customer service

We spent three days during our first two weeks in India searching market after market for a wireless router. Our landlord’s son picked up the phone and had one delivered in less than thirty minutes.


We come from a land of two-month waits for a dentist’s appointment (and cancellation charges if you don’t show up). Of surly cashiers who pretend not to notice you standing in front of them. Of supermarket checkout girls who will call their manager to complain about YOU. Of postal employees who separate themselves from the world by three-inch-thick bulletproof glass. Of emergency rooms empty of attendants, with nothing but a clipboard for you to put your name down. Of drugstore employees so notoriously bitter that our friend could dress up as one for the Halloween parade and yell at people and everyone who saw him — people of all races, from all neighborhoods, representing all income classes — immediately got the joke. (Here’s looking at you – Duane Reade)

But here…! When you need your teeth cleaned, you can make an appointment for that afternoon. If you need a new computer battery, they’ll deliver one to you. The video rental store will collect money from your house. The chemist will pull out every brand of toothpaste for you to examine. The beer store will arrange for a guy to carry your beer home. The bank representative promises to call you back with information on your account the next day – and actually does. Your accountant will come to your home. Checks clear in hours. You’re on a gurney and getting an IV ten minutes after you walk into the emergency room. And if you have a health question, SMS the doctor and he’ll call you back – he’ll even make house calls.

House calls, for Christ’s sake!

In the US, customer service is uniformly terrible because the employee has no stake in the outcome beyond their $4.25 an hour. The McDonalds guy will roll his eyes at your request for extra mustard because he knows his performance will have no impact on the billions of dollars the company will make, and because he knows the company sees him as a trained monkey pressing cash register buttons whose job is secure only until the company trains actual monkeys to do the same thing.

But here, there must be a clear connection between performance and outcome. From McDonalds to multinationals, people must have that personal stake in the outcome so sorely missing in the US. They must see every opportunity leading to more and better opportunities. Because why else would customer service be so good?

We come from a place where process is more important than result — and where, from McDonalds to multinationals, everyone strives to hide inside the process, to use it to protect them from extra work. It constantly amazes us to see people do their jobs well — and, even more shockingly, to do them fast.


19 responses to “customer service

  1. Its always not that easy, though sometimes yes shockingly so 🙂

  2. This is quite an eye opener. I guess one takes certain things for granted due to always living here. For example, I learned that American doctors don’t make house calls only via a Mad Magazine satire; and I recall wondering why on earth don’t they?
    But well. The cynic in me would like to link this to America being a more egalitarian society.
    People with labor intensive jobs such as the ones you describe (clerks, cashiers, waiters etc) here, are still from poorer sections of society (and as you’d have seen, the gap between rich and poor is far more prominent in India than America).
    There seems to be a culture of entitlement in the US (going only by what you describe; I’ve no first hand experience of my own). This similar culture is visible here in government jobs-where job security is assured and not dependent on serving customers properly.

    A waiter at Mcdonald’s in the US is probably a college student or similar, staying with family and taking up the job just to pay for his/her college education.
    The one here would probably be supporting his entire family on what he makes there. For him it’s a full time job, and hence there’s a lot more commitment to it.

    There’s one more factor that might be at work here -and this I’ve personally observed.
    Shopkeepers, clerks, office boys and shop assistants as you describe here- for some reason-automatically perk up and are more courteous and helpful when dealing with white people.
    My uncle is British; whenever he comes here for a visit and I’ve taken him around, I find the people we interact with smile more often and are more helpful than if I went alone 🙂

  3. I still haven’t purchased a wireless router. May have to rely on your landlords son! 🙂

  4. Gotta love your blog! Keeps me close to home.
    A great post detailing the little or big pleasures India offers that many aren’t aware of. On our last trip back home, my MIL’s maid was waiting for her clothes to get ironed by the presswala so she can pack for her trip to the village. It reminded me of the hours I slog ironing clothes in USA!!
    I totally agree with Rex on the last point made. I am an Indian and whenever I go back home I see how people who never bothered to talk to me now want to have dinner with me coz I live in the US and the Indian love for white skin is really very deep!

  5. I suspect money has a lot to do with it, too. A quote from one of your prior posts applies: “Wealth is measured by what you can get people to do for you.” If you had as much relative wealth in the U.S., customer service would probably be just as good — at least with workers interested in repeat business or tips.

    The question is whether peons receive the same level of customer service.

  6. Great post. My cousins in India find it remarkable that here in the U.S., I do my own cleaning, laundry, cooking, and so on, in addition to working and raising a child. But even with extended family and a maidservant to help, the day to day negotiations of managing their lives somehow still seem more complex than mine to me, at least in Mumbai.

  7. I’m glad you like it here.

    A tad rough at the edges- we aren’t fancily packaged though. 🙂

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  9. I don’t think black people would get the same level of friendly customer service in India. As someone above said: they have a love of white skin and white skinned people.

    The indians I’ve dealt with in America have for the most part, been uniformly rude and angry. I’m not even going to talk about the customer services rep’s that I’ve had to deal with.

  10. Pingback: Customer service… at Blogbharti

  11. Interesting interview with a journalist who grew up in new york, but moved to india to look for a husband.

    she has a book out called marrying anita. I recall a very funny interview she’d written in new york magazine about her fathers quest to find her a husband.

  12. customer service is a debatable issue anywhere in the world. south east asia also has this insane passion for white skin – tourists do get treated with more respect and better service than locals. it must be a psychological side-effect from post-colonialism. heh.

  13. As a brown skinned person who visited D&J for a month I would have to say I disagree with there being a discrepancy between the treatment of white skinned people and darker skinned people.

    Maybe a month wasn’t long enough for me to feel the racial discrimination, but I felt the love as long as the rupees flowed from my pocket and they did flow. 🙂

    “Wealth is measured by what you can get people to do for you.”

    I think regardless of my skin color I was considered wealthy, which for once in my life was a nice feeling. I think the only rude treatment I got was from auto-rickshaw drivers who didn’t want to go somewhere far away.

    As someone seasoned in racism, I felt only love from the people in India.

  14. I’ll rejoice when there are no more peons, but given the GOI’s criminal neglect of education we are looking at more than 40 years

  15. Funny. I had a neighbor here in the States, from London, who said service in the US was waaaaay better than in Britain. I guess it’s all just relative 🙂

  16. Hey louiecypher, what are you doing over here and not at Sepia Mutiny?

  17. Indians are simply and not complicated and they just do the things (ops, one thing) without losing themselves. i always find them very focused and not so artificial as in the western world. enjoy yr jouney!

  18. where do you live in Delhi? I live in green park, south delhi.
    I agree with all you mentioned. quite funny.
    anyway Im getting really bored these days coz i dont find fun thing any more. If anything, please tell me..

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