Are you being served well?
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Are you being served well?

With more and more shops and restaurants in India paying little attention to customer experience, service standards are slipping at all ends of the market. Here's what veteran Vir Sanghvi has to say.

india Updated: Oct 23, 2010 20:29 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

How good is service in India? I keep saying that it is better than the Far East. But now, I’ve heard so many horror stories that I’m re-thinking my position. Here’s one story:

Two friends of mine went to the Café Coffee Day in Delhi’s Khan Market for a quick coffee a week ago. As they had much to talk about they asked the server for Americanos. The server clearly had no idea that an Americano was a long black coffee and said, “No ma’am. We do not do that. Please read the menu.” He then handed over a list of coffee-making methods (made in the press, made by a siphon method etc) and asked them to read it.

My friends had no desire to go through this manual of coffee production and one of them went to the counter to ask for a black coffee. Before she could open her mouth, the waiter arrived where she was standing. “Sorry ma’am,” he said. “You cannot order from the counter. You have to go back to the table and order from me.”


So my friend went back to the table and said, “Look, just give me an espresso and a glass of hot water. I’ll make the Americano myself.” The waiter disappeared.

In a few minutes he was back. “I have checked with my manager,” he announced. “It is against our SOP to give guests a glass of hot water. Please read the menu and order from there.”

My friends gave up and ordered two cappuccinos. (Fortunately the waiter knew what they were.) They also asked to see the manager. A cocky young guy turned up. No, he said. He would not allow a glass of hot water to reach the table. Nor did they serve Americanos. However, if they were to look inside the menu under the French press section, they would find a coffee that approximated the Americano they desired.

By now my friends were exhausted. The cappuccinos arrived. They poured in their sweetener and began stirring them. In one of the cappuccinos, a mosquito swam to the surface, breaking through the foam.

They called the waiter again and complained. Could they just have the bill, they said. They were exhausted. The bill arrived. They were charged for the mosquito-flavoured cappuccino. They complained again. The waiter took the bill back to delete the charge.

My friends left in disgust. At the door, they bumped into the cocky manager. He made no attempt to apologise.

I single out the Khan Market Café Coffee Day because the incident is fresh in my mind, not because it is – by any stretch of the imagination – the worst-run operation in Delhi. But my friends’ experience closely parallels the many stories I’ve heard from so many others.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that this sector has expanded so quickly that companies are hiring whoever they can find. Many of these people have no desire to die, still serving Americanos (or French press coffees that closely approximate the Americano) and therefore do not bother to learn even the rudiments of service. Basically, they are marking time till they get better jobs at call centres or wherever.

Just as this is true of the hospitality sector, it is also true of the retail sector. Go to one of the middle market malls in Delhi (Select Citywalk, Promenade etc) and you will find dozens of shops (often well known global high street brands like Zara) staffed by young people who don’t really give a damn. They don’t understand the products, do not know how to deal with customers and have no interest in learning.

In this respect, at least, the Far East is much better off than us. Nobody in a coffee bar in Singapore would have dared behave the way the manager of Café Coffee Day in Khan Market did. And though Thais have a huge problem with English, every sales person at a middle market Bangkok shopping mall is unfailingly smiley-smiley and helpful.

Sadly, even the so-called luxury brands end up being let down by the quality of their Indian sales staff. For every Chanel or Dior, which takes trouble to ensure a high level of service, there are innumerable other brands where shop assistants are lazy and off-hand with people who they regard as not good enough for their products.

Perhaps this is to do with the fact that many of these brands are faltering in the Indian market. Last week, I wandered into the Gucci shop at the Delhi Oberoi clutching a pair of new Gucci sunglasses from which one of the lenses had already become detached.

I had been inspired by the example of my son (who is hardly a regular at such places) who went into Chanel a few months ago with a pair of sunglasses which he had been gifted and which now seemed a little out of shape. Nobody argued or asked for explanations. They replaced the glasses without question.

So the first surprise at Gucci was that there was nobody in the shop. I don’t just mean customers – there were no sales assistants. Eventually the security guy at the door wandered into a back room before a member of staff appeared. I explained that I had a problem with sunglasses. He shrugged. Nothing to do with him, he indicated (even though the shop sells Gucci sunglasses). I should try Johnson. “They have many branches in Delhi.” He looked as though he longed for me to leave so that he could return to whatever he was doing in the back room.

So this is the new face of luxury. Are you surprised the shop was empty?

Once again, I am prepared to concede that I was just unlucky and that standards at the Gucci shop in Delhi are normally excellent and that most days, the store is bursting with customers even if they were invisible on this occasion. So my point is not to complain about Gucci. (It would be easy enough to just ring up somebody and do that.) It is that service standards in India are slipping at all ends of the market. More often than not, the problem is one of attitude. Anybody in a service business must recognise that he or she goes to work to delight the customer. Fail to do that and your business will also fail.

There are happy exceptions however. A friend went to the Ravi Bajaj Café in Delhi’s Greater Kailash a few days ago. As she wanted a light meal, she ordered the grilled fish with wilted spinach. She got a plate from which the wilted spinach had clearly escaped leaving behind what looked like fried fish in a cream sauce.

She ate a bit of the fish having scraped off the sauce and wasted the rest. When they came to clear her plate, they noticed that she had not eaten her food. The manager came over to ask if there was a problem. Yes, said my friend. The fish was fried. The spinach had taken the day off. And how come the menu did not mention the cream sauce?

The manager went to the kitchen and produced the chef who insisted, with a straight face, that he had grilled the fish not fried it. (In deference to my friend, in the Indian catering business, they often refer to shallow frying as grilling, no matter how bizarre this may sound to outsiders.) Okay, said my friend. Where’s the spinach? And why is the existence of the cream sauce treated as a classified secret on the menu?

It was clear that my friend and the chef would not agree. The manager saw the point however and refused to charge my friend.

“No, please charge me,” she said. “If I had sent the dish back then that would be one thing. But I’ve eaten half of it and I should pay.”

The manager finally agreed to restore the charge to her bill and went to the counter. In a few minutes he was back. “I’ve thought about it ma’am,” he said. “And whether you’ve eaten it or not, you are not leaving as a satisfied customer. So it would be wrong for me to charge you.”

And he would not change his stance.

The Ravi Bajaj café has no great pedigree as a haven of great food or a sanctum of superior service. In fact, it is now trying to find its feet after Ritu Dalmia who used to run the place, moved down the road to the old Café Turtle, leaving the café in new hands.

So why did my friend leave the place raving about the service and telling everybody she met how well the restaurant was managed even though she had been so dissatisfied (with justification) with her meal?

Service recovery. That’s when good service can transform an experience after something

terrible has happened.

In the Far East, servers hardly ever manage service recovery because they are not empowered, lack discretion, rarely think on their feet and often lack the requisite language skills. On the other hand, things rarely go wrong in the Far East because the basic standard of service and food is usually so high.

Indians have the ability to grasp service recovery and to recognise that while a dissatisfied customer will never come back, one satisfied customer will send you a hundred others. Nevertheless, we are allowing basic standards to slip. More and more restaurants (and shops), are treating customers with contempt and are paying too little attention to the customer experience. Partly, this is because staff regard service as a temporary job and not a career. And partly, it is because their bosses never hold them accountable.

The incidents in this column should not be used to condemn any of these places – they could well be exceptions. So do go back to Café Coffee Day. At the very least you may learn about coffee-making methods. And do go to Gucci. You will probably be the only person in the shop so you may even get good service.

First Published: Oct 22, 2010 17:55 IST