Thursday, January 29, 2009


These days one's work (to the extent /the part that involves net usage) is impacted by the quality and bandwidth of the internet connection. If the net connection is poor then a 15 minute task can take 30 minutes to complete . It impacts the speed with which a business is able to respond to it's customers .

At home I have a terrific internet connection that nowadays works well. The internet connection in the office is relatively slower and more erratic (though improving now after relentless followup with the service provider ) . Still the internet experience at home is way better than that at the office .

Given the importance of the internet connection it's surprising that hardly any of the service providers focus on the productivity aspect in their marketing and promotion to businesses. They talk about the various plans and bandwidth combinations purely as product , price options . The promotion material and the sales reps At best they will ask " does your work involve a lot of data download ? " when attempting to suggest which plan to opt for. Given the number of flyers and salespeople visiting from internet service providers one gets the distinct impression of supply exceeding demand at least in that location .

This mind set of looking at one's offering purely as a product exists in varying degrees across industries . It's a limiting perspective for all involved . Companies will beat themselves to death (or near death experiences every now and then ) on price wars , turn all innovation into an unnecessarily capital intensive endeavor . Focusing on the customer experience and the value (not monetary value) of the service for the customer can make all the difference in turning the business into a win-win , profitable and enjoyable proposition for the customer and the service provider. The ability to execute and deliver outstanding service , re-calibrate to changing customer needs etc are critical . The starting point is the perspective .

I remember reading a parable which talked about a man who fell from a cliff . He managed to hold on to some creepers and hung on desperately all night . His arms were stiff from holding on to the creepers through the tight . He was understandably weary. When dawn broke he looked down and saw that there was a ledge just few inches below on which he could have rested comfortably . If only...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The lure of a wrist watch...

Icici Bank is offering a wrist watch signed by Shah Rukh Khan if one opens a Privilege Banking account or upgrades to a 'titanium , gold or silver privilege account ' . What this basically means is that if you deposit significant money (relative to a regular bank account requirement) with Icici bank you will be rewarded with a watch signed by Shah Rukh Khan . This is supposed to be incentive to motivate a HNI to open an account with a bank ? 

A HNI customer is driving past ICICI bank and sees the hoardings and thinks "wow I'll get a watch signed by Shah Rukh Khan " . The next day he visits ICICI bank and opens an account. This dream sequence would probably happen in a movie (possibly one starring Shah Rukh) .

A wrist watch signed by Shah Rukh Khan may be of relevance in rural banking when seeking to expand the customer base . To offer it as an incentive for Privilege Banking is rather hilarious .
Most banks target male consumers . An educated professional does not see Shah Rukh as a role model ( most men I know can't even tolerate his acting ). Such a consumer will open a bank account for the lure of a mass printed wrist watch with Shah Rukh Khan's initials ?

To ensure that they don't alienate existing account holders this generous offer extends to account upgrades . In my visits to various branches of Icici bank I have almost always seen agitated customers . Folks who have been pushed over the edge due to some persistent problem with or courtesy the bank . Such a consumer will choose to add to his / her woes by depositing even more money with the bank for a mass printed wrist watch ?

Clearly Icici Bank ( and organizations who embark on such promotions ) have money to spend. Putting that into genuine , measurable service improvements will yield far more benefits than such ill conceived , pointless promotions .

Hope and dread

We hope vaguely but dread precisely .

Paul Valery 

Monday, January 26, 2009

Happy Republic Day

26 Jan - The Republic Day of India . Across the nation the Indian flag would have been hoisted in schools , colleges , organizations , residential buildings...

Went for the flag hoisting ceremony in my building . White seemed to be the dress code . Most members were in white . I must have stood out conspicuously in my jeans and printed top . In the past few years I had not attended the ceremony . Hence the ignorance perhaps .

Jana Gana Mana had to be played . Someone had the smart idea to drive a car with a powerful music system to the place near the flag pole . And we stood silently while Jana Gana Mana was played and the flag hoisted . After that there was some competition of sorts for children in the building followed by snacks . The general discussion was one of catching up with neighbors , about the children . Can't recollect any conversation that featured the Republic of India .

Across the nation(s) it's possible that days like today are about some rituals like the flag hoisting (looks terrible if a building does not have a flag hoisting ceremony). What is the connection that the ritual builds with the idea of a nation ? of the idea of being Indian ? Especially in urban areas . To folks in the armed forces days like today possibly have a deeper , emotional significance. As also to the families of those who lost their loved ones defending India . 

20-30 years ago across India there would have been families there were directly or indirectly involved in the struggle for freedom . Men and women who knew what it was to live in a country that was not free . And therefore possibly cherished the Independence Day and Republic Day more than festivals .

What is the significance of Republic Day in present day urban India ? For the generations that have been born and raised in an independent India ? Newspapers filled with pictures of celebrities wearing clothes that have shades of the tri-color , saying what it means to be Indian. Sample this : the view of actress Asin on Rahul Gandhi - ' he has inherited his father's charismatic persona and intelligence  which could take the country places ' . I'm not sure I want me or India to go that that 'place' . 

Other than helping many publications take a break from the effort to write articles it possibly helps a lot of Chinese companies who supply the cloth for the flag .
( for anyone who plans to write in saying that most publications don't anyway print quality content on a daily basis - I totally agree . Most of the articles are not worth felling trees to produce the paper it is printed on ).

We can create new , meaningful rituals for Republic Day - as individuals and as groups :
- Give time , attention , money to those less fortunate
- help educate a child 
- enable vocational training for an adult
- take initiative to get an area cleaned and to keep it clean
- plant trees
- campaign to save mangroves
- the list can be meaningfully expanded 

We need to rise above the idea of nations and see the human species as one . Until that can happen we can attempt an expansive and inclusive definition of what it means to be Indian . And be cognizant of our responsibilities and rights the other 364 days of the year .

Happy Republic Day to all citizens of this magnificent piece of the pale blue dot .


Had purchased a fountain pen few months ago . And a bottle of ink . Thereafter either the pen was elusive or the ink bottle was (with some contribution from my diligent maid who reshuffles objects in ways that defy comprehension) . Today after a long time the two were in visual range together. Took some effort to fill the ink in the pen . What followed thereafter was the delightful experience of smooth writing .

There's something inexplicably inspiring and romantic about a smooth fountain ink pen. Evokes past and future memories .

In the day and age of sms and email there is so little hand written communication we send and receive. Which is such a pity . No email or sms can evoke the emotion that a hand written note can .With loss of phone , computer or the data there is only the occasional memory of the communication . Just the effort ( relative to sms/email ) of writing a note and sending it to someone is an indicator that one cares to have made the effort .

I tend to send hand written cards and letters . Recently a friend who's moving to a new residence called to talk about the letters and cards she had received from me over the years . Her sister ( a delightful , spirited soul ) saw them and was touched by it . We shared a lovely conversation reliving memories.

There's one instance that I'll always remember . When I moved out of the company I worked at ( prior to starting SoulQuest) I wrote personalized notes and cards for everyone who had worked with me. A year and a half later when I visited the office I saw the cards on some the tables . It felt like receiving a gift with the same emotion with which it was originally given.

Often we hesitate to express our thoughts thinking that it probably does not matter to the other person , he/she is so self-sufficient etc . A genuine thought always matters to the recipient.

Reach out to the people you care about . Mend hurts , express affection , gratitude , share memories . Acknowledge those who helped you along the way. Write....

Sales opportunities in service centres

My mobile of nearly 4 years needs to be replaced . Before coming to the conclusion that it needs to be replaced I visited the service centre of Sony Ericsson . Had to wait a while till the technical person checked the phone . While waiting there I thought it would be a good idea to check the latest phone options from Sony Ericsson . Did not expect them to have actual phones on display . Thought they would have brochures . Strangely they had no material on new products for a customer to browse through (except some posters on a wall which were more to announce that this was a Sony Ericsson service centre). 

Why a brand would miss an obvious opportunity to present new product offerings to existing customers is a mystery . 

It's possible that the service centre is run as a franchised operation . In whatever way it is structured the point is that existing customers walk into that space on a daily basis . It is a valuable contact opportunity for new business generation . An opportunity for which Sony Ericsson would otherwise( and probably does) spend millions .

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Advantage local business

The internet has enabled a situation where a on-line store in Bangalore or Brazil is a regular shopping spot for a consumer in New York . Interesting products , consistent service and delivery mechanisms make it possible for (many) consumers to buy with ease from most physical locations across the world .

Zoom into Mumbai ( or most Indian metros for that matter ) . Traffic is a nightmare . Suburbs once one thought as being nearby now are distant . Between the sorry state of the roads , the lack of traffic regulation , poor quality of public transport (hence everyone who has a vehicle uses it ) - the result is situation that is drain on resources at every level - individual , national and planetary.

Local businesses have a natural advantage in terms of being able to offer savings on the most precious resource of the customer - TIME. A local grocery store , local book store , local bank , local spa , local florist , local coffee shop , local cinema....Of course just being local is not enough to win over consumers . And some businesses have a greater advantage by being local than others. e.g a consumer who wants to buy a high value appliance will make the effort to drive to a store 1 hour away to be able to see a wide range . And local does not mean a stand-alone store of a small business . It can be local HDFC bank branch , local Cafe Coffee Day , local PVR.

Local businesses have never had a better set of circumstances tilting the advantage in their favor . If they recognize it and spruce up their product and service offerings - everyone stands to gain :
- the business 
- the consumer - who saves time and money (otherwise spent on commuting )
- other citizens - who can possibly encounter lesser traffic on the roads !
- Fuel savings - for the consumer , nation and planet

Local businesses thriving can bring a whole host of benefits to the community . It can open up opportunities for entrepreneurs to start businesses locally , open up local employment opportunities for people residing in an area ( a 10 min commute to work in a city like Mumbai is a perk that beats membership to a fancy club ) .

A 100 years ago life was largely local for most inhabitants of the planet because transportation was limited . In cities like Mumbai we are approaching that way of life in varying degrees for reasons that have to do largely with transportation.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Where's the service ?

Interesting article by Jeffrey Pfeffer . Retailer myopia is clearly a global phenomenon :)

Third stop: Sears
December Same Store Sales: -7.3%

.....By then I’d had all the fun I could stand, so I went home. So what did I learn in my brief shopping excursion? First, no wonder I hate to go shopping. It has become a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Second, the mall is sort of like an Outward Bound experience: Lots of friendly customers helping each other out, since the sales staff is either nonexistent or would rather not be bothered. Third, without for a moment denying that the principal factors causing the retail downturn are the lousy economy and the credit crunch, it is also the case that the in-store experience adds almost nothing to shopping success......

....We supposedly live in a service economy, now that manufacturing has mostly disappeared. If that’s true, we are truly in trouble. Because in this service economy, where’s the service?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Searching for Indian in India

In visits to stores I sometimes find a striking absence of Indian influence and heritage in design. This is a nuanced issue and I hope my perspective comes across in the right spirit .

India has a beautiful and rich heritage of design . From aesthetics to a holistic product design that encompasses the life cycle of the product . Add to it the fact that each state / region of India has it's own distinct culture and design heritage . This makes for a treasure trove of inspiration and influence on a wide range of product and space designs - clothing , furniture , home accessories , interiors , public spaces , malls . The list can be creatively expanded as the applications are numerous .

For a country with such a rich design heritage there isn't much of it visible in modern retail - whether in the design of the spaces or a lot of the products (exception being Indian dresses and saris ). With the possible exception of FabIndia there are hardly any national retailers that have India inspired design reflected their stores and products (again exception being Indian dresses / saris ). And of the some that do attempt India inspired design in part of the range they end up skimming the surface rather than bringing forth unusual aspects of the craft form or the design heritage .

In attempting to make spaces and products that are 'modern' the end result is a somewhat sterile and generic look (Mall A = Mall B = Mall C and Product A = Product B = Product C ) opening the doors wide for low buzz , price competition and gradual loss of one's beautiful heritage in one's physical environment. 

Even if we forget the heritage angle there is an aesthetic need to make spaces and products have personality and distinctiveness !

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Musical inspiration..

Bought a music CD of Ghajini . A.R Rahman's inspired (and inspiring) music needs no introduction . While downloading the CD on iTunes I was pleasantly surprised to see the list of singers . He manages to bring together eclectic , new talent and create soulful music . While a lot of music directors prefer to rely on famous , proven signers it's heartening to see directors like Rahman who have the genius to compose great music and the confidence to give new talent an opportunity . Perhaps part of the freshness in his music stems from the fact that he inducts new singers to sing his compositions . 

Something perhaps for business leaders and managers to reflect on ? 

Service Minus

Witnessed service taken to a new low . At a Food Bazaar store the security person opens the bag of the consumer , evaluates content that is similar to what is being retailed in the store and tags it with a sticker e.g deo spray , powder . Idea possibly being that at the exit another security person will countercheck contents (even if randomly ). Watched this happening to a consumer before me. I walked out of the store after seeing this completely ridiculous and disrespectful attitude towards the consumers . Resorting to such extremes is a sign of intellectual bankruptcy on part of a retailer . No amount of "low prices" is worth enduring such disrespect .

The unspoken approach at Food Bazaar is to treat all customers as potential shop-lifters . Insisting on depositing bags , sealing purses in plastic bags , sealing plastic bags of purchases made in-store in such a way that plastic needs to be ripped apart . These are some of the measures adopted by Food Bazaar in the past . Possibly they continue to do all of this . Having been put off by initial experiences of this type I seldom venture into a Food Bazaar outlet. What I witnessed today was by far the worst ever experience at a store .

Across the country there are plenty of stores across categories that don't subject customers to such ignominy . Are they all approaching bankruptcy courtesy loss due to pilferage ? Doesn't seem so . 

Many retailers look at service as something they are sort of expected to provide once the consumer is a few feet inside the store . What happens at the door is not their responsibility .

The other part of the problem is that consumers in India tolerate poor service to a large extent .And will go off the deep end when it gets beyond a point . This type of an approach on part of the consumer adds to the problem of poor service . Pro active service is an alien concept for many retailers ( like Food Bazaar ). Add to it the fact that there are no/few recorded complaints from customers . Until something becomes statistically significant it is not meant to be addressed .

The field is wide open for retailers who choose to compete on service .

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The enemy is...

Visited a supermarket of the "we have met the enemy..." category . 

A lot of the large format food retailers in India seem to revel in adding to the cacophony and the decibel level in-store . Star Bazar on Link Road , Mumbai has taken that literally to a whole new level . But for the aisles stocked with food stuff one would have imagined it to be a pub or a disco given the choice of music and the decibel level . One had to focus to remember what all needed to be purchased .
The music was playing across all parts of the store ( and the parking area !) . On the upper level they have a book store . Perhaps they are of the belief that loud , racy music aids book sales.
The decibel level and the choice of music was a source of distraction and annoyance to several consumers . Especially older consumers who had to speak louder to communicate among themselves . Everyone had to speak louder to be heard.  The decibel level poses a health risk to employees .

The checkout lanes are slow , several cash counters are unmanned leading to long queues in the counters which were operational . Harried customers and employees . Took 15-20 mins of waiting for the billing to be completed .

In most urban areas of India the road and traffic conditions are terrible . As citizens , businesses and a nation we are paying an enormous price in terms of loss of time and productivity . For a time crunched consumer - an organization that consistently demonstrates respect for the consumer's time can gain the consumer's loyalty . Especially since the quality of product , service is many categories is fractionally different between the players in that category .

Why is the obvious so difficult to see ?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

We have met the enemy..

There's a phrase " we have met the enemy and he is us " . Applies to a lot of companies . 

Watched a movie at a theater recently . The telephone number of the theater was not functional , the homepage with the show listings was inaccessible due to a server error . The movie was a recent blockbuster . It was not clear if tickets would be easily available hence the effort to make a booking . Finally the tickets were purchased a few hours prior since the theater was en route home. At the show we realized that only 25-30% seats were full . Not surprising considering that people may have tried calling the theater , found the lines ringing . And decided to go someplace else where they could ascertain ticket availability .

In a time when discretionary spending is at an all time low , when block busters are rare - here is a theater that decides to add to it's challenge simply by being inaccessible to customers .

Sometimes in business seeming small things like accessibility make a big difference . It's easy to visualize the CEO of this company making complex plans to grow sales . When just ensuring that  the phone lines and the server are functional will directly impact the sales .

The obscure we eventually see . The completely obvious it seems takes a little longer...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Land sharing

After some thoughts on the food crisis I was delighted to read of the concept of land sharing championed by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall .

His latest venture in UK is "Landshare"--a scheme which puts people with large unused gardens in touch with gardeners wanting space. 

So there is a good reason why the concept is growing and others are proposing variations. "LandFit" is another group that is "encouraging local food production by matching would-be growers with under used land." They too want to increase opportunities to grow good locally by bringing untended and ignored bits of land back into use. They see it is a way to not only grow food and encourage organic gardening but also as a way to discourage anti-social behaviour....when you have a well-kept street with local people interested in what is going on then you have a sense of community and involvement.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Pears soap

There's a TV ad for Pears soap that never fails to annoy me . Shows a girl of 5 or 6 years who on waking wants to see her mom first . She makes her way through a crowded house with her hand over her eyes . Along the way she bumps into her grandmother . She opens her eyes and makes her irritation apparent in a shrill sort of way and continues walking till she finds her beautiful mother - who has just stepped out of the shower having bathed with Pears soap. She indulgently asks the daughter what the matter is . The girl replies that ' I have an exam today so I wanted you to be the first person I see because 'your face is lucky for me' .

This would not be the first ad that thrusts adult idiosyncrasies on children ( nor is it likely to be the last ). The way it is shown it looks quite innocuous . I guess it's intended to be cute . It may even appeal to mothers who may quite like the idea of being idolized by their children . Cut through the physicality of the ad - it reveals not so pleasant underlying assumptions / context for the ad to be what it is -

- this child of 5 or 6 years takes exams very seriously - the notion of success , failure , competition deeply entrenched in the mind of this child . So seriously that the kid has figured out good omens from the not-so-good 
- the relationships are utilitarian and transactional - while the child may go to the grand mother/other family members for love and caring - on the exam days everyone other than the mom is to be shunned in the morning .
- the mother is quite happy to hear of the child's viewpoint . She is not worried about the world view the child is developing nor about the disrespect it implies to other family members or even the child's lack of belief in her ability to do well in exams irrespective of whom she sees .

What kind of a household is this ?Does it matter what soap they use ?

Ads like this one are representative of a wider phenomenon of using synthetic emotions in an attempt to sell the product. Ads which are visibly fantasy type are at least honest to that extent.

The economy of happiness

Interesting piece by Niranjan Rajadhyaksha .

Friday, January 2, 2009


These days the inevitable subject of conversation seems to be the current economic situation (CES) . I can virtually count on my fingers the number of people I know who don't mourn the CES every time they speak (may their tribe grow ). I don't mean to say that there are no challenges . My point is that speaking about it incessantly in sombre , morbid tones is not going to alter the situation .

The events of 26/11 are a stark reminder of the unpredictability of life . Lives of so many families have been irrevocably and painfully altered . 26/11 is representative of the unexpected turns that life takes . A family affected by the loss of a loved one would not see the CES as the calamity that many make it out to be . The loss of a loved one , a loved one being diagnosed with a terminal illness - these are tragedies.

This is a deeply interconnected universe . Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not the connections exist . When a situation one labels as a challenge presents itself the solution does not lie in becoming inward focused . If anything it only serves to exacerbate and perpetuate the condition .

A worthy exercise this New Year would be pull out a notebook and list all the blessings one has ... And ways to share them with the inhabitants of the pale blue dot .

Go ahead. Make a (positive) difference EVERYDAY. 

Ghajini and the luxury clothing market

...Ghajini is the best thing yet to have happened to the luxury market in India.  It is one of those silent tipping points that we will look back at in a few years and say, that’s what changed the game for the men’s market here....

Happy New Year

                           ( cake - the sweet courtesy of a friend who dropped by to visit today )
Here's hoping that in 2009 we make the the world a kinder , safer , cleaner place . A year in which we reach out consistently to make the (little) difference we can .

Happy New Year .