Are all customers equal? Or are some customers more equal than others?

A couple of days back, I visited the local branch of a bank to get a Demand Draft. When I reached the counter, the officer greeted me with a smile and put out his hand to collect my DD Application, coolly ignoring three customers who were already waiting there. I returned the smile and the greeting, but did not hand over my DD Application. Instead, I gestured to him to first attend to the other customers. After he had collected their DD Applications, I handed over mine to him and sat on a chair in the waiting area. Instead of processing the DD Applications in the sequence in which he had received them, he processed my DD Application first and handed it to the clerk sitting next to him with an audible instruction to print my DD immediately. I received my DD within 3 minutes of handing over the application! (The norm is 10 minutes.)

This was my first encounter with this particular officer since he had only recently been transferred to this branch. Then, why had he given me preferential treatment even though I had clearly shown that I didn’t want it? The answer is simple. On the basis of appearance and attire, he had decided that I am a ‘privileged’ customer, while the other three were ‘non-privileged’ customers!

In most banks and offices, I have seen that all customers are NOT treated equally. ‘Privileged’ customers are generally treated well, while ‘non-privileged’ customers generally have to put up with curt behaviour.

Customers are classified as ‘privileged’ or ‘non-privileged’ on the basis of economic status, political ‘connections’, skin colour, religion, caste, educational background, profession, etc..

Even when there are machine-operated systems, the bank/office personnel manage to give ‘privileged’ customers preferential treatment. For example, many banks have a token system for cash transactions or for updating Pass Books. Tokens are issued by a machine, and customers are attended to strictly as per their token numbers. However, the treatment given to each customer generally (not always) varies. Most of the time, care is taken to ensure that ‘privileged’ customers are issued only new notes or notes that are in good condition, while ‘non-privileged’ customers generally get the older notes. Pass Books of ‘privileged’ customers are updated immediately, while ‘non-privileged’ customers are often asked to wait or to collect their updated Pass Books the next day.

What is the solution? In his book ‘A Better India: A Better World’, N. R. Narayana Murthy states:
“Technology is a great leveller. It does not distinguish between the rich and the poor. For, example, one of my younger colleagues who is a janitor at Infosys is happy to use an ATM because it does not discriminate against him – unlike the clerk at the manned bank counter.”

I have myself seen how ATMs do not discriminate against customers on any basis. The last time I visited the ATM near my house, one person came out after using the ATM and another who had been waiting went in to use the ATM. I waited for my turn. The first person was the young man who delivers milk to all the residents of our apartment complex. The second was a woman who works as a billing clerk at the local supermarket. The three of us received service in the sequence that we had reached the ATM. The ATM treated all three of us equally.

Introduction of technology will definitely help in reducing the inequalities in our society. Till some years back, a telephone at home was a luxury that could be enjoyed by very few people. Today, almost everybody has a mobile phone. There are many such examples.

However, will all this really change our ‘mindset’? Will it lead to a truly egalitarian society?

What do you think?

(This post was originally published on Nov 09, 2013.)

Respectful or disrespectful? Smart or foolish?

One afternoon, I was with a customer in his office, when he received a call on his mobile from somebody whom he addressed as Chachaji (Uncle). My customer immediately stubbed out the cigarette he was smoking, shouted for the peon, switched off the air conditioner, opened the windows, put on the fan, asked the peon to take the ashtray away and spray room freshener, and ran to the washroom while the peon did as instructed. A few minutes later, the peon put off the fan, closed the windows, and switched on the air conditioner. By then, my customer had returned from the washroom after having washed his face and gargled with mouthwash. The smoke and smell of tobacco had almost totally vanished! It was an efficient military operation!

A minute later, an elderly gentleman entered the room. My customer stood up and, saying, “Namaste, Chachaji!” touched his feet, and introduced me to his uncle. Chachaji was collecting funds for the construction of a new wing in the school run by the Trust of which he was Secretary. My customer dutifully handed over his cheque and touched Chachaji’s feet again. His work done, Chachaji left.

“Thank God!” my customer exclaimed as he sat down in his chair. “I have a lot of respect for Chachaji. To me, he is like God! He considers smoking a sin. If he had seen me smoking, he would have been terribly upset,” my 40 years old customer said.

I knew this customer quite well, so I responded, “If you really respect your uncle so much, and if he considers smoking a sin, you should stop smoking.”

“Boss, I’m under too much stress. Right now, I can’t even think of giving up smoking!” he declared.

“I think that, by continuing to smoke and concealing from your uncle the fact that you smoke, you are not respecting your uncle. On the contrary, this is utter disrespect,” I replied.

My customer is not an exception. He is the rule. Many men smoke, drink, etc. without the knowledge of their families. I know of some men, paragons of virtue at home, who ‘freak out’ on alcohol and tobacco when they go out of town, only to become ‘goody-goody boys’ when they return home!

I also know of women from conservative families leaving home dressed in traditional clothes, ostensibly to attend a ‘ladies get-together’ (or a ‘family get-together’ if they’re accompanied by their husbands), but actually headed for a discotheque. Under the traditional clothes are worn ‘daring’, ‘modern’ outfits. The traditional clothes are shed before they reach their destination. After enjoying themselves at the discotheque, they again don the traditional clothes before reaching home!

If a person believes that there is nothing morally or ethically wrong with whatever he/she is doing, why can’t that person do it openly? (While I’ve confined my comments to smoking, drinking and dressing, this applies to many other matters. Please read this Firstpost report about an engineer committing suicide because his wife posted photographs of their ‘secret’ wedding on Facebook.) If he/she faces disapproval from his/her elders, he/she should discuss the matter with the elders and come to a mutually acceptable conclusion. If he/she feels very strongly about the matter and if the elders are just not willing to accept his/her opinion, then he/she should do whatever he/she thinks is right and be prepared to face the consequences. Doing anything on the sly is not the solution.

At the same time, elders should understand that they cannot expect their children and children-in-law to stick to the same lifestyle as theirs. Change is inevitable.

Most importantly, youngsters must resolve that, when they become elders, they will not forget that they were once youngsters themselves

What do you think?

(This post was originally published on Oct 31, 2013.)

Aruna Shanbaug: just another piece of BREAKING NEWS?

My post Why this deafening silence? on October 29, 2013 was about a domestic help in a posh locality in Delhi having been subjected to extreme torture by her employer, a woman working as a senior executive in a multinational company. Since then, I’ve been regularly checking newspapers and the internet for updates on this case. The last report I found was on November 08, 2013. After that, nothing! Is the victim is recovering from her physical injuries and psychological trauma? How has the victim and her family been coping with the situation? What has happened in the criminal case against the employer? Has anything been done, or is anything being done to prevent such incidents in future? We know nothing.

This applies to almost all sensational cases that are featured in the media. They appear with a big bang as BREAKING NEWS, receive a lot of coverage for a few days, and then get disappear when the next BREAKING NEWS appears with a big bang.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what will happen with the latest BREAKING NEWS: the death of Aruna Shanbaug. Sadly, this applies not just to the print and electronic media, but to all of us as well. We will all speak and write strong words about Aruna Shanbaug …. until the next BREAKING NEWS. Then, we will all start speaking and writing strong words about that …. until the next BREAKING NEWS.

Do the media make us jump from one BREAKING NEWS to the next, or do the media jump from one BREAKING NEWS to the next because that’s what we want?

Are we interested only in expressing opinions about the ISSUE OF THE DAY? Do we, individually and collectively, at all try to do something to resolve any issue?

No fine or bribe even after a traffic offence??!!

Metro Rail construction was about to start in our city. I was driving towards a customer’s office, near which an elevated station would come up. Traffic diversions had been announced a few days earlier, but changes had been made. Policemen, assisted by the Metro Rail construction personnel, were guiding motorists at the major junctions. I drove on my usual route towards my customer’s office since there were no ‘NO ENTRY’ signs. As I reached my destination, I was stopped by a traffic constable and asked to meet the police officer standing next to a police van a few feet away.

As soon as I reached him, the officer said, “You were driving in the wrong direction. You have to pay a fine of Rs. 500. Will you pay the fine now, or should I issue a summons?”

“I did not see any ‘NO ENTRY’ signs on the way,” I told him.

Without replying to my statement, the officer said, “Sir, please don’t waste my time.” Pointing towards 3 other persons standing there, he said, “These people are quietly paying the fine. Why do you expect special treatment? Tell me, will you pay the fine now, or should I issue a summons?”

Raising my voice a bit, I said, “Sir, at SBI on Gandhinagar Main Road, I took a right turn into Third Cross Street. At the end of Third Cross Street, I turned left on this road. There was no ‘NO RIGHT TURN’ sign on Gandhinagar Main Road, no ‘NO ENTRY’ sign at the entrance of Third Cross Street, and no ‘NO LEFT TURN’ sign at the end of Third Cross Street. If you can show me even one sign that proves I committed a violation, I’ll pay a Rs. 5,000 fine. If you can’t show me any such sign, you cannot impose a fine. Let’s go right now!”

The officer glared at me for a few seconds and said, “OK. You may go!”

Immediately, the other 3 persons asked the officer if they could also leave. He sighed and waved them away.

As we were walking away, one of the 3 persons asked me, “Sir, how come you spoke so confidently to the officer? Do you have any high-level contacts in the police?”

I replied, “I do have access to a couple of very senior police officers, but that’s not why I spoke to the officer the way I did. I had actually looked for the traffic signs that I mentioned. Since I could not see any of these traffic signs, I assumed I was driving in the correct direction. Even after he told me that I had been driving in the wrong direction, I spoke confidently to the officer because I genuinely believed that not I, the authorities were to blame for my driving in the wrong direction. I suppose you gentlemen had knowingly driven in the wrong direction, that’s why you were ready to pay the fine!”

(This post was originally published on Oct 05, 2013.)

Yes We Can!

HSK was thrilled! That morning, the HR Head had given him the letter, signed by the Managing Director himself, informing him that, in view of his excellent performance during the probation period, his appointment as Design Engineer had been confirmed!!

He was engrossed in his work when, a few minutes before noon, the MD entered the Design Department, looking very stern, and walked up to his table. “Good morning, HSK. I’m extremely upset with you,” he said. HSK was confused. The MD had signed his confirmation letter only yesterday. What had happened today? Why was the MD upset? Before he could say anything, the MD grinned and said, “This morning you received your confirmation letter signed by me, and you have not bothered to invite me for a celebration! Never mind, young man! I’ll invite you. Come on, let’s go out for lunch!”

HSK was on top of the world! He was sitting in the passenger seat of the MD’s BMW, while the MD was driving. The MD was like a king in this small city. The economy of the city revolved around his company. It was said that at least one member of almost every family in the city was employed by the company or its suppliers.

They were driving towards the exclusive multi-cuisine restaurant on the other side of the city. As they neared a junction, the traffic light changed from green to red. The MD applied brakes and brought the car to a halt.

A middle-aged traffic constable walked towards them. The MD turned down the window. “Good day, sir. Your car has overshot by about 6 inches. I’m afraid I’ll have to collect a fine,” the constable said. HSK was shocked! Was the constable insane? Didn’t he know whom he was talking to?

HSK got a bigger shock when he heard his MD reply, “That’s right, constable.” He opened his wallet, counted the money and gave it to the constable. The constable gave him the receipt.

HSK pinched himself to confirm that it wasn’t a dream!

***

This wasn’t a dream. It is a true incident that happened in Switzerland about 50 years back, narrated to me by HSK.

Can this ever happen in India? I believe it can. If many, many of us believe it can, and if we work hard and work persistently, we can surely make it happen! If it can happen in Switzerland, why can’t it happen in India?

(This post was originally published on Aug 20, 2013.)