Monday, August 6, 2012

Businesses have, over the years, as a result of too much automation and outsourcing, lost their connect with customers. A company is reduced to a mere brand and everything else is outsourced to third-party vendors.
The Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, D. Subbarao, says Indians are using far too much cash for settling their bills for his liking. Well, in recent times, I am guilty of contributing a bit more than I used to earlier.
My credit card was deactivated the other day because my bank suspected that its security might have been compromised. It is now nearly two weeks and there has been no sign of a new card being delivered to me, although I have spoken to someone or the other at their 24x7 help desk more than once. You would have thought they will be keener than I in ensuring that I get to spend on my credit card. Evidently, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Rather, I should say they are keen alright; it’s just that their systems are simply not up to it.
My guess is that my bank is not alone in losing touch with its customers. We have all been ‘Bangalored’. Not in the sense in which some code writer in Newark, New Jersey, felt about it after losing his job to someone in the Garden City of India. But something far subtler.

‘Impeccable’ logic, but…

We are all victims of business processes that are way too much automated and outsourced for our own good. Businesses have over the years lost their connect with customers to a point where they seem to be saying, ‘‘Why do I need to connect with my customers when my BPO vendor is tasked with doing it?”
Impeccable though the logic is, on surface, the reality is quite different. No matter how clever your business processes are, they are not good enough to visualise every possible contingency so as to activate some part of their outsourced automated process.
Take my case. It is clear that the bank does not have a system that would prompt it to say, ‘‘Hey, here is a customer who has been using the card at least once every day but has not done so for the last fortnight’’. Some part of its system must have then triggered a telephone call to me saying: ‘‘Sir, I hope you are alright?’’
‘‘What, Oh! you are just recovering from a by-pass surgery?’’
‘‘Hope you get well soon, but while we are at it, may be we could interest you with our new Bancassurance health plan?’’ The third-party vendor clicks a button on the CRM application to say, Send a get well card and an order to the florist for a single-step rose (if the customer is a silver-card holder) or a full bouquet (if he holds a platinum card). You know, stuff like that.
If I were to put a time-frame on when the rot really began, it was, perhaps, when the first of the automated mailers began to land at your desk. I don’t know about you, but I have, on many occasions, received a mail that said, “This is a computer-generated letter, hence no signature required”. Now, this assertion has always foxed me. I mean, why is that so? For instance, why have people, who have sent a mail in the past, never felt the need to say, “This is a ‘Godrej’ typewriter-generated letter and hence no signature required”.

Don’t reply, please!

Even if I accept it as one of those innumerable idiosyncrasies of administrative bureaucracy, I definitely draw the line against another claim about computer-generated mail that says, ‘‘it is an automated response and hence please do not reply to this mail’’!
It is mystifying why some one who has taken the trouble to send me some information should not want to hear what I would have by way of response. Even Ogodougobo, the wife of the jailed Nigerian Finance Minister, who I haven’t known since Eve, who writes to me seeking help with regard to unlocking some money stashed away in a Cayman Island bank account, is anxious to receive my response. If I ignore her mail, she would send me a reminder!
But my banker, with whom I have a relationship going back many years in time, doesn’t think he can get anything worthwhile from me by way of a response when he sends me the credit-card statement. So much so, if I want to draw his attention to a bill for $500 at a casino in Las Vegas that I haven’t been to, well at least not on that particular occasion, you would think that he will make it easier for me to do so by simply clicking on the ‘reply’ button.
If you try clicking on the ‘reply’ button, your computer would, in the blink of an eye, tell you that the mail could not be delivered. I suspect the only thing my banker wants to hear from me is that I am interested in rolling the payment over in 36 easy instalments at 48 per cent rate of interest. An automated process takes over the transaction the moment I click on the hyperlink located very conveniently right below the amount.

Prisoner of automation

But, of course, I am being rather uncharitable to my banker. It is not that he doesn’t want to hear from me.
Make no mistake about it. He values it with a fervour and devotion as befitting a manager who has just returned from Harvard Business School Executive Development Programme on customer relations management.
He is quite simply a prisoner of his bank’s systems. Every facet of any business, for that matter, has been sliced and dissected in every possible way as to extract the last ounce of efficiency from the process. While that is fine, it often leads to unexpected blowbacks. Business comprises innumerable silos of autonomous processes that each of them has no cultural memory of its linkage with other processes, up and down stream.
This is what I suspect happens at my bank’s credit-card section. There is an outsourced third-party vendor for making the sales pitch to prospective customers; a second one to evaluate the application; a third to handle the paperwork and the choice of a courier to deliver the credit card; a fourth to actually deliver the card; a fifth to handle the accounting; a sixth to deal with the default follow-up, and if some strong-arm tactics are to be used, then a seventh one as well. Now, all these have to be connected to one another in some abstract way so that the bank stays aligned to its larger business purpose, whatever that may be.

Scramble for outsourcing

Businesses view their operations in such terms as sales, finance, production, supply chain, HR, and so on. This was useful and, in fact, helped promote specialisation and efficiency in operations. From here, it became a simple step to take a closer look at business processes for efficiency and cost improvements.
The next stage in the evolution would be outsourcing of all processes that can be conveniently carried out by third-party vendors. Businesses have long since moved on from merely confining themselves to outsourcing housekeeping services or managing staff canteen with contract labour.
It is fair to say that that they are currently engaged in the process of exploring the limits of outsourcing. This quest for the Holy Grail is a company that is reduced to a being a mere brand and everything else is business operations that are outsourced to third-party vendors.
This is fine. Except that somewhere along the way, you lose touch with the reality of a customer being the focal point of all businesses operations. Peter Drucker once said that the purpose of business is to create and keep a customer. I wonder if the second part of his counsel is being lost somewhere in this mad scramble for outsourcing. 

No comments: