional access) and 3.2 million are provisional (unfinished, under test, and so on).

In the US too (accounting for 47 per cent of all public sites) complaints are heard about the content not matching the conduct.

The reason is that launching of Web sites is taken as a mere ritual, without their being seen as a potent instrument to win over customers.

B. S. Raghavan

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