Jul 3, 2008

India - Why the consumer should not be king in India

When was the last time you heard someone warning his mobile service provider and threatening him about switching to another brand? Or when was the last time you snubbed a representative from a reputed bank/insurance company who tried selling you oneof his loan/investment products? Else, try recalling the last time you heard someone proudly brag about the dressing down he gave his MNC bank/credit card company about the poor quality of their customer response time?
The chances are that if you are in India you would be experiencing one or more of these things around you very frequently. And if you were an outsider you are most definitely likely to reach a conclusion that you’re perhaps seeing the reactions of consumers in market where they don’t have good service providers and/or the quality of service is fast deteriorating.
Now consider the reality. About 10 years ago, it used to take 15 days to three months to get a telephone installed at your residence. Today it takes less than 24 hours for an active landline connection and you can have an active mobile phone connection almost instantly. The approval time for a home loan has come down from months and weeks to 5-7 days. You can apply and get a credit card almost instantly. The time required to get cash from the bank has almost come to nil thanks to the technologies like ATMs compared to the half-day it took a while ago.
Now consider the brand choice equation. About 10 years ago there was one telecom service provider, one life insurance company and not more than 4-5 big banks to choose from. Today there are more than five telecom service brands ranging from the international giants such as Vodafone to homegrown biggie Airtel, Tata and Reliance to choose from. There are more than 10-12 insurance brands, almost all of them partnered by the world leaders. There are more than 20 banks to choose from – all of them armed with latest technologies to make your life easy. More than half-a-dozen airlines are ready to fly you through the day between different towns.
In light of this truth the above described aggressive behaviour by consumers clearly defies any logical deduction from reality. An even more intriguing aspect is the consumer behaviour before all this. Ten years ago, when the linesman from the State-owned BSNL came and installed the telephone after a month-and-a-half, most consumers very happily offered him sweets. That time has now been cut down to 12-24 hours but agitated consumers are chiding the hapless new service providers for taking so long. Today our pizzas are getting delivered in 30 minutes, our bills are being collected from our doorsteps and the service brands are treating the consumer as a king. Yet we’re becoming more and more foul.
Clearly, we are seeing the emergence of an extremely intolerant breed of consumers who are forever threatening and bullying the service brands. While the choices available to the consumers and the service standards have improved in absolute terms the consumer’s behaviour towards the service brands has progressively deteriorated.
While due to the high degree of competition in all the service sectors the brands are stretching themselves to ‘delight the middle-class consumers’, the consumers are treating them with increased disdain. There seems to be developing almost an inverse relation between the efforts that the service brands are making to delight the consumer and the consumer respect towards the brands. As an outcome today even some of the international brands in areas such as financial services have started losing the global ‘halo’ that used to fetch them a premium. Therefore the brands need to worry. Not just because the consumer is getting irritated or behaving badly but their brand premium has started to get eroded.
What explains the sudden emergence of this rude consumer behaviour towards the service brands? Is this the revenge of the consumer?
After years of being treated shabbily he’s got the choice finally and therefore he is venting his built-up frustrations. But logic asks why he should be unhappy about getting what he wanted and more. The second hypothesis is about the intensity of competition in the market raising the consumer expectations every day to a level where he’s become insatiable and unhappy. Some may also suggest that the increased brand choice across all categories has made him a ‘spoilt child’ and hence his bully behaviour. But strangely in categories such as DTH where the choice isn’t much the consumer bad behaviour is already prevalent. And even if one was to believe the increased choice leading to unhappiness theory, what one can’t explain is the increasing bad behaviour or intolerance from the consumers in a culture which is seen as more tolerant and polite. This behaviour goes against the cultural grain of the generally polite and tolerant Indian middle class.
To be continued

(The writer is Vice-President & Strategic Planning Director, JWT Delhi. This paper won an award at the WPP Atticus Awards in the Branding & Identity category. The award recognises original published thinking in communications services)

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