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DISPATCH FROM MUMBAI

Comment card? More like a feedback frenzy

In India's booming service industry, customer opinion is king. Not responding is not an option.

August 27, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

mumbai, india -- The best consultants money can buy may have helped the Indian government come up with the phrase "Incredible India" for its current tourist campaign. But there are moments while traveling across this chaotic, colorful land when a tourist might wonder whether a more appropriate slogan would be: "How're we doing?"

In India, the comment card is king.

You're probably used to the ubiquitous opinion cards that greet hotel guests as they drop their bags on the bed. The kind of questionnaire that is ignored, swept into the wastebasket.

But that's not so easily done in India. Here you are more likely to be pursued by a hotel staff member urging you to pass judgment on his performance.

"Please, just a moment to tell us your thoughts, sir," said the man who brought a comment card along with the beer I'd ordered beside the hotel pool in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta.

"It would be very helpful if you could fill out the opinion card, sir," said the too-lively waiter who brought room-service coffee to wake me up before an early morning flight. "I have also brought you some special cookies from our bakery." Big smile. "Would you fill out the card, sir?" An awkward pause as I tried to dodge, mumbling, ". . . No pen . . . later."

"I could wait," he said.

"No" is just not an answer. In a rush to check out of the Oberoi Hotel here, I told the cashier I didn't have time to fill out the satisfaction card that accompanied my bill.

She thrust it at me anyway. "Mail it to us," she said.

Days later, when a completed form was clearly not coming back, I got an e-mail signed by P.R.S. Oberoi, the chairman himself, urging me to spare two or three minutes of my valuable time to fill out the online version.

It's not just Indian hotels. Feedback forms have become fixtures for airlines and finer restaurants. At the crowded, cacophonous departure lounge at Kolkata's airport, a huge wooden suggestion box now sits in the middle of the hall, pleading for comments. (Where to begin?)

Seeking feedback is not entirely new for India. But the enthusiasm with which it is pursued may be a small, unscientific hint of the awakening Indian economic giant we hear so much about.

State-run airlines never cared much what you thought about how they brought the food tray. At Indian Airlines, a state-owned carrier being merged with state-owned Air India, you have to seek out the comment cards yourself.

"We place them in the cabin for any passengers wishing to make a complaint," says Ashok Sharma, Indian Airlines' general manager of public relations. "We don't push them on people."

But Jet Airways is a hungry, consumer-friendly carrier, part of the new India. A decade after India's nationalized industry was opened to private competition, Jet has become India's biggest domestic airline, its website slogan asking: "Remember what service used to be like?"

I've now taken two Jet Airways flights. On both I was among the many passengers handed a comment card, which the attendant dutifully showed up a few minutes later to collect.

And this was no quick survey. Jet wanted to know how I'd booked the tickets and how efficient the process was (pretty smooth, actually). It had the usual questions about the quality of the in-flight meal. (Sorry, like Earth's rotation, there are constants of nature.) But they also asked about the check-in process and whether the greeting was friendly and whether the staff was pleasant.

Another newcomer is Kingfisher Airlines, which bills itself as a luxury carrier largely on the basis of its rudimentary in-flight entertainment programs. My flight from Kolkata to Mumbai opened with a video greeting from Chairman Vijay Mallya, a big hitter in Indian business, telling us we weren't just passengers on his plane, we were "guests." If there were any problems, we were to let him know personally by e-mail.

Just to be sure we had a chance to express ourselves, Kingfisher flight attendants handed out a form as well. Called "the Good Times Monitor," it asked about a wide variety of things, such as the suitability of the cabin temperature and the clarity of the on-board announcements (a very good question, and I've never known where to go with my complaints about them before).

It concluded by asking, "Did we delight you?" and gave us a chance to thank any member of the crew who particularly delighted us.

These surveys should not be taken lightly. Jobs are at risk. A former flight attendant in Mumbai told me that the company takes the feedback very seriously, especially concerning crew members who receive complaints. But employees also can also receive cash bonuses if they are mentioned approvingly by name, she said.

Ah, I thought. That explains the female flight attendant who paused after handing out the comment card to tell me I had "nice eyes." Kingfisher's Mallya writes in the airline magazine that feedback from passengers is "vital to our success." Vital!

So I finally found myself taking the time to provide a little thoughtful feedback. I dutifully filled out the airline forms. And after three days of chasing me with questionnaires, staffers at the Hyatt Regency Delhi wore me down with their endless requests to hear how they were doing.

As I checked out, with a taxi idling and the clock ticking down for my flight, I finally succumbed to the form that the cashier pushed across the counter at me.

Too late, I realized it wasn't a questionnaire that would have allowed me to swiftly tick off some boxes. This form was nothing but a sheet of lined paper, with room for about a 500-word essay.

I sighed, picked up a pen and in a few words told the manager what a determined staff he had. I signed and sealed it, and turned to go.

Around me, the staff were watching. They beamed approvingly.

--

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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