There is a small grocery store in my home town in India. Run as a small business, the shop is always manned by two brothers. Opening at 9am and closing at 9pm, we always saw his shop full with customers.

I was in my teens and my mother would often ask me to get a few things as and when needed. Often her instructions would be like this:

“Check whether it’s the elder brother or younger. If it is the elder brother – just come back – don’t even bother”. I wondered why whenever I heard this.

Today, somehow I remembered this incident and I started looking deeper into the number of conversations and interactions I have had while shopping at this grocery store.

I remember that on numerous occasions, the younger brother would refuse to give me the items which I had asked for. As an Indian family, where spices rule our life, if I asked “Can I have 500 grams of cumin seeds?”, he would reply saying ‘Sorry, it is out of stock. Or it will be available after x number of days’. Occasionally I noticed that I could see cumin seeds right in front of my eyes in jars and I wondered why he was refusing to weigh them up and sell them to me.

I clearly remember, once walking to his store and it was a little crowded. I asked for something and he politely asked, “If I’d mind visiting after an hour or little later.”

Today, upon much pondering, I understood one important message.

He knew his customers intimately. He knew their choices, their expectations on quality and their approach while shopping.

When he refused to give me the cumin seeds, which were in stock – now I know why. He knew that my mother makes no compromise on quality. And sometimes cumin seeds will not be as clean or of high quality.

He simply knew his ‘main’ customer (i.e. my mother) and refused to deliver a sub-standard product, even though it was cheaper.

When he asked me to visit later, I realised that he wanted to give me his personal attention and simply to not conduct a transaction. It was some dry fruits and they needed to be packed in an airtight bag – it takes time.

He was aware that as a high value and quality conscious customer, service quality is important and he often would suggest new spices during our conversation to try and give us samples to take home for free.

Today, I realised, his elder brother, although he was also the owner, had very little engagement or relationship with us – and as a result, my mother simply refused to visit his shop when his younger brother wasn’t there.

Questions in my mind are:

  • Can today’s multi-million CRM systems really enable our employees to establish this level of understanding about their customers?
  • By reading notes on a client’s profile, can a call centre agent have engaging conversation?
  • Equally, can we, as a customer, have the patience to go after an hour when the shop is really busy?
  • Or, are we willing to disclose our relationships to suppliers when they would know us and our circles’ preferences and tailor their services according to our collective preferences?
  • Can this aspect of customer engagement and/or relationship be ever based on systems?

I have a view that Customer Engagement is a two-way thing. It takes two to tango.

Those customers who expect nothing but reduced price is one segment where you can log into any online portal or walk into any shop, pick the product and check out.

Then there is a segment, which looks for quality and service assurance. It requires communication, sharing of ideas, setting expectations, making promises and giving feedback. Real engagement can happen only when understanding between a customer and supplier is both ways.

I look forward to hearing your views.