Friday, 27 March 2009

A Voice Apart

It was Gauri who wrote a funny post recently on the tactics adopted by network marketers and the elaborate lengths to which they go to ensnare poor, unsuspecting customers. Suddenly my mind went back couple of decades when a person called RTR used to frequent our little flat in suburban Mumbai.

RTR was Moni’s friend. The two used to play badminton together and often used to come to our place straight after practice. RTR was a fitness freak, exercised regularly, kept himself in fine shape, was a non-smoker, and did not touch alcohol. He had a certain glowing vitality to his persona, which Moni and I envied as we slouched in the sofa guzzling beer and watching TV, while RTR sipped water.

If RTR had an Achilles heel, it was his voice. If you were to meet him for the first time, you would have expected a baritone and resonant voice, consistent with his robust physical frame. You would have anticipated a voice of great timbre and depth, a voice which stated its case in clear and ringing tones, a voice that exuded authority and confidence.

The sad fact was that RTR spoke as if he had inhaled helium from a balloon—in a squeaky, faltering falsetto that was mildly funny when you first heard it and rather jarringly annoying when you continued to hear it over a period of time. It was a voice that trilled along weakly, squealing and giggling and setting your teeth on edge with its shrill and fluty overtones.

After a while, I lost touch with RTR when he emigrated to Australia; Moni himself went off to Dubai to better his fortune. Gradually over a period of 20 years, memories faded and I forgot all about him.

Cut to 2006. I am sitting in the lounge at Bangalore airport waiting for my flight to be called. It’s mid afternoon and there are few passengers in the lounge. I am almost dozing off when suddenly I am startled out of my skin by a distinctive, high-pitched squeak which I had last heard more than two decades ago. It has to be, I tell myself, this high-frequency bleat has to be, RTR’s!
And so it was. RTR was holding court a few tables away and I went up to him to say hello. A bit shop-soiled and curling at the edges, but it was RTR all right.

But you may well ask: what has this to do with Gauri’s post? Well, during our brief chat RTR told me he was presently one of the top salespersons (is it what they call them or is it buttonholers?) for Amway in India and being a member of their Platinum Club (?) he had been specially invited by the company to attend a rally in Mangalore.

Wisely enough, I did not give RTR my phone number in Chennai.

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Friday, 20 March 2009

Strong Medicine

On 14th February, 1990, an Indian Airlines (IA) Airbus A320 crashed on its final approach to Bangalore airport killing 92 out of the 146 people on board. The incident at that time created a furore, because Indian Airlines had inducted this new-generation aircraft into its fleet hardly three months before. Hyped in the business press as the first civilian airliner equipped with a fully computerised flight control mechanism--the so called fly-by-wire system--the aircraft was supposed to offer a safer, electronically-controlled flight. For weeks after the crash, debates raged whether the A320 was indeed a safe aircraft, whether the training provided to the IA pilots by the manufacturer was inadequate, and whether the aircraft needed air-conditioned hangars to protect its sophisticated electronics from malfunctioning in the hot and humid ground conditions of Indian airports.

My friend Mike James jets in from London, amidst all this brouhaha. We are supposed to work together in Bombay for couple of days and then go on to places like Bangalore, Chennai, and Delhi from where Mike will take his return flight to London after a week.

On the eve of our departure to Bangalore, Mike is circumspect. “Which aircraft do you think we’ll be flying in, to Bangalore?” he asks me, a tad too casually.

“Must be one of the new Airbus A320s,” I say unthinkingly and almost immediately regret it, for I can see that Mike is worried, though he says nothing further.

It is one of those early morning departures and predictably enough it is going to be an Airbus A320 that will fly us to Bangalore. At 6.30 am, we are securely strapped in our seats and about to start taxiing for take-off when Mike surreptitiously palms something onto me.

It is a miniature bottle of whisky, the kind that you find on international flights. Obviously, Mike has done his homework and knows no alcohol is served on IA flights.

“No, thanks,” I refuse politely. “A bit too early in the day for me, Mike.”

“Good stress-buster,” says Mike good-naturedly. “I was planning to have just one before take-off; I suppose a second one will do no harm.”

Mike is in great spirits during the entire flight, if you will forgive my unintended play on words, and by the time we are descending into Bangalore, he is chirping like a bird. Suddenly a thought strikes me: “Mike, we have another four or five flights to take before we finish your tour. How are you going to handle those?”

Mike smiles broadly and glances at his feet and that is when I see the white plastic bag pushed into the area beneath the seat in front of him. He allows me a peek. It is full of miniature whisky bottles.

“The stewardess on the BA flight to Bombay was most understanding,” says Mike with a wink. “There must be at least twenty in the bag. Enough to last me for the whole trip.”

I am jolted out of my stupefaction by the heavy thud as the wheels of the aircraft touch down on the Bangalore tarmac.

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Friday, 13 March 2009

Hotel Ships on the Rhine

Like all great rivers of this world, the Rhine has an awesome majesty and a certain timeless quality to it that leaves an indelible impression when you first see it. The Rhine has always fascinated people and inspired artists and poets like no other river perhaps. Today, during its majestic 1320-kilometre journey through the heart of Western Europe, this river links people and cultures, unlike in the previous centuries when it chose to separate them.

Originating in the Swiss Alps, the Rhine becomes a major transport route by the time it reaches the Swiss industrial town of Basel. Flowing through the Alsace region of France, the river enters German territory, going past the cathedral cities of Speyer and Mainz, followed by the famous wine-growing regions and finally by the romantic Middle Rhine with its wonderful castles some of which have been converted to exclusive hotels now. After leaving the Slate Mountains, the river passes through such important German cities as Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Duisburg before it enters the Netherlands and joins the North Sea somewhere near Rotterdam.

Dusseldorf is a city known for its many trade fairs. Although the city has hundreds of hotels, ranging from luxury properties to relatively basic accommodation, availability of rooms can be a real problem during important trade-fairs. This is when hotel ships—ships which are normally used for Rhine cruises so popular with the tourists—are brought in to cope with the influx of business travellers.

Staying in such a hotel ship can be a very unique experience. The cabins are painfully small; while it can be cosy and romantic for a honeymooning couple, a twin-sharing arrangement with another office colleague can be testing within such cramped quarters. And if the cabins are small, the attached bathroom cum toilet can only be termed as tiny, something you squeezed yourself into, every morning.

But it was fun. The ships were always berthed close to the Altstadt, the nerve centre for the pulsating night-life of Dusseldorf and you were always close to all the nice bars and eating places. On those evenings when you did not want to go out, you could have a quiet beer at the ship’s spacious bar, have an early dinner, and go up to the top deck where you could spend hours, enjoying the cool evening breeze and watching the slow-moving river traffic.

And finally when you went down to your cabin and stretched yourself on the narrow but comfortable bed, the river gently rocked you to sleep.

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Saturday, 7 March 2009

An Unforgettable Dinner

Companies tend to stereotype customers. Most times this is done deliberately for marketing purposes, the underlying belief being, if we know the context in which the customer is placed, we can service him better. The context here could be gender, profession, industry, religion, geography, and myriad other factors.

But often, stereotyping can be an unconscious process which could be based less on factual data and founded more on our own personal and cultural biases and prejudices. Leading exponents of management theory caution you to tread carefully around stereotypes and one of them, Stephen Macaulay, puts it very bluntly: “Be wary of stereotypes—they may be a useful template but they conceal as much as they reveal. At best, they are a starting point for further exploration; at worst, they are totally misleading.”

When I read that statement, I suddenly remembered a dinner I had in Germany with BS who was my boss at that time and a customer who shall, for the purposes of this blog, be called Mr. Iyer.

We were in Dusseldorf to attend a trade fair where the company had a huge presence and where Mr. Iyer had signed with us for a substantial order. This, combined with the fact that Iyer had been a loyal customer of ours for the past two decades, made BS feel obliged to offer him dinner. BS wanted to take him to the old part of the town, the Altstadt, which was known for its narrow, cobbled streets, old churches, trendy bars, high-class restaurants and of course, the famously special beer of Dusseldorf, the Altbier.

I indicated to BS that there could be a small problem: while I knew for a fact that Iyer liked beer, I was equally certain that he was a strict vegetarian. He was, after all, a Tamil Brahmin from traditional, conservative, orthodox Chennai and maybe he would have eggs at the most, but fish and meat were definitely a no-no. BS, who was Danish, was rather dismayed by this piece of information, but finally we decided to go ahead with the programme anyway. In a worst-case scenario, Iyer will have to be content with a salad and some bread.

At seven in the evening, we hit Altstadt, which is also (rightfully, I must say) known as the longest bar in the world. The atmosphere is electric. The narrow streets are already filling up with friendly revellers and we get pulled in by the tide. A few hours later, after imbibing vast quantities of Altbier from many way-side bars, we land up at a quaint bistro, off one of the main streets. It’s a warm, cosy place with bright lights, loud music, and young, smart waitresses hurrying about with trays laden with food that looks absolutely delicious.

This is the moment of truth. Seated at a corner table, BS turns around to address Mr. Iyer, who is good cheer personified, after all that beer. “So, Mr. Iyer, what would you like for the main course?”

“What I would like,” says Mr. Iyer with great satisfaction, “is a juicy rib-eye steak, medium-rare, with a side order of fries, please.”

BS glances at me briefly and suppresses a smile. And I, the self-confessed expert in customer stereotypes, watch in fascination as, during the course of the meal, the rib-eye steak is polished off with clinical precision.

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Monday, 2 March 2009

Joergen's Famous Letter

In a competitive marketplace where businesses have to scrap for a limited number of customers, customer satisfaction is perceived as a key differentiator and has become an important element of business strategy. Companies spend large sums of money in detailed analyses as to who are their customers, what are their needs, how adequately these needs are addressed by the company’s products and services and how can these customers be kept satisfied so that their loyalty can be assured.

While all this is very fine, some customers can never be satisfied. SPT, so shall I call him, for fear of libel suits and such like, was an example.

SP, as he was popularly known, was one of our VIP customers in Delhi. SP was a canny businessman and got into exports quite early. Business grew rapidly within a short span of time and with the expansion came the need for more products and services. Suppliers tripped over themselves to offer him every enticement in the book to make him purchase their products and SP played one against the other to get the best deals. Negotiations with SP were long-drawn-out affairs; finally when you managed to snatch the order from the jaws of your competitors, it was, at best, a pyrrhic victory, for there was virtually no profit in the deal—in fact, after provisioning for warranty and related expenses, you could consider yourself lucky if you didn’t lose money at the end of the day.

Negotiating for the best deal is, of course, every customer’s right and that was all right. But with SP, your troubles had only begun once you got the order from him. He bitterly complained and fought all the time about clauses in the Letter of Credit, equipment lead times, delay in installation, deficiency in training his operators, short-shipments, wrong shipments, warranty claims, product quality issues, you name it.

SP was what is politely referred in corporate circles as a “high-maintenance customer”. What they actually mean of course is that he is a pain in the rear.

On a Friday afternoon, Joergen gets a letter of complaint from SP. We have installed a machine at SP’s factory a few months earlier and the letter is a bitter tirade against the company pointing out how miserably we have failed in executing the order. The letter demands financial compensation and also broadly hints to legal recourse if the demands are not met forthwith.

Joergen, who has been personally overseeing the order execution considering the customer’s cantankerous reputation, is not amused. It is obvious the customer is resorting to wild exaggerations, half-truths, and even blatant falsehoods to take undue advantage of the company.

On Monday morning, Joergen calls his secretary and dictates a letter, the first para of which goes something like this:

“Dear SP,
Shortly after reading your letter which I received last Friday evening, I was carried out in a stretcher from the office frothing at the mouth and in convulsions. After having spent the weekend in an expensive psychiatric facility mostly under heavy sedation, I have recuperated enough to come to the office today to reply to the baseless allegations and impossible demands put forth in your letter...”

SP never complained thereafter.

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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.