I wrote some months ago about the emerging Indian culture of service. We were not, I said, as system-driven as the Far East. Nor were our service staff perfectionists in the sense that East Asians can often be. Thus, service in India sometimes fails to match up to the standards of the East.
Our advantage, I argued, was that our staff had the ability to think on their feet. In the Far East, if a system goes wrong or if a foul-up occurs, staff rarely display the enterprise and initiative required to set things right. Two weeks ago, I was in Bombay and was pleased to see that our ability in the area that the trade would call ‘service recovery’ – retrieving a situation when a foul-up occurs – remains second to none.
I’ll quote two instances, both from the same day. In the first case, I was staying at a deluxe hotel that I will not name. I gave a suit for dry-cleaning and was pleased when it was returned on time but, because it came in a laundry cover, did not look too closely at it. When it was time to check out, I realised that I hadn’t worn the suit after all and took it out so that I could fold it and put it in my suitcase.
It was at this point that I noticed that it had what looked suspiciously like an iron burn (the sort of thing that happens when you put a very hot iron too close to sensitive fabric) on the jacket. I called the butler who had brought the jacket back. He was as appalled as I was. I told him that the jacket was probably unusable now. It did not matter very much, I added, because this was a very old suit made for me by a pair of Delhi designers and deserved to be retired anyway. But he should ask the laundry manager for an explanation.
Within seven minutes, my butler was back with a senior manager. They had asked the laundry for an explanation, they said. But, meanwhile, the hotel felt an obligation to replace the suit. Could I please buy a new one and send them the bill?
I repeated my line about this being an old suit and asked them not to worry. But, I said, there was something clearly wrong with the quality of their laundry if a suit in this condition was returned to a guest. They took the point but repeated their insistence on replacing the suit.
I put the incident out of my mind and finished packing. Fifteen minutes later, the doorbell rang. It was my butler and the manager. They brought back the suit, now much improved, with the mark hardly visible. The laundry had insisted that it wasn’t a burn but was a stain of some kind and had now largely eradicated it. Even so, the manager said, they would still like to replace the suit. Naturally I said no but was impressed by the speed of their response.
I checked out 20 minutes later. The general manager was in the lobby. He wanted to apologise for the mishap. He had taken the matter up with the laundry and would do his best to make sure that this never happened again to any guest. The fact that I am not naming the hotel should tell you how I feel. I don’t want to shame the laundry – whose fault it was – because I was so overwhelmed by the response. Never mind that I probably won’t wear the suit again. What I will remember is that the hotel tried so hard to make up for the mistake and that the response was faultless, all the way from the butler to the general manager himself. When people ask me about guest relations, this is the instance I will quote approvingly. The original foul-up has already been forgotten.
Two hours later, I was on a Jet Airways flight to Delhi. As I entered the aircraft, I found a middle-aged European sitting in my seat. I indicated that he was in the wrong place but this only added to his air of unhappiness. It turned out that his first row seat did not recline and so, he had arbitrarily commandeered another seat at random. The hostess assured him that she would try and fix the seat before take-off but the aggrieved passenger had the air of a man with long experience of international airlines and their false promises.
Five minutes later, three mechanics entered the aircraft. As the rest of us watched, they got to work on the seat. It took them 10 minutes but they fixed it. They asked the passenger to try and recline all the way back. He had to concede that the seat worked perfectly. ‘Thank you, sir,’ said the mechanics, and exited the aircraft two minutes before doors closed for an on-time departure.
I could see the look of utter incredulity on the face of the man whose seat had refused to recline. It is a safe assumption that if this had happened to him in Europe and he had complained to the air-hostess, she would have shrugged her shoulders and said that there was nothing she could do. If this had happened in the Far East, the cabin crew would have panicked, would have gathered for an urgent crisis meeting and would finally have bowed very low and apologised profusely, saying that this was not covered by their manual.
Only in India do service staff know how to take decisive action when things go wrong. The passenger dealt only with the air-hostess but she must have had to call a whole host of people in the commercial and engineering departments to get the problem rectified. The fact that they were able to do so entirely effortlessly and that they still managed to ensure that the flight left on time tells us something about the strength of the Indian style of service.
We may not get everything right. In an ideal world, the laundry would not return a suit with a mark. And a Club Class seat would be checked to see that it reclined even before the passengers were boarded. But because this is not an ideal world and because Indian levels of perfectionism still do not approach the standards of say, the Japanese, the onus is on service staff to fill the gap.
As these two incidents from the same day only a few hours apart demonstrate, when it comes to making up for other people’s mistakes, our service industries have few parallels.
This has not always been so. In the old days, before the service culture properly developed in our country, staff were frequently too arrogant to admit that things had gone wrong. If you returned a dish at a restaurant, they acted as though you were an unsophisticated idiot who did not know what the dish was supposed to be. If you complained about something on Indian Airlines or Air India, the staff either acted as if they didn’t give a damn or told you how much they too had suffered at the hands of this uncaring management and how the chairman of Air India/Indian Airlines should be sacked forthwith.
In the ’70s, the Taj Group empowered waiters at restaurants to say to a guest who returned a dish, ‘If you don’t like it, sir, then it’s on the house.’ At the time, this was considered a big breakthrough because, in the prevailing five-star culture of the day, if you returned a dish at an Oberoi hotel, the manager came over and made it clear that not only were you not his social equal, it was also beneath his dignity to deal with the little twerps who managed to find their way into his restaurant.
All that has changed. The Taj precedent has spread to other chains. The Oberois, conscious that their managers had a reputation for arrogance till the 1980s, now follow a much more customer-friendly policy. As Bikki Oberoi says, ‘You can’t get away with those attitudes with today’s guests.’
Take the case of Bikki himself, not the humblest of men. No matter what his personal style is, he always puts guests first. A few years ago, when I went to interview him for Brunch, he was writing to a dissatisfied guest. Bikki reads all the guest questionnaires himself and had noticed that the guest had many complaints about his stay at Rajvilas. He wrote to the guest at once, offered him a personal apology, refunded the bill for his entire stay and invited him to come and stay at any Oberoi hotel of his choice as Bikki’s guest. Simultaneously, he wrote to the general manager of Rajvilas, asking her to investigate the complaint.
For me, the significant thing was this: he didn’t wait for his general manager to tell him if the complaints were well-founded or not. He apologised and made amends anyway. In a service business, the aim is to please the guest. If the guest is displeased, then it is not good enough to say that he is being unreasonable.
Good service means that you make it up to him. If he isn’t pleased, then it is you who has failed.