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09 September 2011

Airtel fails

AFTER A mortifying experience last week with one of India’s largest mobile telephone companies, I have decided that Airtel is no longer capable of commitment and transformation.

The most loyal customers demand—and deserve—a higher desire: commitment, which Airtel has shown me is unable to provide.

When I requested for international mobile roaming (IR) service on the eve of my departure for the United States last 31 August, Airtel’s 121 hotline advised me that it was impossible to do so as my new SIM card was barely three months old. (I had to acquire a new card when I returned to Mumbai in June.) It was inconceivable to travel without connectivity, so I pleaded for the roaming service on two counts: that the card was shy of one week to meet the qualifying grade, and that I had been a loyal user of their various products—from landline to data card—for the past five years. After 45 minutes of pleading and heated debate, the 121 agent finally gave me an option: pay an advance fee of Rs5,000 (USD100) for the roaming service. I managed to find an Airtel Relationship Centre on the way to the airport that night and proceeded with the payment. I also requested my former relationship manager in Kolkata, the ever-effective Suvojit Seal, to help facilitate the activation process.

Apparently, Mr. Seal’s intervention worked, as I received an SMS indicating IR activation shortly before boarding my flight. The euphoria proved to be short-lived, though. Several hours later, upon landing in transit in Hong Kong, I received an SMS announcing deactivation of roaming.

Confused, and without an international phone service at the Hong Kong airport, I managed to e-mail my sister based in Switzerland to SMS Mr. Seal about the situation. I also tweeted and sent a Facebook message to Airtel. What followed was one of the most incredible experiences that I have had to endure. On landing in the United States, I bought an expensive US prepaid SIM card to stay connected. I kept awake at two o’clock in the morning of 2 September to accommodate a service phone call from an India-based company. I struggled in vain to talk to a senior officer and understand why I had to wait for another day for the activation to finally take place.  Ultimately, the same phone conversation disconnected itself halfway through.

I sent angry tweets, Facebook messages, and emails to Airtel about this unresolved situation. Airtel’s responses were mechanical, to say the very least. In disgust, and eventually in distress, I decided not to pursue a resolution.

Imagine the wicked irony at the base of all this: a telephonic service that does not allow conversation.

On 5 September, Airtel finally activated the IR service—five full, unrewarding days after my initial request. To add insult to injury, Airtel deactivated the GPRS facility, so I could call, but I could not use my smartphone. Worst, I have not received a formal apology despite all the written and oral conversations, leading me to think that the company may have deemed the aggravations petty.

Airtel has failed to realize that in today’s astoundingly changing and competitive landscape, meeting customer satisfaction is no longer enough; in fact, it is merely expected. The most loyal customers demand—and deserve—a higher desire: commitment, which Airtel has shown me is unable to provide.

I have spent five years and hundreds of thousands of rupees as a loyal customer to this phone company. Airtel fails, and my evangelism for them ends.

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