"Absurd Customer Service" - Part 1, The Problem

Over a series of several occasions last year, I experienced the absurdity rife in modern customer service. I don’t think that things have always been like this. Customer service was a pain and you would often by stuck on 30 minute phone calls trying to explain your situation to the other person. But there was a person at the other end. And after those grueling 30 minutes, they would understand your situation and do something to rescue you from it. My experiences did not conform to this pattern. It looks like this problem is widespread enough to warrant feature articles in magazines.1 Indeed, in all the cases that I encountered, the problem was eventually resolved in a miraculous and bizarre fashion; with my interventions seemingly making no impact on the course of things. My experiences were with multiple businesses and in different industries: telecom, banking, and retail. But I think that there are some common trends which can be pinpointed. These trends have made the experience of “reaching out to customer support” in India a painful and exasperating experience. In this, the first of a 2 part series, I briefly recount my experiences. Hopefully, the reader has not been through similar experiences and can read them simply as an amusing recounting of events that will never happen to them.


In my experience with the Telecom industry, I wanted to switch plans for a mobile phone connection from Postpaid to Prepaid. This is a routine process and any business worth their salt will be careful to establish a well-defined process which can be followed by all the people working at its brick-and-mortar stores. The business in question was Airtel. Airtel is one of the largest players in the telecom business in India and they have been around for a while. So, I did not expect any issues at all. But despite multiple visits to a physical store, the process was simply not getting done.

The clerks at the store had no clue about what was going on. They were sitting in front of a computer screen and reading out the errors that were being shown to them on the screen. Indeed, their presence was merely aesthetic as they seemed to add neither warmth nor value to the communication I was having with the computer. All of this went up a notch when, in a burst of frustration, I called Airtel’s customer service line 121.

The menu of options is confusing, beyond belief. The main purpose of this menu seems to be to drive the user away from the phone to the app store and to get them to install the “Airtel Thanks” mobile application2. Ironically, the reason I was calling the customer service line was because I had already lodged a complaint through the mobile application. However, this complaint seems to have disappeared into the vast ether of the universe because I could not get it in the list of complaints on the same app. I did not receive any other communication about this complaint either.

On the phone, after having listened to endless automated voice guidance read out in a sooth voice that is not at all representative of the listener’s frustration and after delving through some of the options and repeated ventures down the incorrect road, I figured out how to get to a human. The customer service line is not staffed with many people. So, often, there are long waits before you get connected to a human being. This wait generally lasts a few minutes, minutes that one can productively use to contemplate the futility of their efforts in a universe that has been around for billions of years and will continue unchanged for billions more.

At the end of this wait, I was connected to a person whose official designation I believe was “Customer Service Executive Extraordinaire Emeritus.” In typical corporate jargon fashion, this title is meaningless and serves only to divert you from the exceptionally bad service you will soon receive. After explaining what I wanted to achieve to the person on the other end of the line, she told me straight away that there was nothing she could do. The only people who could help were the people at the physical stores. So, her counsel was to simply return to the store. Somehow this conversation would affect the scheme of things and when I next return to the store, the people there would be able to achieve what on 3 prior excursions they had failed miserably at. I wondered if this customer service agent is a believer in a religious sect where doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the central tenet.

Seeing as she could not help with my original goal, I figured that I might as well lodge a complaint about the store where the clerks seemed to be uninformed about the process and uninterested to check the operation manual, which I am sure they … Well, Airtel probably did not issue them with a operation manual. My naive belief was that Airtel would want to know about the bad experiences their customers were having. What happened right after this convinced me that they did not have any such desire.

I told her that I would like to file a complaint about an Airtel store. She asked me for the address. I told her the address. She was unable to find it. I spelled it out. She was still unable to find it. I sent her a pigeon that had a note tied to its legs with the secret code that she needed to enter into her computer to find the store. I guess the pigeon reached her because she was then able to find it. Alas, this was useless. I am not exaggerating here. It was literally completely useless that she had been able to find the store. To prove my point, here’s the conversation that followed:

Me: Yes, I would like to lodge a complaint about that store.

Customer Service Representative: I see. You will have to visit the store to do that.

M: Um … really?

CSR: Yes

M: Well, that doesn’t make sense. Can you put in a note for someone to check with the store manager and see why the clerks there don’t know the procedure and whether they can learn the new procedure?

CSR: We can’t contact the store directly


CSR: We are unable to contact the store directly.

M: What do you mean?

CSR: We are unable to contact the store directly.

… the conversation continued in this vein for a few more lines. Then,

CSR: Well, if you want us to talk to the store manager, then there is an option.

M: Oh, what is it?

CSR: You can go to the store, call 121 from your phone, and connect to a customer service representative. When you are connected, you can ask someone at the store to talk directly with us.

M: Um, okay. Thank you. (I guess?)

So, that’s what happened. In summary, Airtel is a telecommunications business which provides mobile connectivity to hundreds of millions of people. It has stores across the vast landscape of India. These stores have managers and others working there. Airtel has no way of contacting the stores directly. Indeed, there seems to be little or no contact between Airtel and the store, except through the computers that are sitting in front of every single person at the store.

After all this, all I could do was laugh at the absurdity of what I had experienced. I felt much like what I imagine Kierkegaard must have felt like when he said:

As I grew up I opened my eyes and saw the real world and I began to laugh and I have not stopped since.

P.S. We were able to switch the mobile number from Postpaid to Prepaid by visiting a different store and following a procedure that we had heard about more than 3 years ago. The people at this other store also had no idea about this procedure and did not inform us about it or that this was the procedure to follow. Airtel’s consistency is worth appreciating.


My second experience was with the banking industry. This case was slightly more complex. When my credit card was renewed, I was sent a new one. It was sent to my home address in India. There is no limitation in India that the credit card must be collected by the person whose name is printed on the card. It can be collected by anyone at the household, as long as they are in the correct address. As my family was still living at my home address, I believed that there would be no problems in receiving the credit card. That was a huge mistake. HUGE.

As it turned out, this time around, the card was dispatched from the bank’s central dispatching center. It was sent via courier, which is very common. My home address is in a city and it is very accessible. Delivery people from most courier companies come to my neighborhood daily.

After the first delivery attempt was logged as “Door locked,” at a time that I had already confirmed people were indeed present at the house, I sensed that something fishy was afoot. I wish I could say here that I was able to foresee what the problem was and fix it instantly.

While it is not uncommon for delivery people in India to fill in “Door locked” as a reason for not delivering packages without even visiting the home where they are supposed to deliver it, it is not common enough to be the first thing that one suspects. On further inspection of the scant details I could get from a ghastly tracking page for this courier company (You have not heard about it.), I realized that the contact number on the package was my mobile number; a number on which I was unable to receive calls. My guess was that the delivery person was calling the phone number on the package. On not being able to reach the phone number, they decided that the recipient was definitely not at home and probably dead. So, they understandably filled out “Door locked” as the reason for not delivering the package.

First, I tried to contact the courier company’s customer service. They had no phone line. (Their website had been wiped of any mention of contact or phone numbers by a highly trained team of web developers.) There was a single email ID which they apparently wished all their customers to contact them on. An email to this address elicited a quick response.

Subject: Re: Delivery person did not come to my home (Tracking ID: [REMOVED])

Dear Sidharth,

We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience.We are forwarding this case to the team and assure you of expeditious closure.

Along with this, we have forwarded the request to deliver the shipment on priority and will try to deliver it at the earliest.

In addition to this, we have forwarded the alternative number([REMOVED]) to the team. Meanwhile, we request you to contact the merchant([REMOVED]) to update the contact number.

Best Regards

[Name] Customer Experience [Courier Company]

The content of this email was encouraging. It sounded like someone had read my email, understood my situation, and taken some action. This basic requirement of a “human response” was satisfied! But, as the astute reader might have guessed, this was not to be. My credit card remained undelivered.

The first package was returned to sender after 3 failed attempts due to the spurious reason “Door Locked.” The package was sent out a second time with the same courier company, and the whole dance was repeated one more time. Realizing that my interventions were futile and could serve to only hurt my well being, I decided to lay-off for a period of time and not say anything.

After the package was returned to sender a second time, there were no updates. The bank had contacted me to say that they had been unable to contact me at my address. However, what they really meant was that they had called me and I had not picked up. Curiously, the bank did not include any information about how I might contact them. Seeing as they could not reach me on my phone number, the logical step would be to provide another means of contact. Well, logical to me. To the bank, who knows. Maybe they believe that a person’s identity should be confirmed by only their ability to answer phone calls. Perhaps they have done extensive studies and conducted multiple security audits and concluded that while people engaging in identity theft might be able to physically impersonate another person or enter the victim’s home and receive packages on their behalf, most identity thieves were never able to answer phone calls on behalf of the victim.

In a last ditch attempt, I emailed the general customer support email address of the bank. I told them that the delivery company they were using did not have coverage in my area and that they should use another company. (I might as well try something new as my original story seemed to have no traction with any Customer Service Representative.) This email did not elicit a response. There was an automated response which assigned me an incomprehensibly long “case number.” I wonder why they bother issuing these case numbers. And I wonder why these case numbers are so long. Are they really dealing with billions of customer service cases? Is that not a sign of dysfunction in and of itself?

After a few days, one fine evening, I received an SMS on my contact number saying that the credit card will be delivered to my home in 30 minutes by a different courier company. I had done nothing to trigger this change in courier company. Indeed, about 30 minutes later, the package was delivered. Here again, the bank’s belief in mobile telephony was reinforced! When the person arrives at the door to deliver your package, an SMS is sent to you with a 2-Factor Authentication code. If you are unable to provide this code to the delivery person, you are not you. Of course, it follows that if you are able to provide this code, you must be the intended receiver. *Why believe in government documents that establish your ID when you have a mobile phone capable of receiving text messages?*


My final set of examples is from retail. It is a well known fact that retail jobs are the worst of the bunch because store clerks have to often deal with adults without emotional regulation, prone to fits at the register, offloading on the poor person standing behind the register. So, my empathy for people in these jobs is quite high. However, the capitalist machinations operate these people have made them do some very strange things.

The first instance was at a cafe inside a mall. After buying something, I went to the register to pay. There the clerk told me that they did not accept cash; that they accepted only credit or debit cards. While the inverse of this is something that most people might have experienced, I had never experienced anything like this. After a few seconds of being surprised by this strange request, I told him that I did not have a card of any sort and that cash was all I had. At this point, another person working at the cafe came to his side, and they conferred briefly. After this, he said that he would be happy to accept cash and opened the register. What do I see inside the register but … paper money?!?! Why did the people who run this cafe start this absurd campaign to accept anything but cash, when their register was clearly stocked and cash is recognized legal tender across the country? I can not say; I can not even imagine a case in which this would make sense. Maybe they like to pay the 3% service charge that companies like Visa and MasterCard charge for the trouble of facilitating credit cards and operating a large network.

The second instance of retail absurdity is really many instances of the same experience. Whenever you buy anything and go to pay for it, the likelihood of being asked for your mobile number is high. I think, in current day metropolitan India, it is basically 100%. Across a wide variety of shops selling clothes, footwear, and food, I was asked for my phone number at almost every turn. Being rather adamant about not sharing my phone number, I have caused lines to form behind me as I try to convince the person at the register that I don’t want another random human being to have to call me and tell me about the availability of money that I will never borrow or insurance that I will never buy. I explain to them how it will waste both of our times and how the activity of entering my phone number into the computer screen wastes the cashier’s time.

This phone number requirement in daily life has reached absurd proportions now. On a recent trip to a mall parking lot, the age-old parking slip had been replaced by … you guessed it … a mobile number. Every vehicle parked inside the parking lot did have a registration number. But once again, the mobile phone seems to have superseded the vehicle’s unique registration number as an identifier for the vehicle! Absurdly enough, the phone number was collected at entry and at exit by a person. It was not used to speed up the process or reduce the number of people who staffed the parking lot. I tried to provide the person with an arbitrary mobile number. This worked, so long as I remembered the mobile number when I exited the parking lot. So, the question I had after the experience was, why change something which gives you neither a monetary benefit nor an improved experience?3 Well, perhaps, customer service absurdity has warped the minds of executives at the top of these companies enough that they don’t even recognize that they are inside a capitalist society anymore.

  1. A cursory search for this problem lead me to this article from 2019 that tries to persuade businesses to use technology to connect customers with humans, rather than with computers. 

  2. That is the real name of the app. 

  3. I am being frivolous here by suggesting that the collection of mobile numbers does not have monetary benefits. There are reports of companies which build up databases of names and phone numbers and sell them to cold calling firms which will use the database to sell loans / products etc. Surely, the mall earns more from the patronage of a returning customer than from selling a phone number database?