Monday, August 31, 2015

My Indian ecommerce experience: When rubber fails to meet the road!

There is a tremendous amount of hype over India’s homegrown eCommerce startup and incubator culture. Many are attracting venture capital and partnership proposals, some are tying up with larger, more established global firms, while some are dreaming of growing up organically. There is also an emerging sub-segment of innovators developing IS/IT ‘tools’ catering to other startups, a niche within a niche!

Living in America, working for a multinational, I generally get my inputs on these developments from fellow Digirati and articles in the media. During a recent trip ‘back home’ to visit my parents, I got to engage in conversations with friends and former colleagues, some of whom had left the comfort of a steady paycheck to explore and experiment with hi-tech startups. It was also an opportunity to ‘experience’ their services first-hand.

One such experience with the much-hyped startup OlaCabs stood out for me. The on-demand cab service, Ola, touts itself as India’s answer to Uber.  “Ola started as an online cab aggregator in Mumbai, now based out of Bangalore and is among the fastest growing businesses in India” - Wikipedia.

Here is a summary of my experience of Ola’s service – the good and the bad.

The Application: Registration and onboarding

The registration and onboarding process is seamless. All one requires is a smartphone with internet/Wifi, to download and use the App. After downloading and registering the cellphone and email-id, one is good to go.

As a technologist, I get to use a wide variety of applications on different devices. My first impression: the mobile App is easy to download and use.  The application is slick, and easy to use, and recognizes one’s location. To book a cab, the user is given just a few options - the way it should be – and the App uses the cellphone location data to identify the user’s current location.

The service experience: Could be better!

While traveling to Bangalore, I generally pre-book a cab from a local taxi service. The guy has a few cars and drivers on call, who are generally available, and has been reliable and economical for years. The process is neither hi-tech nor digital. Just walk up to the Taxi-wallah, give him my phone number, pickup time and preference on the kind of car I want, agree on the rate and I am good to go.
The hype over the online service and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends prompted me to try Ola. What could go wrong? My parents live in central Bangalore area and I could always fallback on other cabs if my Ola-experiment didn’t work out.

I planned to book a cab to the Bangalore airport for 9.30 am, the following day. I figured this would give us adequate time to get to the airport and check-in with baggage for a 12 pm flight. While booking a “ride later,” the App does not provide an option to select a car size. That morning, I got an SMS message that a ‘mid-size’ Mahindra Verito, license plate XYZ would be arriving. At about 9.15 am the driver called and said he was in front of our house and I came out of the house with our bags. The driver looked at the luggage and said only one of the two suitcases would fit in the trunk and he couldn’t take the other one in the vacant seat up front or the luggage rack on top. He didn’t want to negotiate an extra baggage fee and just left, leaving my wife and I scratching our heads. To say I was irked by the lack of courtesy or customer service would be an understatement: didn’t the guy know that passengers going to the Airport would have luggage? What would the customer do if he left them stranded?

Time was beginning to run out and I was really glad I had left a buffer for my maiden Ola-experiment. My parents, whom I was visiting were amused, and began prodding me to make a switch and call the local Taxi stand.

Undeterred, I decided to continue with the Ola experiment.

I decided to use the App again, selecting the “Ride Now” option. Interestingly, this option allows the user to view available Cabs of different sizes in the vicinity, showing approximate time. I looked up a “large SUV” that was about 15 minutes from our house and decided to book it. The Ola App confirmed my request and promptly gave me the cab guy’s name, make of car (Tata Innova) and the driver’s cell-phone number. Within a couple of minutes, I got a call from the driver who confirmed my location and also confirmed that he could take us with the luggage to the airport.

The cab arrived promptly and the guy even helped pick up and load the suitcases and drove us to the airport. At the airport, he said the distance – from home to airport - calculate by Ola app was a bit off and would I be willing to make up the difference. Having arrived on time, I obliged, including a tip on top.

Bottomline: It’s all about Service, Stupid!

The Ola experience made me reflect on service management. At the end of the day, the customer is paying for the service: a cab that arrives promptly, a driver who is courteous and responsive and gets the customer from A-to-B.

An App is just a tool, an enabler that the customer isn’t paying for. A slick, easy to use mobile app is really useless without a world-class service to go with it.

Ola, and its competitors must remember the market. If a single driver turns out to be unresponsive, the word-of-mouth and reviews on social media can drown the tremendous amount of hard work that goes into engineering and developing a service! And in a market like India, the competition is not just another online service, but the ubiquitous call-taxis, autos and other modes of transport that are easily accessible!

End-note: Would I be willing to use Ola again in the future? For me, it has been a hit-and-miss experience with Indian eCommerce. For my next trip, I will probably stick to hailing local cabs or walking up to the local taxi-guy!

(Repost from LinkedIn Pulse)