Thursday, 19 January 2012

Divide and sell

One Wednesday afternoon the fixed line telephone in my Chennai home died. Suddenly. The broadband internet connected through the same cable was working.

I called the customer relations number. "This is Madhav, how can I help you sir?" asked the voice on the other end politely. The human voice came after 5 minutes of computer-talk that took me through the significance of numbers 1, 2, 3, 4. I explained the problem. I heard him typing into his computer. He gave me a request number and assured that the engineer will come on Thursday morning.

"We are collecting feedback from our customers, sir," said Madhav. "Can I take a minute?" I assured him that I will give feedback as soon as my phone is repaired.

Thursday afternoon I called again. It was Sheela at the call center. "What's the problem, sir?" I repeated the problem, I gave her my service request number. She assured somebody will come next morning. "We are collecting feedback ..." My response was the same.

Friday afternoon and Saturday morning we spoke with Raghav and Kumar. "Server linkage problem", "outage", were among the many reasons that they gave us. The problem, I felt, was affecting more than our line and the engineers at some end, somewhere, were working overtime to sort out this major issue. I felt bad for being impatient while the company's engineers were finding the solution to a larger telecom problem affecting thousands of customers.

On Saturday evening my wife Raji and I went to the relationship center. At 7.30 in the evening Lakshmi was visibly harassed. She must have been answering many like me. She took down my complaint again. I said that our complaint has been recorded innumerable times before; our phone is still dead. She said, "now that you have come to us we will send an engineer tomorrow." To pacify us she asked us to use the house phone and call somebody, somewhere. Raji went to the phone booth and I could hear her having a not-so-pleasant conversation with somebody at the other end.

Flash back to 1986. The television boom after the 1982 Asian Games had reached Thrissur in Kerala and my father, after much market research, bought a television from Mr Thomas's shop. To catch the airwaves it was necessary to hoist the ladder-like antenna from a 40-foot iron pipe harnessed to the wooden rafters of our house with tiled roof. Though secured with stay wires to all the coconut palms in the vicinity, the slightest breeze would shift the antenna's alignment and the spots that appeared on our TV screen would grow to become ever-bouncing tennis balls and obscure Neethi Ravindran's face and voice.

This was not all. Unlike the robust units of today, the television sets of the mid-1980s were temperamental and had frequent breakdowns. Suffice to say, my father made innumerable phone calls and Thomas made as many visits to our house on his Vijay Super scooter to repair the delicate contraption.

Though the transaction ended when my father carried out the television from Thomas's shop the relationship had only begun. And in the then small town of Thrissur, Thomas did not want to annoy an existing customer and put off future customers (asking the opinion of friends and neighbors was part of the pre-purchase ritual those days). The transaction had a name, face and person associated with it.

I don't remember to whom I spoke when I ordered my fixed line and broadband connection in my Chennai home 30 months ago. Neither do I remember who came to install the connection. My link with them was severed as soon as the transaction was completed.

Perhaps the two of them representing the same brand may not know each other and may be working for two companies that have contracted from the main company - one company marketing the product and the other installing and servicing it.

The call center which took my complaint calls (located in Bengaluru to service the requests from all over the country) would possibly be owned by an entirely different contractor company, with no power over the doings or undoings of the sales or servicing companies.

Poor Madhav, Sheela, Raghav and Kumar at the call center or Lakshmi at the relationship center, who are at the receiving end of the customers' ire may have no way of coaxing, cajoling or threatening the engineers employed by the servicing contractor company to visit my apartment to rectify my problem. Their domain is as large as the computer screen in front of them - typing messages such as "customer called again, wants the fault to be repaired by this evening." This is as unfair to them as it is to me, the customer.

Epilogue: On Sunday forenoon the engineer came to our house, checked the telephone, went down to the main junction box for our apartments, fixed the line that had jumped off the point and presto our phone was working. His investment: 10 minutes of his time. Our cost: 100 hours of down time, more than a dozen phone calls navigating through a maze of recorded instructions, a trip to the relationship center costing three hours and fuel, and increased adrenalin flow.


  1. Interesting situation though not at all uncommon...and well presented...apparently you and your wife seems to have a good stock of patience... :)

    1. Thanks Madan. Well, there are times when we learn patience!

  2. Did you write down the engineer's name and phone number, Kich? And perhaps his address as well?

  3. And then there was someone who I knew, who could not afford a TV, but since everyone in the neighborhood had one, he went out and bought a TV antenna and placed it prominently in the front of the house. Everything was fine, till someone noticed that it was facing in the wrong direction!!!!

  4. Somethings just don't change, irrespective of the year.

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