We had our first customer town hall yesterday at the NextDrop offices in Hubli. Completely unexpected and unplanned, it turned out to be the most memorable day in my not entirely uneventful life at NextDrop. First things first. The premise: Under the aegis of the Hubli Dharwad Water Board, NextDrop has been shortlisted for the National Urban Water Awards. A committee from the Administrative Staff College of India was slated to conduct a field visit on the 22nd of June. As it was eagerly awaited, we had prepared in all earnestness for the visit.
We thought it would be good to invite a few customers to the office. Going to the field and trying to locate houses of customers can be quite tiring despite geotags. So, I asked Anjana to call about 10 customers and organize lunch for them. As Anjana started calling – we should have realized then. It was fairly easy to get them to agree to come to the office at 1 pm on Saturday. Feeling well prepared, I left for Bangalore for a day. When I returned, QJ told me that they had sent the last 100 people, who had paid a NextDrop bill, an SMS inviting them for lunch at the office and asking them to confirm by giving us a ‘missed call’. Watch out eventbrite, that’s how future events will receive RSVPs. In the first 15 minutes of the message being sent, about 15 people confirmed.
Thus, the appointed day arrived. The plan – first a presentation at the Water Board office, then we bring the committee to the office to see operations, meet the valvemen and customers. As we entered the office, the committee and the utlity engineers in tow, we were welcomed by the sight of 6 customers already waiting for us. It was 1.05 pm. I have never seen this kind of punctuality from indian customers before.
The committee introduced themselves and explained to the group that they were here to check whether a service like NextDrop even existed, if it did, was it accurate and finally how did the customers benefit from it. Even before he finished, one of the customers spoke. “I receive messages late. Sometimes I receive water at 7 and the message at 8. That should not be, right?” My heart sank. May be they are all here to complain how they have not been receiving good service. “Do you always receive incorrect messages?” The utility engineer asked. “No No. Only sometimes. I find the service extremely useful. It is of great benefit to us.”
Meanwhile, about 5 more customers had arrived, some along with their spouses. What followed was a chorus of resounding thumbs up for the service. One customer said, “This is a very good service. I can’t believe it is only Rs. 10 a month. I would subscribe to the service even if they raised prices.” Several other customers agreed. One of them was in Bangalore when he received a message that his water supply was about to commence. He immediately called his neighbour to shut off his tap. Others said they used to the service to conserve water as well. Now, they didn’t have to leave their taps on. As the discussion started to move into high gear, more customers showed up. By 1.30 pm, we had about 17-20 customers in the office.
Enter valvemen – 3 of Hubli’s finest. They took stage and gave a detailed answer on how they receive far less number of calls inquiring about water supply since they started sending notifications to NextDrop and how they use the IVR system. Upon proding, they even introduced themselves and were rewarded with a big round of applause from the customers as well as their Water Board bosses.
After hearing just the first few remarks from customers, the committee was convinced that the service was of incredible help to citizens. I think they saw how strongly customers felt for the service. In fact, soon discussion turned to the issues of 24×7 water supply being piloted in 10% of the city. Customers debated whether the system was really required. One couple noted that if they were supplied water even for an hour reliably with a decent pressure, they wouldn’t want 24×7 supply. The committee members enumerated some benefits of continuous water supply to a rapt audience. It was incredible to see how deeply citizens thought and cared about water issues in the city. They were very well informed about the current state of affairs and wanted more information from the utility.
As the flow ebbed for a second, I took my opportunity and asked the question that has been haunting me for a while. “What would it take for you to recommend the service to your friends and family.” After such a comprehensive vote of confidence to our services, I thought this would be easy. They would tell me, we are already doing that or we would be happy to. And here is where I was laughably wrong. There was a pause and I noticed several heads shaking. Then one of them stated conclusively, “That is not our job.” “Yes, that is your job, you go door to door and tell people about the service. We are not going to do this.” another agreed. Taken aback, I wondered why not? “For 2 reasons, one, as soon as I recommend the service, people are going to wonder what is in it for me; and two, if for some reason they don’t get good service, they will bite my head off.” “However, if you send your people, or organize a similar event in my neighbourhood, I would be happy to testify about the quality and usefulness of the service”. In one fell swoop, my customers had told me that they are extremely hardnosed but they love the service.
Finally, as lunch was being served, customers asked us how many customers we had. 5000. That is not nearly enough to sustain yourself. We want the service to go on. You should raise your prices, one suggested. Another went as far as saying it should be made compulsory for everyone in the city. Have you expanded to the entire city yet? May be the Water Board should pay you for this service, one said looking more at the utility engineer than us.
The feedback of the day came from a lady (most probably a housewife) who remarked, ” Now I am free to go anywhere I like!” It took me a moment to absorb what she meant. There it was. Proof beyond an iota of doubt – we had made an impact. NOTHING, has made me happier than hearing that being said. The fact that we have been able to eliminate this uncertainty from the lives of people is the ultimate validation that what we do, matters. What other 10 rupee service would elicit such passionate feedback from you, that you would spend half your Saturday with the company, that you would brainstorm with them – ideas to stay afloat and expand! Our customers love our service and they want us to expand and improve, to succeed. Enough said.