Service Design in India: Foundations & Opportunities

What does one need to have well-designed services? A recent trip to India suggests that it might take more than good blueprints and planning, and that culture may play a role.

Two anecdotes illustrate this.

A positive anecdote: Buying a car

My parents bought a car recently, and shopped around for various brands. Instead of having to take time off from work and spending it in Delhi’s busy traffic to visit the dealership, the dealerships brought the cars home to test. This turned out to be far less hassle for my parents, and my largely-homebound mother was able to participate in the process more than she would otherwise.

From the dealer’s point of view, this makes enormous sense — reduce the barriers for the customer having that memorable, sensual experience of looking at a shiny new object, and they are much more likely to purchase. (Of course, labor costs in India are lower so this is actually profitable.)

What is interesting is that this has been established ad-hoc practice in Delhi for a few years now, whereas here in the US it is just starting to take off, and is often dependent on technology.

The experience continued further into final purchasing and delivery: when we visited the dealership to sign the papers we were brought tea and lunch, and given enough attention and information to ensure we were at ease making the purchase. Delivery was a good experience too — the salesperson visited home to drop off the vehicle, papers and keys, even bringing a Diwali gift (my mother had gifted her something earlier, just because). 
All this requires the salespeople to show flexible action and creative interaction.

A negative anecdote: Online shopping

I bought some things off Amazon India. The experience was much like buying online in the US, except when it came to delivery… I was sitting at home in my father’s office with some of his staff when a person came to deliver a package. He was shown in to where I was sitting, where the interaction unfolded as follows:

Delivery guy: “Who is this Arvind Venkataramani”?
Me: “That would be me”
DG: “Here” (hands me the package)
Me: (accepting package) “Where do I sign for this?”
DG: takes out a phone, photographs me, leaves without a response

The whole interaction took less than 15 seconds, leaving me utterly bewildered at this completely unexplained (and probably illegal) invasion of my privacy.

Cultural foundations?

In many ways, the two cases are to be expected: small businesses (like this dealership) tend to have more personable service, and large businesses (like the shipping company) tend to be more impersonal.

What is interesting about the car shopping case is that it is merely an extension of similar home delivery services that have existed in Indian cities for decades — the neighborhood grocery delivers a shopping list read out over the phone, the vendor with a cart comes up the stairs to drop off vegetables shouted for from the balcony, the pharmacist drops drugs by when they arrive in stock… This means that most people instinctively know what a good purchase-coupled delivery experience looks like, and what impact it has on their customer.

Shipping & package delivery, however, is relatively new.

Similarities can be found in the hospitality & travel industry: most staff tend to care, and be helpful (even when they are not quite competent), but the pattern tends to invert when the businesses are large corporations. Again, as is to be expected, the more expensive the product, the better the service, but service quality tends to drop more slowly with small businesses.

This leads me to suspect that underlying cultural beliefs are an important resource that enables small business to deliver good services:

Beliefs such as…

  • It is important to be considerate of what other people are going through
  • It is important to always be helpful; if one cannot personally help one should try to find someone who can
  • Make the other person feel good, but tactfully set boundaries on demands
  • Delivering a service is an opportunity to form a relationship
  • It is important to form relationships for its own sake, even if there is no immediate payoff
  • It is acceptable (and even desirable) to serve others
  • I might have to do things in my job that I can’t anticipate and am not specifically instructed about

The negative anecdote shows some other beliefs in operation:

  • I can’t help it if something I need to do my job offends you
  • You have what you paid for, so you don’t deserve anything else
  • I don’t care what impression I leave because I won’t interact with you again
  • (and, probably, I don’t get paid enough to talk to you)

In the absence of properly trained service design practitioners and structured methods of research & design, services are likely to just reflect the beliefs in operation within the business. Further, the more technology is present in the equation, the more likely it is to distance and make impersonal the interactions between the business and the customer.

Viewed in this light, India appears to have a large number of people who instinctively understand what good services look like, and possess the basic tools required to deliver them. In some ways, there is a cultural platform for service delivery; it is disorganized and inconsistent but has the potential to scale well given a thoughtful service design approach, and the careful use of technology to standardize information without attempting to standardize interactions.

We at SonicRim have worked on ‘emerging markets’ since our founding; the business framing has usually been on how to adjust products to other cultures so that they don’t fail. I think it’s time to take a fresh lens — to see services in India not as a problem to solve, but as an opportunity for impact.