Opinion: Desperately seeking an Anna, for consumer India

The author promises to vote for the guys who help protect his rights as a consumer.

Jan 02, 2014 11:04:00 PM | Article | Gokul Krishnamurthy

The year was 2010. Writing for VCCircle.com, a certain Mr Jolly of Draper Fisher Jurvetson described ‘most companies in the Indian consumer sectors’ as ‘Fat, Dumb and Happy’, also the headline of the article. (Read it if you haven’t already. It’s hilarious.)

I shared the link to this article, a personal favourite of mine, with some marketers and agency hands I met with one evening, following up on a reference I had made to it at a forum. One response to the article read: “It’s been three years since the article was written, but nothing has changed.”

The one thing everyone is in agreement on, is that the ‘overpromising and under-delivering’ that companies can afford to do in India, because they are forever in acquisition mode chasing new customers, is as worrisome a reality today as it was three years ago. But one small thing will change if it hasn’t already – the pool of ‘new’ customers will dry up and companies will have to go after high value customers of the competition. At least in some categories. And then, service delivery will matter.

We’re reminded of the harsh reality of companies taking consumers for granted, each time we’re let down by a brand we invest our trust (and money) in.  And sometimes it’s not just their fault - they need to be efficient on the one hand. On the other hand, they want to deliver the best consumer experience and value. But are they realising that the negative experiences that result are not forgotten by consumers?

In the case of new categories that require logistics and service experience, like radio taxis and e-commerce, the challenges multiply. Take for example the ‘call taxi’ services in a bustling city like Mumbai. The service is excellent on days when they are not ‘stretched’. During peak office hours on weekdays or weekend evenings, they are booked to capacity. The alert that is supposed to reach you with driver details doesn’t. When you call at the requested pick up time or thereabouts, you are informed that the company is unable to arrange a cab for you. If you were banking on this cab, there goes the meeting you were headed to.

Tata Docomo’s per-second-billing resonated with consumers not just because it was cheap, but because there was a high degree of confusion with the different tariff plans that existed. Going forward, the brand’s promise of not overcharging consumers was a head-on take on the perception that existed in the market.

Another telco’s senior executive tells us that unlimited Blackberry and data plans with flat monthly fees took off like hot cakes primarily because of the fear of companies overcharging. Trust is in serious deficit. The corollary is that if you can win consumer trust, you’re up there in the preference set. But one needs to do it consistently. An investment company head lamented that the airline that became his favourite because of its relentless ‘On time’ performance pursuit had slipped – on that very proposition. They were apparently pointing to the other factors causing the delays, by way of explanation. He was not amused. The reason for delay did not matter to him, the delay did.

Jolly wrote his article based on personal experience, which explains why it remains such a delightful read. With social media, more and more people are venting their anger at service providers, in words. But this is perhaps not enough, because there is a spirit of collusion even if unstated or unintended, which ensures that where companies need to cut corners, consumer interest can be compromised. If no one is any better, or worthy of your trust, where would you go?
There is this popular refrain that a post on social media is better at eliciting response than an e-mail to customer care. Over time, that will not hold true, or so it seems. Automated systems are responding on social media and buying time, before the fine print is  explained to you when the brand finds the time.

There are exceptions. And those brands that are making the effort will be chosen by discerning consumers. For the rest, they will choose to be ‘Fat, dumb and happy’ as long as they can. It will take an Anna Hazare movement equivalent for consumer India, to bring consumer rights under the scanner. This will be a far bigger challenge than cleaning up the political system, if at all someone chooses to take it up. But it’s also a logical extension of what the Aam Aadmi Party is promising to do in public administration.

I’ll vote for the guys who promise to protect my rights as a consumer.

Gokul Krishnamoorthy, editor, Campaign India