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ETtech

(Illustration: Rahul Awasthi/ETtech)

Ola Electric, among the first automakers in India to have bypassed traditional dealerships and delivered vehicles directly to customers, has seen its fair share of teething issues with this distribution model.
It has already been forced to delay deliveries several times, which explains why software engineer Syed Rabbani, among the thousands of customers who have received their Ola S1 Pro electric scooters at home, is a relieved man. He had to wait for months for his purchase, but it’s not like he had much of a choice.
Living in the small town of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, Rabbani didn’t have the option of going to a nearby showroom or travelling to Bengaluru, where Ola is headquartered, to get his scooter. His only communication channel with the company is Twitter, which he joined to get updates on his booking. “I never really used Twitter [before this],” he said. “But I was worried about when I would get the scooter. Twitter was the place I went to because that is where all the updates come first. I follow (Ola CEO) Bhavish Aggarwal’s tweets closely.”
Come for the updates, stay for the chat
Rabbani isn’t the only person who rarely used Twitter before booking an Ola scooter. ET spoke to half a dozen such customers across the country—from Pune and Guntur to Ahmednagar and Bhubaneswar—who became active Twitter users after booking their S1 and S1 Pro scooters.
Customers ET spoke with said that as more people signed up, the platform turned from a place for updates and complaints into a forum for meeting fellow customers and endlessly discussing the minutiae of their shiny new purchases.

ola electric, ola scooter, ola electric scooter
ETtech
Signing up to Twitter also made them aware of a phishing scam targeting prospective buyers of the S1 and S1 Pro, in which crooks pretending to be Ola employees would get their victims to deposit money in their accounts after promising to deliver their scooters.
This fledgeling community mirrors that of Tesla superfans on Twitter, which is centred around CEO Elon Musk. The billionaire uses his Twitter account for—among quite a lot else — updates on all things Tesla. The company has even shut down its PR unit in the United States, with Musk’s Twitter account becoming the primary source of information.
In a similar vein, Ola Electric now sends Aggarwal’s tweets along with press notes. ET has received many such statements with his tweets attached.
Chance for a fresh start
Varun Dubey, chief marketing officer of Ola Electric, said communicating over Twitter was typical of consumer internet companies. He said Ola upped its social media game, especially on Twitter, in January 2021.
“We talked about when we started the factory and gave updates on its construction. We also provided updates on the production of our scooters. We are doing this because we want to keep consumers informed,” he said. “This is not normal in the automotive sector. We have to think of ourselves as a new-age company that’s in the automotive sector. The larger point is what is happening to a traditional industry when consumer-internet sensibilities are applied to it.”
But Aggarwal’s Twitter account has not always been easy for the company to handle. Before the pandemic, every tweet he posted was met with a barrage of abuse and complaints about the ride-hailing business. This was a time when the battle between Ola and Uber was at its peak and the demand for cabs far exceeded supply, leading to long wait times.
Then came the pandemic, which nearly decimated the company. Revenue fell 95% and employees were laid off and Aggarwal shifted his focus to the EV business.
In May 2020, Ola Electric announced the acquisition of Dutch electric scooter company Etergo, signalling a new direction for the company. While plans were chopped and changed, by the end of that year the company had plans to build the world’s biggest two-wheeler factory, which could make a scooter every two seconds—or more than 10 million a year.
This ambition garnered attention from all over.
“There is a perception that Ola beat Uber in India, and the fact that Bhavish has been able to keep SoftBank away from taking control of the company added to his aura,” said a company source.
A media event at the Ola Electric factory in February 2021 was a grand success, receiving positive media coverage from all over the world. With new optics and a grand ambition, replies to Aggarwal’s tweets were now dominated by cheers and applause.
Aggarwal is said to have doubled down on Twitter ever since, tweeting more than ever before. He realised his tweets were being picked up by news outlets for articles. The launch event of the scooter caught people’s attention as Aggarwal promised many smart features, including a voice assistant, keyless start, hill-hold and cruise control—and a range of 180 km—at a competitive price. Ola promised that deliveries would start in October.
The source quoted above described this phase as the company’s and Aggarwal’s “honeymoon period” with Twitter.
Delays cause renewed backlash
In September, the company faced its first major backlash in a long time. The website through which it was supposed to make its first sale broke down, forcing it to delay the sale by a week and Aggarwal to issue a public apology. Ever since, the responses to his tweets have largely been complaints from buyers.
Issues range from failed payments to delayed deliveries and lack of transparency in communication. After promising to deliver the scooters in October, Ola pushed the delivery date again and again. It finally managed to deliver 100 scooters by December 15, but without many of the promised smart features announced at the launch in August.
The source quoted above said that Aggarwal had told his social media team to respond to tweets in 25 minutes. This encouraged even more disgruntled customers to join Twitter, as the company’s account became quicker than a typical customer care centre, said one of the customers ET spoke with.
Delivery executives face the brunt
ET spoke to an Ola Electric delivery executive, also known as “brand champion”, from a small town. Since he has to register each vehicle himself, his job is far from easy. It’s made harder by the fact that he gets several calls a day from disgruntled customers awaiting their purchase. He said people ask if all the negative reports about the scooter are true and whether customers should cancel their bookings.
The claimed range of 181 kilometres has been the biggest bone of contention among customers. Many early customers said they have been seeing a real-world range of 135 kilometres on a full charge. Others have reported gaps in the scooter’s panelling.
“Most of these people are coming to me with complaints,” he said. “I also opened a Twitter account to find out what was happening. I think a lot of people are overreacting and I tell them all of it is not true. I encourage customers who get the scooter delivered to give their feedback, whether it is positive or negative, on Twitter.”
The role of brand champions does not end there. “Brand champions are the last mile partners, who deliver the scooter to the customer’s house. They also give customers the initial orientation and training on the product and familiarise them with it,” said Dubey. “For some time they become the point of contact for any service-related queries and help customers resolve these issues.”
A new model
Increased social media engagement is a second-order effect of the company going direct to consumers. The automotive sector, stuck to its dealership model, is closely watching developments.
Ola Electric, which is building the world’s largest scooter factory, claims it will eventually be able to produce 10 million scooters a year. That is one-third the total two-wheeler sales in India in FY21, demand from small towns will be crucial if it is to succeed.
One of the biggest benefits of the dealership model is that they can carry the massive inventory cost, leaving manufacturers free to mass-produce vehicles at an affordable price. But lately, dealers have been facing immense pressure as manufacturers increasingly keep their inventory on their own books.
“In Tier-I cities it (B2C) is a good way to go because logistically it is quite convenient,” said Jay Kale, senior vice president at Elara Capital. “The dealership model is difficult in these cities because rental costs are high. The B2C model also works much better in tier-1 cities as deliveries are more cost-efficient there.”
Kale believes the challenges of the B2C model multiply as one goes to smaller towns and villages. “In small towns and villages you cannot underestimate the power of dealerships,” he said. “We have seen it in the past, when Hero and Honda split up. Despite Honda being a strong brand in terms of technology, Hero still dominates,” he said.
“Dealers in villages have a big say in the purchase decision of customers there,” Kale added. “Often the dealers in rural areas are also the pradhans, so people do what they say.”
These dealers not only handle deliveries and after-sales service, they also play a crucial role in generating demand. Ola’s ‘brand champions’, meanwhile, are not as invested in the company as these dealers are in the manufacturers they work with.
“Changing the mindset of customers and getting them to buy directly online without being influenced by dealers will take a lot of time,” said Kale. “Eventually, Ola may have to go with a hybrid model.”

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