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about anything under the Sun!

Tag Archives: Customer Service

After Cleartrip, its now Meru’s turn!

Wow, it sure feels like a personal Customer Service crusade – after Cleartrip, it now seems to be Meru Cabs at the wheel. And they are taking their faithful customers for a nice big ride around town, pun intended. Now, to be fair, between the wife and I, we have used Meru Cabs for almost 3 years now (ever since the new Rajiv Gandhi International Airport opened in Hyderabad) and at least 2-3 times a month, so that’s a sample size of about 100. And incredibly, not one out of those 100 trips have been anything but an incredibly pleasant experience. I repeat, every single one of them – That is world-class service, and especially noteworthy considering the typical bar that Indian businesses set for themselves.

Here is why I love using Meru – Their booking process is straight-forward and intuitive, the service is largely secure and professional, the cabs very clean and well-maintained, and the ride extremely comfortable. All of this at what I consider a very reasonable price. A ride will cost you Rs 15 per km, which in today’s Bangalore is only 1.67 times the cost of riding an auto, but quite a bargain considering how much more comfortable the trip is. So, if it’s not clear already, I’ve been a big fan of these guys, am constantly rooting for them and telling anyone who cares to listen about how wonderful they are – doing my bit of word-of-mouth marketing for them, you know. Of course, they are only available in select cities now and I can’t wait for them to come to Chennai, a city that I frequent quite a bit and where I miss the service dearly.

Anyways, all good things come to an end – and my Meru streak met with the same cruel fate on our trip to Kumarakom last week. The first element of surprise was when I made the phone call to book our cab. I was politely told by the IVR recording that I would be tagged an additional Rs. 50 as a convenience fee, with absolutely no explanation for what the said convenience was. Did they add a new toilet to the cab, I wondered. That thought was quickly put to rest when they followed that message with the offer of a generous discount of 50% on the Convenience charge if I asked for a cab within 35 minutes of my booking – if they did add the loo, am sure it would cost the same no matter when I booked, right? So anyways, I asked to talk to the friendly agent for an explanation of the charge. Turns out the “Convenience” refers to the use of their Call Center to make the booking, and she told me the fee would not be applied if I booked my cab online! Since when did calling a call center become a “Convenience”? Did I just blissfully miss that whole era?

Seriously, the whole notion of asking Customers to pay extra when they are calling you to give you business is nonsensical. Sure, find other means to encourage customers to use the web so you can improve operational efficiency but charging them more because they call you is a surefire way to destroy any goodwill you have built. And if that isn’t enough, their fee structure of charging less for a more imminent booking completely defies logic. I would think it aids their scheduling algorithm to know their demand in advance, but clearly they prefer the last minute scramble – kinda like JIT as if their cabs were perishable entities? And to top it off, they have an equally befuddling explanation of why it is the way it is on their website. Nicely done, Meru – clearly this whole decision came out of a half-baked committee with a confused set of objectives.

Of course, I still needed the cab and with no intentions of paying any silly additional fee, I went online. And their online booking process, while reasonably straight-forward, just gave me this sinking feeling that my booking was vanishing into a black hole. A very ordinary website and an even more ordinary process. Given how well-oiled their phone booking machinery was, I expected to be able to specify my phone number and have it identify me, but no such luck. Not even close. Just out of curiosity, I played around so more with their website – their user experience could use an upgrade…actually make that a rewrite. They should take a leaf out of Cleartrip’s book, or better yet, have Cleartrip build and host it for them. Maybe they could even sell package deals – suggest a cab booking for every flight/train ticket that gets booked etc.

And Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is virtually non-existent. I tried all the 3 leading Search engines and searched for the typical queries – “cabs Bangalore”, “Taxis Bangalore”, “Airport taxi Bangalore” and in none of the cases did Meru come out on top. In fact, in some cases, they didn’t even make it to the first page. Not what I would expect for what is easily the most popular airport taxi option in the city just judging by numbers. Nope, no ads on the Search pages either. For someone that’s trying to get their online reservation system going, I thought it was strange that they hadn’t even covered the basics? And instead unfairly passing the burden to the customer?

In any case, I provided the necessary information and submitted the request, but made one fatal error – I think it gave me a confirmation number and I forgot to take it down before I closed the window. The site asked me for my email address and my phone number, so I assumed they’d either text or mail me the confirmation? Apparently, that’s too much to ask for. Last I checked, email was still almost free but it didn’t matter. So the next morning comes around and no sign of the cab or any notification around it. I finally call and the Customer Service rep asks for the dreaded Confirmation number. I feign ignorance and give her my phone number instead and her system promptly tells her no reservation was made against that number. How can that be? I swear I saw a confirmation window pop-up on their website that said booking was confirmed. So I try pleading with her and she promptly redirects me to their phone booking department so I can make a fresh booking. For a small, additional convenience charge of course! I didn’t have anything to hold them on, so I couldn’t really make my case but they definitely lost an ambassador thanks to this pleasant experience.

If you are still curious, I did not call them for that cab in the end and found an alternate option to get to the airport that was a lot more reasonable. Thankfully, it doesn’t look like I am the only one that seems to have a problem with this. Hopefully saner minds will prevail in the end!

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Cleartrip? Hardly Clear and no Trip in the end!

So if you are practical and you travel by train in India, (Yes, I can almost hear the smart comments about how much of a paradox that statement is, but enough already!), chances are you book your tickets using the Railways web portal, right? I mean, gone are the days when we stood in serpentine lines that were about as long as the train you intended to travel on, and waited an hour, sometimes two, to only find out that none of the trains headed to your destination weren’t interested in taking you anymore because they were so damn full. Right?

So yeah, most of us faithfuls that had access to the Internet simply switched over to using their website to book our tickets. But if only life were that simple? The Railways, true to form, strongly believe that one form of punishment should simply be replaced by another, and that’s not even counting the actual train journey. The web site is a disaster of astronomical proportions, and on so many dimensions. It is an ideal example of how not to build a product, the usability was simply left out of the site – most functions either don’t exist, or more commonly, simply don’t exist! I still remember the very first version of this monstrosity, and I regret not having taken a screen shot back then but I distinctly remember thinking it was a read-only information portal for the Railways, and then discovering to my pleasant (!) surprise that it allowed the user to perform some basic actions, including booking a ticket. In all seriousness, the current version of the site has been a huge upgrade over its previous incarnations, but it is still largely an exercise in torture to try and reserve a ticket through them.

And so, when Cleartrip came along and offered Train bookings on their site, it was nothing short of a blessing. Their user interface is fantastic – very, very simple to use and incredibly intuitive. Of course, if users had to justify coughing up the extra fees one pays Cleartrip in addition to what the Railways charge, then the experience had to be nothing short of stellar. And while there are a couple of improvements that are possible, I think they have more or less nailed it. Alas, that’s where the good news ended.

Pardon the tech diatribe here, but here is the high level flow for their application – Cleatrip calls the Railways service first to process the reservation details, then invokes the payment module to process payment, and once the payment is approved, it then returns to call the Railways service to complete the booking. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of things that could go wrong in between, and considering my proximity to Uncle Murphy, something did go wrong when I tried.

I was trying to book a ticket from Bangalore to Chennai recently, and it seemed easy as cake…until I got to the payment module. Firstly, the bank module where you provide details of the payment took forever. And after what felt like a year’s wait, the payment finally made it but then it croaked on finishing up the reservation. And the message I got essentially said “We took your money. Thank you! However, we aren’t really sure about your reservation, there is a good chance it didn’t go through. Why don’t you call us at this number and find out for yourself?” Classy…very classy. I was tickled that they were polite enough to thank me, honestly. How often does someone express their appreciation in a nice fashion like that after they screwed you over? Nope, you just don’t get that kinda courtesy anymore.

So anyways, I call the number only to find out that they don’t know if my reservation succeeded either. Nope, am so not kidding. So the customer service guy (think there is just the one guy – I called numerous times and always got the same individual) so nonchalantly says “No problem Sir, don’t worry. This happens quite often. Just wait for about 15 minutes for a text message (SMS) from the Railways Reservations system and that will contain the status of your booking. If it had indeed failed, then we can initiate a refund of the money that was taken, which will take between 3 and 14 days to make it back to your account. “How incredibly awesome? It took a lot of resolve on my part to not nominate this for some kinda Customer Experience recognition award. The guy didn’t seem to think at all that this was a problem – he blamed it on technical difficulties and that it was a common problem with those Railways guys and his wise suggestion was for me to check with the Railways directly on the ticket. Why I was paying Cleartrip a reservation fee is anybody’s guess. The guy thought the refund was the primary issue and as long as that got processed, then I shouldn’t really have anything to complain about? I can’t blame him though, such is the sorry state of Customer Service today.

Anyways, I wait…and an hour passes, and not a peep from any Railways service. While I was waiting however, I did get a couple of spam messages suggesting I buy some Insurance. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. So anyways, I call Cleartrip again (all of these are long-distance calls by the way, and they clearly tell you that the calls are your responsibility) and of course its the same dude, and he tells me, with relief in his voice, that my booking failed and that he will be happy to initiate the refund process. So I had no choice but to find alternate means of travel, and abandoned the attempt to buy that cursed ticket.

Now, I understand there are technology challenges to overcome here. Building anything that works with that archaic Railways Service is an accomplishment that calls for a Nobel Prize in Bravery, and all jokes aside, I tip my hat to the Cleartrip product team for even attempting to do this and having gotten as far as they have. But aren’t they missing the point here? It is my expectation as a paying customer that I am dealing with them and only them, and that it is therefore up to them to resolve any “internal” issues and give me an experience that is as delightful as their website. Sadly, things are a far cry from there at this time!

The flying Oryx

At a business quiz in Hyderabad a few years ago, the question for us was to name the airline that had an Oryx for its logo. We pleaded ignorance and had to pass the question, and I thought that was the end of that…but I realized last week traveling on Qatar Airways that the airline had never really forgiven me for that miss, it was payback time!

You know when you are planning your trip and you just get this sense that it is going to be a horrible experience? That’s the feeling I had, and sadly, my worst fears came true. It all started right from the get go. I wanted to change my dates a few hours before I had to fly and called Customer Service. Apparently, they can only look up booking details and answer questions about my reservation – they are not authorized to make itinerary changes, only Reservations does that. Why someone would bother staffing a Customer Service department that isn’t empowered to Serve the Customer, I will never understand. And Reservations is only open from 9-5 Mon-Fri, so they had already left for the day when I called. A little antiquated, no? I think I’d get better response from an Indian Government agency than I did with this airline, and that’s saying a lot.

So anyways, the Customer Service rep directs me to head to the airport to make the change there for if I don’t show up at the check in counter, they’d consider me a No Show and simply cancel my ticket, without any refund of course. So I religiously head to the airport and request a reschedule – of course, same answer. The check-in clerk is only authorized to check passengers in, not make changes to your ticket. The ground operations for Qatar Airways in Bangalore are managed by an external agency, which in itself is a bad sign. And to make matters worse, this agency’s staff is indifferent, incompetent, and so focused on getting you to do what they want, not the other way around. Its worth pointing out that the single beacon of hope was the lone Qatar Airways employee at the airport, who put in a sincere effort to reschedule my ticket but wasn’t successful because the flights were so full. So I had little choice but to get on that plane.

If the experience leading to the journey was bad, the travel itself was just horrid. Miserable seats that resembled park benches with a sorry excuse for a cushion set the tone. Personal TV screens on every seat – awesome…now if only they can figure out how to put them to good use by having movies that you’d actually want to watch, they’d be put to some use! The sweet-looking stewardess had seemingly signed a pact that barred her from smiling – I don’t blame her though. If I had her job, I probably wouldn’t want to smile either. The food, you ask? Barely edible! I seriously considered eating plastic instead – and if you requested a special meal like I did, you are guaranteed to be missing something or the other in your meal – happened to me every single time. And oh btw, Asian Vegetarians apparently don’t eat dessert? When I asked, they gave me fruit instead – Nice! Thank you for watching my diet, Oryx, but can I decide what I want for dessert please?

And the airport at Doha – what is with that place? Color schemes ignored for a second, it felt like an IKEA store, only smaller. More a shopping mall than airport, the place has all these weird walkways weaving around one another, and no matter which one you take, you always seem to end up in one of the duty-free shopping aisles. If you have struggled to get out of an IKEA store like I have, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Anyways, I walk down to the coffee shop in the food court (again, more IKEA inspiration – the Swedish chain should be proud) and order a tall Americano, and the damn cup of coffee costs me $7! Of course, they served it in a container the size of a drum, but who cares? Seven dollars for a cup of coffee? I am sure it would have been cheaper to buy a barrel of oil. And it would probably have tasted better too. And oh, don’t even get me started on the restrooms. They had 4 for the entire terminal, which only housed about a couple of thousand people during that busy morning hour! And those restrooms make dirty sound like a good thing. I went to every single one of those 4, in the hope that at least one would be remotely usable, but no such luck. It was hard to even enter the place, a grim reminder of how nasty a species mankind is at times. Sad!

So, after such a delightful experience, I don’t think I ever want to fly the Oryx again – if I had to choose between flying Qatar and canceling my trip, I think I’d take the latter. I would recommend you do the same, but if you must travel, at least insist that you won’t use the airport for transit 🙂 I heard somewhere that Qatar was competing with and aspiring to be like Emirates – if my trip was anything to go by, Emirates has nothing to worry about, those aspirations will remain just that.