The Case of the missing Engagement Glue

This is a narrative to highlight how we somehow miss the element of human engagement in our day to day interactions. In an economy such as India, where 56% of GDP comes from services – missing human engagement seems like a big concern for me.

The incident

In the month of December 2016, my parents and I decided to go to Gwalior. The reason was to attend a friend’s wedding. I figured that we would get some time to look around the city – as well as some time off from work. I did not wish to travel via train (since its a 20 hour journey). Thankfully we had enough time to plan ahead, so we bought tickets off Cleartrip.com (this being one of my favored sites purchase travel tickets – both air and rail).

Flash forward to December 9th, the date of the flight. We huddled up to the T2 terminal in early morning – hoping to reach Gwalior just before lunch. It’s not as if we had planned this in detail – it’s just that there is just one flight that goes from Mumbai to Gwalior. That flight being an Air India one, and that too once a day. So much for choice!

1 hour before the flight, we are checked-in and sitting at the boarding gate. Most of the other passengers have started showing up. My initial suspicion of this flight being empty are quickly put to rest as I count around 50 odd passengers at our boarding gate. Just then, Air India announces that the flight might get delayed by an hour or so – since there is fog at the Gwalior airport. Some folks have started grumbling, and the elderly lady sitting next to me is concerned that she may not reach the hospital in time.

An hour later, the flight is promptly announced cancelled and the hapless attendant at the boarding gate points the irritated passengers towards the Air India desk. Fortunately, I am quickly able to figure out the next steps in flight cancellation and I was able to get the entire PNR of both the flights cancelled (since it was a round trip – this was done de-facto by Air India when they cancelled my onwards journey!).

At this juncture, I realize that reaching by flight is impossible for my parents. I could have gone via Delhi or via Bhopal, unfortunately Air India was not willing to transfer my ticket to another firm’s flight and wanted me to wait for their next empty flight. Somewhere, the Air India helpdesk just stopped being customer friendly (who wouldn’t when faced with 50 angry customers all shouting for alternative flights), and started quoting the policies.

Cancellations and refund

Having my flight cancelled, I got on a call with Cleartrip.com and confirmed the refund amount we would be getting. So for spending roughly 35k for the tickets and wasting so much time, we would be getting most of that amount back. The attendant was super friendly and seemed to grasp the situation – he promptly had an Air India customer care operator on conference call and asked for the full refund. This process amongst the chaos took 5 hours or so. The customer care operator from Air India – Manoj, seemed diffident at first, however he agreed that I would be refunded in full when he learnt that it was a single PNR. The Cleartripper must have been trained for such situations – so he verified this twice on the call. Then he assured me of the refund and asked me to return back home and proceeded to cancel the tickets. We reached home in the evening, having deemed that some time and money had lost and we would be missing my friend’s wedding (sorry Jay!).

After the customary vows of not using Air India ever, and praising Cleartrip for their super awesome service, I went on with life. I was informed by Cleartrip that this refund would be processed in 25 odd days – since I did not have an endorsement copy ready.

Dec 9th: Email from Cleartrip Team

Dec 9th: Email from Cleartrip Team

Since, I did not have this aforementioned endorsement copy, I replied back stating that I’d rather wait for Cleartrip to do the same for me.

The Engagement Gap

Now, starts the real story. On the 5th Jan (almost a month after the flight was scheduled), I receive this email from Cleartrip.com.

Jan 5th: Email from Cleartrip Team

Jan 5th: Email from Cleartrip Team

I remember a cold dread going through this email. Fortunately, I remember that there was a recorded conversation between the three parties (Cleartrip, Air India and I) – where the Air India operator had confirmed and mentioned on record that the refund would be processed in full. So how can they go back on their word?

I picked up the phone and spoke to a Cleartripper about the same. The Cleartripper took some time understanding the issue, went and verified that such a conversation existed, and then asked me about the endorsement copy. I do not know how this looks like so I asked them to arrange it at their side (they claimed they could take care of this, however, it would take their 20-25 more days).

At this juncture, I trusted Cleartrip and said that the wait would be fine (since I have already waited month, another 20 days may not matter).

The Engagement Gap widens

On the 14th of Jan, I receive this email –

Jan 14th: Email from Cleartrip Team

Jan 14th: Email from Cleartrip Team

This is where I lost all hope of getting any money back. A cool 30k down the drain. Thankfully, it was a Saturday – and I had some free time on my hands to get into the heart of the matter.

I got onto a call with Cleartrip and 15 minutes later had explained the matter to one more Cleartripper (so now at least 3 of them know about my issue). In classic textbook style script, she proceeds to assure me that they will look into it and will get back to me in some time.

This is where I lost all trust that Cleartrip would indeed solve the problem. Please note, I am not bitching about Cleartrip or Air India – at least not yet! So, I decided to push for a turn around time. I was informed that the concerned person would contact me in an hour’s time.

An hour and a half later, I call Cleartrip to follow-up. A separate person this time, another round of explanations go and this chap also placates, re-assures and promises to get back. I refuse to hang-up, and call him on this point that everyone promises to get back – but no one does. At this juncture, the fine chap that he is informs me that it would be simpler if I had the endorsement copy in place.

Wait, what? So I waited 35 days for Cleartrip to get something which I am not supposed to get. Why did they not say the same in the first place? Why offer to do this if they do not really engage with the problem.

Look who’s talking!

At this point, I realized that screaming or ranting this won’t solve my problem. If I do not chose to do something about this state of issues, then my money is most certainly lost. Grumbling obscenities with Air India, I head on to T2.

I reach Air India’s office and explain that I need an endorsement copy for the flight number. The officer asks me the PNR number which I provide. She looks at the date for a minute and goes to the senior officer. He proceeds to process this (while handling 2-3 other emergencies), he asks me why did I not get this on the day of the flight itself. I narrate the entire incident to him and he gives me the copy in 10 minutes flat. My impression of Air India stands changed.

While this was happening, the Cleartripper (the last one) calls me and suggests me to get the endorsement copy to process the refunds. I email him the required photographs of the copy and there ends the matter.

As I was typing this post, I thought it might make sense to double check with Cleartrip. True enough, they haven’t yet received the endorsement copy from me. It seems that their CRM (which is Salesforce) is not configured to receive attachment to replies, and expects me to send a separate mail (not as part of the mail chain) to them. I send this, and receive acknowledgement of this. I have been told to wait for 2 days on this for any further update. There is a trust deficit in my mind when I talk about Cleartrip … a site which I have been using for around a decade now.

So who is not engaging here?

I don’t know! Is it Cleartrip or was it Air India that f**ked up?

Or was it me who simply did not chase these matters?

Does it have to be this hard? In this mess of exchanges, there were so many opportunities for one human to go the additional distance and close the gaps.

  • Air India could have given the endorsement copies the minute the cancellation was announced.
  • Cleartrip could have fetched this themselves and not kept buying time
  • I could have chased after both Air India and Cleartrip and addressed this matter. I certainly plan to do so now.

The Engagement Glue

If I have not lost you by now, most certainly you are piqued by what I mean by The Engagement Glue.

There are 4 basic interchanges happening here –

  1. Purchasing the ticket on Cleartrip. I think they have nailed this experience.
  2. The actual flight. Air India could not help here, the Gwalior airport is controlled by the army base and it shuts down operations after 3pm. The fog was a natural act, and could not be helped.
  3. The cancellation process. This is where a clear engagement failure happened. Air India officials should feel more concerned about the emotions that a passenger goes through, and not cite policy.
  4. The refund process. Another engagement failure, Cleartrippers should look further than providing text book responses. The user should also actively track this (I am the user), it’s his money after all!

In the last two points, there was a need to bridge the engagement gap with some understanding. With some Engagement glue. Human empathy could have been that glue.

Conclusion

At the end of this fiasco (when it ends!), all I want to say is that the trust with which I used to operate is lost and that could have been saved simply by being a bit more human-centric.

I see this in a lot of services, the great service providers go that bit extra and ensure that everyone around them feel customer delight.

The damn thing doesn’t end here!

26th January 2017. This addendum after 10 days.

After waiting for Cleartrip to respond, I called their Customer Care team up. It seems that their representative had forwarded the matter to the wrong team! I am being told to wait for 2-3 days more, guess I will keep this updated and see what comes of it.

Web 4.0: The Enabling Web

Forgive me, this post is going to be a long one.

In the brief span of its existence, the web has evolved at such an alarming rate, that it outstrips evolution of any living organism. Even as Indian web users and web development companies are creating (and using) Web 2.0 platforms, the more developed nations are already talking about Web 3.0, the semantic web.

Picture2

Not so surprisingly, I have found to my chagrin that 80% or more of the Indian populace associate Web 2.0 with client side technologies instead of a collaborative technology. People associate it with all the wrong ideas … I do not blame them. Awareness has always been the bane of comprehension. Having said that, I decided that it would do some good if we can somehow capture the evolution of the internet in these already popular phrases, and somehow manage to extrapolate what the next stage could be – so that we are prepared when it comes ;-)

Or even better, a host of Indian companies could bring in the era of Web 4.0: The Enabling Web. So what are these evolutionary milestones?

Web 1.0: The Information Superhighway

This is the internet of yore. Those were the days when people would make separate HTML pages and upload it on the net. Content was written within these pages and uploaded. It was authoritative in nature, since most of these sites were a one way communication stream. People came to different sites with the sole aim of gathering information – hence the name, the Information Superhighway.

Web 2.0: A Collaborative Medium

This is the internet that we see around us these days. The web is more social now, its a place to meet interesting people – to collaboratively create content. Content is not written within pages, content is created by the users themselves. The more the users, the more the content. What the developers create is a platform which enables this co-creation between the users. A great example of this is Wikipedia or IMDB.

 

 

 

Web 3.0: A sense making layer

The new era of internet is coming, this can somehow make sense out of the user’s inputs and act accordingly. So when I say “Show me a blue lotus”, the internet should show me the image of a blue car instead of a blue flower. How does it do this? It already has my preferences for cars over flowers somewhere. This is where collaborative filtering mechanisms and business intelligence algorithms are used to correctly profile the user. The internet is capable of understanding what the user is speaking. It differentiates a Gandhi from a Hitler. Some examples of this would be WolframAlpha or Amazon.

Web 4.0: The Enabling Web

So what happens when the web begins the “understand” the user. The sole question is – “What’s the point?”. If it can understand the user, it can also understand the purpose with which the user is driven to visit a particular web application. And, if that can be done, then it won’t be too difficult to understand and provide what other resources would help the user reach his outcome. The web suddenly becomes a more intertwined place with each web application talking to others, so as to provide the best experience to its user. Not only experience, but to ensure that the user is enabled with the right set of resources to get his job done. The purpose of the user is kept at the center. That’s my vision for web 4.0 akin to a more evolved Ubiquity extension of Firefox.

Customer Engagement

My job at Illumine is to make a career enablement platform for individuals. A part of this platform management includes (but is certainly not limited to) –

  • To ensure that users once they come on the website wont get overwhelmed by the enormity and complexity of the task at hand.
  • To make sure that the users keep on coming back to the site, in order to enable their careers. No, not like a Naukri.com or a Monster.com. They have their place in their own regards, but that place is in matching the job seekers to companies, and that’s it.

This is why it has to be different. The way the user will engage with the site will be different. In order to understand this “Customer Engagement” thing better, I decided to investigate this further.

It is how the user engages with the idea of the portal, and all the ambience surrounding it. Yes we know that, and we also know how to measure it. Often at times great businesses use Customer Engagement either as a marketing tool or as a metric to measure the success of an initiative.

All this gyaan was great, but it did not get me anywhere. I still had a design for the site to be made, and none of the literature around is talking about Customer Engagement as a Design driver , all of them are using it post execution to see the effects of an action/treatment. People talk about user centric design, is this similar to online CE? I am finding out!!

Today after a long discussion with our modelling team, I realized that to use CE as a design driver would mean to completely re-structure the portal that we are developing; and keeping the customer engagement at the center. I am sure that this concept is already there in all design paradigms, but then why do not I see this being practiced in real life?

Great products have this built-in them – iPod, WordPress, TCP/IP, GMail, Books, I could go on. That’s why their fundamental design has not changed much. The way the user engages with the product remains constant, what changes is the technology, the look and the price :-).

What do you think?

Social Search: The new frontier

One of my colleagues in a presentation remarked – that the problem these days is not about lack of information, it is about visibility of that information! These days the sheer volumes of information has reached such an extent that one cannot make out the differences between relevant and irrelevant. How many times have you clicked “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on Google in the past month? The answer is zero for me.

The way Google has chosen to solve that problem is idiotic at best – they let you indicate the relevance of the search result for that particular term (you have to be logged in to your Google Account and search for checking this feature out). The problem with this solution is that I still have to search for the solution which is most relevant to me. Visibility of the most relevant solution is an issue. What would have been great, if Google could have taken the relevance out of my social circle (read Google Contacts) and shown my contact’s relevance to me as well!! So my social circle is defining the context of the search and they are doing the search for me; not Google.

Social search, is what I am talking about. The new paradigm now is not to show all the possible searches – nobody has time to go through 567,198 results, show me what is relevant to me. Know thy customer. Take an application like Twitter and Tweetdeck. Tweetdeck lets me set search through the Twitter community, that way, the relevance and context comes out through the users. That is the way of the future – we used to talk about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), but now it should be Social Media Visibility (SMV).

Do you really need that?

That is the question you should be asking yourself whenever you are about to buy something.

If you are not clear then, check out this site. The content is presented by Anne Leonard, who manages to deliver the message so clearly and logically; it’s a shame that we did not notice it earlier. We Indians are copying the western culture to the hilt, so much so that we are trying to adopt the same practices at work, at home, at how we treat things, becoming more of consumers and less of contributors.

Half of the stuff that we buy, do we really need that? A new phone, a brand new gaming desktop (I was thinking of getting this one), a flat screen tv, a dishwasher, an A/C, the list goes on. And once we buy that, we dont stop … we keep on buying newer versions of that. Our perceived obsolescence drives us to trash our already existing goods for the sake of the newer and better. Such a waste.

Please go through the site – storyofstuff.com. And try to make a difference.

Mumbai Police

Just a note of appreciation towards the Mumbai police force. Today my entire family and I had gone to the police station for verification of our passport. Since the marriage, this is one of our initiatives :-)

The police officer came to our house and gave us the time and date for reporting to the police station. The D-Day arrived and we reported to the station on time. Everything was done so smoothly and efficiently.

I am mentioning it specifically, because this was unlike all the other government offices I have been to since marriage viz., marriage certificate, name change registrar, et al. This office was spic and span, tidy and manned by a very efficient person – Inspector S. M. Rane. Kudos!!