This incident took place when I was travelling from Chennai to Mumbai by train. A vendor was selling an assortment of food items including potato wafers, chips and other eatables. As is the style in Indian trains, he was continuously shouting out what he was selling. This mainly included, “Wafers… kurkure…”.

But as soon as he came near our berth, where four of us guys were sitting, he immediately started shouting out “…cigarettes, gutkha, Manikchand…” How’s that for effective customer segmentation? Not that we bought anything from him, but on average this strategy would definitely help him garner more sales. Who says you need an MBA from a B-school to be an effective seller?

One of my favourite ads is the Priceless series by Mastercard. This is where they list down a few expenses and then as the punchline, deliver something which cannot be measured in money. It conjures up a beautiful combination of pride and emotion for the viewer. Here’s my own version of the ad if ever the Indian Railways decided to follow that format..

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It has been my general experience that there is a wide chasm between the budget allocated for sales and that for after-sales service. Most people would argue that after-sales service is a part of marketing and that according to marketing gurus, marketing starts well before the product is developed and continues well after the consumer buys the product. A standard textbook definition. But in real life, does a company really focus on that after-sales part diligently? Few companies do so.

Take the case of banks, for example. Private banks nowadays send a representative to your house when you tell them you want to open an account. They help you fill up the new account forms, they take the minimum account opening balance from you etc. But does the bank maintain that level of service once the account is active? When I want to change my address, I have to go to the nearest branch. To reset my ATM pin (when I’ve forgotten my old one) I have to visit the nearest branch.

The most obvious point of difference is the type of interaction itself. While opening an account, a ‘representative’ from the bank comes over to your house. While doing other transactions, you are forwarded to a call-centre where after you press (quite) a few buttons, you reach a human at the other end. And what happens then? Even for a simple request, the call-centre ‘executive’ tells me to visit the nearest branch!

The counter-argument would be that it is because of the security aspect. Banks would like to be sure that they are dealing with a genuine customer before they do a sensitive transaction like closing an account or changing ATM pin or issuing a new ATM card. But its not that personal interaction would get rid of all these problems. We still have news reports of people duping the bank branch by forging a signature while sitting in the bank itself. Investing in technology can be (if the bank wants) justified in terms of providing customer service.

Another major difference seen between these two services is that while one is an integral part of the organization, the other is generally outsourced. Would any company dare to outsource its sales division? No it won’t. Yet companies do not hesitate while deciding whether to outsource the after-sales service division. It is less of a headache they say, dealing with irate customers and product returns.

Why can’t organizations be more balanced in the level of both these kinds of services? If B-schools have a specialization for sales and marketing, why can’t they have a specialization for after-sales service? Isn’t that what is required in the service-oriented economy?

I’ll wait for the day when the banks agrees to send a representative to my house to close my account. Until then providing a 24×7 customer care number is just another gimmick in order to attract and impress customers.

Recently we had Laloo Prasad Yadav give a lecture on the Indian Railways in IIM Ahmedabad. But as it turned out, he was there only for eye candy (An oxymoron, if there ever was one!) The answers and explanations were given by his subordinates – the actual people responsible for handling the changes. Now there are news reports of Laloo Prasad being invited to Wharton and Harvard, probably to do the same thing. I do not oppose the Indian Railways being discussed & studied at these B-schools. What I wonder is why does the railway minister need to go along too? I don’t think his contribution is required much there. If all he is going to do is to quip a few sound bites, I think it would be better for him to concentrate on doing that to his political rivals here in India. Udhar kya woh Bush Presidentwa ko paath padhayenge?

Further it seems to me that Laloo’s role in the Indian Railways turnaround is a bit overhyped. If we go by the facts, it seems that Laloo is just enjoying the fruits of the hard work put in by railways officials in the last five years. It is just Laloo’s fortune that he happened to be the Railway Minister when the turnaround showed some results. And I do not blame him. I’m sure his rival Nitish Kumar would have done the same thing. That’s what politicians all around the world do – Promise. Not act. Claim. I don’t think Laloo’s the kind to miss out on such an opportunity. I just hope he doesn’t take the whole family and a dozen of his favourite cattle along with him as well. But then again, he could teach them Americans a few things about milking cows efficiently.