Problem solving

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.


Following on from the post, Take a Walk, a reader shares two creative approaches to problem solving:

In past years as a director of application development, I often mentored junior developers through the creative process of designing the solution to a problem we were faced with. The first radical approach was to have Friday mornings be a free-time. By that I mean my staff was to pick an idea for an experiment that they were intrigued by but which had no direct application to any work they were currently assigned to. This process was to stretch their minds to try things whereby there was no risk of failure. Simply experiment and see what happens.

The result?

Often, someone would rush into my office on Friday mornings all excited because they inadvertently solved a problem that was totally unrelated to what their experiment was that morning.

The other approach I took was to call my staff into an orientation session where I would use a large white board to diagram a problem that we had been asked to solve. I expected each participant in the session to copy down exactly what I drew on the board and ask any questions as they thought of them. After spending whatever time needed to completely frame the problem on the board, I would ask that the last person to finish note taking erase the board when they left the room and then instructed the group that when finished note taking, they were to close their notebooks, and not reopen them to the diagrams, nor discuss the session with anyone. In essence they were to “forget about it” – Not give the problem another conscious thought.

Any guess as to what happened after I instructed everyone to forget about it?

So begins a post on the Landor Blog.  The writer, a brand strategist with the company, suggests that taking a walk is a more effective method for idea generation and problem-solving as compared to sitting at a desk and thinking. 

I was wondering what it would be like to take a meditative walk on one of our city roads.  Would my mind be on the problem to be solved or the problem of avoiding dog poop and other unmentionable poop?  In addition to negotiating the sundry droppings, I would also have to watch out for  motorists who believe that pedestrians should be banned from roads, and then negotiate the unmarked trenches dug by various civil and commercial agencies, earth and rubble from the trenches, the further mounds of earth and rubble that eventually cover the trenches, the potholes left by last year’s rains, overflowing garbage bins, garbage without bins, store goods spilling out onto the street, street hawkers, etc!

Ragging in colleges is once again in the news. The death of Aman Kachroo has shaken people. And rightly so. Many ask if we can stop this menace. Yes, we can. How? Correct the students’ understanding of power and abuse.

When I visit colleges, I see notices posted across the campus that “Ragging is strictly prohibited and offenders will be severely dealt with” or words to similar effect. Yet ragging persists. Why? Because such notices do not address the cause of the problem – the students’ incorrect understanding of power and abuse, be it the abuser or the victim. And society is responsible for this wrong understanding.

For instance, the victim who complains is seen as weak, while the victim who silently submits to the abuse “because it is a part of college life” and hence ‘survives’ ragging is seen as strong. Everyday the news carries stories of abuse. Sadly even law enforcers blame the victim for the violence they suffer. In all these instances, the argument runs that it is the victim or someone else who is responsible for the violence unleashed. A few weeks back there was a news report about college students damaging buses when they were not permitted to ride on the rooftop of city buses as part of their ‘Bus Day’ celebrations. A student leader blamed the lack of cultural events at government colleges for the students’ misbehavior. In short, the abuser is not responsible for his or her actions. So, why are we surprised when our youth resort to abusive behaviour?

While most people would not overtly support or condone violence, they tacitly do so by buying into the false argument that a victim should have known better than to resist/provoke a bully. This false belief must change. The bully must be held responsible and accountable for his or her behaviour. Abuse needs to be recognized as the act of cowardice that it is.

Ours is a hierarchical culture. We need to define what legitimate authority is and what isn’t. There is much top-down communication. But communication needs to be a dialogue and not a monologue. We need to teach our children to use dialogue as the means for resolving conflict. We need to teach them that aggression only exacerbates conflict. We need to teach youth how to dialogue with those who have a different point of view.

We need to redefine our understanding of discipline and how we exercise authority to shape behaviour. In an earlier post I had written of a child being expelled from school because he fidgeted while the National Anthem was being sung on Republic Day. The school authorities justify the decision as ensuring discipline. But what message has the child heard?

We don’t need more rules against ragging and notices warning of dire consequences to offenders. May I suggest workshops, seminars, street plays, poster competitions, skits and other cultural events on ‘gandhigiri’ / the ahimsa way as an alternative?

More thoughts on Ricardo Semler and his unconventional management practices. Semler’s premise is that if you want employees to think and act like adults then treat them like adults. What he mockingly describes as ‘boarding school rules’ serve to alienate employees.
Participative management is not new. Aid and development workers have been talking of participatory development for several years now. We now have talk of participative government with leaders trying to draw in people’s inputs through tools like social networking sites on the Internet. So why is the corporate world so unwilling to give up its command and control style of management? Why do boarding school rules still persist? For instance, call centres are typical of the micromonitoring that a command and control system results in. Call centres are also environments where bullying and the abuse of authority is common.
I have worked for participative and authoritarian managements. The latter workplace was riven by conflict, suspicion, mistrust, fear and worse. In the former, information was freely shared; there was trust, respect and cooperation. People thrived and the organization thrived.

There has been much protest against the continuing attacks on women in parts of Karnataka by right-wing fringe groups.  Women have chosen different ways to protest, including the sassy Pink Chaddi Campaign.  When probed, I was disappointed but not surprised that some who contributed to the campaign were of the view that women are responsible for the violence against them.  The contributors were in fact, unaware of this contradiction in their views.  What saddens me is that these are educated women who choose not to educate themselves on issues that concern them and thus buy into the fallacies that justify abusive behaviour.

Name a famous woman inventor.  Can’t?  Don’t worry, neither would most people if asked.  But, why?  Is it because conventional wisdom says “women don’t invent” and therefore have never invented anything?  Or is it because as an engineer who is both a writer in Kannada and a lecturer in an engineering college explains, “In all the texts that I had studied at school, there was never a mention of women scientists, women aviators, women inventors or women engineers.”? 

And yet a Google search will yield several websites on the subject.  I was prompted to search the Internet after reading an article in The Hindu titled “Forgotten Wonders” by Zehra Naqvi, early this week.  It was the first time I was reading an article on the subject in any publication.  Compare that with the number of articles one reads in a week on climate change. 

My Internet research revealed a list that was overwhelmingly American.  This is not surprising.  For while gender discrimination is universal, in the US, legal, economic, social and educational barriers have become less hostile to women in the last century.  Hence, I was encouraged to read of a group in Bengaluru whose goal is to identify and recognize Indian women inventors.  The group has not had to look far or dig deep to strike gold.  The women were there, just waiting to be recognized.

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