Dumbing down of customer service

February 20, 2008

I am going to post a sequence of emails, which clearly demonstrate the dumbing down of customer service due to the mass-market approach to service. As a customer, I dont have a face to talk to and the responses that I receive from the faceless customer service agents are mind-numbing.

This post is after a series of ‘mental harassment by inefficiency’ by ICICI Lombard, India Today Book Club, HDFC Bank, Fidelity Mutual funds and Big Bazaar in the last month alone for me.

Mail 1 (to CitiBank, dated 6-Feb-08):


I have an auto loan with HDFC Bank and have opted to pay EMI through ECS on my Citibank Account (A/c No xyz). The ECS has been happenning smoothly since August-07 till Jan-08.

On 2-Feb-08, ECS for Rs. 16275 has been done and then reversed on the same day. There is an entry in my Citibank account statement stating “ECS BOUNCE : MANDATE NOT RECEIVED “. When I contacted Citiphone Banking,  I have been asked your executive to contact HDFC Bank regarding this – I have been told that ECS instruction for this month has not been submitted by HDFC Bank to Citibank.

I am not too clear who is at fault here. Request you to confirm if I have been given the right explanation and whether I have to pursue this matter further with HDFC Bank.


This mail, as is obvious, is written after I g0t a thoroughly incompetent and inconclusive answer over phone from Citibank Customer Service. 

There was not even an automated response to this mail till 14-Feb-08 and I had to send a reminder.

Mail 2 (dated 14-Feb-08):

Hi I have not received any revert on my previous mail.  The communication that I have been receiving so far from HDFC Bank is that there is nothing wrong from their end and the ECS needs to have happened. Please revert on what needs to be done. — 

Finally I get an auto-response on 15-Feb-08.

Dear Customer,  

Thanks for writing to Citibank. We have received your Query.  The reference number for your query is abcd.  We shall get back to you in 3 working days.   Please reply to this mail for any future communication on this query.   

 Sincerely ,


Then I do get a real response on 16-Feb-08.

Dear Mr. Kannan,  

This is with reference to your email dated February 07, 2008.  We confirm that due to operational error the ECS Debit Instruction received for Rs.16,275.00 from the Service Provider ” HDFC Bank Limited ” has been erroneously returned on February 02, 2008.  We aplogise for the inconvenience caused. We assure you of our best attention at all times. 


Officer – Customer Care


After this mail, I am no more knowledgeable on what to do next than I was on 6th Feb. Here goes one more mail from me on 18-Feb-08:



The next step to be taken is still not clear to me. Will you be correcting the error and completing the ECS Debit for Rs.16,275? Please confirm when this will be done. I should not be penalized by HDFC Bank for this error. 



By now, HDFC Bank insisted on making me pay by cheque, which I have done, after having to unnecessarily visit their branch. A threat of late payment charge, for no fault of mine, from HDFC Bank is still looming over me.

I am at the peak of my impatience. This is sheer harassment by inefficiency and negligence.

Then comes an email from Citibank that pushes me off from my peak.

Dear Mr. Kannan, 

This is with reference to your email dated February 14, 2008. We have already responded your query vide email reference number xyz. The response is stated below for your reference. 

We confirm that due to operational error the ECS Debit Instruction received for Rs.16,275.00 from the Service Provider ” HDFC Bank Limited ” has been erroneously returned on February 02, 2008.  We aplogise for the inconvenience caused. We assure you of our best attention at all times. 

Sincerely,  Officer – Customer Care

Oh, yes, I am getting the best attention possible in this world. 

I can do nothing more. How do I explain to this faceless customer service machine that I deserve an answer with more clarity. Will the ECS happen or not happen? Having already given a cheque to HDFC am I going to be debited twice this month? Will the ECS happen smoothly next month?

I can only do this post now and hope that next month this doesnt recur.  I am shooting off one more mail seeking assurance that next month I will be spared of this torment.  


Am  posting this update a day after my original post.

Finally I got a sensible answer that I deserved long back.

Dear Mr. Kannan,

This is with reference to your email dated February 18, 2008. We inform you that ECS instructions are maintained with the service provider by the customer, to repay for the service enjoyed. The specific amount will be transferred from the customer’s bank account on a specific date of every month.   These ECS instructions are routed through RBI with specific Utility Code number, to the customer’s bank account for execution. Hence, on receipt of the ECS Debit Advice through RBI, your account will be debited with the respective amount.  Henceforth, on receiving ECS Debit Advice from the Service Provider(HDFC Bank Limited ) under the Utility Code number 5609124 the respective amount will be successfully debited from your account. Any inconvenience caused to you in this regard is regretted. 

We assure you of our best attention at all times.


Officer – Customer Care

This reply, had it been sent in the first place or even better given to me during my first phone call, would have saved a lot of time, heartburn and tension for me. Modern institutions, even as they are adopting newer business models and technology to cater to the mass market, have to learn to get it right the first time and more importantly, retain the human touch in customer service.

The race row – both sides of the coin stink

February 6, 2008

The Harbhajan-Symonds race row has turned out to be more than just about cricket. It has thrown open a huge Pandora’s box and can now be regarded as an excellent case study on a plethora of issues – culture, diplomacy, management, racism, power and capitalism.

First, let me wash off the Indian linen, so that my arguments, at no point, are not construed as biased. The entire string of the actual incidents can only be viewed through a stream of probabilities due to the lack of legally acceptable evidence.

Did Harbhajan call Symonds, a monkey? Probably yes. I think he must have; I dont think Aussies will stoop so low to frame a false case (outside the cricket field).

Do Indians use the word monkey as a racist term? No. Except for a few educated Indians, well versed with Western culture, monkey is not known to be a derogatory term in the western racist sense. Anybody, who ‘looks’ or behaves like a monkey is called a monkey. Sometimes, children and husbands are affectionately or irritantly called as monkeys. Indians will object to someone being called, say, a Pariah (remember the plight of Subramanium Swamy)  but not to monkey. Some sections of people, though not all, will take strong offense to someone being called a bastard or even a fucker (this is the first time ever I am using these words publicly in speech or writing). During school days, a gang of about 20 students, marched to the house of a friend who called another friend a bastard in Tamil (not many of us even knew the full meaning of the Tamil word then). We were all intent on complaining to his mother, who happenned to be a teacher in our primary school long back and finally gave up as the guy broke into tears and appologised profusely. The whole incident took on an ultra-sentimental angle, as the victim of the word, had lost his father at an early age.

There was another incident during college, when I was subjected to the first rites of ragging, a guy repeatedly called me fucker in Tamil (again, I was not too sure what the Tamil word meant at that time, but I knew it was something ‘vulgar’) and I was almost moved to tears. I never spoke to that guy again. Later on, after getting polished through the grind of B-school, I have grown totally immune to any kind of profanity as long as it is not directed at me.

But, again, not all Indians take offense to the same set of words. There are huge cultural discrepancies and North-South divide even within India. Hindi boasts of a wholesome vocabulary of vulgar words than a South Indian language like Tamil. Mother and sister commonly feature in profanities in North, while they are largely non-existent in South. 

So, it all boils down to saying that words do not have same connotations in all cultures, even within a country. Therefore, when Symonds was called a monkey for the first time in India, I dont believe that there were racist intentions. It was more of a harmless jabber.  But, when Symonds was called a monkey the second time in Mumbai, I think the crowd knew of the racist undertone. Symmonds made a mountain of the monkey the first time and the monkey stuck onto his back afterwards.

By denying the racist undertone in the Mumbai incident, we were setting the stage for the repeat of the incident. Which is what has happenned in Sydney, thanks to Harbhajan and not without help from Symonds himself. Having muttered the word under provocation and aware of the consequences, Harbhajan had to go into a denial mode. As long as he, himself, was denying it, the Indian team had to back him up.

Aussies could have resolved it diplomatically by bringing it up with Kumble behind closed doors and then Harbhajan may have even admitted and apologised. The Aussies chose to complain publicly. Not a crime, they definitely had the right to do it, but not a smart move either. It has set in motion a very complex game.

I am afraid that Indian crowds will latch on to this and keep doing the monkey chants everytime Symonds is in action. Such is the nature of crowd mentality. It is very unlikely that monkey will immediately become  a racist term and be used against all black players. It would just become a special word reserved for Symmonds. Over a period of time, it might evolve to be racially used against a broader set of people.

Are Indians racist? Not in a Western sense, but in many other ways, yes. We are a deeply casteist society. Caste, I believe, is a localised surrogate for race. There are deep biases ingrained in the Indian society on basis of caste. We have not got enough opportunities to become a ‘racist’ society but when we do get the opportunity we might become one because of the inherent Indian bias and reverence for fair skin.

Did BCCI do the right thing in supporting Harbhajan? Yes, they were right in supporting him, in the lack of any serious evidence against him but they were horribly wrong in the way they supported him. They had no business in taking up an aggressive posture, which was almost tantamount to blackmailing, before the judgement was spelled out. This was a clear sign of a ‘new’ rich man throwing his weight around unduly. The entire thought process behind this act that money gives them power and this power could be exercised for any cause is disgusting.

Are Aussies (and many English) justified in cribbing about the power wielded by BCCI? No. It was not long back when English and Aussies were ruling the game, they still do in many ways than is obvious. Now they are not ready to let go of the position of power to a strong challenger.

Are Aussies or Whites, in general, upholders of the fight against racism? Oh, yes, as much as Bush is the messiah against terrorism. If we think, racism is exorcised by not calling a Black as a Negro or as a monkey, we can’t be farther away from the truth. If we call all American blacks as African-Americans should we not call all whites as European-Americans? How many white countries have had a black head of state? US is close but still not there and Obama is not fully black anyway.  Can the Aussies nominate Symmonds as their captain-in-waiting, instead of Clarke? Is throwing eggs at Murali, any less a crime than monkey-chants?

Only one thing is certain. It is time that we acknowledged that humans are deeply divided across various parameters and strong biases exist all across – religion, race, colour, caste, wealth, education, gender, language and many more. It is time that we make sincere efforts to bridge these divides rather than resorting to lip service.

It is an ultimate indictment of western and human hypocrisy that one can be punished for calling someone a monkey but not for abusing his mother. Did your mother congratulate you on saving the nation’s honour, Mr. Singh?