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Why a Zomato customer service agent’s response kicked up a storm and what we can take away from it

The incident led to calls for a boycott of Zomato and CEO Deepinder Goyal’s tweet afterwards may not have helped.

Zomato

Zomato found itself in controversy after one of its customer service agents told a customer from Tamil Nadu that “Hindi is our national language” and “it is very common that everybody should know Hindi little bit.”

This was in response to a refund-related issue where the agent couldn’t communicate with the local restaurant partner because of the “language barrier” and the customer remarked, “if Zomato is available in Tamil Nadu they should have hired people who understand the language.”

The incident kicked up a storm in the southern state with thousands of people retweeting the above post and calling for a boycott of Zomato.

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Zomato fires agent, CEO Goyal rehires

As #Reject_Zomato started trending, the company responded by providing statements in English and Tamil apologising for the incident and saying that they terminated the agent in question. The company also added it was building a Tamil version of the app and was in the process of setting up a Tamil call/support center in Coimbatore.

A couple of hours later, Zomato Founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal took to Twitter to say that the company is reinstating the agent because “this alone is not something she should have been fired for.” Goyal further added that “our call centre agents are young people, who are at the start of their learning curves and careers.

But Goyal’s response to the incident led to another backlash because he also remarked that the “tolerance and chill in our country needs to be way higher than it is nowadays.”

Why is this issue so controversial?

The customer service agent’s cultural insensitivity and Goyal’s belittling of the issue were both not well received because the issue of language has always been a deeply political issue in Tamil Nadu and other southern states. There have been numerous agitations pre-and post-independence against the imposition of Hindi in the form of protests, riots, student movements, and political events. There were two large movements from 1937-1940, 1946-1950. And then again in 1965, 1968, 1986, and 2014. The result of these movements is that the Indian constitution does not declare Hindi as a national language and English continues to be an official language alongside Hindi despite numerous attempts to make it the sole official language. When you see the incident through the lens of this historical background, it makes more sense why the issue has created such an uproar.

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What we can take away from this incident?

Platforms like Swiggy, Zomato, Grofers, and Dunzo are rapidly expanding to cities across the country, but while their ground staff and restaurant partners are local, their customer service is often centralised or not in the states where they are serving. This presents a cultural and language gap when navigating customer concerns. India has around 22 scheduled languages and if an online-based platform is serving in regions where one of these languages are spoken, the customer expects someone from the company to be able to address their concern in that language, just like how a brick-and-mortar chain store like Dominos is expected to have a local manager who speaks the language.

And this isn’t just a concern for start-ups in India, global social media giant Facebook faces similar problems. As the recent SEC filings by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed, Facebook lacks adequate systems to moderate languages other than English. For example, in India, a number of controversial posts were not flagged because of the lack of Hindi and Bengali classifiers.

The Zomato incident serves an important lesson to other rapidly expanding platforms: invest in hiring agents who speak the local language and train your employees on cultural and political sensitivities. Notably, most of the criticism targeted at Zomato on Twitter was less against the customer agent and more towards the company and its CEO for not imparting the rights training.

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