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Building customer trust

Customer service, part of maintaining and enhancing relationship with customers, especially after the completion of a sales transaction, is an area with immense opportunities for improvement in many businesses, writes Arindam Banerjee.

india Updated: Feb 14, 2008 03:35 IST

On his last days in India after a successful corporate stint, an expatriate acquaintance was asked: what would be some of the things he would avoid doing in India, should he have a second stint. To the few obvious ones, he added a striking one: “…I will probably not buy an Annual Service Contract again….can’t trust anyone over here to honor a prepaid contract.” Somewhat overstated no doubt, but I had to agree that his experience with service standards in India was not an aberration.

Customer service, part of maintaining and enhancing relationship with customers, especially after the completion of a sales transaction, is an area with immense opportunities for improvement in many businesses. Not surprisingly, my audiences in the various corporate forums meet this observation with a fair degree of cynicism. While they admit that relationship management is important and has to be ongoing, many retort that organisations lack the stamina to look beyond the immediate horizon when it comes to managing customer satisfaction long term.

The usual suspects for such brittleness range from out-of-sync accountabilities among employees, to the organisation-wide cost efficiency drive that manifests itself in outsourcing of service functions to low(est) cost “partners”. Some even comment that the typical Indian consumer’s penchant to extract the most out of a business transaction makes many organisations wary of the extent of relationship they need to maintain. Unfortunately, the last remark is a stark reflection of the low level of trust that customers and organisations have on each other, often referred as an adversarial relationship in traditional marketing literature.

This “mistrust” is best exemplified in the insurance sector where, by the nature of the business dimensions, the “give” and “take” transactions are separated along the temporal dimensions, more in line with the concept of the long term-service contact. Consumer mistrust in the organisation’s willingness to honor a commitment (claims processing) is imminent. There is always a doubt whether the sales pitch used to clinch the sale of the insurance cover is in sync with the quality of service delivered when the claims are processed.

This suspicion is heightened because chances are that the customer may have to deal with different entities from the same organisation over different time periods to complete the entire exchange. Such “separated” transactions force many organisations to invest in building and managing trust with customers in the long term, in spite of the several hurdles mentioned earlier. However, trust cannot be built overnight, nor is it advisable to take giant strides all at once. Instead, it is best to crawl bit by bit towards a higher order relationship with the customer. This relationship thrives on reciprocity, something best managed if both parties show willingness to build it incrementally.

The difficult part in this process is the initiation of these confidence-building measures. A good way to start will be by recalibrating the selling function. Traditionally, selling has been synonymous to building customer expectations, unrealistic at times, just to ensure that the initial exchange process takes place. When the back-end service does not match the exaggerated claims made in the selling process, long term damage to brand equity is inevitable.

Harmonisation of the selling and service processes to ensure that customer expectations are “managed within reasonable bounds and satisfied comprehensively” is the key to maintaining viable long term business relationships. In a nutshell, can we effectively engineer a “human face” to our selling process and back it up with a “machine-like” efficiency in our service infrastructure? Maybe competitive forces over time will enforce such stricter regimen.

Professor, Indian Institute of Management – Ahmedabad