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Pathetic tale of services sector in India
December 16, 2008
'A customer is the most important visitor on our premises, he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so. -- Mahatma Gandhi
Computerisation is the latest mantra of bankers, both in the private and public sectors.
Never mind that most times computers don't work. The rest of the time, bankers don't. And when they do work, they work at cross-purposes leaving customers completely exasperated. And from time to time they also employ their other weapon: a strike.
Try depositing a cheque at, purchase a draft from or deposit cash in a bank; you would know what I mean. Remember, these are routine matters that the banks are supposed to handle day in and out. God forbid, if you have to handle some stray cases of foreign remittances or expect some other exotic services from banks!
No wonder, every time after his monthly visit to his bank my aged father, a retired banker himself and a Gandhian -- who never believed in violence all his life tells me -- "I need to shoot these guys!"
The most obnoxious part in the entire exercise is that bank employees often join us in our ranting about the abysmal quality of services. Little do we realise that in the process they claim a co-victim status when they are in effect responsible for the mess in the first place.
Should you think that you could get things rectified by lodging a complaint with a superior on the dismal state of affairs, you are sadly mistaken. Most of the superiors would invariably in some meeting or out of town. One wonders whether it is a ruse to run away from ground zero.
Once we often chided our nationalised banks for the poor quality of services. Then came foreign banks and private banks in India. The whiff of fresh approach to banking brought about by these organisations flattered to deceive.
While the nationalised banks have learnt to bill virtually for every 'service' provided by these new generation banks (the only thing banks do not charge their customers is for the air you breath and water you drink inside their premises), the latter have learnt the art of providing abysmal service and getting away with it.
In effect, the lines that separated the nationalised and the private banks, between Indian and foreign banks and between the old and the new generation banks have become increasingly blurred. In the process, the Mahatma's quote about customers -- that used to be displayed so prominently in the main business hall of banks -- has become a mockery.
Incompetence compounded by negligence
According to Indian system of governance, kings, along with their senior ministers, used to travel incognito in their kingdom to get a first hand feel of governance. On most occasions, they realised that most of their well-laid plans, policies or programmes was laid to waste by some callous officer responsible for implementation.
This idea, though it may sound outlandish in modern times, is perhaps more effective than the best laid systems for quality control, supervision and public relations. I am sure that a visit to a branch by a chairman, incognito, would actually tell him the poor quality of service dished out by his bank that it is a classic case of incompetence compounded by negligence.
All with a grimace
Let me hasten at this point in time to add that this piece is in essence not about bank and bankers, alone. In fact, this is true of all of India's services sector. The reference at the outset, to banks, merely provides a context to the overall discussion.
Cellular service providers, insurance companies -- especially health insurance, vehicle service stations, annual maintenance contracts, mutual funds and other such service providers have one thing in common with our banking sector: obnoxious quality of services. In fact, most times it is non-existent.
Usually, signals provided by our cellular companies are so poor that often one feels that it would be better to send homer pigeons rather than talk on cell phones. Ditto with vehicle maintenance. Credit card service providers make you wonder if the great robber barons are still well and alive even in the 21st century.
If you think you could get your claims on medical insurance settled as easily as the agent warranted, you are wrong. Remember, complying with the fine print is the most difficult thing on earth.
And in a medical emergency -- you usually end with two choices -- tackling the imperial demands of the insurance company or taking care of the ill. Usually we end up with the latter. And if you think you can complain later, invariably the official would be inaccessible.
Sometimes, such officers are out for training; sometime, overseas too. One wonders why would anyone want to train someone who is already doing an excellent job at obfuscation?
In effect, in most cases one cannot walk into the office of these service providers and expect that they would deliver what they themselves had warranted. And given the modern trend in management, most of the components of services are outsourced -- including receipt of complaints -- making a mockery of the concept of ownership and responsibility!
In the alternative, one could often get to see some kids (usually aged in their early twenties), completely oblivious of even the fundamental operations of the organisations they represent, manning these vital desks.
The idea of posting a kid is obviously a well-thought out strategy -- you lose even your fundamental right to protest. The net consequence of all this is that we can only grimace.
If you assume all these are products of incompetence or negligence you are mistaken. I am sure some may disagree, but given the pathetic levels of services we suffer, one is indeed at liberty to assume that perhaps these organisations just don't care. Providing services is merely a ruse.
Remember, most of these are manned, managed and run by well-educated Indians. And most economists, oblivious of all this, assume that India will be a service powerhouse in the next few decades. Wonder whether they have ever been on the receiving end of these services.
Sivaganga, the pilgrimage centre
I began with the poor services of banks. Let me return to the latest bug that seems to have hit the nationalised banks -- a mandatory pilgrimage to Sivaganga. Yes, Sivaganga, the constituency of the former finance minister P Chidambaram. Most readers may be aware that for the past couple of years, virtually every bank opened a branch in Sivaganga.
Those who already had branches there contrived to open an ATM, or -- as the joke goes -- a second cash counter. And for this non-event full page advertisements are inserted (don't worry, we footed the bill) in national dailies and the entire top management descends on Sivaganga to ensure that the function is a grand success.
The obvious intention of the bankers is to please political masters and move to greener pastures! Perhaps, such use of national resources for personal aggrandisement is not within the definition of corruption in India. But definitely it is within the definition of customer service for our bankers.
In the process little do bankers realise that Sivaganga is one of the hundred districts -- and the only one in Tamil Nadu -- named by the Radhakrishna committee that went into farm distress in India.
Wonder where is the need for such intensive and extensive banking in Sivaganga which is under extreme economic duress!
For improving their quality of services, some banks have hit upon the idea of a getting a new logo, so as to give the impression of having acquired a new image to the general public.
A visit to such banks is enough for one to be deflated. After all, old habits cannot be cured with a new logo. But bankers are a mere reference point to the manner in which our services sectors function.
Most of them -- there are, of course, some exceptions -- invent innovative reasons for non-performance and negligence.
We, the people of India, as customers continue to suffer in silence. Obviously, we are aware that you are a victim of my poor service as much as I am of yours. No wonder all of us collectively have decided that nothing can be done at an individual level, and individually understood that at a collective level, nothing can be done.
The author is a Chennai-based chartered accountant. Comments can be made at firstname.lastname@example.org
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