Vijay Sharma, Director, Jindal Stainless
While preparing for a webinar recently, I was forced to think afresh on Customer Focus. The context, as is the case these days, was that of COVID-19. As I began mining my own thoughts and experiences on this subject, I came to a simple conclusion. When it comes to customer expectations, COVID-19 has not changed the fundamentals. The dynamics within those expectations may have changed, but the broad contours remain the same.
There are some basic human needs which are timeless in nature. Fulfill those – and you have won a person’s heart. That person could be anyone, but here, we will focus on that person as a customer. So, what are those needs? Let me explain each with a personal anecdote.
On one fine Sunday several years ago, I decided to take my car for servicing. A chore usually undertaken by my driver, this was the first with this car for me. Once I crossed the entrance barrier and was approaching the service zone, the Showroom Manager suddenly appeared from nowhere. He opened the door for me and greeted me with cheerful warmth. “Mr Sharma, so happy to see you”, said the man I was meeting for the first time. He issued instructions for my car to be taken care of, and escorted me to a comfortable sitting area in the showroom. Then, he called the bearer and asked him to get a cup of coffee – exactly as I like it to be! He also enquired about the well being of my wife and my children, which means he knew about my family members as well. All this – when I had not even booked my car servicing in advance! Naturally, I was flattered and floored.
Minutes later, after we had built a good rapport, I asked him the secret of his highly personalized welcome approach. The explanation was simple. This man monitored the entrance of all premium cars through a CCTV camera. He had programmed his system to immediately populate details about the owner, such as beverage preference, family members, the owner’s picture etc. Once the Manager is assured that the person driving the car is the owner, he follows a pre-defined drill. And he does this with a smile and a personal touch.
This brings me to the first pillar of customer need: Respect, the feeling of being treated with dignity and importance.
Let’s move on to the next story. This happened rather recently. My wife and I went for veggie shopping. It had rained that day and the gullies were full of slush. Though there were plenty vegetable carts on the main road, my wife herded me into narrow lanes. It was a considerable walk, and particularly unpleasant as our feet squelched along the way. I was almost tempted to turn tail and run off, when she finally stopped at a mid-sized shop, not distinct from any other in that lane. The moment the shopkeeper saw her, his face lit up in genuine familiarity. After his quick boisterous greetings, he started packing her order. Brinjal, ladyfinger, pumpkin, gourd…he put the leaves, the roots, the fruits and everything that my wife wanted, in the quantity she wanted – without her asking for it. He threw in some freebies for effect. He then mumbled something to himself in calculation, and stated a final price to my wife. Happily, she tendered the change, and off we went. That day I understood why my wife doesn’t like shopping on e-commerce websites.
This brings me to the second pillar of a customer’s need: Recognition. While it seems similar to Respect, it offers a different value to the customer. Recognition has to do with taking cognizance of an individual’s needs and catering to them. Respect has to do with a sense of regard demonstrated towards someone to make them feel important. But recognition offers tangible results – customisation, communication, quality, inventory, redressal mechanism, documentation, product consistency, product packaging etc.
With this, we come to the last vertex of the triangle.
An old customer and a friend called on me in my office. After our usual niceties, he put forth his ask. He was already a premium customer, claiming the highest discount-slab, but he wanted more discount. He was aware that our policies were designed as per slabs, and that the discount rates were transparent and public. But he kept trying to negotiate. Finally, I told him this: “Suppose for an instant that I give you this discount. Momentarily, it will make you happy, but you will go back home wondering how many others have claimed added discounts in the same way, and if their discounts were more than mine.” The statement had struck a chord. The customer just nodded silently, and shelved the issue for good.
This is the third pillar that all customers look for: Fair Play, fairness of being treated at par with other customers of the same type. Fair play in costing, credit, policies, process, fill rate, lead time etc, and that too, with complete transparency.
Often, I am tempted to view buying as a complex science, which it is. But I realize, through my years of experience with selling and with customers, that the base of every buyer-seller relationship (and maybe every other relationship) is actually built on this golden triangle. It’s another matter that customers voice their need in so-called rational terms. They say they need Quality-Cost-Delivery on their terms. And of course, those are the table stakes. But scratch the surface, and one understands that customers want all the rational benefits along with the emotional goodwill of respect, recognition, and fair-play. As a successful seller, once we understand that business needs must be married to human yearnings, we will have hit the sweet spot of what I call as doing ‘Business with Humans’.