CX Speak

Setting up Customer-Centric Organizations across Industries: An Exclusive Interview with Mr. Ajay Nambiar, Customer Service & Facility Management Head, L&T Realty

At Customer Guru, we believe that Customer Experience (CX) should be the number one priority for all the Indian businesses so that they become more sustainable and successful globally. Thus, we started the initiative of sharing a series of interviews of top-notch CX experts in India to spread this awareness. Our guest for this week is Mr. Ajay Nambiar, a leading CX enthusiast in India. We hope to inspire and guide more professionals in adopting and inculcating a customer-centric approach in their organizations.

Mr. Ajay Nambiar, currently working as the Customer Service & Facility Management Head at L&T Realty, and having worked with brands like ITC Sheraton, BPL US West, Sify, Yahoo, Holiday Inn, Mahindra Holidays and Emaar India, showcases executive leadership in Service Excellence and Business Operations. Owing to his expertise in Customer Experience Management, he has successfully executed various strategies and actions in order to set up customer-centric organizations across industries in India.

In this exclusive interview with Customer Guru, Mr. Nambiar shares his valuable tips that would give companies an opportunity to build brand affinity, loyalty, and tremendous value. He emphasizes on the fact that customer experience can be improved with the help of proactive communication by sensitizing the organization to the voice of the customers, regardless the industry one works in.

We invite our readers to comment and ask questions on similar challenges that they might be facing in their organizations when it comes to setting up systems and processes to deliver a great experience. This article is framed in a question-answer format; please feel free to share your feedback on the article too.

Is there an instance you recall where a good customer experience was able to mitigate a situation that could have otherwise resulted in a disaster?

There are a couple of such instances. Let me give you an example of how such untoward situations were mitigated when I was working with Mahindra Holidays. Typically, in a holiday company, the crunch really is holiday planning. There is a high possibility of a mismatch between the customers’ expectations and the experience that is delivered to them. The reason this situation arises is that we Indians plan our holidays closer to the travel date, unlike in the west. To overcome this challenge, the first important step that needs to be done is management of customer expectations. At Mahindra, we had done a lot of activities around building expectations using proactive communication, such as informing customers about the availability and the proximity of the resorts, sensitizing them towards the fact that the chosen season is absolutely appropriate for holidaying, and the like. We also went a step further and proactively organized holiday camps to facilitate our members’ holiday planning. In this specific context, exceeding customer expectations in hospitality is a bit different from doing so in non-hospitality. Instead of disappointing the customers after raising their expectations, it is necessary to deliver on the basic amenities that are promised, before WOWing them. So, a lot of customer expectations’ management helped us in planning these holidays successfully.

The real estate industry is, again, different. The customers put in their lifetime’s investment into building a property. However, the delivery of this happens four or five years later, even though customers pay close to 95% of the total amount at least 18-24 months before they are handed over the possession. It could further get delayed due to extraneous factors for another two to four years. Earlier, the developer of the property was the king, and not the person who invested in the property. We had to change this and thus, professionalize real estate, which we achieved to a large extent. At Emaar India, apart from consumerism, we realized the importance of proactive communication with the end consumers in order to improve their experience. To ensure this, we created a portal to keep them informed on the progress of the project, attaching photographs and other relevant self-service options and tools. We did this on the basis of our understanding as to why customers were taking time out of their schedules to visit our offices, and if we could leverage technology to offer them self-help, especially for basic transactions. This method was even replicated by other developers. I truly believe that within the operational limitations that one has, there is still plenty that can be done to foster trust and enhance the customers’ experience. However, with the government taking measures, such as the enforcement of the Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA), a lot of control has been brought in. But, this industry still has a way to go before reaching the stage of stability and uniformity in experience, as RERA has brought the developer and the customer to the table, but not the approving authorities.

Considering that real estate is becoming a regulated market now, what role do you think customer experience will play in this sector? How can brands provide good customer experience while aligning to RERA?

The RERA ensures two very critical factors for the customers – the investment is safe and the project is time-bound. It controls frivolity to a large extent and also brings everybody within the ambit of control. It acts as a self-monitoring mechanism, as the developers and builders have to disclose plans, approvals, and licenses frequently. In case of a default, the developers get penalized, leaving them with no choice but to try and deliver on time. Thus, the consumer is now more confident before investing. This eventually leads to transparency, resulting in increase in sales and cash flow for the developer, and a more reliable delivery timeline and quality for the end customer. As a result, the entire industry gets healthier. It is gradually becoming more consolidated, as it happened in other industries like the telecom industry, for example.

To explain this further, let me give you an analogy of running a marathon. It needs planning, practice, diet, discipline and core training. Real estate is like a marathon and requires a similar set of parameters for a project to be delivered successfully. RERA is the regulator that keeps a check on such factors. Typically, developers collect 95% of the payment in the beginning itself. But, with the enforcement of RERA, 70% of the money has to be deposited and can only be used for construction of the project. This ensures that the money is utilized wisely. Once the project is completed on time, the customer sees enough confidence that the property has been developed within the timeline committed and with little or no overruns or quality challenges.

What best practices would you recommend that would help brands to stay on top of what the customer wants throughout his journey?

In India, the communication between the developer and the consumer during construction is bare minimum. From the customers’ point of view, as the investment is for lifetime, they would want to be kept in the know at all important milestones of the project’s progress and notified in case of a delay. This being the case, a smart developer can actually build a complete ecosystem around the handover of the property, the experience that the customer should have after occupying the apartment, and the community that is built around it. This could result in the children of these customers becoming potential buyers in the future. Even in case where customers want to upgrade their lifestyle, the brand must ensure that it delivers such an experience that customers don’t have to do business with any other competitor.

Brands should spend 2-3% towards building a community of services, for instance, ‘The Walled Garden Service’, a concept which was adopted by AOL. To describe it in simple words, it means that within the walled garden of services that the company provides, the user will not want to go elsewhere as he receives all that he desires. This gives companies an opportunity to build brand affinity, loyalty, and tremendous value.

We still see that there’s a lot of push and pull between departments and between different stakeholders in prioritizing customer experience. How would you align stakeholders at your end?

It has been very tough to align stakeholders because, in most contexts, customer service and customer relations is nothing more than a functional department. Most of this has to be driven by the top management. So, every company needs a leader like Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos or Tony Hsieh, who can confidently say that customers will flock to buy a product/service that we build/provide. While real estate is highly skewed in this context, this is not how it is across industries. For instance, in the hospitality industry, employees across departments are aligned to the customers’ needs. What we do in hotels is that we get all department heads to talk to customers. It is not by invitation, but is mandatory. When the finance and HR department heads start talking and interacting with customers and the customers express how they feel, it makes a powerful impact. The involvement of each department head directly with the customer will lead to a lot of sensitivity across functions and percolate down the line, leading to a highly sensitive organization. Imagine a holiday/hospitality company hiring nurses to serve guests – they come pre-programmed with empathy and patience and are a great asset to a service economy.

Another example would be in real estate, where the architect prepares a design from an inside-out point of view. If he doesn’t check with the end customer, he will never know whether the design is even appropriate for the owner. It is the voice of customers that helps in making product/service-level changes.

What is your word of advice to companies that are looking to embark on this journey of customer experience?

If companies can put themselves in their customers’ shoes and keep questioning themselves, they will become more sensitive towards the experience that the customers receive. What I did at quite a few assignments was that I took away a lot of the transactions and empowered the customers through self-help that was device agnostic. I think technology helped wonderfully there. We stressed on leveraging technology to reduce transactions and focused only on relationships. This enabled us to empower our customers, and customers today want to do it all by themselves. They only want get back to you when they want a relationship. However, all this becomes a lip service if the customer-focused mindset doesn’t trickle down from the top.

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