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

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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?

Mergers and Acquisitions – Part 2

Much as we admire the government’s handling of mergers and acquisitions, as we saw in the last post titled Mergers and Acquisitions, the government has a lot to learn from private businesses on the right way of doing mergers and acquisitions.

Take the case of the recent acquisition of Flipkart, India’s largest online retailer, by Walmart. Excuse my ignorance, but I was honestly not aware of the real reasons behind Walmart’s acquisition of Flipkart for USD 16 billion, the largest e-commerce deal in the world. Ever. 

Because they can, is what I had always put it down to, when news of this event had first surfaced, barely giving a second thought to what the real reason might have been. Till I was enlightened by several articles in April and May this year, like one titled “Walmart-Flipkart: How will you benefit” in MSN Money.

Benefit? Me? USD 16 billion? They did it for me? Unbelievable.

As opposed to mergers of government entities that have absolutely no impact on the common man, private businesses, it emerges, are competing hard to merge and acquire for the good of the common man. Yes, for you and me.

Now, I am the first to admit that I have been quite critical of corporate actions being at odds with their stated intentions. But Walmart bought Flipkart for me? I still can’t believe it. But the evidence is overwhelming.

Through the various articles I came across during that period, I learnt that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion in order to serve customers, support job creation, small businesses, farmers, and women entrepreneurs.

I learnt that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion to partner to create sustained economic growth across agriculture, food, and for extensive job creation through development of supply chains, commercial opportunity, and direct employment.

I learnt that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion to support the ‘Make in India’ programme of the government, through direct procurement as well as increased opportunities for exports through global sourcing and e-commerce.

I learnt that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion to partner with Kirana (mom and pop grocery) store owners and members to help modernise their retail practices and adopt digital payment technologies. They will also support farmers and develop supply chains through local sourcing and improved market access.

I learnt that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion so that the Indian consumer base – a huge chunk of which is the middle class, gradually moving to lower middle – can benefit from cheaper prices through Walmart’s playbook, which has seen success across the world.

Silly me.

I had always thought Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion because executive incentives are aligned to phantom metrics that reward not shareholder value creation but short term revenue spike.

I had always thought that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion because companies take advantage of their over-valued stock to make an acquisition while their currency is strong.

I had always thought that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion because of the vanity of decision makers.

I had always thought that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion because of fear of competition stealing a march over them.

I had always thought that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion to become a giant in the space it operates in and makes its owners rich beyond belief.

But I could not have been more wrong. It was me all along. They bought Flipkart for me.

“Everything I do, I do it for you”…sang Bryan Adams.

Mergers and Acquisitions

It seems that the board of Dena Bank has cleared the merger proposal with Bank of Baroda and Vijaya Bank that was announced by the government a few days back.

What a relief! To have the board of a government owned bank act in conformity with the announcement of the government. Strange things do happen. We now wait with bated breath for the boards of Bank of Baroda and Vijaya Bank to do the same.

It seems the time for initiatives of great magnitude, that have absolutely no impact on the common man, and can be both forcefully justified as well as denounced with irrelevant arguments, depending on which side of the fence you are on, to be announced, is upon us once again. In this case it is the planned merger of Bank of Baroda, Dena Bank and Vijaya Bank, three government owned banks.

Why is it being done? There are good reasons, it seems.

“Simply”, as they say in some parts of the country, where the p sounds more like a b, seems to be one important reason.

“JLT”, acronym for “just like that”, like they say in some other parts, where the j sounds just like a j, is another.

And, “the cause is in my will”, the lines Shakespeare got Julius Caesar to mouth in the eponymous play, yet another. Who could have guessed?

The Finance Minister has categorically said that no jobs will be lost. Whether they are needed in the rationalised, merged entity or not. That in itself can justify a transaction of this magnitude and nature, without the need for bringing additional supporting arguments to the table. After all, the cost of running the merged entity will continue to be similar to the sum of the three entities, as cost of human resources is a major cost for banks. What better reason can there be to merge?

This merger is also expected to lead to the recognition and resolution of stressed assets, already under way, which will help improve asset quality over the next six to twelve months. As we all know, stressed assets cannot be recognised and resolved if three nationalised banks stay independent.

In addition, cost of funds for the merged entity is expected to come down since Vijaya Bank has a high dependence on short-term bulk deposits, which are typically high cost in nature. And, since Vijaya Bank’s cost of funds will go down by leveraging cheaper funds of the other two banks, it follows that the cost of funds of the other two banks will not go up as they will have to shoulder a proportionate burden of Vijaya Bank’s higher cost of funds. Elementary. Moreover, this arithmetic of weighted averages would not have worked if the three were separate entities.

Even analysts are agog. According to them, the success of this exercise is crucial for future such attempts. Not for this transaction, but for future transactions. As success of the merger is not crucial, it is important that it was done.

In particular, the proposed merger is seen as a test of the capacity of a large bank, which itself is facing pressure on asset quality, to absorb a weaker peer. Even though mandated by the government.

It apparently matters. Because when a state lender faces pressure on its Balance Sheet, the government does a complex transaction known as money transfer, which is christened as “recapitalisation” in case the receiving entity is a stressed government bank. It takes from one of its pockets, which mostly has your and my tax money, and puts it into another, the one called “Balance Sheet of Nationalised Banks” which has become depleted either because farm loans had to be waived off or because a well-connected businessperson had to be given unsecured loans as he had the ear of the minister or capacity for favours to government bankers with compensations that have no relation to the huge amounts of money handled by them.

Ultimately, how well the three banks combine could well end up determining the future of consolidation among public sector banks. Alternatively, and more probably, the future of consolidation among public sector banks could also be determined by when the next period comes around when someone in power needs to show actions that do not impact anyone an iota but can be forcefully justified as well as denounced with irrelevant arguments, depending on which side of the fence you are on.

Of course, it is important for the government to continue to run businesses instead of merely governing and making and enforcing laws. This is why these banks could not be offered to private investors and bankers. Unfortunately, private investors might have sought unreasonable conditions like value.

 

Customer Loyalty

While trying to clean up my mailbox, I came across an email from an airline that I had, apparently, left in my inbox without any action, like Delete, which I often resort to in haste and sometimes repent later at leisure. The subject line of that email is the title of this post.

This airline had come into being with a lot of fanfare several years earlier, promoted by a flamboyant liquor baron. I used it occasionally, circa 2010, around the time of this email. For the record, this airline is now out of business, apparently on account of its inability to pay mounting debts.

I now recollect that when I had received this email, I was more than a little confused and of the view that the subject line did not do justice to the content, or perhaps the content did not do justice to the subject line. In my confusion I left the email parked in the Inbox, to be read and disposed of in a more relaxed frame of mind. It came to my attention today when I was trying to clean-up my Inbox. And it confused me all over again.

From the subject line of the email, I gathered that the email was sent with the objective of building loyalty amongst its customers, like me. But after reading through the email several times, I was not at all sure. But it could just be me and my sceptical outlook. You judge for yourself.

Presented below is the complete email, with my interpretation of a particular section in parentheses, in green italics, immediately after that section. If you delete the content within parentheses, it becomes the complete original email received by me. To avoid ruffling feathers more than need to be ruffled, we will call is ABC Airlines.

The Email, then:

Dear Sir, As one of our most valued guests, I share with you our commitment to building a stronger ABC Airlines.

(We have not been able to do it in the several years of our existence. However, we assure you that now we are committed to doing it. Of course, we are informing you because we believe our building a stronger airline will be of tremendous interest to you, as it will make all of us at the airline, richer, and make no difference to you whatsoever as you will continue to have options of other airlines to fly with.)

Since inception, ABC Airlines has stood for the best in air travel in the Indian skies. As we navigate through one of the most turbulent times, we remain strong, committed and driven.

(Even if you had not come to know of it from other sources, we want to ensure that you, our loyal customer, is aware that we are navigating through turbulent times, so that you can think twice before giving us your business, which might give us the opportunity to navigate through even more difficult times, and allow us to remain stronger, more committed and more driven. Especially as it makes no difference to you whatsoever as you will continue to have options of other airlines to fly with.)

We will emerge, stronger than ever before. Our key mission remains, placing your experience at the heart of our operation. We are committed and expect to continue to:

• Provide safe and reliable service. I assure you that we have full confidence in our aircraft fleet, and will not fly an aircraft unless we are completely sure that it is safe to operate.

(Though in the past we have not had full confidence on our fleet, and have flown aircraft without being completely sure that it was safe to fly, we assure you we will not do the same again. Promise.)

• Operate our flight as per schedule and on-time.

(Now we are going to. As stated earlier – Promise.)

• Provide competitive fares across cabin classes and markets.

(We thought the in-flight video of our boss asking in-flight stewards to treat you as a guest in his house would be enough to charge you a premium. We may even have got away with it on occasion. But now that we know that the premium service of the boss’ video has turned out to be inadequate, we will offer competitive rates.)

• Ensure that our guests continue to earn and retain their elite tier status and that the Frequent Flier Miles earned by our guests remain secure and intact with Frequent Flier Club.

(We had planned to wilfully downgrade the tier status of guests, and also to arbitrarily reduce the miles already earned and accumulated. But we will defer this plan to a more appropriate time in the future.)

• Enjoy benefits with the Frequent Flier Club which is at par, if not more advantageous than what is on offer. Our schedule along with best fares is available at http://www.abc.com With your continued faith and our nerves of steel, we are confident in restoring our position of excellence in the Indian sky.

(We have confused even ourselves with our first statement here. We think what we are trying to say is that you will get benefits with the Frequent Flier Club, which you are already getting. And that is a great privilege which is why we need to call this out in our email to you. Further, we have understood from our experience that the one key attribute required to succeed is “nerves of steel”. Not knowledge, not experience, not customer service, not operating excellence, but “nerves of steel”. We have got all employees grafted with this key attribute. So now, as a logical conclusion, we are bound to restore our position of excellence in the sky. Which we have never held in the past. You may also need them (nerves of steel) if you fly with us, we might add.)

My team joins me in thanking you once again for your loyalty and patience.

Unquote

After having read through the email section by section, I feel bad for the investors and management of the company.

Is this a sincere but misguided effort at building customer loyalty?

Or is this a planned and meticulously worded effort at eroding whatever little customer loyalty remained?

Or is this an email which actually helps in enhancing customer loyalty, which I suspect was the original purpose of the email?

What do you think? This could be used as a case-study in customer communication.

 

You Can

“A horse a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” spake King Richard in Shakespeare’s Richard III.

In a slight twist to the Shakespearean phrase, we say A can a can. A can for my car. A Swachh can for my Hyundai Accent car.”

Hyundai Motors, a leading car maker in India, has boldly gone where no car has gone before. It has done the unthinkable. It has introduced a Swachh can inside its cars.

Not a bag. Not an envelope. A can.

I am sure my erudite readers understand what a can is. But a Swachh can?

My erudite readers, a Swachh can is also a can. In this particular case it is the size of a Venti Latte takeaway coffee cup of Starbucks. Or an ice-cream cone with a slightly upsized mound of ice-cream.

And Swachh? Swachh means clean. Swachh Bharat, or Clean India, is the call given by the present PM to keep the country clean, which is why our countrymen did not keep the country clean before the call. They were waiting for the call I believe. Now they are waiting for something else. We will find out as soon as that call gets given.

They, Hyundai Motors, have splashed advertisements in all prominent media to ensure no person is denied this pleasure. And roped in Shahrukh Khan, the leading star of Hindi movies for almost two decades, and their brand ambassador for perhaps as long. Of having a Swachh can in his car.

swachh can

But if Hyundai wants to place a can in its cars, why should we care? It is a free country after all. They are free to place a can, a flower-pot, or a steering wheel, in their cars. They have to figure out the commercial model of their decision and ensure it is legal.

We care because we are sensitive and caring human beings. We care because we believe Hyundai’s hand has been forced. By the draconian Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) law. The company has admitted that it is using its Corporate Social responsibility (CSR) funds for this initiative.

The CSR law, as some might already know, mandates for-profit corporations of a certain size, to spend 2% of the average net profits of the last three years, on CSR activities.

In order that the law is transparent and fair, the government has sharply identified what qualifies as a CSR activity by only recommending particular areas of need, including eradicating hunger and poverty, maternal and child health, HIV, TB and malaria, promoting gender equality and environmental sustainability. Companies can develop their own investment strategies and decide where to invest as long as it is approved by their Board which has one independent director who is paid by the company. To make the law even more clear, it also does not define an enforcement mechanism or penalties for non-compliance.

The Swachh can ticks off all boxes.

The CSR law, apparently, has been brought in because it is believed that for-profit corporations are best suited to carry out CSR activities since welfare of society is neither their primary, or secondary, or tertiary objectives or any part of their reasons for existence.

And since one of the primary responsibilities of a government is understood to be to determine high-priority needs of society and target public expenditure in these areas, what better way to discharge it than to abdicate the responsibility to for-profit organisations. After all, since corporations exist, why should the government do any work beyond making vague and misleading laws? We all know how difficult that itself is, don’t we?

Instead of managing a billion people many of whom are poor and expect the government to actually work for improving their lot, why not just manage a few thousand business corporations who will make the process of governance easier by contributing handsomely to politicians and political parties for these rights and laws.

Governments and politicians are happy because they will have even lesser work to do and can make good use of their time by making baseless accusations at other politicians for questioning this law.

Corporations are happy because what was required as an essential part of the success of their business and anyway being done, now can be quantified in Rupee terms and showcased as their selfless contribution to society.

A billion people are happy because they believe a huge amount is being spent on them and not on for-profit corporations making money for themselves, and their gradual decline into greater misery is either not visible or on account of their own incapability, and not for lack of government and for-profit corporation support.

Armed with the CSR law, for-profit corporations are boldly going where they been many times before.

Like a hydrocarbon extraction company who has decided to use the CSR funds for training displaced independent, proud farmers to handle jobs as drivers, security guards and pantry boys in their offices.  Which they were doing even before the CSR law was introduced.

Like a soft drink manufacturer who is using its CSR resources to recharge ground water supplies in the areas they produce their drinks. Which they were doing even before the CSR law was introduced.

Like Hyundai Motors putting Swachh cans inside cars.

No wonder cars were not clean. No wonder roads were not clean. There was no Swachh can inside the car.

Now, as soon as there is trash inside the car, what will you do? You will open the lid of the Swachh can and poof. The offending trash will vanish inside the can. And, as soon as the can is full, what will you do? You will open the lid of the can and poof. The offending trash will vanish on the road.

It was the absence of the can that kept our roads dirty. Not the absence of a mindset that allows us to respect others and the space of others.

Pressed for answers on the genesis of this CSR initiative, Hyundai Motors says they have done it because in a survey 98% of respondents have said that they deeply care about cleanliness of outside infrastructure such as streets and roads. Respondents were given two choices, as below:

Q. Cleanliness of outside infrastructure such as streets and roads is a big issue in India. Which of the following statements describes you best?

  • ˆI care about it
  • ˆI don’t care about it

And 95% of respondents said they favoured a portable covered bin inside the car in which waste items could be conveniently disposed off. Again, respondents were given two choices, as below:

Q. For conveniently disposing off trash inside the car, would you

  • ˆPut the trash in a portable covered bin inside the car
  • ˆThrow the trash outside the window

Since people told us, we have invented from scratch and given you the Swachh can.

And a plastic one too, by the looks of it.

Boyed by the resounding success of the CSR initiative as it seems to have changed nothing, and since 30% of their profits paid by for-profit corporations to the government as taxes cannot be used for governance since there are other important uses for that money, the government is considering enactment of laws to get for-profit corporations to spend 2% of their average annual net profit over the last three years to ensure that crimes against women are eliminated, and penalise them if they are not.

Why did we not think of this before? Everything the government could not do now seems possible.