Why service at Indian Retail stores is so bad…


(Article reproduced with Author’s permission)

A few weeks back I invested a princely sum of money to buy my Airmax 2010 Nike shoes from the flagship store in San Francisco. Last week, just before traveling again, I washed my shoes and was aghast to see a big hole on the inside lining of my brand new shoes. I photographed it and sent the complaint to the marketing folks at Nike India – got ‘Shunya’ (zero) response. This made me madder. Armed with the receipt and with war in mind, I stormed into the New York store determined to make a fuss and noise. This was the ‘Indian’ consumer psyche kicking in – ready to fight and draw blood to set right what should not have gone wrong!

The ‘returns’ counter had a very pleasant girl who greeted me and asked me my problem. When I snarlingly showed her the hole, she shrugged, said ‘oops’, and asked if I wanted my money back? Her reaction took less than 7 seconds. I melted. Yet the Indian consumer was still kicking. ‘Yeah- gimme my money back’ I grumbled. She did and then pulled out her trump card – she gave me a 20% discount on any purchase bought within the hour in that store. Well, you guessed it – I bought the same pair of shoes (new color), pocketed enough dollars for a great dinner, walked out feeling like a prince and started doing social marketing for Nike!

Can you ever imagine this happening in India?

Why does Retail Service in all the stores we visit in India – be a boutique or a super mall suck so much?

I believe:

The staff at the retail counters doesn’t use the goods they sell and have no information about the product.

The folks in Nike USA are athletes. They know everything about running or the sport that interests you. The guys at the Nike store in Mumbai have fat paunches. They wear Nike shoes but I’m sure only as ‘store wear’. The Nike guy in SFO asked me what kind of running stride I had. I had never heard of this before. The guys in Mumbai did not understand the difference between running and jogging.

The brand owners have to make these sales folks use the product and ‘get into’ the brand they sell.

The Brand owner hasn’t educated the sales folks about the philosophy of what their service standards globally are.

The Tommy Hilfiger stores in India are pathetic! The store sales folks never smile – they look like they are recovering from an epidemic or something – neither offer fashion advise nor bother checking if your size is available beyond what’s upfront. When I walk into a Tommy store in the USA – the experience is absolutely the opposite. The problem is that I expect the same experience irrespective of which Tommy store I visit!

Big brand owners must learn from the original software exporters of India who sent young engineers abroad on assignments and then ‘contracted’ them legally to work with the firm when they came back.  The big retail brands should send a few key Sales and Service folks to their International flagship stores or even as just consumers walking the high streets of New York or LA. The investment will be well worth it.

The orientation should be ‘service’ and not ‘sales’ because sales precede great service automatically sooner or later.

The Apple store in San Francisco gives you free lessons on how to use and juice Twitter or begin blogging. It’s an open classroom – just come, sit, learn and go. Nowhere do you get the feeling that someone is going to sell you something. In India, within a few minutes of walking into any store, someone will ask you what you want. When I answer – ‘nothing’, I get glared at! Why the hell did you ask me in the first place?

The Oberoi and Taj groups in India and my favourite – Jet Airways have done a spectacular job in selling service to the India consumer not the product. Stay put in an Oberoi or Taj lobby for hours and no one will disturb you. Put the key brands sales teams thru a hotel or airline experience and then put them in front of consumers.

Don’t focus on looking smart yourself – make the consumer smart instead!

I still remember walking into the Levis counter at Vama (Mumbai) a couple of years back (Vama incidentally wins my prize for the absolutely worst store…in terms of service in the world). The girls at the Levis counter were slim and pretty, chewing gum, strutting around and constantly chatting among themselves without a bother in the world that they had a job to do. I saw a few customers (girls and their moms) standing on the side absolutely intimidated and shadowed by these ‘modern’ girls! I asked one of these wannabe models what was the difference between all those red, blue and black ‘tabs’ of Levis  – she looked snidely at her partner and asked if she knew… in a tone that made me feel like a moron. (hmmm… shouldn’t she have known in the first place)?

The customers in the corner had vanished and so also had vanished valuable sales for Levis.

Tell Sales people to either become models or Sales people and thus choose between one profession. Don’t mix them up.

International brands can open as many stores in India as they want and stuff them up till the walls burst, but it’s the sales folks who will make the cash register ring. Set that right first.

Send me your retail experience in India or anyplace else as a comment and contribute to this piece.

  1. Faiz Uddin says

    Thanks for posting this article, Alok. Which brings me to a point – why can’t Indians say – please, thank you and sorry! It is absurd that after giving business to a store, I often walk away with the bill, spare change and a thank you to the cashier when it should be the other way around. I just fail to understand why basic etiquette should be lacking and why these people who lack this etiquette get employed. It is as though it is below their dignity to say these three very simple words that will go a long way in leaving a good impression in the minds of customers.

  2. Abhik says

    You get what you pay for..or rather what consumers collectively pay for. What would the salary of a sales representative at a retail store be? 4k? 6k? 8k? Compare that to what the airliners or the hotel employees get paid…get my drift?
    Start paying retail sales execs 25k or 35k or a nice commission of the sales and look at what the service becomes. Of course this would mean either the consumer pays more OR the store owners absorb the extra cost…Consumers being consumers will find the cheapest deal…what store would you go to – that offers you a coffee when you come in and charges you 16k for a pair of jeans or one where you get rude faces but get the same pair for 5k? Store owners are already reeling under the real estate price hikes seen in India in the last 5 years.

    That said and done, service I believe is getting better. I picked up a few pieces of furniture at Hypercity in Mumbai and got great service – intelligent sales execs who advised me better than my banker ever did, prompt delivery and some poor bugger even came on Diwali day to do the assembly (that’s a plus point in India isn’t it? Sell that to IKEA or Home Depot..:))

    I believe as consumers we have to wait for some more time when collective consumption power in India is high. India with five times the population of the US is approx one-fifth the US retail market size.

    1. bala says

      Please dont use the pay as an excuse to justify the worst behavior of Indians in every walk of life – India. I lived in China and the pay practice in China is comparable to India BUT.. the service you get is much better and people are more polite. In India, I am sick of the daily spectacle of people spitting, peeing in the public, littering, talking loudly, violating every traffic rule in the world and the list goes on. This is so far as the public behavior is concerned. The private behavior is even worse. People are disrespectful of others’ time, there is no such thing as “personal space” – people are “in your face”…this concept of lack of personal space is true in the “public” space too.. people walk right in front of you and it is your problem to veer to the side and avoid colliding into them!!! this is true in the streets, in parks, in malls – almost everywhere.

  3. Ashish says

    The behaviour you see in India is a direct result of years of insecurity, volume of customers and our inability to think long term to retain customers (maybe we don’t think about retaining customers because we know that they will be there. After all, we are 1 billion strong.

    Talking about New York, that is one city which I like and hate. I have had very “indian” experience in New York. Shoppers don’t care, don’t smile (except malls) and you do get rough treatment in New York. My argument would be that exact same phenomenon happens there as it happens in the entire of India. Too many customers, too little time to invest in customor retention and still business continues happening.

  4. Suren says

    When there is little or no concern for the lives of people, customer service in the retail sector is expecting too much. See the arrogance is due to sheer population and complete lack of understanding who a customer is and what a few good smiles could do to a brand. People manning at these stores have no decision making authority, so they just get by sucking up the taunts where as the lady in NY had complete authority of satisfying the need of a customer.

    When you ask for a manager, the guy who is attending you feels threatened, the guy who comes in feels troubled as they are basically robots who have been told to just continue this mess day in and day out. They mostly say ‘I Quit’ and move on.

  5. Mehul Ved says

    I have actually had good experience with Firefox bikes. They are one brand which seems to be focusing on providing good customer service.
    * All their employees are professional cyclists.
    * I have walked into their store, had a look at all cycle on display and walked out without even a mention of buying anything but their staff was always friendly all the while.
    * I have seen their online interaction with customers who’ve had grievances or had complaints of bad service. An official from their team promptly got in touch with the customer and solved the problem and to top it up even suggested remedial measures to avoid the problem in the future.
    Though you may not get the same experience with all the Firefox outlets just as yet since there are many who’re operating as their franchisees. And many of them are as bad as the other Indian service providers. Hopefully that will change soon too.

  6. Altaf Rahman says

    Fantastic composing of an article.
    I agree with the above two comments. If you stop for a while about sales and think on the buy side, you will all agree that we are so “cheap”.
    70% people still live below poverty line. For them availability is important than having decency. Most of the newly above poverty line (lust crossed the line) imitate to be civilized. Though 90% of those people dont even know to wash hands after natures call. Even in big malls you will see people coughing, sneezing openly with out concenr for decency.
    The western business see only the sales potential of Indian “masses” and start business here. Neither the sales side not the buy side bother about sensitivities.
    The only time problem starts is when people accostomed to civilization irrespective of they came from west or born and brought up in India expect decency.
    I many times end up in angry arguments while standing in queues. I ask the person standing behind me dont touch me keep space. They look at me as if I have AIDS. I always keep space between me and the person in front. However the person behind me tried to cover the space by pushing me where our opinions differ :-)

    If they understand what you think (which never happens) or you understand their social cultural status, the problem is solved.

    Just say “All is well” and be (fakeit) happy.

  7. Sandeep says

    As the person above put it very rightly, Indians are famous or rather infamous in misusing the system. As Russell Peters says, Indians are “cheap”. With that being said though, customer service from Indian companies are horrible.

  8. Sriram Vadlamani says

    Customer service in India sucks. No debate at all. They can be better. But the returns they will continue to suck even if we train the sales people. Here’s why :

    Hypothetically if a Nike showroom in India returns money for a hole in the shoe then you can see a big line outside each showroom with similar complaints. A scratch on the shoe or slight change in the color, you name it and we will produce it. People would even wash it after a week if this facility is provided. How do I know this?

    Thanks to the return policy in the US, people buy camcorders and other gadgets when they are visiting India or going on a long tour. They would use the 30 day return period to get the gadget back in time after their need is met. I have seen it happen for shirts and jeans too.

    This is a problem in the US and all the stores accept it. They just don’t want to make a scene which would hamper their business. They choose between losing new customers and taking back the return goods and most of the time they choose the later. They do it because there is no way to differentiate between a genuine return and a fake return.

    Coming back to India, Indians have mastered the art of pushing the limits. A return policy wouldn’t be too big a deal to master. A US like 30-day/14-day return policy in India would be a death knell for any business.

  9. Shelly says

    absolutely correct, this is clearly visible for person like me who have been living in US since childhood. Here in India no one really cares about service.

    The reason – I honestly dont know,it is surprising. It is probably just the sheer number of people who are here in India, who all will they serve. hehehe

  10. Rohan says

    OMG! Is it really him writing it here? :)

    Anyways, coming to the topic of service. Basically, we are trend followers and not trend setters or trend changers. Everytime we see an American doing something, 10 Indians will copy the same in India. :d

    Indians have learnt how to give better salary to your staff, how to wear good clothes at work, how to speak high sounding english, but service is something which cannot be put up like a branded shirt.

    1. Arun Prabhudesai says

      Hi Rohan,

      He had written this article on his blog and we have reproduced it here for larger audience as I thought it echoed very factual state of retail service here in India.

  11. arpeet says

    Alok, excellent post and something that I always had in the back of my mind but never really came across put about it in writing…

    till the time our bloody customer service does not increase, there is no use of having such big malls and stores….
    We easily copied the mall culture, but never really got around giving same level of service as westerners…

  12. Viral says

    Hello Mr Alok,

    Nice article about the lagging scenario of ‘Customer Service’ in India. It does lack lots of sensitivity as you have pointed out above.

    Incidentally, your article comes as a follow-up posting entry of the same issue been discussed by me in the very previous article about customer service, on this blog. In fact, this article comes as a refreshingly ‘referral’ entry with practical experience.

    And, indeed, as you have referred that even that ‘Smile’ can do wonders, leave along the service factor which is lingering in too big a way.

    To make matters worse, how often have we read about notices in Indian stores saying – “NO EXCHANGE” ?? Isn’t it a clear manifestation of lack of professionalism even before being experienced first-hand by a customer.

  13. Puja Madan says

    Great post Alok, I agree with all the points you made. Additionally, I’ve always felt that the retail sector in India has one basic advantage working for it – volume. There’re so many customers thronging the stores and malls that displeasing a few of them makes no difference to their sales/revenue. They simply don’t care and can afford not to, given the sheer volume of numbers in this country.

    Unpleasant, sure it is but I doubt things will change anytime soon….

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