The Zomato boomerang: To spit or to swallow - that is the question

It must have been the biggest nightmare to have a live video of one of your delivery boys actually opening up a food pack, partaking of its contents, re-arranging them, and closing the food pack again for delivery to an unsuspecting customer. Zomato took the hit right on the chin — with an explosive impact. Within minutes, social media was ablaze. So enormous was the inferno of disgust and hate that Zomato was forced to put out a statement on its blog against food tampering saying:

“Last night, we came across a video of a delivery executive in a Zomato t-shirt, carrying a Zomato delivery bag, eating food out of boxed orders and replacing each one after resealing them, back into the delivery bag. The video suggests that he consumed some of the food meant for delivery to users, on his way to the drop points.

We want our users, restaurant partners and all stakeholders to know that...

1. We take these kinds of reports extremely seriously and upon thorough investigation, we’ve found that the video was shot in Madurai. The person in the video happened to be a delivery partner on our fleet. We have spoken to him at length – and while we understand that this was a human error in judgement, we have taken him off our platform.

2. We would like to iterate that given our multiple communication channels with users, who expect the highest standards from Zomato and highlight the smallest of deviations to us as soon as they receive their orders, this is highly unusual and a rare case.

3. Unfortunately, this also highlights a real possibility for tampering with the food on the way to delivery from a restaurant. We take this very seriously and will soon introduce tamper-proof tapes, and other precautionary measures to ensure we add an extra layer of safeguard against such behaviour. Additionally, we will educate our delivery fleet of over 150,000 partners to highlight or escalate any such deviations to us, while also encouraging our users — the custodians of our platform — to highlight the smallest of anomalies to us.

food experience. We thank them and the strong support and trust from our restaurant partners, consumers and investors.

Zomato maintains a zero tolerance policy for tampering of food. This particular incident, while unfortunate, only makes our commitment to fleet training, scheduling and process even stronger. We stand behind our extensive fleet who do the right thing across many hours of the day.”

The reason I have reproduced above the entire Zomato perspective is because it raises a number of pertinent issues for debate.

1. The Zomato statement starts with a very ambiguous description of ‘Happened to be? Why the circumventing?

2. The act of opening up food packets meant for delivery, and the delivery boy partaking of its contents has been termed as ‘jootha, which has both connotations of bad hygiene and elements of wronged religious beliefs.

3. Zomato says, ‘users … expect the highest standards from Zomato and highlight the smallest of deviations to us as soon as they receive their orders’. Well, the user cannot be expected to know that the food packet has been pilfered unless a video like the present one surfaces and creates doubts. So, the onus of keeping up standards is on Zomato, and not the customer.

4. The proactive positive part of the Zomato statement is the promise that they ‘ education that will be required in terms of training, and values/ethics sensitisation, to a group of individuals who have perhaps no other visible skills apart from the ability to drive a two-wheeler at break-neck speed.

5. It is the bit in the statement about, ‘‘work very hard’ bit actually came back to bite Zomato. The temptation to fork out a bit of the contents from delivery boxes was seen as nothing but normal human behaviour when faced with acute hunger after long, long hours of work. Somehow, after the initial revulsion, social media started to support the delivery boy, sympathising with the long and ceaseless hours that these companies drive their so-called ‘delivery partners’, so much so that there are repeated references to slave-driving on social media. That of course is debatable but the tsunami of support for the delivery boy has surprised everyone, and I am sure Zomato, too.

Coincidently, Zomato’s rival Swiggy has been running a new campaign over the past few weeks. After its very successful IPL campaign with the old man eating the gulab-jamun, Swiggy for some reason decided to focus its new communication on its delivery partners and how they need recognition. This was of course well before the Zomato controversy.

The latest effort from Swiggy centres around how hundreds of thousands of Indians interact with Swiggy’s delivery ‘partners’ each day. These ‘partners’ (delivery boys) take unknown turns to reach unknown lanes to meet strangers with a smile on their face but remain unknown to consumers who just refer to them as ‘Swiggy’. Through the #WhatsInAName video, Swiggy endeavours to change consumer behaviour and bring more dignity to the job of its ‘hunger saviours’ by urging consumers to call the boys by their names. As I said before all of this was conceived, ideated and aired much before the Zomato episode.

I had my reservations about Swiggy’s new communication even when it first aired. I had written in a recent piece for The New Indian Express that I didn’t quite agree with Swiggy trying to use the ‘naming’ of the delivery boys as an advertising idea. Companies spend infinite amounts of monies to bring about standardisation in their product offering and their brand. The Swiggy delivery boy is part of that standardisation, in looks, in feel, in service. Getting to know him is really not important for the customer, unless of course Swiggy converts each delivery boy into a relationship manager wherein only that delivery boy will service that specific customer time and over again. Since every Swiggy delivery is randomly executed by a different delivery boy, just knowing that the Swiggy guy represents everything the company or brand stands for — infinite choice, timely delivery, and polite 24/7 service — is all that matters to the customer. Whether the boy is called Umesh or Umaid should not come into the equation.

Doing that is actually calling for trouble. There have been past reports on how Uber and Ola customers have for example objected to drivers from another religion and/or community driving them around. Similarly, memory is still fresh on how an Airtel customer refused service from a Muslim representative demanding instead to be catered by a Hindu.

To me the name of the Swiggy boy is an irrelevant detail. In fact, if you were to go by the experience of customer service centres and call centres of various brands globally, the service executives rarely, if ever, use their real names. They instead put out anglicised names like Peter or Tom or Jane to customers who ask. The brand they represent is all that matters in the conversation, not the identity of the agent.

The Zomato controversy has many lessons. First and foremost, with the explosive growth that the digital food service industry has had in the past few years, there are no standards, no guidelines on how the industry must train, certify and handle its workforce, especially the delivery boys. In fact, 99% of delivery boys across food service brands do not wear helmets and, through their rash driving, are actually responsible for a number of road accidents. We won’t even go so far as the education for ethical behaviour; I think classes in driving/bike riding and road safety are an even higher priority for these ‘delivery partners’.

Second, there have to be proper norms and proper tracking and proper auditing of the work hours and work conditions of these hunger saviours. Social media is full of stories of food delivered at 1:45 am to a customer with the delivery boy yet to make another couple of delivery stops before he can go home and have his dinner.

Three, while a lot of love and concern has been voiced by many on social media for these delivery boys, fact is not very many customers actually leave a tip for the same delivery boy while booking an order online, or physically hand him a few rupees while receiving their package. In the US, tipping is an intrinsic part of the service process and the service provider looks forward to that crucial income from his endeavours. In fact, working at a restaurant or bar is very, very common for students, purely because the tips are good and help pay their way through college. So, in India, all the social media noise-makers need to put their money where their mouth is — literally so.

Last, has the Zomato brand taken a hit? Well, yes and no. This controversy will be forgotten in the next few days. That we all know. Some customers may remember the Zomato promise of tamper-proof packing, some may not. But for the likes of Zomato or Swiggy or Foodpanda or similar others, the customer has been sensitised for all times to the perils of the food pack being pilfered. An important matter of trust has been exposed. And that really has been the biggest downer of this entire episode. Trust lost at infinite brand cost.

The author writes on a wide variety of marketing subjects

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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