Sunday, April 24, 2011

Customer dis-service

I just saw this post written by a blogger friend, and was about to comment on her post, when I was overcome with so many similar memories , that I thought I should make it into a post.

At one time, when IT was all about punched cards being fed into huge card readers, and NOT about a bunch of people swinging on swivel chairs, typing stuff on to the screen, I actually worked for India's then (and possibly even today) leading company. Companies actually sent, say, Inventory transactions, which were punched on to cards, and these were read, checked and edited several times, by means of batch totals, tallying and all kinds of controls, before they were actually processed against the earlier months closing. There was a lot of interaction between the IT wallahs and the staff of the company that we designed and ran systems for.

The PC had not yet appeared on the scene. Internet was yet to arrive. Credit cards were not yet around. Thankfully neither were cell phones. And people still worried about being accurate, than fast.

In this big rush towards the e-fication of every aspect of our lives, and hankering after a wireless life, no one has the time to check and recheck data . This is causing immense confusion in systems where centralization is being tried.

--And so you have my friend, getting, possibly automated calls, wrongly triggered by corrupted data, and she finds out that the number which keeps calling her does not exist.

---And so you have India's leading premier nationalized bank, that handles government pension accounts, making a big thing explaining how the account must have a single name (no joint names) and so on. You send in a request for a new checkbook, and the name that comes printed on each check, is someone else's; and no one bothers to check before mailing the stuff to you, that too after charging you the postage. When you go in to crib about this, they act as if the correction to be done is a huge favor to you, and yes, you will be charged the postage again. This doesn't dent my fortune, but their shamelessness is so rich.

---Another cell phone service provider, affiliated to a highly regarded private sector blue chip company, advertises their prepaid schemes. You get a connection, and have no problems recharging after intervals. Then you start getting letters saying, "you have a post paid connection, have been ignoring bills, which have piled up, and you better pay up, or else."

When you check, they have wrong data for you. Which is why these letters get generated. But somewhere, when you recharge, the system remembers your real situation, as a prepaid system customer. The data has lost all integrity. When you call them up, they have no answer to this and no solution, except that one should go visit their head office somewhere in the innards of the city.

Why blame these guys ?

Your own ex-employers have a matching performance to display.

One takes early retirement and stuff goes off like clockwork, with you getting intimation to come pickup cheques and stuff on designated days. Six months later, you try and login for fun, in the employee record system, thinking it will deny you access. It doesn't. Not only that, it shows accumulated leave for six months after you left. Which can theoretically be cashed.

One also undergoes a change of status as a family, after the primary member, who is a government employee retires. You still live in the same gated community, so systems are in place to issue new identification cards. You believe in the system. And then you are in for a shock.

The parents get their id cards. But children, who have enjoyed the benefits as dependents, as per the laws of the nation , for the last quarter of a century, are denied an id card that simply says they exist as family members (forget enjoying any benefits) as they continue to live in the same premises. In a shameful recent episode , the child of a just retired person, was allocated a daily non-employee entry pass, normally given to vegetable vendors, maids, raddiwalaas, home delivery grocery folks and so on. The parents then requested such entry passes themselves , which they would renew periodically, like every month. At this point people woke up.

A cursory study of the system revealed, that there was no clear definition and control about who can change what data; higher ups did not get a summary report on changes effected to records, and sometimes they actually didn't know at all what was going on. The problem was later solved by vociferous protests, pointing to rules, and a slight raising of voice, which always makes folks listen.

And as a crowning episode, here is a story of someone, whose bank account was routinely credited and debited (the next day), each month by 15,000 Rs, and this went on for 6 months before she noticed it, as she lived in a another city, and didn't trust net banking. She did not recognize that transaction as hers, but did question the bank, who seemed to think that their job ended after crediting and debiting. She asked them what would happen, if some smart customer person owning that account decided to withdraw the amount before they could debit, since there was a time pattern to the whole thing. The manager had no clue. She was told something about "reversing" entries; and she asked if that meant some valid entries could also have been reversed and should she check.....

It finally transpired, that they had introduced an extension counter of that branch, and erred in the codification of the accounts managed by that counter. The account number is subsidiary to that particular branch, and by not giving that extension counter a unique id code, they had a case of duplicate account codes, as the manager issued orders for some codes randomly. The customer asked about user manuals followed by the bank, coding systems, who did the software etc. because she had worked in a similar field. And what emerged was that what fell short at the end of the day was training of all personnel from the top down, at various levels of responsibility.

Not a day goes by without Mumbai University authorities facing yet another complaint about erroneous result declarations, and delays in paper corrections, and someone always comes out and says that everything is being computerized , and hence the problems.

Sometimes, I think we are simply being "clobbered by data". Those who are entering data are doing something akin to pouring sand , through a sieve, where the fibres have become weak, and allow anything to pass. Advancement in technology is represented by folks above a certain level having PC's on their desks, more as a prestige issue, an not by innovative methods of validating data. Much like our Members of Parliament, being gifted free laptops.

We once had to use the SWIFT code method of sending funds in foreign currency, for registering to attend an overseas academic conference. Our bank which boasts of impressive assets, and deposits, and is a participant in this SWIFT technology based funds transfer technology, apologized. There was only one staff member who did that work. he had an accident the previous day, and fractured his limbs and was on medical leave. No one else, I repeat, no one else , was capable of doing that work, in a section that had 10 other people working there. Would we mind going to the next available bank branch 10 kilometres away, before it closed, and getting it done ?

Like they say, here it is a seller's market. The customer is the beggar. And most of the time, crooks are kings.

If I were a computer, I would be mortified.

And reboot in agony.


  1. This is the sad state of affairs in every nook and corner of the country which has spent so much on ironical and funny situation. Instead of computers being used to reduce work load - its being blamed for all the wrong work - all becos of wrong data entry.

    Sometimes I feel, we were better off without digital transformation of all the bank / telecom / pension and other data.

  2. a brilliant indictment on the e state of affairs!

  3. Ha ha! This is India, I much longer till we get used to technology....?

  4. Great post, Suranga. I think the problem is we do things in a half-baked manner. And we don't bother to see things through till the end. So basically, we end up in a messy situation. And added to that is the wonderful levels of customer service we find in so-called modernised businesses. At the risk of sounding biased, I would also add that in western countries, people are mostly very process oriented, and do a thorough and professional job.