Lessons in Customer Service – Power to the frontline – Sucks, Kool, Amazing

In continuation of looking at my own experiences for learnings, this post tries to identify a common thread in four different recent experiences. Let me describe them briefly:

  • SOTC: In April, I booked a trip for my parents on SOTC, where the sales guy offered a minimal cancellation fee upto 30 days of departure. Unfortunately, my mother had to undergo an operation, and I asked for a cancellation. It was a nightmare – the guys just didn’t want to settle, and held our passports as ransom. Everyday, they would come up with a different demand (obviously, higher than the promised cancellation fee) and then would back-off when I would agree. The police got involved, but to no avail (apparently, they cant do a thing if you don’t have the passport receipt, which none of these guys give). After weeks of torture, I dug out the CEO’s email id from the internet and wrote him a mail. The matter was resolved in 48 hours. Why could he do what his sales rep couldn’t?
  • Kingfisher: I was returning via a late flight, and on this airport, KF doesn’t have its own lounge but a shared one. The lounge had no food/drinks that were listed on the menu. I went out and bought food. A KF employee noticed this, came up, and took me to a restaurant. The lounge manager was there – the two had a 10 second chat, and served me food from the restaurant. All, unasked for!
  • Amazon: In fact there are too many – my favorite is when a book got double-ordered (don’t know how), and the customer service rep immediately acted to not only provide refund on one of the orders, but also refund international shipping charges on the same. What was the decision support system available to the rep?

I was thinking about these, and I think the common element was to devolve authority to the frontline. Leadership is more and more like herding cats. Customer service organizations are inverted – the layer closest to the customer is the bottom layer, and they have to be able to make decisions correctly and swiftly. Keys to getting it right:

  • Map out exception scenarios: Customer service is all about exception handling. Apply a lot of thought to mapping them out, and how each scenario should be handled for each kind of customer. Apply rules of fairness, but don’t expose yourself to exploitation.
  • Customer service is not about negotiation – provide clear and full authority as close to the customer as possible. Provide full information that the rep needs to provide a great experience.
  • Keep sales and customer service separate – it was obviously hard for the SOTC sales rep to reverse his own sales – perhaps the disincentive on sales front was higher than incentive on customer service front.
  • Treat every new exception as an opportunity to refine the system.
  • Hire smilers – you can’t train people to smile!

Any other experiences and learnings? Does customer service belong to the frontline in your organization?

9 Responses to “Lessons in Customer Service – Power to the frontline – Sucks, Kool, Amazing”

  1. Rahul says:

    hmm, never saw anyone in Singapore Airlines Smile in the end to end experiences, they are too busy being earnest. Does make the Customer Smile 🙂

  2. Jaspreet says:


    very interesting post. This actually helped me improve certain things in my support/sales setup.

    – Jas

  3. Alok Mittal says:

    Abhishake – I do not think the right to “name and blame” belongs to marketing gurus – it is very much a prerogative of customers. Again, this is not a commentary on quality of entrepreneurs – in fact, quite to the contrary – I hold some of these entrepreneurs in high regard and that should have been evident from the posts.

    SOTC – its not a question of the pain in the ass, or delays. It is about what you commit to customers (in writing, in this case), and whats the system in place to support those commitments. “so what if there are any delays” is exactly the attitude that, in my view, has led to this kind of customer service in the first place.

    Kingfisher – was Kingfisher RED.

    Remember that the key purpose of these posts is to derive learning from the experiences, and if any VC is not doing the same for their own business, they belong in the pile of quick mortality to which the VC business is no stranger.

  4. Abhishake says:


    I think it is absolutely not fair to name and blame companies .- You arent any marketing Guru. These companies are being run by successful, bright Entrepreneurs

    SOTC – Obviously cancellation at the last momement is a bloddy pain in the ASS and so what if there are any delays. Does this qualify you to name nad blame companies on a public blog

    Kingfisher – Had you flown Kingfisher or Kingfisher RED (Erstwhile Deccan)

    Amazon – Yes, these are decision management systems

    Ask yourself how VC’s respond to business plan ?

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