Home > Leadership, Organizational Culture > Customer Service Cameos – Know your customer!

Customer Service Cameos – Know your customer!

Spent an extended weekend in South Tamil Nadu with three friends – the raison d’etre for our visit was Birding. We enjoy observing bird-life – in the last two decades our group has made innumerable visits to the forests and wetlands in South India to observe and record birds. The frequency of trips had dwindled since we became family-men and a serious effort is being made now to bring us up to speed once again.

Since 1989 we have also participated in the mid-winter waterfowl count conducted by the Asian Wetland Bureau – albeit a small contribution, that was our way of serving Mother Earth and supporting the larger effort made by national and international organisations to protect nature and wildlife.

I took great pains to describe the reason for a trip because a casual observer, who follows the group around, would think that we were out to discover all the eateries in the region visited – with a sheepish smile I admit that the person wouldn’t be far from the truth! A regular member of our group, who is currently based in Canada, described it well when he said – “Our group has regular places that we stop at for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A restaurant that is the breakfast stop is never an option for lunch – each outlet is chosen because it has specialties to suit one meal. The birding program is timed to suit meal stops at the favored restaurants.”

But let me quickly assure the readers that we do pursue our hobby (just in case you are still confused it’s Birding, not Gormandizing!) with the same gusto!

It took me more than 250 words just to get to the point and I did that for two reasons:

–          To tell you that the stops were major events (not to be trifled with) and

–          This backdrop will be used other articles that will be posted soon.

The two events described below don’t involve any of our usual haunts – we were first time visitors in these places.

The first day of the journey found us at a town named Ramanathpuram, Ramnad for short. We stopped for lunch after an extended drive through remote villages; bad roads ensured that we reached this town only after 3:45 and walking into a restaurant a few minutes before 4 p.m. we heard the owner say that they close on the hour. Nevertheless the hungry bunch settled down after washing off the dust and placed orders. The wait staff served the meal without complaint and gave us many rounds of buttermilk – the cooling elixir was tasty and the ideal rejuvenating tonic after a day in the Sun. It was after 4:30 that we left the restaurant, but the staff never ever grumbled for the delay caused – they obviously were tired after a busy lunch hour. It was a great message in service for us city-slickers.

But the best was yet to come!

The next day we had another outing in the Sun at Point Calimere (name given by the British to Kodikarai) – the birds congregate on Salt Pans, open grasslands and the seashore. There is no protection from the Sun when one is out to observe the feathered migrants who had reached here from far-off lands.

We had spent close to 5 hours in the open before heading for lunch at Vedaranyam, a small town located 11 kilometers from Point Calimere.

A few questions in town led us to the outlet Anantha Restaurant, owned by Tamilmani.

Buttermilk was the big hit again – garnished with ginger, coriander, onions and chilly it is a terrific coolant. One member of our group hates coriander and makes a huge display show of picking and tossing the irritating herb from his food. The owner observed this in the rounds that followed our friend got his drink sans the irritant.

Isn’t that a huge lesson in understanding customer preferences?

When the meal items arrived, as per order, they had no qualms in offering extras which were not usually included in that meal – our satisfaction was their priority, not their processes.

I remember asking for some non-standard items at restaurants in Cochin and in Mumbai and receiving a response that went – “Sorry Sir, we can’t give you pappad with the Biriyani.” or “Those curries can be served only when you order a Thali.”

Think of your own organisation – how often do you accommodate such requests from your customer?

For these guys such trivialities didn’t matter – they probably made an adjustment in the bill to accommodate the costs (but I think its unlikely, even insignificant, because the prices we paid in these smaller cities were way below what we were used to Cochin and Trivandrum) but that wasn’t the point. They never grumbled or complained and most importantly they didn’t have to say “No!” to the customer.

I know that there are times when customers are too demanding and expect organisations to go out of the way to keep them satisfied and even prestigious organisations have stumbled at such times; but we weren’t asking for much more than what was available and Tamilmani’s team was more than equal to it.

One of us had ordered a Biriyani while the others took the Thali – Tamilmani walked up to our table midway through the meal and told our Biriyani friend that he can have some of the items from the Thali if he wished. Damn! This guy was bringing tears to our eyes with his hospitality.

Who was teaching these guys Customer Service? Were they this way culturally or did they learn on the job?

How difficult is it for organisations to repeat such behaviours? Most times Customers were being denied even standard items. These guys were going way beyond specifications and behaving like that was standard practice.

Four happy customers left Anantha Restaurant singing praises of the man and his team.

The large organisations in this country have to return to the small towns in India to discover the essence of good service.

I salute people like Tamilmani – they seems to know the customer much more than the well-known Indian Corporations!

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  1. divya
    December 3, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    You are a surprise package !!! Enjoyed every word and this is so much like the Paanwala.. Lessons to be learnt.

    • JayadevM
      December 3, 2012 at 9:05 pm

      Hi Divya,

      Thank you for the appreciation!

      Yes, the smaller businesses seem to outshine big corporations in service standards.

      Small seems to be definitely in today.

  2. December 4, 2012 at 2:41 am

    Reading this brought to mind my own favorite thali joint here in Muscat. It was not just the quality of the food, but the service too that made it our favorite. Seeing that our young daughter was interested only in the puri and bhaji, the waiters would cheerfully tell us that they would just bring her an extra plate and serve her both. The buttermilk and sweet that was part of the thali were also served to her…all at no extra charge and with encouraging smiles. It was service like this that made this restaurant our favorite …over other restaurants that had equally good food but abysmal service. Another great write from you, J!

    • JayadevM
      December 4, 2012 at 4:03 am

      Hi Raji

      Lovely anecdote that adds to the message. Such acts really appeal to the customer – it not only prompts them make repeat visits but creates many of vociferous fans (like you) for them.

      Good Service is the best Sales Technique!

  3. December 4, 2012 at 5:21 am

    Well conceived and expressed even better.

    • JayadevM
      December 4, 2012 at 4:30 pm

      Thanks a lot, Venu.

  4. Manoj C T
    December 4, 2012 at 6:15 am

    Good one JD . My take having eaten in a lot of small eateries echoes your feel. The difference is that, the decisions here are taken by a Tamilmani who is the owner and can afford these decisions for better customer satisfaction. When it comes to an employee of the hotel taking a call, which typically is the case in our Cochin/TVM types of hotels, do they have these decision rights ? If he gives you even a pappadam extra, wouldn’t he need to take a approval from someone ?. It is not be that he wouldn’t want to serve you better, but his hands are tied in processes and policies .

    • JayadevM
      December 4, 2012 at 4:30 pm

      Hi Manoj

      I agree that the owner can take these decisions without seeking approval and in many cases the employees can’t do so.

      But honestly, in many cases the customers needs are so tiny and of low impact on revenue but capable of having huge upside by way of repeat business and positive word of mouth.

      And I don’t think many owners would grumble if the customer went away satisfied.

      You surely know from experience Managers did not mind if a junior employee gave away a small extra if it could make a big difference later on.

      I am sure policies & processes are not cast in stone. If they are, you and I would rather break them to make a customer happy, right?

  5. December 4, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Such a wonderful post…….

    http://debnature.blogspot.in

    • JayadevM
      December 4, 2012 at 4:23 pm

      Dear Debopam

      Your appreciation is heartening.

  6. Kathy
    December 4, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Jay i am reminded of the trips i made with you guys to parambikulam and kallakad….for these people in remote villages courtesies come very easily…if you look into their lives they are very loving when visitors and guests come.The prime example is ou servant in chennai whom i had for a long long time…they are very poor,the place they live in is just a room where about 8 people squeeze themselves into.I once went to visit them when my servant was ill and the reception i got brought tears to my eyes…her husband ran to get a fanta bottle for me…her children bought creambiscuits all from the next door shop.i was asked to stay for lunch and when i refused the man again went out and got yummy chicken biriyani not only for me but for my mum too.i was rendered speechless by their love and affection…even the stool i sat down was borrowed from a neighbour.My visit gave them so much happiness that they went around the small neighbourhood telling their friends about my visit….all this has to come naturally Jay…Customer service should be done only by those who have a natural love of people…it cannot come otherwise even if you stuby in the biggest B school in town

    • JayadevM
      December 4, 2012 at 4:34 pm

      Hi Kathy

      Your story made my eyes mist our too! I have experienced such hospitality too. It lifts one’s spirit.

      I wish that people who have enough in their pocket learn to give so abundantly and remember to reach out to another human being with so much love.

      Those last two sentences are clinchers … Well said!

  7. Kalpana Malani
    December 5, 2012 at 5:48 am

    It’s also a question of training the staff to think and observe so that they can help customers – Tamilmani observed and acted.

    • JayadevM
      December 5, 2012 at 6:04 am

      Hi Kalpana,

      Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts.

      Absolutely! A small town businessman got it right without any training – wonder why many of the smart big city practitioners still don’t get it right.

  8. Kailash
    December 5, 2012 at 6:14 am

    Wonderful writing J,

    your one line says all – “our satisfaction was their priority, not their processes” Please get this statement copyright or else anybody wold use it. And as we discussed in last blog of yours there is a big learning in small business places.

    • JayadevM
      December 5, 2012 at 6:20 am

      Thank you, Kailash!!

      Love the way you picked up the essence.

  9. December 5, 2012 at 10:33 am

    True India is in the vilages, right?

    • JayadevM
      December 5, 2012 at 10:41 am

      Bindu

      Have to agree with you – they have not been corrupted fully by modernity and professionalism yet!

  10. Jamy
    December 6, 2012 at 7:07 am

    Jay, 2 things stand out in the way Tamilmani runs his business- in his own way, he obviously knows how to get the right balance between mixing and matching the different types of food and controlling his costs and more importantly he genuinely cares to his customer’s needs and tries to please them by being very generous with his limited menu of items compared to some high-end fine dining restaurant. Impeccable role model for Customer Service!

    • JayadevM
      December 6, 2012 at 7:13 am

      That’s right, Jamy!

      Being a hoteliering professional with such rich experience you know it best!

  11. meenakshi
    December 13, 2012 at 7:58 am

    Enjoyed this read !! Thanks Jay!!

    • JayadevM
      December 13, 2012 at 8:42 am

      Thank you, Menakshi. Glad you liked it.

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