You Asked For It

I broke out in a cold sweat as soon as I read the email:

Your information has been updated

We have completed your request to change your address in our files from 999 Housing Society Name, Colony Name, GURGAON* to 999 Housing Society Name, Colony Name, GURGAOM*. If this is correct, you do not need to take any further action and can disregard this email.

*Note: In order to protect the security of your account, the complete address is not listed above.

If you did not request this address update, please call us immediately using the number on the back of your Card.

Thank you for your Card Membership.

American Express Customer Care”

Now, it has long been one of the many peeves of mine that I have not been hacked and whether I was not important enough to be targeted. But when it actually appeared to have happened, on 22nd September, time-stamped 11:16 AM, I broke out in a sweat. A cold one too, before I forget.

It was thoughtful of the company to have not listed the complete address in order to protect the security of my account. I believe they compressed the air out of the address text since the address mentioned in the email is all that is needed for anyone to reach it, should they desire to. Never one to follow a good practice without a struggle, I masked the address.

Unless they are referring to their cleverness in changing the city from Gurgaon to Gurgaom. That should fool the hackers and information stealers.

But American Express is a thoughtful provider. They think of everything. Below the email they even mentioned:

To Contact Us

Please do not reply to the email for any enquiries – messages sent to this address cannot be answered.

Kindly contact our Customer Service Representative on the numbers mentioned on the back of your card or alternatively you can write to us:

American Express Banking Corp.

Cyber City, Tower – C, Bldg. No 8, Sector 25

DLF City Ph II, Gurgaon – 122002

Thank you for using American Express Online Services”

Completely sensible. Sending an email to a customer and telling him that he cannot send an email back. He can either call a customer representative or send a physical mail (snail mail for those who cannot picture physical mail) to their thoughtfully provided address that they even had the presence of mind to not hide, thankfully signed off as ‘American Express Online Services.’ If you cannot send a physical mail to an online service, where will you?

But I ramble. I think it is the sense of relief after the call that I made as suggested by them. I made the call at 11:56 AM and it lasted 8 minutes and 37 seconds, the metadata to serve as breadcrumbs for retrieval in case American Express ever decided they are not happy with me.

The call was answered and I was politely advised that it could have been initiated by the KYC team.

After a moment of reflection upon receiving this immensely useful piece of information, I could only say, “Hmmm. So?”

The young man, to his eternal credit, remained unfazed. He returned in a few moments with another representative on the line, this time from the KYC team. His name was Saket. Saket said, “You don’t have to worry, sir. Based on your KYC (Know your customer) documents our back-office team did a realignment of your address. I think the city name was corrected.”

Upon more reflection I said, “’change your address in our files from 999 Housing Society Name, Colony Name, GURGAON* to 999 Housing Society Name, Colony Name, GURGAOM*’ sounds like you have changed it to Gurgaom. I believe the correct spelling is Gurgaon. I know political parties keep changing city names, but I have not heard of it changing to Gurgaom.”

“Don’t worry, sir. It was done by the backend team. You don’t need to do anything.”

“In that case, thank you for sending me this email asking me to call in case I had not initiated this address change request. Everyone’s time seems to have been put to some good use this morning as a result.”

“I am sorry for that sir. It is an automated process, you see.”

“Ah, automated process,” I said to myself and ended the call, as that explained everything. I could be faulted for believing that was the end of it. But was it?

A few minutes later, when I peeped into my inbox once more, there was another email sitting in my inbox from americanexpress@alerts.americanexpress.com, time-stamped 12:05 PM. I could feel the sweat, the cold one, beginning to form, as I clicked on it with trepidation. It said:

Your information has been updated

We have completed your request to change your address in our files from 999 Housing Society Name, Colony Name, GURGAOM* to 999 Housing Society Name, Colony Name, GURGAON*. If this is correct, you do not need to take any further action and can disregard this email.

*Note: In order to protect the security of your account, the complete address is not listed above.

If you did not request this address update, please call us immediately using the number on the back of your Card.

Thank you for your Card Membership.

American Express Customer Care”

My faith in large corporations remains unshaken. As you can make out, their processes are pretty strong and can be repeated endlessly, even if there is no need for them. Once again, they seem to have pressed the air out of my address in order to protect the security of my account.

But I am in a quandary.

Does this qualify as a request that I made?

Should I call back immediately?

Have I just caused the initiation of an endless loop?

Pro Bono

Excuse me for feeling privileged, or entitled, as some like to say.

I believe businesses that deal with consumers, or individual customers like me, reserve their choicest services for my exclusive use.

OK I exaggerate. Exclusive is a little over the top.

My recent experience with Payoneer, that describes itself as a “financial services company that provides online money transfer, digital payment services and …” has only served to confirm my suspicions.

There is some business consulting and freelance writing work I do with a couple of overseas businesses. When you work on a commercial basis, there is a financial angle that becomes a part of the deal. A European client prefers to remit the money to me through Payoneer, one of the many ‘fintech’ companies that have emerged in the last few years, giving a run for their money, pun unintended, to the seemingly change-resistant big old banks.

Being in India, which is an exchange-controlled environment, where one cannot freely buy and sell foreign currency, receipt of foreign currency requires some regulatory compliance. The one that I daringly got involved with Payoneer for is the obtention of the Foreign Inward Remittance Certificate (FIRC). In simple terms, once you have an FIRC mentioning you as the beneficiary, it is certified that you were responsible for the receipt of that amount in foreign currency, resulting in boosting the foreign exchange reserves of the nation. You also become eligible for certain relaxations, like Goods and Services Tax (GST) compliance for such receipts.

The saga commences with my email of 27th June to Payoneer, after a reasonably fruitless phone conversation that yielded no results.

27th June – My email

Hi, I have not received FIRCs for the last 3 months.
Can you please make them available.

30th June – Email from Payoneer

Thank you for contacting us. My name is Adrian from Payoneer Customer Care.

We apologize for the delayed response.

We are aware that it might be long for you, and we would like to reassure you that we do everything we can to improve our timeframe.

We have taken note of your request and we are delighted to assist you.

After verifications, I confirm that you have received by email the FIRC’s corresponding to the last payments.

Please check the notification emails sent to download the documents, or you can contact your bank to provide them to you.

Thanking you for your understanding and cooperation.

For any further information, do not hesitate to contact us.

Silly me. He is right. For payments listed on my Payoneer account I have the FIRCs. My issue is the payments not listed on my account. Going back with a response on his ability to confirm what I have received and what I have not received will need to wait.

1st July – My email

Thank you for your response. I will disagree. 

Sharing an example: I have received the following message yesterday re. a transfer:

(payment message enclosed)

I confirm the credit in my account. However, this transaction is not reflecting on my Payoneer account. Neither is the FIRC. There are many other transactions not reflecting.

Can u help.

5th July – Email from Payoneer

Thank you for contacting us. 

Your request is not clear as you keep providing us in this case with different information. 

The screenshot you provided us does not match your request for the FIRC, as the email you are referring to is not regarding FIRC but when the withdrawal should arrive to your account. 

Once you clarified the request we can review is and assist accordingly. 

Have a nice day!

Silly me again and even more. How dare I confuse them.

5th July – My email

Sorry that you found it confusing. Here is a clarification:

In your message dated 30th June you stated: “After verifications, I confirm that you have received by email the FIRC’s corresponding to the last payments.”

In my message dated 1st July I disagreed with the above statement. I provided your message dated 30th June as an example to challenge your statement. I meant to say that my account is not showing all payments sent to me through Payoneer.

The question, once again, is: Please tell me why the payment of Euro XXX, as per your message enclosed with my response on 1st July, is not reflecting on my Payoneer account.

Call me impatient. Call me foolish. Not receiving a response for 4 days induced me to open up another front in the battle. Imagine one of the parties in a battle locked in a hand-to-hand combat with the enemy, suddenly finds that the same person is coming at them with a raised sword from the left. Would you not be unnerved? To their eternal credit, Payoneer remained unfazed and responded with an email which still gave no evidence of trying understand or solve my issue.  

9th July – Chat transcript (Pleasantries have been deleted)

Ankur Mithal: I have received an email from Payoneer for a transfer
Ankur Mithal: I have received the funds in my bank account in India. However, the transaction does not show in my Transaction History on Payoneer.
Paulo: Hello, how are you?
Ankur Mithal: Payoneer mail dated 1st July
Ankur Mithal: Amount Euro XXX

Paulo: Thank you.Please stay on the line while I investigate this case on your account
‘The file Payoneer email of 1 July.docx (232.09KB) was received.’
Ankur Mithal: Sure. I have sent you a screen print of the email from Payoneer on 1st July.
Paulo: As long as you received the payment, then there is nothing to worry about

Ankur Mithal: OK. So here is the problem. I need an FIRC certificate for the payments I receive in any foreign currency. For payments listed on my Payoneer account, Payoneer has made an FIRC available that I can download. For money received after February, remitted through Payoneer but not showing on my Payoneer account, how do I get the FIRC certificate? 
Paulo: Hold on
Paulo: I will forward this matter to our support team for your request. Kindly wait within 24-48 hours for updates via email
Ankur Mithal: All right. Thanks for your help.
Paulo: You are welcome
Paulo: Anything else I may help you with today?
Ankur Mithal: For the moment this is all. Depending on the response I get there could be other queries. Thanks.


9th July – Email from Payoneer

Hello, this is Maia, Payoneer’s Supervisor. I hope this email finds you well.

Please find the attached FIRC documents per your request.

Thank you for your patience and have a good day.

The FIRCs turned out to be for the payments till February. I had already received these FIRCs. But at least they promoted me. I am now getting an email from the supervisor.

9th July – My email

Thank you for your message.

Why exactly am I being sent these two FIRC documents? Did I ask for them? Would you be kind enough to please share my request asking for these two FIRC documents please.

16th July – Email from Payoneer

Thank you for contacting Payoneer, this is Jes one of the representative from Customer Care. I will be more than happy to assist you. 

Our sincere apologies for the inconvenience and for not getting back to you sooner. We are trying our very best to answer all of these the soonest we can.

I understand that you have inquiries regarding the FIRC document. Rest assured that I will do my best to assist your concern.

Upon reviewing the account, it appears that we have sent you the FIRC document as per your request. 

We appreciate your patience and cooperation in this case.

Should you have any questions, please let us know. Feel free to reply to this e-mail, or contact us via phone or chat so we can continue to assist you. We value your business and we make sure to support you in any way possible.

Thank you for doing business with Payoneer. Have a great day.

16th July – My email

Thank you once again for responding without bothering to understand the issue.

Can you please share with me a copy of MY REQUEST where I asked for THESE FIRCs. I have asked the same query in my earlier email as well but it appears the query has been ignored or not understood.

Two requests:

Once again, please share with me a copy of my request based on which you sent me the two FIRC documents (refer Maia’s email of 9th July in this email trail). If it was sent randomly, without my asking for it, you can just say it was an error and maybe even apologize.

The FIRC I DO WANT is for the payment of Euro XXX on 1st July. For your reference and ease, a copy of Payoneer’s email advising me of the payment is attached. 

I do hope this email will reach someone who can bother to read and make an effort to understand a customer’s issue BEFORE responding.


The wait begins once more.

Will they read my email?

Will they read AND understand my email?

Will they read, understand AND provide a coherent response?

Will I get the FIRCs that I am looking for?

And, most importantly, if a client offers to pay through Payoneer, should I offer to work pro bono?

Public Policy

“What? You must be kidding. There’s gotta be a mistake. This can’t happen.”

Though I could not hear what had been said as the speaker had plugged the headphone wire into his mobile and the other end in his ear, I could sense that my one-seat-away-on-account-of-social-distancing neighbour in the Delhi metro coach was beginning to get excited. My Indian ears perked up as another opportunity to pry into someone else’s affairs presented itself.

After a brief gap, when he was apparently listening to the person on the other end of the phone connection, he said, “You mean they are not a non-profit. That is news. Do you know what you are saying? That the sole purpose of their existence is not to selflessly serve people like you and me and that they need to earn money. I am shocked. Why did nobody tell me earlier? I am sure there is a mistake.”

After a few seconds of silence, when the voice on the other end presumably became active, he erupted, “Like hell I will agree with their updated policy. That too for free? That is rich. This is India, my friend, India! Not some first world country where these things are allowed to happen with impunity. There are laws here, OK. Laws. We don’t follow them but we have them. These companies cannot do whatever they feel like. Remember, we live in a society driven by the rules of a free market.”

During the silence that ensued while he was presumably listening to the voice on the other end, I could not help but admire his nationalism.

“Over my dead body! Next, they will ask for permission to use my phone number. Like hell I will give them permission. Do you have any idea what this number is used for? I use this number when sales people in Delhi malls beg me to fill forms with my personal information so that I can stand a chance to win a lottery. This number is the one I register with on online websites that promise to teach you tricks with which one can become rich overnight. It is personal and confidential. How can it be shared with a company whose service I am using.

It was a powerful argument. I could hear the silence on the other end.

“Just what do you mean by that? What if I did not read the T&Cs when I signed up? What if WhatsApp and Facebook already have my personal data and are using it for commercial purposes? Does it mean that whenever they ask me to agree to something, I should do it without protesting on ethical and moral grounds? No means no. I will not agree. I will not sell my soul and self-respect to a monopolistic foreign nouveau imperialist capitalist plutocratic hegemonistic…”

There was a pause. Perhaps for catching breath after the effort of stringing together so many important-sounding words together.

“…company,” he finally found the word to complete the sentence, and submitted to the voice for a few seconds, before standing up and bursting out, “Why should I move to Telegram? Or Signal? Just why? Have I done something wrong? Am I a criminal that I should seek refuge elsewhere? After this call, can you message me the URL for downloading Telegram and Signal?” He was a man of principle.

Though I could guess about the subject of this conversation, the last couple of sentences confirmed it. It was about the recent action by WhatsApp, the messaging App, of asking users to agree to their updated Privacy Policy, or lose access.

“Look, I don’t expect the common man to understand or appreciate. But I am a responsible employee of the Indian government. I can. Do you know that even for official matters I don’t use my official government email ID and instead use my personal gmail account? Even my bosses cannot see what is going on. Beat that for privacy and security.” He had continued with his principled stand.

For the first time I looked at his face. My eyes perhaps betrayed my respect and admiration as he immediately frowned and looked the other way, and, after a brief pause, continued. “What? You don’t know the changes made in the new policy? Even more reason to not agree. These companies are trying to make changes without even asking or telling us. We have to resist.”

After a brief period of “hmm”s and “OK”s, he was on the warpath again. “Let them cancel my account. I don’t care.” He paused, looked up as if in deep thought, as a realisation of the impact slowly dawned.

His voice came out softer. I had to strain my ears to keep up. “Bbb…but how will I communicate with my mates from school receiving and forwarding random messages? More importantly, how will I claim it is so wonderful to be connected again on WhatsApp? We may be connected on Signal or Telegram, but then we cannot claim that it is good to be connected on WhatsApp, isn’t it?” A dispassionate, objective analysis if there was one.

I could sense it was all getting too much for him. His eyes had turned a shade of red while he was still speaking. He could speak and think at the same time, that was certain. He could not take it anymore and started sobbing. “How will I send condolences? How will I wish people on their birthdays and anniversaries? Do you think I have the time and energy to call or personally greet people who I love so dearly? What will happen to my connections if they stop receiving my Good Morning messages with pretty flowers? How will I show my patriotism to my connections? How will I receive and forward messages that I have no clue are fake or real? How will I waste time in meetings? How? How? How?” His plaintive cries rang out in the coach.

He stopped. Everyone in the coach was looking at him. It was perhaps a common issue they were all struggling with at that moment, but he had articulated everyone’s innermost feelings. I realised I was not the only one listening in on this conversation. I wanted to hold him and express my support but the Covid-19 protocol was in operation. I could only watch him while he cried himself out. It seemed to calm him down. He blew into a handkerchief. He was able to speak in a more composed tone after that.

“They have my age? OK.” The voice at the other clearly had been active. “Sex…Music playlist on Prime…OK…Sounds good…Netflix serials I am watching,” he was perhaps repeating what he was hearing on the phone. “Location…Milk delivery time…Blood group…Bank account number…Bank account password…What I had for breakfast today…Breed of my dog…Childrens’ vaccination schedule…Websites searched…Tax returns filed…What? They know my golf handicap…That is not fair…Credit history.”

There was a pause again.

“Is that all? If this is the only data they have, I have no problem in accepting the new policy, whatever it be.”

The voice was perhaps active again as he seemed to nod his head occasionally. “There, what did I tell you? If, as you say, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has said that they are collecting personal data to improve their services, it must be true. He is a good man. After all, he runs a large company. It must be a non-profit like all large companies. And his sole objective must be to provide us free services and protect our interests. By the way, when are we getting free Tesla cars?”

Without waiting for a response, he added, “And why not? Do we pay for Google? Do we pay for Facebook? Do we pay for WhatsApp? We sign-up without reading the T&Cs and use. Why should we pay for Tesla?” as he got up to get out of the coach.

Everyone in the coach was smiling. Having just accepted the new WhatsApp policy, they were perhaps busy choosing the colour of their free Tesla car.

Tuning In

Another sensational high profile suicide or murder?

Or is it yet another ghastly rape?

Or, could it be the discovery of another wrongdoing by Bollywood, like being involved in making movies that people like?

Of course, the unmasking of another attempt at influencing the presidential elections in the US cannot be ruled out either.  

These were the thoughts uppermost in my mind as I sat down and dug my eyes into the newspaper report headlined “Cops summon three over TRP scam.”

“At least three channels have manipulated TRPs,” the article quoted the Mumbai Police Commissioner, confirming my worst fears. Concerns for the law and order situation started running through my mind, painting dire doomsday images. Who cares about whether Rhea procured drugs or not, when channels are busy manipulating TRPs. “There is a need for further understanding the situation,” the same article also quoted Karti Chidambaram, a Congress MP. Challenge that for a sentence laden with meaning, if you can.

I made some surprising discoveries.

There are a few businesses in the, well, for want of a better alternative, business, of TV programming. In an economy that operates on the principles of a free market? Can you believe it?

These businesses, being businesses, try to increase revenue and keep costs under control so that their investors can generate handsome returns. Ever heard anything as preposterous?

These private businesses have collaborated to form a body known as BARC, short for Broadcast Audience Research Council, which also comprises of advertisers, ad agencies and broadcasting companies. BARC is a private body, classified as non-government company. One of the things BARC does is collect TRPs, short for Television Rating Points, a proxy for popularity of different programmes based on time spent watching them. This is done through installation of measuring devices in 40000 TVs. 40000 installed devices that represent 200 million households and 800 million individuals. Isn’t Statistics a life saver? Or a money saver? Depending on whether you are an individual or a business organisation.

These businesses, the ones creating programmes for TV, let’s call them channels, vie for an advertising (on TV) pie that is estimated at about INR 300 billion (USD 4 billion) annually. As the potential gains are substantial, it has always made sense for everyone involved to keep the 40000 households off the gravy train. The 40000 households that, by sharing their consumption data, make these revenues possible for TV channels, and enable spenders to believe they are doing it scientifically.  

Channels are interested in high TRP ratings as that will lead to more advertising revenue. It has been argued that they have offered financial incentives to participating households to tune in to certain channels. It seems offering financial incentives is a crime. I am wondering if I should cancel the Smartphone I ordered on Amazon yesterday. Mr. Bezos could get into trouble for offering a financial incentive. It was at a handsome discount. I am in two minds.

The spenders, or businesses who spend on advertising on TV, are represented on BARC, and are also private businesses who don’t have to worry about the financial situation of farmers in rural India, or hardships faced by migrant workers during the onset of the pandemic. They have not been forced to take decisions based on BARC data. They choose to. Hence, it must be an issue of national importance that ratings have been manipulated.

It appears that the government also bases its ad spend decisions on TRP ratings. One can never be sure, but it is believed that they were also not forced to. They could follow the established practice of ‘positive mentions’ of the government by a channel to allocate their advertising spend. Of course, it helps if the two are the same.

Perhaps the channels who are a part of BARC have signed a specific clause to not influence behaviour through financial incentives. Always a great idea to insert terms calling for unnatural behaviour into commercial contracts so that taxpayer money can be spent in unravelling them. And it must be treated as a crime, so that our perpetually understaffed and overworked police force can get involved, as soon as they are done checking on Rhea’s drug usage.

Just as well, though. Can you imagine the pandemonium it could unleash if left unchecked? Viewers having to watch a commercial for Dove soap instead of the rightful Pears during their daily dose of the ‘saas-bahu’ ‘soap.’ Or, being forced to watch a Trivago commercial during the news break when it should have been Makemytrip. Or, even worse, being exposed only to Samsung phones during IPL cricket matches. The common man needs to be protected.

So, it was for a good cause. I calmed down somewhat.

And, of course, it is scientifically justified. After all, science, and statistics, have helped in designing the system in a way that a few rogue households can poison the entire data. It is science, after all, which mandates that if more than 40000 devices are installed, the cost will go up and profit down. And science again which decides that the participating households should not be equitably compensated.

Such being the case, who can argue with the government getting involved.

I am looking forward to some honest and fair news coverage on the channels being probed for the TRP scam.

Our Books, My Stories

My stories made it to two books that have been published recently. Both are collections of stories contributed by different people, and related to their own life and experiences.

What is common between the contributors in the two books and in each book? They are all alumni of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), the coveted institution of higher learning dedicated to business education.

In “A Chapter Out of My Life,” the contributors are drawn from different IIMs, from different cohorts in different years.

In “Reflections,” they are all a part of the same cohort, the batch of 1987, who spent the same two years at the IIM in Ahmedabad.

What is common between the two books? I believe I am the only author contributing to both.

Over to the books then. If you do read them, please try to leave a ‘Review’ on either Goodreads or Amazon or any place online you are comfortable with.

1. A Chapter Out Of My Life: Gems from the lives of ordinary people

A Chapter

This has been published by Salil Agrawal, a senior by a few years from IIM Ahmedabad and the founder president of IIMAGES which is a society of the alumni of IIMs. He has been instrumental in creating the ‘network’ impact of the IIM alumni and hence, in many ways, the most suitable person for putting together a book of this nature. The contributors have been drawn from different IIMs, from different cohorts in different years.

In Salil’s words:

“There are extraordinary people and then there are ordinary people. People like you and me. People who are accomplished in their own way and who have had interesting lives. But they are not extraordinary, they are not celebrities. Their stories do not get published even though they are very inspirational.

This book brings to you stories from the lives of nineteen such wonderful people. All of them are alumni of Indian Institutes of Management. They write about an experience from their life that made a difference to them.

These stories will be very useful for younger readers – management grads in the first few years of their career, students of management, those aspiring to do an MBA and also those planning to join the corporate world in the near future.”

Kindle edition on Amazon India (Rs. 49- with proceeds to charity): https://bit.ly/sllbk1

Kindle edition on Amazon US ($0.65): https://www.amazon.com/dp/B087XBMWBL

Paperback anywhere: still to be released

2. Reflections: Life Reloaded. Class of ‘87

517onSQNJ2L

This has been published by Sanjeev Kotnala, a classmate at IIM Ahmedabad, from the 1985-87 batch that graduated in 1987. The contributors are all classmates of ours. People who spent the same two years of their life in the hallowed precincts of IIM Ahmedabad, pursuing an MBA programme, amid the iconic exposed brick architecture of Louis Kahn.

Sanjeev is the founder of INTRADIA World and a Marketing and Branding professional devoted to enhancing potential and capabilities of clients’ team. He runs 2-day workshops on Ideation and Innovation and is a certified NLP practitioner and an ICF accredited life, Mid-life transition and Master Spirit Coach.

In Sanjeev’s words:

“Eighteen Authors, from CLASS OF 1987, IIM Ahmedabad, share more than 28 real impact stories from professional and personal life. These are small, compelling incidents that challenged their thinking, making an impact in their lives.

Read their ‘aapbeethi’ (self-experiences) as they transparently open up to allow you a behavioristic peek into their lives.

Yes, you can question their Approach and Learning, or maybe you could end up questioning your approach to life. Who knows, which incident here mirror’s your life and touches a chord? Why wait for Self Experience when others’ experience can help guide your approach.

What you gain from these stories presented in five sections; ‘Business’, ‘People’, ‘Encounter’, ‘Life’, and ‘Institute’, is all up to you. Happy reading.”

Kindle edition on Amazon India (Rs. 199-): https://amzn.to/2RsA3Ln

Paperback on Amazon India (currently out of print): https://amzn.to/36qDYg3

 

Timeless

Dear Karvy,

Thank you so much for responding to my email without reading it.

Your assurance in your email of 20th November, in response to my email of 19th November enquiring about the status of issuance of my shares of Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL) lying in a Suspense account, that the issue (I suppose no pun was intended) will get addressed in twenty days, gives me great comfort, as you took over six months to pay me the missing dividend on other shares of the same company.

Had you read the enclosed exchanges, you would have realised that in your email dated 6th November, which was in response to my email dated 5th November, which was a follow-up of my email of 24th October as no response had been received, you had told me that “Please note that the credit of shares are under process. It takes 15 days time.” I now see that if you had read the mail trail, you would have denied yourselves the pleasure of giving me assurance of resolution in a random timeframe of twenty days. You may have even felt compelled to apologise for your inability to meet the timeline committed earlier and giving a new, random timeline for resolution. I apologise for initially feeling angry about your arbitrary and inexplicable response. I was wrong. I am the customer, after all, and need to keep my emotions, and expectations, in check.

It is, of course, another matter, that in your email of 6th November, you never specified the starting point of the “15 days time.” Would it start from 19th October, 2019, which, as I had also mentioned in my email of 24th October, was the date the required documents had been delivered to your office, or would it start from, say, 18th April, 2062?

If my math serves me right, if I send you a reminder every month, and you increase the resolution time frame on each such occasion by five days, my resolution timeframe will increase by sixty days every year.

Staying with the math, suppose I live for another 50 years, at the time of my death, the issue will only be 3000 days, or roughly 8 years, away from resolution.

Signing off in my customary manner, “Kindly confirm once the needful has been done.”

Warm regards.

Value System

As reported in the New York Times on 19th August, 2019, “Chief executives from the Business Roundtable, including the leaders of Apple and JPMorgan Chase, argued that companies must also invest in employees and deliver value to customers.”

And if you don’t believe that such a day would ever dawn, CLICK HERE for proof, sorry URL. Is there a difference between the two?

And Pepsi and Walmart too. And not just employees and customers, suppliers too will be dealt with fairly and ethically. “While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders.

The Business Roundtable, incidentally, is a lobbying organization that represents many of America’s largest companies.

Revolutionary, isn’t it? And not a moment too soon. It is important these views are articulated because such things have never been done in the past.

After all, in a competitive world, driven by free-market principles, a business could be successful without delivering value to customers. What businesses in the free-market driven world do is not deliver value to customers. And no competitor would be ready to step-in and deliver value. Nor would customers notice the absence of value. 

The reasons customers buy from businesses are well known. At least from what we may call successful businesses. They buy because they don’t get value. They buy because they are forced to; they don’t have choices. They buy only things they don’t need. They buy because they are weak-willed with a low self-esteem and unable to withstand relentless messaging of big companies that tells them they are losers if they don’t have the product. If customers queue up overnight to be amongst the first to buy a device in the morning, it must be the fault of the maker that the offered device does not deliver value.

After all, in a competitive world, driven by free-market principles, a business could be successful without bothering to invest in employees, or worrying about their aspirations. That is what businesses in the free-market driven world do. And no competitor would notice. Nor would their employees.

The reasons employees work for a business are well known. At least for what we may call a successful business. They work for a particular business because they have better opportunities elsewhere. They work because their qualifications make them suitable for better jobs. They work because they prefer the risk of a monthly salary over the security of self-employment. They work for the enrichment of the employing business and not their own compensation and advancement. They work so that they can walk out on a whim if they get a better opportunity. This is why jobseekers claim they cannot find jobs and businesses claim they cannot find employees.

After all, in a competitive world, a business could be successful without treating its suppliers fairly and ethically and destroying value for them. That is what businesses in the free-market driven world do. And no competitor would notice. Nor would the suppliers. 

The reasons suppliers work with a business are well known. At least for what we may call a successful business. They work for a business because it treats its suppliers unfairly by paying less than what has been contracted and agreed. They work because the business will pay much later than the timeframe for payment agreed in the contract. They work because they don’t salivate at the prospect of large future orders from that business. They work because they don’t dream of some day making their business as big and successful as the business they are supplying to. They work because they are forced to. And a situation where a big company is a supplier to another big company, or a small company, just cannot exist.

The rising global discontent over income inequality, harmful products, domination that hurts competition and unethical practices cannot be the fault of our lawmakers whose job it is to ensure equity and fairness and justice. It must be the fault of business corporations since they are not representatives of the people voted into office to safeguard the interest of the common man. Since they have been able to establish themselves as a force in the world of business earning a lot of money, they can be trusted to create value for customers, invest in employees and deal fairly and ethically with suppliers. And work for the upliftment of the downtrodden in society. And world hunger. And global peace. And environmental conservation.

Can someone please tell me why we spend billions on elections in India, and in many countries around the world. If it is the large business corporation that is going to deliver value to customers, invest in employees and treat suppliers fairly, and work towards global peace and world hunger and environmental conservation, why exactly do we need elected representatives? 

In an explicit rebuke of the notion that the role of the corporation is to maximize profits at all costs that has held sway over the last hundred years, leaders of the Roundtable have ruled out obvious options like cutting executive compensation, or paying higher taxes, or increasing wage levels. They believe that their noble ideals can be achieved without doing any of these. They believe that their noble ideals can be achieved without doing anything.

But I am being unfair. It is not without doing anything their ideals will be achieved. After much deliberation, and as an example to the world of their commitment to achieving their ideals, the Roundtable has developed a Vision Statement for all members which is to be prominently displayed in the CEO’s office:

‘The purpose of our corporation is no longer to advance only the interests of shareholders. Instead, we will create value for customers, invest in employees and deal fairly and ethically with suppliers. We vow to protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses and foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect. We will work for the upliftment of the downtrodden in society. And world hunger. And global peace. And…’

And now that the problems of the common man have been effectively solved by the Roundtable and its members, our political leaders are counting the days to the next election when they will be able to tell us how they will solve our problems.

No News, Good News?

Thankfully, I am not alone in not receiving signal customer service from the humongously large business community as described in the previous post. My wife receives it too.

She holds some shares of Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL), India’s largest private company that, primarily due to our laxity, have continued to be held in physical format, and not dematerialised (demat), as most of her other shares are.

Dividends on physically held shares have been sent as physical dividend warrants (or cheques) to be deposited by the beneficiary in his/ her account and cleared through the banking system, as against shares held in a demat format, which get electronically credited to the beneficiary’s bank account, in general, a much more efficient system.

As a continuously well performing company over several decades, RIL has paid dividends regularly. As individual investors, tracking payment of dividend by a company and its eventual receipt in the form of a dividend warrant, is not an activity that has been done very efficiently by us. A review of her account over the last five years showed that credits of RIL dividend were sporadic. We then compared with RIL dividends received in my account, as I also held RIL shares, in demat format, which confirmed that several were missing.

As we set the motion of recovering the missing dividends in progress, the fun and games began. 

Second week of February, 2019

We start from a logical enough place, the RIL website, which provides contact details for investors with shares in physical format:

Karvy Fintech Private Limited (Formerly, Karvy Computershare Private Limited)
Tel: +91-40-67161700
Toll Free No: +1800 425 8998
E-Mail: 
rilinvestor@karvy.com
Website: 
www.karvyfintech.com

We were unable to reach the number provided after several attempts. After a few rings we get a helpful automated message, “Sorry, there is no reply from the number you have called.” Clearly, we would have failed to grasp this had the automated message not been there. Last checked on 17th August, and again on 19th August at 12:39 PM. Results consistent.

Being logical people, we next visit the website of Karvy Fintech, www.karvyfintech.com, as again thoughtfully provided on the RIL website. The Karvy website boldly displays on the top of their Homepage, Call Us Toll Free 1800-425-4034. Surely RIL has chosen them as registrars for a good reason.

On this number, we are welcomed by a message, “Welcome to Mutual Fund services at Karvy.” Pressing buttons on the IVR takes us deeper into the MF domain. It seems resolving issues faced by RIL investors in not Karvy Fintech’s primary job. Cannot say about bigger, but they seem to have other fish to fry as well. If we are not buying Mutual Funds, what business do we have calling them anyway?

14th February, 2019

Unsuccessful in reaching Karvy on the phone numbers provided, we resort to sending an email to ‘rilinvestor@karvy.com,’ helpfully, would you believe it, provided on the RIL website again.

“…I have not been receiving information pertaining to payment of dividend for at least two years now. Kindly look into the matter and remit the due dividend at the earliest to HDFC Bank account no. 9999999999.”

They think of everything, don’t they, these RIL guys. They knew that calling the number provided will yield no results, neither will the Karvy website address, hence an investor will want an email ID. Not for nothing is RIL India’s biggest private company.

6th March, 2019

Send out a reminder to the earlier mail. Prepare drafts of the next three responses we will send after not receiving a response for the previous email.

Digging deeper into the website, we locate a list of Service Centres provided under the URL: https://www.ril.com/DownloadFiles/InvestorRelations/RIL_investor-service-centers.pdf

Forward the same email to ‘ircdelhi@karvy.com,’ the email ID provided for the centre in Delhi. Thank you RIL for providing another go-to centre for getting our issue resolved. Another one from where we will never receive a response.

Continuing to dig deeper, we go over to the Karvy website once again, and discover a Chat option. We launch a Chat window that gets answered. Hurray! We have contact! Chat agent advises us as follows:

“We request you to follow the below mention documents.Please send the following physical documents to Karvy Fintech Pvt. Ltd., Karvy Selenium, Tower B,  Plot No. 31 and 32, Financial District, Nanakramguda, Serilingampally, Gachibowli, Hyderabad, PIN – 500032:
1)    A request letter which is duly signed by holder.
2)    Self attested copy of PAN Card.
3)    Self attested copy of address proof like Aadhar card/electricity bill/telephone bill/bank passbook copy.On receipt of the correct documents, it will be processed within 30 working days.”

7th March

Not ones to dither in the face of potential financial loss, we put together the documents asked for and send the packet via Speedpost, consignment no.  EH550948992IN.

30th March, 2019

No response received from Karvy. Exercising caution, and not wishing to burden the administrative machinery of RIL and Karvy and more than we need to, as they must be having many important things to do, rather than worry about handling customers or investors, we decide to track the consignment and find that the last update on the tracker is as of 8th March, out for delivery. The poor delivery person has been out for delivery for 22 days? We hope we did not inadvertently address the packet to some location on Mars. Peeved, we shoot off an email to the postal department to an email ID we find on the website, nsh.delhi@indiapost.gov.in.

(Note: though the delivery issue got resolved, I have not received a response to this email till the date of writing this post).

2nd April, 2019

March turns into April, as it invariably does, whether dividends are paid or not. No response received. Not easily disheartened by the lack of delivery confirmation on the Indiapost website, and knowing the government departments’ penchant for building citizens’ character by making straightforward transactions equivalent to drawing teeth, we initiate another Chat session with Karvy. This time taking care to save the Interaction. Chat ID ‘3455’, Agent name ‘Mutharak Nithin.’

As per established procedure, we are Initially told that documents had not been received. After providing the consignment no., receipt was confirmed and we were advised that: “The documents will be inwarded in 7-10 working days.” Inwarded apparently meant ‘scanned and uploaded.’

Heave a sigh of relief. India Post, as we had believed, was only trying to do some harmless character building by keeping us in the dark about the packet.

22nd April, 2019

First week April turns to fourth week April. Chat being the only channel that has elicited a response, initiate another session. This turns out be Chat session no. 6568. And, guess what, the agent name is ‘Mutharak Nithin.’ Either they have a very efficient agent or they ask all agents to change their name to Mutharak Nitin if they wish to work for Karvy.

I was told that “We have given request to the banker for the printing of the dividend warrants and we have not received any update from the banker.” The agent also sent a file listing details of unpaid dividend per their records.

27th May, 2019

As no update received, and now unable to connect on Chat, it seems they finally managed to synchronise, and block equally efficiently, all channels of access available to customers, we send a follow-up email to rilinvestor@karvy.com, the email ID that had shown no signs of life on earlier occasions.

And, not leaving anything to chance, we send the same email to another email ID that we find on the Karvy website that has been provided as the contact ID for issues pertaining to Corporate Registry, which is what we believe our issue was, einward.ris@karvy.com.

28th May, 2019

Wonder of wonders!

An email is received from einward.ris@karvy.com. In a helpful composition, they ask us to provide all the information that we had already provided earlier in the Chat the transcript of which we had attached to our email.

Peeved, again, we send out an immediate response to this email complaining about poor service and delaying tactics: “Over a month has elapsed since my last communication on Chat with Karvy re. unpaid dividend. Now even unable to connect with Karvy on chat.”

Receive another, possibly automated, response. Thankfully, they don’t ask for the information once again.

3rd June, 2019

Manage to connect again on Chat through a crack in the edifice that they perhaps forgot to block. This Chat no. is 5166. Agent name is Executive. Understandable. We know lots and lots of people by the name Executive running around in India. I think Mutharak Nithin left.

The agent goes through the process he has perhaps been taught.

He says that documents not received.

We give reference of earlier Chat that had confirm receipt of documents.

Then he says the documents received were only for ECS updation (whatever ECS means).

We politely request him to refer to an even earlier Chat that had listed the documents required for the purpose, and politely also request him to verify that the documents we had sent were the same.

Under the onslaught of logical arguments, he caves in. He signs off with: “We will check with the concern team and get back to you soon.”

Soon…

1st July, 2019

Enough is enough.

The time had come to let RIL and Karvy know who is boss.

We hit paydirt. We find a ‘grievance management framework’ on the RIL website. This is surely to fix employees who refuse to pay heed to customers. Under the URL: https://www.ril.com/InvestorRelations/GrievanceManagement.aspx,

we find the consoling words: We have outlined a framework to ensure a smooth and transparent procedure for interacting with our investors. Our values exude in all our interaction and are enshrined by the principles of corporate governance at Reliance.

It must be an effective framework, as it did not provide any clues to an investor as to the action he can take in case he has an issue which is not being resolved or responded.

We locate the ‘Nodal Officer for the IEPF Authority’ on the URL: https://www.ril.com/InvestorRelations/Investor-Contacts.aspx

Shri Sandeep Deshmukh, E-Mail: investor_relations@ril.com

We write in our best, understated manner, as he is likely to be a responsible, senior person. One does not needlessly tick off senior, responsible persons.

“Despite taking up the issue in Feb 2019 and regular follow-ups since then, I have been unable to get an update on the issue of pending dividend of the last few years. On account of inaction from Karvy, I have been constrained to compile a chronology of events for further action, which I am attaching with this mail. Approaching you as this contact information has been provided on the company website for investor grievances. I hope you are able to resolve the issue for me.”

The rest, as they say, is history. We went off on a month-long vacation. When we returned in early August, guess what? No response had been received.

In the interim

While all this excitement was unfolding, it seems we missed an email from RIL dated 29th May, which a review of unread mails revealed. Hold your breath.

Will there be a happy conclusion to the sordid saga of unpaid dividend?

Will we be unable to write a blogpost detailing the twists and turns?

An examination of the email put our worries to rest. It pertained to unclaimed dividend for the last few years, initiated from the email ID investor.relations@ril.com, and signed by Sandeep Deshmukh, the name provided on the website, writing from an email ID only marginally different, a ‘.’ In place of an ‘_’.

Thankfully, it bore no reference to any of our emails or Chats over the last few months. In any case, we had written to Sandeep Deshmukh only on 1st July. Even he, senior and responsible official as he would no doubt be, could not have responded a month before we wrote to him. To further allay any other concerns we may have harboured, it boldly stated at the bottom:

This is a system generated Email. Please do not reply to this Email.

And so was born this blogpost.

Khul ja SIM SIM

The last few weeks have given me an opportunity to sample signal examples of customer service from some of the largest names in retail businesses in India.

Airtel, for instance, one of India’s largest mobile services providers.

Sunday, 7th July 2019, around 4 PM (all dates and times in IST)

My mobile stops working. I panic as it is Sunday and I am slated to travel to the US for an extended period the same night. I call the helpline and am given to understand that I would need to visit an Airtel store to get the SIM (a small electronic chip that goes inside a mobile device and is an integral component of mobile telephony on GSM networks) replaced. Fortunately, there is one not far away from my house that is open on Sunday. I go to the store in Galleria Market in DLF Phase 4.

The attendant gives me a new SIM and says it would be operational in a few hours. I give him my Driving Licence as ID proof. He says that my picture on the Licence was slightly unclear and it could pose a problem in approval. In any case, if not accepted, he would get a response within two hours, their TAT for the service. He said he would track progress of the case and let me know later. As I was travelling overseas I also asked him to activate a month-long International Roaming plan after asking him if I should wait for the SIM to be active first. He said I could get the Roaming plan activated right away as the SIM would soon start working.

On my enquiring, he also told me that in the worst case, if the SIM does not work, I would not be able to get it changed while I was in the US.

Sunday, 7th July 2019, around 7 PM

As the SIM had not started working, and as I was unable to reach the attendant in the evening, I call the Airtel helpline again who tell me that no case of SIM update was registered with them for my number.

In the meantime, I get an email from Airtel confirming that the Roaming pack costing Rs. 3999- has been activated. Activated on a number that is inactive. Hmmm.

I manage to speak to the attendant later that might, perhaps after 9 PM. He says that ‘he could see on his end’, whatever that means, that the request has been registered and the SIM would start working as soon as I reach overseas. I do not have any choice but to rely on his word as I have a flight to catch just a few hours later.

Thursday, 11th July 2019, 9:09 AM

I am now in the US. Gingerly switch on my phone. Worst fears realised. Neither my old nor the new SIM is working. And I am here for more than 3 weeks. Unable to call as SIM is not working, I send an email to Airtel with a sequence of events, and further:

“…In the meantime, you are probably also charging me for the roaming pack for the US, while you have not been able to get my SIM to work. Can you please ensure that the SIM is working in the next 12 hours. If you are unable to do that, please ensure that I do not get charged for the Airtel roaming pack for which I have no use if the SIM does not work. A confirmation of the above request will be greatly appreciated. You will need to communicate with me on email or WhatsApp as the Airtel SIM is unable to connect to any service.

Friday, 12th July 2019, 7:03 PM

Receive email response from Airtel:

“This is in reference to your email informing us about not being able to use SMS service on your Airtel mobile number 99930XXXXX post SIM change. I have gone through your account and found that your mobile number is active on a different SIM 899100090169066YYYYY.”

(My feelings: Thank you Airtel for keeping me informed about another customer who I neither know nor care for, while you try to get my number to work.)

The email went on to tell me many more things about the other customer’s SIM which I will not bore you with here.

Friday, 12th July 2019, 9:57 PM

Touched by their desire to tell me about the status of issues of other customers, I write back to them:

“Your understanding is incorrect.

  • Which part of my mail did you understand as ‘not being able to use SMS service on your Airtel mobile number 99930XXXXX’?
  • Whose number are you quoting in your email? It is not mine.
  • I am already in the US. As my SIM is not working, neither old nor new, I cannot send you an SMS. You can only communicate on WhatsApp and Email.
  • In my earlier email I have already specified the name of the location I went to and where I was given the new SIM. I don’t know why you are asking again? Can you get necessary details from them and not me. If they have been deficient in collecting documents, I cannot answer for that. I believe I have given a copy of my Driving Licence.”

Can you pls refer this request to someone who can read an email and understand the issue.
I repeat my earlier email:

…”

Wednesday, 17th July 2019, 3:46 PM

Another email response, in keeping with elite standards of promptness (response received after 5 days) and accuracy (still talking about another customer’s issue):

“This is in reference to your email regarding delay in activation on your Airtel mobile number 99930XXXXX. I apologize for the inconvenience caused. Your feedback will enable us to enhance our services and service experience. Let me assure you that action will be taken to ensure that this is not repeated. I have checked our records and found that the services of your are active with effect from 14-07-209 and working fine. You may check your current plan benefits or change plan online via My Airtel App. To download the app, click http://www.airtel.in/5/nv.

Wednesday, 17th July 2019, 3:54 PM

The same email again with an added line:

“////Please ignore the previous mail”

Wednesday, 17th July 2019, 3:56 PM

Another email from Airtel:

“This is in reference to your email regarding delay in activation on your Airtel mobile number 98104XXXXX…

I have checked our records and found that the services of your are active with effect from 11-07-2019. Please restart your mobile and start using the services. 

(My feelings: This is not fair. I want to know the status of issues faced by other customers. Why are you telling me about my issue? You have ‘found’ that my services are active from 11th July. However, I don’t ‘find’ that to be the case. What do we do now?)

We noted that the International Roaming service is already active on your number. Please restart your mobile and start using the services. Please try using a different handset and see if the issue persists.”

(My feelings: Since I asked you to ensure deactivation of International Roaming service, very kind of you to confirm that the service is active on my number.)

Friday, 19th July, 5:40 AM

I write back.

“I disagree. Service not active. I have tried switching on and off multiple times. Also tried multiple handsets. Even saying they are active from 11th July seems like an excuse knowing I will not be able to visit a store to dispute as I am already overseas. Besides, considering I visited your store on the 7th, is 4 days the turnaround you offer for Airtel customers.

Basically I am off the network now for ten days already and seems will be so till 4th August when I am back in India and can go to an Airtel store.

Once again, please disconnect my Roaming pack as it is useless for me as you have not been able to get it to work. Please ensure I DO NOT GET CHARGED FOR THIS LACK OF SERVICE.”

Saturday, 20th July, 11:45 AM

Email arrives from Airtel.

“We have activated International Roaming (IR) service/smartpack on 98104XXXXX with effect from 20/07/2019.”

(My feelings: Thank you for activating a service that I wanted you to deactivate. As you seem to deviate from the beaten path, I hope you will pay me for providing this service, instead of the norm of the customer paying a provider.)

Saturday, 20th July, 11:46 AM

Email from Airtel.

“I’m writing to you regarding your email about deactivating international roaming pack on your Airtel number 98104XXXXX. We’ve deactivated the international roaming pack International Roaming @3999 Unlimited Incoming – 30 days pack-Zone B  on your number. we understand not being able to use the services when in roaming has inconvenienced you.
 
Further, I also understand your perspective and rental to be paid on non usage of International roaming services. Please note that we are dependent on the international roaming operator to provide usage details. Currently we are unable to provide the usage details as International roaming usage depends upon the inputs received from other operators and we will receive the same with delay.
 
Hence the usage is verified by us and post successful validation the billing will be processed. However, the usage and charges will be made available on 09-08-2019 which is your bill generation date. Hence, I kindly request you to write back to us after post bill generation i.e, on 09-08-2019.

(My feelings: Finally Airtel has an employee who can do two things together; 1. Read customer communication, 2. Understand customer communication. When did things change? I can sense the prospect of an interesting blogpost slipping away.)

Saturday, 3rd August, around 3 PM

Back in India. My first conscious action, despite the jetlag, is to go to the Airtel store again. With the same issue; SIM not working. Find the same attendant who had attended to me on 7th July. He gives me another SIM and asks for an ID proof for which I again hand over my Driving Licence. I had also taken a photocopy of my Passport but he says because they use an online tool for issuance of SIM an original document is required. He then proceeds to take a picture of the DL which I suppose could not have been done with the PP copy.

He promises resolution in 15 minutes, which become 20, then 30 and then 2 hours. Not willing to let go, I busy myself in the marketplace and bought things I do not need and come back to him several times. Finally, after about 2 hours, he advises that Airtel has rejected my DL as ID proof as my picture was unclear.

Saturday, 3rd August, around 7 PM

I go back with my original Passport as ID proof. He takes it and gives me yet another SIM and proceeds with the transaction once again. He also asks me to sign another form and gives me yet another SIM, just in case the first request does not work out. On my asking why could he not directly go to the second process if that was more reliable, he says that that takes longer, hence we should stick to the first one. He says the TAT is 2 hours and I should have a working SIM by 9 PM. I put the first of the two SIMs in my phone.

Saturday, 3rd August, 7:24 PM

Email from Airtel:

“We have received your request for change in SIM No. from 899100090180337AAAAA to 899100090180469CCCCC for the above mentioned number. The same has been registered via Reference no. 21-2085434224032 and will be processed shortly.”

Saturday, 3rd August, 9:32 PM

Email from Airtel:

“Update on SIM change for your Airtel Mobile 98104XXXXX , Order no. 21-2085434224032: The SIM has been changed from899100090180337AAAAA to 899100090180469CCCCC. If you have not requested for SIM change, please call 121 immediately.”

Despite a strong flow of emails, phone still not working. Too tired to protest, I let it be.

Sunday, 4th August, 9;46 PM

I am out of town the entire day on the 4th, coming back around 7 PM. The phone remains stubbornly not working. I have planned to go to the store again the following day, a Monday.

At 9:46 PM an email arrives from Airtel:

“We have done below updation for your Airtel Mobile 98104XXXXX with effect from 04-Aug-2019
Deactivation
1) SMS Barring”

On a whim, I switch my phone off and on.

“Odyssey, this is Houston. Do you read me?”

“Hello Houston, this is Odyssey. It’s good to see you again.”

Selling Skills

The ability of Indian businesses to change their business strategies in response to the pulls and pressures of the marketplace has never failed to surprise me. From moment to moment. Businesses in India are a flexible lot and standard bearers for the free market.

The truth of this statement is never more apparent than when one goes to a retailer to buy something. Like I did yesterday. To buy an electric box. The one that you instal on a wall and on which you mount the sockets and switches you need. Where the front panel is visible, almost flushed with the wall, while the rest of the box is inside the wall, with all wires and connectors.

For readers unable to follow my intensely descriptive, well, description, this is what it might look like:

electric box

I went looking for electric box made by, let’s call the company Fraser to avoid giving free publicity to the real name, even while some company by the name of Fraser gets free publicity. Fraser suited us as the other electric boxes in the house were of the same make which meant that the look and feel of electric boxes across the house would be similar, and my wife and I had a good opinion on their durability and functionality,  though the reasons for selecting Fraser are not really important in the larger scheme of things, namely this post.

“Fraser does not make electric boxes.” Stunned silence followed the statement from the salesperson at the first shop we enquired. My mind went blank and my eyes glassed over. Images of electric boxes around the house, embossed with the name Fraser, flashed in front of me. Had I unwittingly become a participant in a grand contraband operation of an epic scale lasting decades, considering at least twenty such boxes in our house were labelled as Fraser, and bought from different stores at different points of time?

“Any more,” the salesperson added, to soften the blow, perhaps moved by the shock, if not awe, on my face, and fearing he might have triggered a heart attack.

“But how is that possible?” I argued feebly, the foundation of my existence shaken by the opening comment, since I had bought the last one just three months back.

“I am telling you.” As a clincher in a series of objective, reasoned arguments, this one has few parallels in Indian retailing. Or Indian anything for that matter.

The pride of place, though, in the world of objective, rational, reasonable statements, in the world of Indian retailing, is taken by the magnanimous, sweeping statement that dates back to the time when one had to get a physical warranty card issued while purchasing a covered item, typically an electrical or electronic appliance or gadget. “Ajee hum baithe hain naa” that translates to “Hey, we are sitting here”, with a grand wave of the hand dismissing you the customer’s request for a warranty card as meaningless and cheap since ‘they were sitting there’. With a sheepish grin at having missed such an obvious point, I would walk out, since ‘they were sitting there’, without the warranty card.

I miss those days. Of walking out of a retail outlet with an expensive electronic item, and without the warranty card since ‘they were sitting there’. Of going back for repairs if needed and being asked to pay for the repair since I did not bring the warranty card that I did not have since ‘they were sitting there’ and the ‘they’ did not recognise me any more. We look upon digitisation and globalisation as a solution for all our problems. Rarely do we stop and think about what we are losing as a result. Experts opine that diversity in languages is fast disappearing as a result of globalisation.  I claim first-hand experience of the same. “Ajee hum baithe hain naa” is one phrase that has been lost to the world. Globalisation is to blame.

A close second was “ajee hum kahan jaa rahe hain?” that translates to “where do you think we are going?” Another objective, rational response to the customer’s, “Can you please give me the warranty card for the TV I have purchased?” This has been known to be used by retailers when the situation was such that a mere “Ajee hum baithe hain naa” could not do justice.

Back to the electric box.

I reeled under the impact of the news and clutched the counter for support. But rational and objective people like me don’t give in easily. There had to be a logical explanation. I gathered myself and walked out of the shop along with my wife, in search of it. The logical explanation, as well as the Fraser electric box.

“Fraser does not make electrical equipment,” boomed the shopkeeper’s voice in the next shop as I went about asking for my favourite electric box brand. “They never have,” he said in a tone of finality, much like judges of yore breaking the nib of their fountain pen while pronouncing a death sentence.

I reeled again and had to sit down on a chair. The change of Fraser’s business strategy all of a sudden was too much to handle. Ten minutes back the strategy of Fraser had changed from making electric boxes to not making them. All of a sudden, and without warning, the strategy had now changed to not making any electrical equipment. That too with retrospective effect. It was not fair.

Perhaps sensing my delicate condition under the impact of this revelation, which was confirmed as fact when the shopkeeper said, “I am telling you,” he quietly said to me, “The best one in the market at this time is Sparta (name changed to avoid giving free publicity to the real name).”

Not sure of anything anymore, I feebly said, “Can I take a look at one?”

He brought it out and cheerily said, “You happen to be in luck. We have just a few pieces left.” I smiled feebly at this turn in my fortunes. I was the desert traveller who, on the verge of collapse from thirst, had found his oasis.

Normally I would have bought just the one piece that I needed. But I drank hungrily from this oasis. I bought several electric boxes from the shop, to quench the thirst that would perhaps never even arise. I thanked him profusely for coming to my rescue. Who says the milk of human kindness has dried up?