Strengthening Customer Loyalty by Keeping It Real

Strengthening Customer Loyalty by Keeping It Real

In one of India’s bustling cities, a noonday war is being waged in the name of customer loyalty. On one side stands a cultural institution established in the twilight of Queen Victoria’s reign; on the other, an upstart that vows to “be the Uber for everything.” Recast these combatants as brands – first-mover against disruptor – and it becomes a challenge that most business communicators know well. How can a deeply traditional brand fend off the brash, new-tech challenger and still adapt appropriately to stay true to customers?


Lunchtime in Mumbai is show time for the dabbawalas, a Hindi word for “box carriers,” who deliver meals from their customers’ homes directly to them at work. It is a time-honored tradition that has been in place since 1890. The dabbawalas’ customers prefer food freshly prepared at home, typically by a family member, for reasons of taste, hygiene or dietary restrictions.

Starting at 9:00 a.m., about 5,000 dabbawalas fetch, personally deliver and promptly return by 6:00 p.m. about 150,000 lunch containers each day. Because many of the men are barely literate, they use a rudimentary color-coded tracking system painted on the containers to identify destinations. They adhere to strict train schedules that give them only a 40-second window to load each box lunch. The precious cargo is then transported into the city, where bicycles and pushcarts take over for the final leg to the customer. The roundtrip service generates an estimated 300,000 transactions daily.

A logistical marvel, the work is carried out by men who are members of tight-knit entrepreneurial groups as small as 25. In the midst of Mumbai’s teeming streets, their elegant choreography yields minuscule error rates that would make a Six Sigma Black Belt weep with joy. Prince Charles, Richard Branson and FedEx executives are among those who have studied the dabbawalas’ unique supply chain operations.


At the frontline of the food war with the dabbawalas are more modern deliverymen equipped with smartphones and motorbikes from competitor Scootsy. Businessman and Uber admirer Rishi Khiani has created a concierge-style, mobile application in which customers can read recommendations, make selections from 325 restaurants and put in their orders. He can track the performance via GPS data that is fed into his CRM platform.

Venture capital money has flowed into Scootsy and other online food delivery peers including iTiffin, HolaChef and FRSH, according to The Times of India. These Indian start-ups are applying the on-demand business model introduced by Uber, in which a complex operation is broken down into isolated functions to be more efficiently managed through a technology solution, such as an app or community platform.

For a monocultural business like the dabbawala operation, the Uberization of its marketplace could mean extinction.


Another traditional business in which technology has introduced new competition is in the manufacture of musical instruments.

The Zildjian Company, which has been making cymbals since the time of the Ottoman Empire, is the longest continuously operating business in the United States that is run by a family. Founded by an Armenian metalworker in Turkey 400 years ago to produce noisemakers for the imperial army, The Zildjian Company was established in America by descendants. There, the Zildjians discovered a new market for the cymbals at the dawn of the Jazz Age.

Today, maintaining the excellent standards of quality for products created using the family’s closely guarded metal alloy formula certainly remains a top priority. However, another one of Zildjian’s big advantages isn’t a secret: personalized customer service.

At a time when it is competing with digital percussion pads, the family behind the Zildjian is well aware that it must move apace with change. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, owner Craigie Zildjian emphasized the collaborative approach of her grandfather, who befriended jazz drummers such as Gene Krupa, Chick Webb and Papa Jo Jones. It was continued by her father, who developed the company’s artist relations practice. She explained: “Today, we continue the tradition of bringing artists into the plant so our R&D manager and marketing people can meet directly with them. We also take employees into stores so they can see customers buying Zildjians—and the competition. Careful listening is part of our corporate strategy.”

Gift of Gemba

Zildjian’s description of the close relationship between a business and its customers, where people can interact with each other at the places and moments where value is realized, is a key principle of lean manufacturing and business quality management called “Gemba.”

In Japanese, Gemba means “the real place.” The Gemba Walk, or “going to the Gemba,” is a way to overcome organizational blindness to small, intimate but impactful actions that can occur in large-scale operations.

For example, Mary Vermeer Andringa, CEO of heavy equipment manufacturer Vermeer Corporation, realized that, in her drive to reduce inventory with a more efficient manufacturing process, she had missed a flaw in the supply chain. Vermeer’s B2B customers, industrial dealers, informed her that they weren’t getting the equipment they needed in time to convert into sales. She knew a Gemba Walk was needed, and directed Vermeer managers to investigate the problems on site, at the point of sale with distributors. They subsequently identified reasons, such as Vermeer’s own policies and the threat of bad weather delays on deliveries, that were causing dealers to place unnecessary orders to stockpile equipment.

Business communicators can contribute to better awareness of customer journeys by developing internal programs that encourage managers to leave their offices and identify problems through personal observation. Whether it’s the shop floor of a manufacturing plant or the reception area where a food delivery is made, the places where value is recognized must be respected as integral to communications and business strategy planning.

One Experience at a Time

For all their bravado, some tech-based challengers may be missing their Gemba. Although transactional efficiencies such as speed and cost savings may be gained, customer loyalty still must be earned one real experience at a time.

“It’s a big feat even to retain customers for three months,” admitted iTiffin CEO Tapan Kumar Das, who promotes healthier options for more sophisticated Indian palates with his mobile food delivery service, according to the Times of India.

The dabbawalas’ customer relationships are built on a promise they hold sacred: to deliver food on time. Their personal commitment runs deep because many of their customers rely on home-prepared meals to satisfy strict religious dietary requirements. The dabbawala network imposes a no-poach rule for customers out of respect for the long relationships forged by deliverymen who have stayed in the same location for decades.

Keeping It Real

As modernity encroaches on their legacy business ecosystems, traditional brands that stay close to customers can uncover opportunities to grow and compete against new challengers in ways that are relevant to their mission and the marketplace.

For example, as more Indian women enter the workforce, fewer of them are at home cooking the meals that dabbawalas deliver. As a result, an association organized to help dabbawalas fund their bicycle purchases or pay for funeral costs is also looking into new partnerships to deliver meals from local restaurants.

However, they draw the line at starting their own kitchens because it takes away from their focus on their “real place,” where deliveries take place with each customer.

By keeping it real, dabbawalas hope to preserve their Gemba – and customer loyalty – for many more generations.

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    In her role as Senior Vice President of Marketing, Mary curates the G&S brand experience to make an impact with audiences who influence the agency’s growth. Mary directs the agency’s marketing strategy that spans its digital and social media properties, branded research and live events, news coverage and special services. She is the co-author of the firm’s annual Sense & Sustainability® Study and executive producer of its portfolio of business and media conferences for senior communicators. Before joining G&S in 2008, Mary was SVP, corporate communications, and managing officer at Medialink Worldwide, a multimedia content and technology provider whose Nasdaq-listed IPO she helped to launch and grow to $180 million in market capitalization. She is a columnist and an Advisory Board member of PR News, and a member of the Public Relations Society of America and its Silver Anvil Awards judging panel. Mary received her B.S. in general studies with a specialization in visual design from Drexel University. Combining her art training and entrepreneurial skills, Mary grows businesses by applying purposeful creativity.


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