India's service industry must strive for excellence
Emerging amid liberalisation and increasing integration with the global economy, India's service industry offers tremendous potential but also poses daunting challenges. Underdeveloped infrastructure, archaic policies, historical baggage of complex cultural mores and inadequate exposure to services standards are challenges that remain even after 65 years of independence. Yet, opportunities lie in challenges and adversities.
Over a billion people, of whom 300 million constitute the growing middle class, increasing urbanisation, higher levels of disposable income and consequent demand for services are potential spots. The service industry calls for more than just a highly trained and mature workforce.
Unlike traditional businesses, the degree and quality of training transcends mere technical or product knowledge to include communications, behaviour and interaction. This is because in a service transaction, even seemingly minor or inconsequential issues like tone of voice, body language or personal grooming assume great importance.
These are coupled with the ability and willingness of a service provider to go the extra mile and chase stretch goals to cater to customer requirements. Other yardsticks of service are accessibility, convenience, efficiency and customised solutions. These in turn call for high quality of manpower and stronger work ethics. With a few exceptions, both are found wanting in the Indian service industry.
A third building block is civic standards and consciousness. A society which does not realise the necessity of hygiene cannot appreciate the quality of healthcare service. Efficient and safe public transport systems cannot run without basic discipline and care of these services by users. For a community to demand and enjoy superior service standard, the pre-requisite is evolution of its own civic consciousness as the two are inter-connected.
This partly explains why Tokyo's Shinkansen (bullet train), London's underground, and America's Greyhound bus service have grown beyond being mere services to reach the status of global cult icons, while New Delhi still struggles with an ageing fleet of public transport buses, three wheelers and the venerable Ambassador car.
Another challenge for delivering world-class services in India is the wide gap between lifestyle of the actual frontline staff delivering them and customers. In an overwhelming majority of cases, the service delivery staff is unexposed, even unaware of the psycho-graphic profile of their customers.
The staff does not know and therefore cannot appreciate what customer expectations are. This lack of understanding is compounded by the sheer socio-economic divide between the service deliverer and the customer. The result: poor service delivery.
India has created good service standards in equipment and hardware related facets of service industry like in telecom and airline industries. But in people-transacted service businesses, quality declines like in banks. Within the equipment and hardware linked service-oriented businesses too, poor back-up infrastructure prevents greater efficiencies and growth.
The only way to achieve world-class service standards is to hone our human capital. Education and training are the first building blocks. Training is an expensive and recurring cost but is an essential catalyst for growth. Hospitality and tourism industries are examples of how training and education can not only transform raw talent into professional service provider but also how training is linked to creating competitive advantage by enhancing service standards.
Investments in training workforce can make businesses profitable. No hotel can operate without constant staff training. The airline industry too takes training very seriously.
At the same time, we must realise that what cannot be measured, cannot be achieved or improved upon. It is therefore imperative to invest in mapping the services area as an ongoing practice. Service providers must keep themselves abreast of not just the latest developments globally but also emerging customer preferences and industry trends. Like training, these too are dynamic and constantly evolving processes.
Closely aligned to this mapping is setting benchmarks with world-class standards adapted to local delivery systems. Involving customers in this process is particularly valuable. Equally important is that rewards must be linked to performance. Businesses must peg recognition and rewards in a manner which prefers quality of service rendered, relationship building and customer retention over mere achievement of sales targets.
Another interesting facet worth mentioning is of mystery customer or mystery shopping. This element of unplanned experience of a company's service level is commonly used by service businesses across the world. It offers precious insights and a unique perspective of how the service actually delivers on the ground.
Alignment and standardisation of services in all aspects is vital. All functions, systems, and processes must perform in a calibrated fashion. There should be a correct match of people, job descriptions and goal sheets.
A new concept, sector, business or enterprise is not like a military campaign. The odds are heavy, costs are high and victory is the only objective. Those who lead from the front do succeed. Unless the managers lead the enterprise personally and spend time upfront even in minor operational issues, best practices cannot be firmly established.
Another key aspect of a service business is contrary to what many business managers think. Going slow may hurt revenues in the short term but will be profitable eventually. Minimum transactions through better designed operating procedures benefit the company by saving time and resources. They also benefit customers by reducing fatigue and making dealings with the company easier.
A common trap many service sector businesses fall into is over-promising and under-delivering. Service excellence is always about exceeding expectations. Corporate communications and public relations also play a vital role in service businesses.
Services contribute 65 percent to the GDP. As India grows and develops economically, this will climb further in coming years. The services sector must galvanise itself to grab the momentum.
(04-04-2013-Amit Chaudhery is associate executive director at Dalmia Bharat Group. The views expressed in the article are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 04-04-2013)