After-Sales: The unreviewable, unquantifiable element that makes buying decisions a matter of luck

Mihir Patkar Posted online: Sunday, Mar 23, 2014 at 0000 hrs
Mumbai : The gadget review process doesn’t account for after-sales support. The buying process in a showroom has only one aspect of after-sales: the store trying to sell you an add-on support service for a “nominal fee”. Buying additional warranty isn’t the Indian way—we think (and perhaps rightly) of the company as a mistrustful entity who is going to say our complaint is not valid and legal recourse is not a process most Indians are willing to go through.

In the end, when it comes to buying any device, the question about after-sales support is answered on the basis of anecdotes and personal experiences.

How The Illusion Of After-Sales Support Works In India

Suppose I have a problem with company A. They promptly address it and I start talking about how their after-sales is great. The same company on the same day might have messed up three other support calls, but since I am unaware of that, I am ready to call the after-sales “great”—even if one other person had told me company A does not have good service. Experiential reality trumps anecdotal evidence, in this case.

Tomorrow, I hear from two people in my limited social circle that they faced a problem getting support from company B. In my mind, the equation has already become: “Company A’s support is twice as good as company B.”

You get where this is going. All talk about after-sales support involves no science and no quantifiable metric to tell you that some company is better at it than another. But through word of mouth, whether right or wrong, we form opinions which we pass on to others.

Of Unquantifiable Words And Experiences

Let’s take a real-world example. Apple has a reputation for having fantastic after-sales support, yet I know enough people who had a bad time with them, including myself. You think buying a Sony gets you the support of a major brand, but again, I know enough people who are happy with it and unhappy with it. Dell too enjoys the image of being a brand with great customer service—I’ve been on the receiving end of that and been pleased, but I know others who had a terrible time. Micromax service centers, on the other hand, were notorious for their shoddy experience and I’ve been through that; but in the recent past, I hear people talk about how this isn’t the case and how it has improved.

Fantastic. Bad. Happy. Unhappy. Great. Pleased. Terrible. Notorious. Improved. Not one of those words has any quantifiable unit or any universal meaning. What they represent is going to be subjective. Yet this is the feedback we rely on when making a decision about what to buy.

Invariably, it leaves us so confused that we turn to flawed transitivity: bigger is better. “If HTC is a bigger and more well-known brand than Karbonn, then that must mean HTC has better service than Karbonn.” It’s not always wrong, mind you, but there is no evidence to support that it is right.

And full confession: as a tech reviewer, I rely on the same flawed data and the same flawed logic to suggest buying a bigger brand over an unknown one. Because bigger brands are more familiar to us through advertising and other marketing exercises, we naturally tend to find them more familiar and, because of that, more trustworthy. It’s human to do that.

At This Point, It’s All About Luck

So what do we do when faced with a new entrant in the mobile space, like Atom Mobiles? The new Atom Supremus is a pretty good phone, but at Rs. 17,000, would you buy it over a more well-known brand like Samsung or even Micromax?

The answer to that question is all about your risk-taking ability. We think big brands reduce risk and small brands increase risk, so depending on how much value Rs. 17,000 holds for you, you will either take or abstain from that risk. We try to understand that risk better by reading a review of the phone, or researching the company selling it, or reading customer feedback on e-commerce sites, or checking sites decidedly about product feedback. But all of these still don’t give an honest picture—at best, it’s an educated guess, and that’s if you’re lucky.

In a nutshell, your buying decision is not only about the actual merit of the phone against a competitor, it’s about the perceived legitimacy of the brand and the unquantifiable, intangible, unexplainable risk quotient you are comfortable with. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s no foreseeable solution on the horizon. But recognizing and admitting the flaw in the buying system is perhaps the first step in being a better buyer.