Chennai Journal
Sunday, January 22, 2006
Customer Service--Say OMMMMMM.....

Customer service has become one of my favorite spectator sports here. I have spent quite a few months observing the dynamics, but so far have refrained from comment, at least publicly. In addition to my own experiences, I have witnessed a number of Indians go absolutely apoplectic over service issues, especially in restaurants. My conclusion: it is no accident that India is the source of relaxation techniques such as yoga and deep breathing, because these are a necessary palliative to the daily frustrations associated with being a customer here.

Manpower is not the issue. The photo above (which comes from a restaurant which actually has very good food and service) is typical of the resources devoted to serving the customer . (For an even more dramatic example, scroll down about halfway on the linked page for Prince Roy's shot of Lifestyle, a well known local department store. ) We also observed this at Apollo Hospital when Marty was there for his sciatica in June--a surfeit of sisters (as nurses are called here) was available round the clock to attend to every need. In fairness, Apollo is very well run and the care was outstanding.

Unfortunately, the numbers do not often translate into superior service. Rather, there is an almost schizophrenic divide between ignoring--or misunderstanding-- the customer's needs and being obsequious to an extreme. Just to limit the examples to food establishments, here's what we've encountered or observed:
  1. Waiters do not always write down your order, even when serving a large group. In such cases, you may get all or part of what you ordered--if it's your lucky day.
  2. There are multiple servers for different parts of the meal, compounding communication errors from #1.
  3. Many hotel restaurants have a ratio of staff to customers that appears close to 1:2. Not all of them look busy, but it is impossible to get eye contact if you need something (say, coffee).
  4. If you do succeed in getting the attention of the staff member nearest the coffee pot, he will not pick up the pot and serve you even if he is standing next to it. He will walk across the room and ask someone else to do it.
  5. Not all of your instructions (even if understood) are given to the cook---we saw this in person when I asked a waiter in Ooty for "two eggs, scrambled well", which was conveyed to the short order cook merely as "scrambled eggs."
  6. Self-service is not encouraged, even if it is quicker and more painless to do it yourself (see above--I was standing next to the short order cook). If you are observed reaching for the spoon in the rice bowl, someone will leap to your table to assist. If you had asked for water five minutes before and are still waiting for it, however, the same waiter will ask apologetically if you want more rice.
  7. Dishes are served in the order that the cook finished them. Quite often, some at a table will be done with their meal long before others are served. There is no point getting upset about this. If you insist on ordering a whole fish while everyone else has prawns, bring a good book to enjoy while your companions are eating.
  8. Even well-known Western dishes may contain surprises. Once, I ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce and it came laced with pickle relish. (This happens in Japan as well---I have an equally good story about French toast with tomatoes).
  9. In upscale establishments, you are likely to be asked, usually by a chirpy college fresher (as new college grads are called here) whether everything is all right and if you like the food and service. This may occur before you have had any food or service to comment on, and is the person's only obvious job. You should say yes, because if you say no, a flock of people will soon descend on your table to help. Unfortunately, most of the time they will make matters worse.
  10. If the restaurant does not have a dedicated person to ask about customer service (or even if they do) they will surely have the ubiquitous COMMENT CARD. The card will be given to you with the bill, although on occasion I have received them while I was still eating. I have yet to discover what happens to these cards, as service at the restaurants where I've filled them out hasn't noticeably changed---I think it would be a great story for an enterprising journalist to examine the feedback received and what restaurants do with it.

Fortunately, there is hope. I define the service issues, at least at restaurants, as fundamentally a human resources problem because most establishments are obviously making an effort and individual staff are typically eager to please--they just aren't properly organized or trained to achieve the right results (and the turnover is also pretty high, which doesn't help). Although I observe a lot of Indian customers just grinning and bearing it, many are not, and over time the places that get it right will be the ones that survive and prosper. In the meantime, say ommmmm........


I think the service depends on the places you go to. Some of my colleagues who came down from U.S told me that they were pleasently surprised with the service that they got here in Chennai and rated thier Chennai experience as the best among the countries they visited. May be they were being polite !!
Lets just hope as the cost of human resources increases, the restaurants/shops will reduce the number of staff employed hanging around without a specific purpose. I hate it when I get stalked in some of the shops by staff wondering if I need help. And then when you do need help, you can never find anyone
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I've thought about addressing this issue myself at some point. You've made a good start here. The Indian idea of 'customer service' definitely takes getting used to for a Westerner. I find it smothering. And usually, like you point out, they still manage to screw up the order.
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