If there's one pony on which the Great Indian Success Story has been riding for the last two decades or so, it is the service sector. The sector accounts for 65% of India's gross domestic product. And yet, there's one serious shortcoming that remains unattended to: service quality. On Friday, services of one of India's biggest telecom companies, Bharti Airtel, turned 'blind' for three-four hours. Going by the figures of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, at the end of March, Airtel Bharti had 7.98 million subscribers in the capital region. How many of them were left stranded is yet to be ascertained. But to downplay the temporary disruption would be approving that old 'chalta hai' mentality that India 2011 should be very wary of.
Glitches happen in any sector, service industries included. There will be times when, for whatever reasons, a fly will be in your soup. But at the heart of any service industry lies the consumer. This is especially true in the high product-customer interface of the telephone industry. And Friday's glitch was yet another indicator that the Indian consumer is quite often treated as nothing more than a serial number to bolster figures in a company annual report. The reaction of Airtel to the 'blackout' was a muffled apology, the usual 'accidents happen' line. Coming back to the fly in the soup analogy, a gaffé in a restaurant is tackled by the owner by providing something that smoothens the ruffled feathers of a customer. Instead, the usual gesture of a service-providing company here is the equivalent of the faulty soup being taken away without it being replaced and charging it on the bill. No free 'talk time' or free SMSes were provided as compensation. The message was: cock-ups happen, deal with it. The continuing Air India debacle highlights the worst case scenario in which consumers are treated as, at best, abstract numbers, and, at worst, as people who should be thankful that any kind of service is around. Clearly, as anyone who has faced the ignominy of bad service, this attitude isn't confined to 80s-style 'take it or leave it' public sector service.
Much improvement has happened over the decades. thanks to competition. But when there are 'lapses' where the consumer becomes a bit role player in the scheme of things, the 'service quality dividend' - so crucial to the sector - crashes. Here, consumer awareness and the right of the customer to demand quality service and compensation if this quality falls short has to become part of consumer behaviour. With the choice of service providers available these days, companies should realise that their businesses depend on one mantra only: it's their comfort, stupid! Of the customers being provided a service, that is.