Gatekeeping As a Service

Over the years I've realized that some of the best ephiphanies and ideas come to you when you're not wearing your startup entrepreneur hat. Like today morning for instance.

My 4-year old woke up with a pretty bad ear ache so I decided to book an appointment with his doctor, Dr.Jagdish Chinnappa, easily one of the two most-trusted paediatricians in Bangalore (the other one being Dr.Arvind Shenoy). Unfortunately I had lost the clinic's number after an incident a few weeks ago upgrading (and then downgrading) Cyanogenmod on my phone. Never mind, I thought, Googling his contacts should take a minute.

The very first link was for the clinic's website.

Child Centre Bangalore Mobile Website

Pleasantly surprised to see a responsive-design for a doctor's website, I searched for a "Contact Us" option. All it had was an address and map, but no contact number. Odd, why wouldn't a doctor or clinic put up a number for patients to call up?

At the bottom of the page there was a link to download the "My Health Diary" app, but unsure of what the app would do for me, I ignored it.

Child Centre Bangalore Mobile Website 2

Child Centre Bangalore Mobile Website 3

Somewhat frustrated, as I wanted an early appointment, I opened up my laptop and searched for the clinic again. This time I landed on a somewhat more detailed web version of the clinic's page.

Child Centre Bangalore Website

Ah! Now there was an "Appointments" tab, which I click. There's a hidden phone number, which doesn't reveal itself even when I click on it.

There's a chat box at the bottom, but when I click it there's no one around to chat (it's 10.40 a.m by the way).

Child Centre Bangalore Mobile Website 2

Turns out I needed to whitelist www.needstreet.com in my browser in order to see the clinic's number. I dial it, and #FML, it turns out to be an awful IVRS I've had the misfortune of dealing with earlier. Sample this flow:

  • Welcome to Child Centre. Press 1 for English, 2 for Kannada...
  • Press 1 for booking an appointment, 2 for cancellations...
  • Press 1 for vaccination & consultation, 2 for consultation...
  • Press 1 for Dr. Jagdish Chinnappa, 2 for...
  • 1st available appointment is....

You get the picture. (Exotel put out this post on how SMEs ought to structure their IVRS' as I was writing this post.)

Fortunately I knew the clinic still operated a regular telephone, so after a few Google searches and blind alleys , I got through to the reception. I made the appointment in literally 2 minutes.

The rise of Gatekeeper Startups

Needstreet, the company whose domain I had to temporarily whitelist in order to view my doctor's telephone number, is a healthcare services provider based in Trivandrum, Kerala. It appears they have designed Child Centre's website, as I see many more of their customers using the same template.

It would appear that all these doctors have allowed Needstreet to turn their public web profiles into clone websites that drive signups for Needstreet's "My Health Diary" app.

Worse, they seem oblivious to the experience of their real customers - patients.

This isn't the first time I'm seeing this.

Probably the only reason I don't use Zomato more often is because their irritating practice of removing restaurant phone numbers and replacing them with their own, via a unique extension. See this page for Bon South restaurant in Bangalore for instance.

Though Zomato now claims that their intermediary telephone numbers transparently redirect calls to the restaurant's own numbers, I've had a few experiences (albeit more than a year ago) where my calls were picked up by someone obviously in a call center.

Another example that comes to mind is Mekong restaurant, which is part-owned by a close friend. When I called them up once to order home delivery, I was told to call their delivery partner, Delyver, instead. I tried once, and it was a horrible experience. The delivery folks had no idea of what dishes were available, much less which ones to recommend.

Suffice it to say I've never ordered home delivery from Mekong since.

The common thread between all these examples are startups that end up becoming a gatekeeper between businesses and their customers.

Obfuscation Does Not a Competitive Advantage Make

Why do startups resort to behaviours like hiding a business' telephone number from potential customers?

I suppose the reasons (for them) are two-fold:

a. Their competitors cannot "steal" that data easily, and
b. They can re-route their customer's customers towards their own services

The first reason is easily junked, as hiding public data is hardly going to get you anywhere. Any competitor with even a passing knowledge of technology will scrape the data (which actually was never yours to begin with) in the blink of an eye.

Which brings me to the second reason. As a consumer I reflexively hate any service that inserts itself between me and businesses I buy from, especially if that means more work for me.

As an entrepreneur while I can see the rationale in being able to hijack your customer's transactions to build your own offering, I think it is a short-term tactic that will inevitably set you up for disruption. From a competitor who creates a better product consumers truly want, instead of one that is forced down their throats.

A final word of advice to the tens of thousands of Indian SMEs that are finally getting round to adopting cloud-based software products: don't get carried away by technology and alienate your customers. Any technoloy you adopt must make it easier for your customers to do business with you. Never let your public data like address, phone numbers or email be "hidden" by service providers, merely so they can force your customersto be routed through them. And never stop talking to your customers to understand their experiences.