Thanks to e-commerce, customer service has become more important than before with most buyers never holding a device before picking one up, and companies are adapting to the situation
Thanks to e-commerce, customer service has become more important than before with most buyers never holding a device before picking one up, and companies are adapting to the situation.
Product cycles now are long as the attention span of a three-year-old and most customers don’t want to be stuck with a smartphone or tablet for more than 18 months. But that does not mean manufacturers can afford to sidestep the customer service network, which used to form the backbone of most of the big tech corporations so far.
No one is taking chances, not even the newer entrants who might never bother to set up a physical store. In fact, Xiaomi, the Chinese brand which created ripples across the country with their online sales model, launched with just two customer service centres initially, even though they were selling devices across the country through the online channel. A couple of months on and they have over a dozen cities covered with multiple centres in some of the top cities.
Ajay Sharma, CEO of Obi Mobiles, which entered the Indian market roughly around the same time as Xiaomi, said they did not take a chance and completed the exercise even before the start of operations in India. “At Obi, service support is recognised as a key element of post-buy user experience and keeping that in mind we tied up with HCL to offer the best in class service experience. Of course, there were some challenges, which were taken care of by bringing along a team of the most experienced people from the industry,” he said. Obi started with 60 service centres and has now doubled that number. “We have the capability today to cover 300+cities,” said Sharma.
While large players like Samsung and Nokia have extensive network penetrating in almost all districts, what helps smaller players get this reach across the country are entities like HCL Care, which calls itself the only completely integrated after-market company. Along with running customer support for almost all top brands including Xiaomi and Lenovo, HCL Care has also set up new walk-in service centres called Touch catering to multiple brands. Sharad Talwar, head of HCL Care, said that since most brands these days have common features, the after-sales service ends up as being the differentiator. “People are realising that customer experience has become hugely important. Plus, we are moving from an unbranded and fragmented industry to a integrated set up,” said Talwar.
With customers buying multiple devices through their life, companies see the Customer Life Time Value (CLTV) as a huge opportunity. This is where customer service becomes the brand ambassador, making customers come back every time. “The expectations on the service front are increasing every day. The service experience is key to establishing the brand, referrals and repeat purchases,” asserted Sharma.
In fact, he says, social media and web review sites enable customers to share their experiences with the public and this puts companies on their toes. “The waiting time for a brand to respond to an issue is decreasing day by day and a quick response/solution is expected,” he added, underlining the role social media can play in making or breaking a brand.
Younger companies like Xiaomi know this too well and often the top brass itself respond to customer issues within hours.
The other end of the spectrum is AppleCare, where instead of offering repairs for smartphones the company replaces devices on the payment of the differential cost in case of major repairs. Within warranty the company replaces the device, no questions asked. Those in remote parts of the country can just mail their phones to a pre-paid mailbox. Apple can offer this because it is confident about its devices.
The device quality across brands has also improved drastically in recent times making frequent trips to the service centre a thing of the past. Vinod Kumar, head of customer service at LG Electronics India, said that with defect rates in the mobile handsets down significantly, the major customers concerns are related to software upgrades. “There have also been cases of screen breakage which mostly happens due to mishandling,” he added. Contrary to popular perception, Talwar said the regular customer does not want to throw away their smartphones and want genuine spare parts every time something has to be replaced. “Also, the entire online phenomenon means the customer wants to be handheld everytime there is an issue, especially since they have not had a touch and feel of the device before purchasing,” he added.
But with so many brands taking to the online sales model, raking up customers in far away parts of the country it might not be able to cover all customers. Also, it is difficult to expect someone who has bought a Rs 6,000 device to spend Rs 1,000 to get to the nearest service point. “At Obi, we want to make sure that a customer doesn’t have to think this way and hence we are working hard to open as many service centres as possible and also undertake necessary measures to ensure quality service. We ensure that a service centre is ready in the city/town at an easy to find/prominent central locations before the distribution is actually kicked off,” said Sharma.
Then Obi has a multi-channel approach, unlike most new entrants who have only online visibility. This could give rise to the trend of after-market companies catering to all brands come up across the country. Some of them will end up becoming stronger in certain regions, while those like HCL could have a pan-India reach. Customer service is set change for every person in India.