Perhaps I’m saying this too often — know the purpose of your message and know your audience if your corporate communication is to be effective. But, I believe it’s a point worth repeating because it is so easy to overlook. For example, I was asked to design a dissemination strategy for a tool kit on volunteering that a quango had put together. When asked about audience, I was told, “The whole world is our audience!” I then asked the staff what their budget was for translating the toolkit into all the languages of the world. The response was silence.


The answer is a most emphatic NO! Right now it is my internet service provider that is guilty of poor customer service. Before that it was a pizza outlet. To be fair, there was some kind of service resolution – the wrong order was replaced (though it meant more calls and waiting until the next afternoon for the correct order to be delivered).

My complaint is that these companies spend huge sums on advertising but the bare minimum on training their staff in essential customer service skills.

  1. What annoys me the most is that none of the staff know how to listen. It’s only at the level of area manager and above do I find staff who actually listen. At the lower levels, the staff seem to be trained to follow a fixed script and to not deviate from it at any cost. Hence, when I called to complain that I had been sent the wrong pizza order, the young woman’s response was, “What is your telephone number?”!! It’s only when I furiously (I was hungry and angry) asked what my telephone number had to do with a wrong order, did she change her response to something more intelligent and unscripted.
  2. Why do call centre staff mumble when talking on the phone? I’ve noticed that when overseas customers make the same complaint, companies here are quick to dismiss it as racial prejudice. However, I am an Indian and if I cannot understand what call centre staff say over the telephone, the problem has to be with the service agent and not the customer.
  3. Be it inbound or outbound calls, the staff do not clearly introduce themselves – name or company. In one government owned, telephone company, the call centre staff were all named after the late Michael Jackson’s children! And no, I don’t have a sense of humour.
  4. Going back to my internet service provider, the area manager had recorded my complaint. After that I got call after call asking me to repeat my complaint. When asked why, I was told the complaint had not been clearly recorded.
  5. The staff have no problem-solving skills. Because they do not listen/know how to listen, customer service staff (front office or call centre) are unable to take decisions and provide solutions. Therefore, the complaint has to be ‘escalated’ up the organizational pyramid until the customer reaches a senior enough manager who can do both.

What annoys me is that these are companies that spend lavishly on marketing. Which is fine. Only, the marketing has to be backed up by good customer service. I wonder if India, Inc is aware that their businesses lose nearly $2.5 billion annually because of poor customer service. For more statistics read the article, India loses Rs 11,640-cr a year on poor customer service: study published by the Business-Standard in August 2009.

Good customer service requires well trained staff. Here training providers are as much responsible as companies for the inadequate training being offered. All too often I come across training material that promises much in its objectives, but the content fails to cover the basics of customer service. There is much theory and little practical training. (I suppose, this approach to learning spills over from our education system which values theoretical knowledge over practical application.) As I advised the staff at the internet service outlet, “What you expect as a customer, do that for your customers.”

Companies meanwhile, are unwilling to invest in the time, effort, and expense required to develop quality training material. But then if the cost of poor customer service is Rs. 11,640 crore per annum, it is time for companies rethink their training budgets and their approach to training.

Since I had been commenting on communication and HR discussions on LinkedIn in the last two weeks, I decided to initiate a discussion on Ineffective communication. I wrote:

Business executives know what they want to communicate. But, they don’t know how to effectively communicate their messages. Why does this disconnect exist? How can it be removed?

Those who responded agreed that communication is a much neglected skill in the workplace. Everybody knows it is a ‘must have’, but there’s little enthusiasm for developing the skill.

Part of the problem seems to be the difficulty in quantifying the cost of poor communication. One reader suggested a process that identifies preferred communication styles and measures the effectiveness of a message. To learn more about the recommended model, I searched for information on the Internet.

A search that illustrates my original question. While the communication model itself is designed to improve communication, the marketing communication for the product is itself ineffective.

For instance —

  • The model and its author feature as the URL for so many of its licensed trainers and distributors, that the corporate website does not feature on the front page in a Google search.
  • Eventually, I found out that there was one URL on the first page that lead to the corporate website. However, the page itself would not open.
  • The uniqueness of communication model has not been communicated on either the corporate website or those of the licensed distributors. I could replace the product with any other performance measurement model and the assurances given would comfortably fit the new label.
  • One of the “official” websites has links to a questionnaire and the communication styles. However, when I tried to access the questionnaire, the page would not open for some reason. The communication profiles took too long to load. Nor was it possible to open the pages simultaneously using new tabs.

To its credit, the company has responded positively to the feedback. The COO of the company acknowledges that its marketing communications is under review and is being updated.

Looking at this website, and most organisational websites, I sense that sufficient thought is not given to the purpose of a website and to its audience. Whether it is a website for a business, an NGO, a charity or even a home-stay, the assumption seems to be that —

  • a picture will speak a thousand words – captions are unnecessary,
  • abstract words (unique, customised, innovative, creative) and adjectives (market leader, leading, world class) sell services and products.

And yet, these websites are designed by professionals who would /should know that the purpose of the message and understanding the needs of the audience is the foundation for effective communication. Unfortunately, this is where most organisations and their executives stumble.

I came across this discussion on LinkedIn: How do expats feel about working in English. In response to one follower’s complaint that companies do not do enough to help employees build their language skills, I wrote:

To get past the communication hurdles in the workplace — make a distinction between business communication skills and fluency in English. As you have already discovered, organisations will spend minimally on the first and often not at all on the second.

You however, don’t have to wait for your company to present you with learning opportunities for either business communication or English fluency. Your plan should be to develop fluency in English first. For that, you can sign up for English language courses at your university or for private tuition with an English teacher.

Once you have built up a larger vocabulary and ease of use with English, the next step is to build your business communication skills. For this there are several excellent college level textbooks by American authors on business communication. Also, sign up for a drama workshop. Drama is an excellent way to learn the mechanics of communications, i.e. posture, breathing, using the voice, etc.

We are all familiar with the expression, ‘walk in another’s shoes’. It is frequently used in training programmes to explain and develop empathy. In the past year, I had been hearing of retreats where participants wash another person’s feet.

The practice itself has its roots in the hospitality customs of ancient civilizations, particularly in the East. Perhaps the most well known account is found in the Gospel of John (13: 1-15), where Jesus washes the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper. This narrative is frequently referred to when describing servant leadership, a term coined by the late Robert Greenleaf in an essay “The Servant as Leader” written in 1970. Several others have since written and commented on this leadership style.

So, while I was familiar with the biblical event I had never actually experienced it for myself until recently – at the close of a one-day retreat for women. We, the participants, were told that the retreat leaders would wash our feet. I experienced a confusion of thoughts and feelings which I will try to describe here.

I was not at all comfortable with the idea of someone else touching my feet. I was then distracted by the mundane – “Will the water be changed?” (For the hygiene minded – the water was changed, soap used to rinse out the basins, and fresh towels used to dry feet.). The lady who washed my feet was senior in years and position. So, I felt even more uncomfortable. I felt unworthy. I then realised this was conceit. Everyday I depend on others for my basic needs to be met. Hence, to resist being served was pride – a less than honest need for self-sufficiency.

Later I asked one of the ‘foot washers’ if I could wash her feet, and she agreed. As I knelt down to wash her feet, I felt exposed, vulnerable, and uncertain. We then discovered that the basin was too small! This was funny and embarrassing for both of us. I also realised that washing another’s feet can tell us a lot about that person. The calluses on her feet told me this was a person who walked a lot – to serve others.

P.S. Take time to reflect both before and after the activity.

Heard of speed money?  I am told this is the term used when payments are made to ‘facilitate’ the issue of required documents when a business meets all the stipulated criteria.  A bribe on the other hand, is for payments made to facilitate business goals even though the organization does not meet specific criteria.  I fail to see the difference.

Does the meaning change if percentages are used instead of numbers and vice versa?  According to the Planning Commission of India, 27.5% of the population was living below the poverty line in 2004–2005. This would suggest that the number of people living in poverty has decreased by nearly half since 1977-1978 when the percentage was 51.3% of the population.  However, going by population number, the actual decrease is less than 10 million people.

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