11 March 2008

Why the consumer should not be the KING in India: Jitender Dabas, JWT Planning, Delhi

An approach to building service brands in high "Power Distance" societies

The sudden rise of ‘bully consumers’ in India

When was the last time you heard someone warning his mobile service provider and threatening him about switching to another brand? Or when was the last time you snubbed a representative from a reputed bank/ insurance company selling you loans/investment products? Chances are, if you are in India, you would be experiencing one or more of these frequently.
About 10 years ago, it used to take 15 days to 3 months to get a telephone installed at your residence. Today it takes less than 24 hours for an active landline connection and you can have an active mobile phone connection almost instantly. There are more than 20 banks to choose from – all of them armed with latest technologies to make your life easy.
An even more intriguing aspect is consumer behavior before all this. 10 years back, the line man from the state-owned BSNL would install the telephone after months of applying, but most consumers felt very obliged to happily offer him sweets and warm hospitality.
And yet today, when we as consumers are having the best time of our life, and service brands are treating the consumer as King, we are becoming increasingly foul.
What explains the sudden emergence of this rude consumer behavior towards service brands?

Some suggest that increased brand choice across all categories has made him a ‘spoilt child’ and hence his bully behavior. So what could explain the increasing bad-behavior or intolerance from the consumers in a culture which is seen as tolerant and polite?
A look at the social structure in Indian society would reveal a pyramidal construction with the power gradient being steep between levels/classes.

The Power Distance Index
A more scientific understanding of this behavior comes from the study of different cultures by Geert Hofstede on various dimensions. One of the dimensions is Power Distance, defined as "the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally".
India has Power Distance (PDI) as the highest Hofstede Dimension (among the five dimensions), with a ranking of 77 as compared to the world average of 56.5.

Implication for brands
To be respected in such a culture, brands will need to increase their distance and will have to assume power. If brands try to play a ‘subservient’ role in such cultures they will not be treated well. Hence the conclusion that in India (and similar cultures with high PDI) THE CONSUMER NEED NOT BE THE KING. Brands should not operate from “You are the king” mindset with the consumer.

What does it mean?

It simply means that brands need to be always at a higher level of hierarchy than the consumer if they need to protect the premium-ness. If the choice has to be made, then brand should be the king.
Service brands need to be careful when they’re training their staffs in soft skills. They need to be told the difference between being polite and being servile.

A good example here is the way Vijay Mallya invites you aboard his flight, it sounds like a ‘King’ inviting you to his kingdom. The equation with the consumer is therefore stated clearly in the very beginning.
The argument that by increasing the Power Distance from your consumers you will become niche is also not correct. In fact, brands with high Power Distance from their consumers will always be the bigger and more desired brands than others.
Not just India but other markets as well
Indian has a PDI (Power Distance Index) of 77. But then there are countries like Russia, Romania, Mexico, Bangladesh and countries from the Arab world with PDI scores higher than 80. While other cultural dimensions too affect the overall consumer behaviour in each country, when it comes to Power Distance, brands will have to decide which side of the power equation they want to be.
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  1. hi,

    It an interesting article. But I feel that the power distance of brands are decided by the consumers and not the brands get to gain that. 10 years back not only in telecom, I remember my freinds dad who waited for 3 months to get a mariti 800. So those days therw weren't enough of choice. so the consumers were happy with what they were offered. But today they have enough of choices to choose from. If they are not treated or served properly hey are just going to walk and choose the other one. THe niche of a brand is created by the service they offer. Kingfisher had gained that respect only becuase they offer everything without leaving any choice for the consumer. The same is the case with jet airways too. But Deccan airways which is a undertaking of king fisher is still trying to get that image.
    I still wud say that the niche image is gained by the service provided which translate into power distance and this is decided by the consumer.

  2. My question to the author is that have you experienced customer service in any place other than India? If India has a booming economy and dreams of being a super power then the customer service also should be at par with other develped nations. Customer service is not just giving a good lip servivce to the customer but also provide and extend the actual service in a timely and efficient manner. Yes, company representatives are polite but severely lack in delivering promises. The customer service begins by setting correct client expectations and then meeting them. Unfortunately, India is way far behind in treating customers like 'kings'. In fact, we have show very little value and respect for customers by over promising and under delivering. If companies can not deliver, they should begin by not over promising, raise customer expectation and then fail.

  3. Thanks for you comment folks.
    Let me clarify on points raised by you.

    No service brand can survive in any free market if they don't provide a good service to the consumer. Therefore the argument is not about the quality of service being provided. The argument is that when you povide that great service what should be your demenaour as a 'brand'? The question is that in steeply heirachical ( read high power distance) societies like India people aren't good to entities below them. We aren't 'respectful' to 'servile' professions like waiters/nurses/gatekeepers/air hostess because in the relationship hieracrhy they come down below. Therefore if the brands have 'servile' tone of relationship with the consumer ( & even if they have the best-in-class service) they will not treated with premium by the consumer.

    So while the brands have to push themselves to give the best possible service to the consumers at a functional level but on the relationship front keep themselves at a higher level than the consumer so that the consumers look up to them & not look down to them.

    On the point of comparing the service standards with other countries I would cite the example of domestic airlines. I have personally experienced as well as have heard from the colleagues who travel to India from abroad. The quality of service on domestic airlines in India is far far better than most of the world. And yet the incidences of rude behaviour & consumer grieviences against the airline service in India are always in the news.


  4. Interesting. Another example I find relevant is the Times of India. The one thing they seem to do consistently is to take an 'above the fray' position. The Lead India campaign is a good example of that. In addition to the various reasons ascribed for the dominance of Times of India as a media brand, I detect this 'demenaour' to be another reason. All of us seem to like the fact that the Times of India is a shade above us.

  5. The Indian consumer has become a bully for two reasons - one, that he finally has multiple options and the ego that he is the decider. In a way it is "taking revenge". The other is that, inspite of tall claims by the producers and the service providers, the quality of products and certainly of the service still remains poor. One set of problems that the consumer faced earlier, like delays, monopolies, etc., are now replaced by incompetence, indifference, artificial politeness, etc., on the part of the producers and service providers. The overall satisfaction level of the consumer has remained the same. And this is frustrating. I do not agree with the article that the Indian consumer is a 'spoilt child'. He only yells when he does not get what is fair, what he deserves and what is promised. The industry should reduce the power distance (by the way, this is an innovative way of measuring a behaviour) rather than exploit it. Power distance can make a brand bigger or more desired if the distance is maintained through respect rather than high-handedness.

  6. hi
    what is your point ?