What Hooters and Apple Genius Bars can teach us about Customer Service


Once upon a time I wanted to get in to MICA. After receiving an interview call, I decided to look up some alumni. Out of the many I sent friend requests to, only Siddharth Soni replied. We’ve been friends ever since.

Siddharth recently wrote a blog post asking “How much should customer service guys be paid?“. In the post, Sid says that marketing and sales professionals attract customers to a business but it is the customer service people who actually “fulfill the promise” and therefore, they deserve to be paid equally well. Here, he’s not talking of Customer Service as the guys at the call centre, but anyone engaged in the “delivery of the promise”. This could mean the lady at the front desk, the Relationship Manager at the bank or even the aircraft pilot.

My answer to “How much should a customer service person be paid?” is, “it depends“. What does it depend on? How integral is the Customer Service to the Customer Value Proposition.

Let me explain. You go to a small family owned restaurant close to your place for a quick meal. It’s a slow Tuesday afternoon and the owner says that no waiters are available, so it’s “self service”. Will you be disappointed and expect to pay less? I don’t think so. It’s more like “Fine, I’ll get my own grub from the counter, no issues”.


Now, let’s say you walk in to a Hooters and management informs you that there are no Girls available and it’s self-service. Would you expect to pay less?

Hooters Girls

These women aren't available to wait on you. Please serve yourself.

I would, because the Hooters Girls are an integral part of the experience at Hooters restaurant. In fact, for them, I’m ready to pay a premium price on the food. Why is this so? Because the value being promised by Hooters as stated in their Mission Statement is

We are committed to providing an environment of employee growth and development so that we can provide every guest a unique, entertaining dining experience in a fun and casual atmosphere delivered by attractive, vivacious Hooters Girls while making positive contributions to the communities in which we live.

As you can see, no Hooters Girls = “No complete value” as promised by them. My point is this, if the Customer Service (CS) being provided is an integral or a large part of the promised value, then the CS professionals will be paid relatively well. For example – in Management Consulting, the greatest amount of value is provided by consultants so they’re very highly paid. Take banks, where the highest paid professionals are the investment bankers that give awesome returns to investors.

Let’s get back to Siddharth.

Siddharth runs Mississippi Earrings, an online/offline store dedicated to earrings. As you’ll notice, earrings are products while all my previous examples have been of service based businesses. How much value then, can CS offer when customers are walking in for a product?

Apple Genius Bar - Image Courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/waynedixon/

To answer this, I would like to draw your attention, dear reader, to Apple’s Genius Bars. A Genius Bar is essentially a tech support centre inside every Apple Retail store where highly trained “Geniuses” help customers with any problems they might have. Quoting this Wall Street Journal article, stores have sales associates that are taught an unusual sales philosophy: not to sell, but rather to help customers solve problems.

“Your job is to understand all of your customers’ needs—some of which they may not even realize they have,” one training manual says

And the result: Customer Growth Partners says that Best Buy makes about 1% profit margin (before taxes and excluding online sales), while Needham & Co. reports that Apple makes 26.9% profit margin from its stores.

Can Siddharth do the same with Customer Service at Mississippi Earrings? I think he can. In my opinion, the two most important steps are

  1. Train his staff extensively on the products available, the latest fashions, the different segments of customers who walk in and make sure they’re super helpful when it comes to giving advice about selecting earrings based on event, dress, personality, budget, use, etc.
  2. Communicate the availability of this extra value to the customers.
Now, the CS guys will be providing increased value to the customer,  consequently, driving up customer satisfaction (sometimes even delight), repeat walk-ins, retention and lifetime value of each patron to Mississippi Earrings. In this case, I agree, Customer Service professionals should be paid as much as or even more than marketing or sales people.

At the end of it all, it isn’t about Customer Service, Marketing or Sales or whatever. It’s about who’s making the paying customer walk-in. Marketing and Sales guys do that since it’s their Job Description. A just-another-CS person doesn’t do that. An exceptional CS person becomes a reason for customers to walk back in, just to hear his opinion or tap upon his knowledge.

Dear reader, if you feel this isn’t correct or have examples that go against what’s written in this post, please do put that down in the comments. I’d love to have a conversation with you on the same.

Why Flipkart rejected me after the Job Interview


A few months ago, I interviewed with Flipkart for a job. They threw me out after the second (and final) round of interviews.

I was really hoping to get through, and to shore up my candidature I decided to create a show-and-tell before the d-day. It was some work/project and even a small little speech that I had done/gave-earlier which clearly (or so I thought) demonstrated that I neatly fit in with the skill-set required and their culture.

A day before that, I ran my “show-and-tell” through with a friend, who said “Dude, my dad has interviewed thousands of candidates for the Indian Armed Forces and he once told me: more than trying to sell yourself, just answer the interviewer’s questions well and you’ll get through”.

I ignored his advice and went in with guns blazing. Asked the interviewer if I could show him the stuff as soon as I stepped in to the room. He agreed and patiently listened to me go on and on for about 5 minutes. Then he asked a few questions and finally went through my CV.

I was through to the second round. Emboldened, I decide on an encore. Again, went in firing from the hips and again, the person on the other side of the table listened patiently. He asked a lot of questions, which I thought I answered well. I stepped out happy and expecting a job offer.

That’s where the cute bit ends. They rejected me and I received feedback that “he seemed to be desperate”.

After the initial bouts of depression, I had my usual tonic of a drunken night out and lots of blabbering to uninterested friends.

When my head cleared, I thought about it. For your benefit dear reader (and as a reminder to future ‘me’), here’s what I think I did wrong:

I was trying to make a sale and not really answering the questions the interviewer had in their minds. 

Now I’m sure you’ll realize that this approach could have worked in some other situation, however, at the end of the day the interviewer was looking for a solution to a problem he had. His organization requires a role filled and he was tasked with finding the right person. Questions about the same are swirling in his mind when I walk in and start making a sales pitch that nowhere addressed the issues he was facing.

Edit on 11th April, 2012: After seeing the comments on http://therodinhoods.com/profiles/blogs/why-flipkart-rejected-me-after-the-job-interview, have decided to explain exactly what happened.

The profile on offer was Business Development. That is legacy designation (because initially, all Flipkart work meant Biz Dev) for Category Managers of various categories  like Books, Computers, Cameras, Gaming, etc. I went in with my laptop and started off by showing the following

  1. Web designing & coding – showed him a hand coded & designed (Notepad + Corel Draw mostly) functioning website I’d made for our startup with non-Flash Javascript animation
  2. Sales – explained how we raised angel funding for our second startup and the role I played
  3. UI Design – showed some of the design work I’d done for website, college mags and events
  4. Culture: Customer Focus/Obsession (Flipkart is crazy about this, and I agree with them) – a blog post written long ago where I exhort that Understanding Consumer Behaviour should be the most important of MBA teachings
  5. Culture: Teamwork – showed a video recording of a speech I gave after our team won a college sports tourney. In the recording, I repeatedly talk about teamwork and how as a cohesive unit we beat much stronger teams who fell in disarray.

Then I gave him three business ideas that Flipkart might be able to implement. This was because I still believe that one is supposed to provide value; be it to the customer, the employer or whoever is paying you cash. I thought I’d display that I came prepared with three things that might work.

  1. Idea One: Using FK’s customer service division to take feedback from customers by outbound calling. Suppose Nokia launches a new phone (let’s call it E100) and it knows that E100 sales on FK are considerable, so Nokia pays Flipkart to have its Customer Service Execs call people who’ve bought an E100 from FK after a month or so and take feedback. In it’s essence, it’s market research after a product is out in the market
  2. Idea Two: Self publishing of books by authors. See details on this Techcrunch article by James Altucher –  http://techcrunch.com/2012/01/28/why-every-entrepreneur-should-self-publish-a-book/
  3. Idea Three: Ok, I forgot this one.

What did the interviewer say after all this?

Ok fine Siddharth, now let’s talk about e-commerce in India.

That right there was when I realized I had answered none of the questions in his mind. And this was reinforced when after discussing e-commerce in-depth, he switched to “supply chain”.

You see, dear reader, he didn’t give a damn about me knowing web dev, ui design or any of the other yada yada I was telling him about. He has far better people already handling those jobs. He wanted someone who understood online sales, e-commerce and “supply chain”, the primary differentiator through which Flipkart provides its customers the service that has made it famous.

Once again, we drill down to the basics here: Two ears and one mouth. I should have listened first and then spoken :-)