Pots and kettles

A customer and I had just completed a long discussion in his factory. Since it was our first meeting, he insisted that he would treat me to lunch. As we were walking towards his car, the talk turned to the building collapse in Thane in which over 70 persons died, and the reports of a nexus between builders, officials, police and politicians.

Very passionately, my customer said, “These scoundrels should be hanged! They know these buildings will collapse and kill the occupants, but all they are interested in is making money! If a person can be hanged for killing one victim, why shouldn’t these guys be hanged for killing dozens of people?”

“Who, in your opinion, is most guilty?” I asked.

Without any hesitation, my customer replied, “The builders, of course! They increase their profits by making concrete with more sand and less cement. They know it’s dangerous, but why will they bother? Their lives are not at stake. Only the people who buy their flats risk their lives. These builders are mass-murderers!”

To change the subject, I said, “Let’s not talk about them. Tell me, what kind of food are you treating me to today?”

He laughed and replied, “Sir, I am not a sophisticated person like you. I am a pure vegetarian, teetotaller and non-smoker. So, please forgive this simpleton for making you suffer an ordinary vegetarian meal without any drinks or hookah. Is a Rajasthani Thali OK for you? Or would you prefer something else?”

“Rajasthani Thali would be great! Have you never tried non-vegetarian food, alcohol or tobacco, even when you were young?” I asked.

Clearly enjoying the attention, he replied, “Never! Sir, these are our family values. We are very principled people. Apart from our simple lifestyle, we have a tradition of contributing at least 10% of our profits to charity. We are very grateful to God for his kindness, and we try to do something for society. We are not like these useless builders who only want to make money, even if it means their sub-standard construction leads to so many deaths!”

Again wanting to change the subject, I asked, “I remember you told me that you were the first person in your family to venture into the engineering industry. So, what business has your family been in before that?”

“We are in the chewing tobacco industry,” he declared, and proudly told me the name of the brand owned by his family.

This guy had been ranting about “useless builders who only want to make money”, and had labelled them as “mass-murderers”! But he had no qualms about enjoying the profits made by his family by selling carcinogenic chewing tobacco, which also leads to a large number of deaths. On the contrary, he was claiming to be virtuous on account of contributing 10% of these profits to charity!

A classic case of the pot calling the kettle black!

I wanted to ask him many questions, but I thought it would be an exercise in futility. Hence, I did not react.

Later, I wondered: Did I do the right thing by keeping quiet? Would it really have been an exercise in futility? Or did I keep quiet only to avoid antagonising my customer?

Whatever the real reason for my keeping quiet that day, I think I should have spoken up. If not anything, I would have poked his self-righteousness!

I am reminded of these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

(This post was originally published on Dec 17, 2013.)

Not legally obliged, but morally obliged!

My company had just started representing a machine manufacturer based in Mumbai as their dealer in our city. While this manufacturer had supplied machines to many customers in Maharashtra, they had not supplied any equipment outside Maharashtra.

Within a few weeks, we had generated many enquiries. One customer decided to buy one machine immediately, but he wanted to see a machine in running condition before he placed the order. Since no machine was available locally, the manufacturer offered to arrange our customer’s visit to their customer’s factory in Mumbai where their machines had been working for over five years.

The customer visited the Mumbai customer’s factory along with the manufacturer. He was satisfied with the performance of the machines and with the Mumbai customer’s feedback about the manufacturer’s after-sales service. The day after his visit to Mumbai, he released his Purchase Order and advance. Two weeks later, his machine was delivered at his factory.

Two days after our customer had transferred the payment to the manufacturer, our commission was transferred to our account by the manufacturer. I realized that the manufacturer had transferred an amount exactly 1.5 times the commission due to us. I telephoned him immediately and pointed this out.

He clarified, “Your customer bought one machine. But his friend in Mumbai also bought a machine based on his recommendation. Since his friend’s enquiry was generated by your customer, we’ve paid you the sales commission (50% of the total commission) for this sale as well. We’ve retained 50% of the total commission since we will provide the Warranty service. I hope that’s OK with you.”

I pointed out to the manufacturer that, as per the terms of our agreement, he was not obliged to pay us any commission on the sale to a Mumbai customer. He replied, “If we go by the letter of the agreement, we need not pay you the sales commission. But I am going not by the letter, but by the spirit of the agreement.”

I was stunned! For the first time, I had come across an Indian businessman paying somebody not because of a legal obligation, but because he felt he was morally obliged to do so.

How many people in India, or in the whole world, would do that?

(This post was originally published on Sep 24, 2013.)

Corrupt Politicians in the land of Clean Citizens?

Every time there is a discussion on corruption, we lay the blame squarely on our politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, everyone but ourselves!

Isn’t it a mystery how we have such corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, etc. in a land of Clean Citizens?

Some years back, my General Manager and I had visited a customer at his factory to finalise their order for a few machines for his company’s expansion. After we completed the discussion, the Proprietor described a peculiar problem that was being faced on one of their existing machines, and asked me if I could suggest a solution. After getting some more information from the Factory Manager, I suggested a few adjustments to be made in the machine’s settings. 10 minutes later, the Factory Manager returned and reported that the problem appeared to have been solved. I told him to let me know if the problem recurred.

A week later, I visited the same customer to collect their Purchase Order and cheque for advance payment. When I asked about the problem on their existing machine, the Proprietor replied that the problem had not recurred. He was extremely pleased about it since they had not been able to solve this problem for a few months. He then asked me if I could suggest a consultant who could visit his factory one a week for a few hours every Saturday afternoon and advise them about operation and maintenance of all their machines. He mentioned the monthly fee that he would pay, and said that, if the person happened to be employed in any other company, he was willing to pay the fee in cash so that nothing would be on record.

While he hadn’t said so in so many words, the gentleman was obviously making me an offer to be his unofficial consultant. The profile fit me perfectly! He knew that my office closed at 1.00 pm on Saturdays. The monthly fee was generous, more than half my monthly salary at that time!

However, I acted as if I hadn’t got his message. I told him that I couldn’t think of any suitable person, but I would definitely try to suggest somebody at the earliest. At that point, as if he had got a sudden inspiration, he said, “You know something! I just realised that you are the ideal person to be my consultant!!”

I replied that, while I certainly could do justice to the assignment if I took it up, I couldn’t accept his offer since the terms of my employment explicitly forbade me from engaging in any work or business other than that of my employer.

The customer was an educated man, owning a few flourishing businesses in various industries. He was one of India’s ‘Clean Citizens’! No politician, bureaucrat or policeman was involved in this matter. His intended act of corruption was self-motivated.

Like my customer, almost all of us indulge in voluntary acts of corruption in our daily life.
We offer bribes to policemen because we don’t want to pay fines. We use official facilities (car, telephone, etc.) for personal use. We get birth certificates for our children with the Date of Birth changed to ensure earlier school admission. We jump traffic signals. … The list can go on and on. We are not victims in these acts of corruption, we are the perpetrators.

Corruption of politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, etc. is a problem that needs to be addressed. But, we ourselves are no less guilty. Politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, etc. are only the face of corruption in India. The body of this problem, and of all other problems, is we, the people of India. Along with our efforts to change politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, etc. for the better, let us try to change ourselves as well.

(This post was originally published on Aug 17, 2013.)

Promoting Brand India

Early in my career, I worked with a marketing company founded and headed by a Managing Director who believed in Quality as a philosophy in all spheres of life.

On the eve of my departure on my first overseas business visit, the Managing Director summoned me to his room. After ascertaining that I had made all necessary preparations, both work and personal, he advised me to be on my “better-than-best” behaviour when I was abroad because, “People will judge your country by your behaviour.”

While I have always scrupulously followed this piece of advice, I have noticed that many of us Indians take great pains to lower India’s image when we travel abroad. This starts at the airport on the way out of India, and goes on till Indian soil is set foot on again.

Though this is not one of the bigger matters, many of us just do not know how to stand in a queue without shoving and poking into the person in front, or how to walk without bumping into others around us.

While men (including 6-footers) from most other countries generally manage to confine their bodies to the limits of their own seats in the aircraft’s Economy Class, many Indian men, sometimes even short ones, sit with their legs wide apart and with both elbows intruding into the adjacent seats, making their co-passengers uncomfortable.

With many Indians travelling abroad in groups these days, one common sight is groups of people talking loudly in Indian languages at various places abroad, particularly at airports while in transit. Nothing wrong in speaking in one’s mothertongue, but speaking loudly is considered impolite. Often, they use commonly understood obscene gestures and English swear words.

The most disgusting sight is the behaviour of many Indian men when alcoholic drinks are served on flights. Many act as if the world is about to face extinction of alcohol! I have always wondered why they behave in such an uncouth manner. Is it just a craze for alcohol, or is it the thrill of getting something free? On one flight, I saw some well-to-do Indian businessmen making thorough asses of themselves, almost begging for more and more drinks. The other Indians on the flight were very upset that our country’s reputation was being tarnished, but we did nothing because we knew that intervention would only worsen the situation since these men were totally drunk.

Most of the persons whom I have seen misbehaving abroad were educationally qualified and doing well in their profession or business.

Giving others a good impression of India is not just a matter of patriotism. On a very practical and materialistic level, people having a good impression of India will want to have business relations with India and/or visit India as tourists, while people having a bad impression of India will not want to have any connection with India. It’s in the interest of all Indians if Brand India has a good image. So, let us all promote Brand India!

(This post was originally published on August 13, 2013.)

Honesty is the best policy

One afternoon, a new customer entered our office and asked to meet me. He told me that one of our existing customers had asked him to contact me, and gave a brief description of the equipment that he needed urgently. I confirmed to him that the equipment he needed could be supplied by us. The price was Rs. 20,000 + 10 % Sales Tax. Luckily, we had one piece in stock! He immediately confirmed that he would buy the equipment and would give us a cheque for Rs. 22,000. At that point, I asked him what exactly he needed the equipment for. After hearing his reply, I told him that the equipment we supplied was too precise for his work. I informed him that his requirement could be fulfilled by a similar product supplied by another company. That equipment was less precise than ours, but the price would also be lower by 50% or more. In response to his request, I gave him the address of that company.

After the customer left, my colleague, who was a few years my senior, expressed his exasperation at the fact that I had turned away a customer who was about to give me an order with full payment. “You are totally unsuitable for sales!” he declared. I shrugged and replied that my conscience did not permit me to let the customer buy something that he did not really need. If that meant I was unfit for a sales job, so be it!

This incident was soon forgotten by us since the particular equipment was among the lowest priced items in our product range.

About 6 months later, the same customer came to our office and met me. He had received a huge export order, and had to increase his production capacity. He gave me a list of the equipment that he needed. I told him that we could supply all the equipment in the list, but, again, I wanted to be sure that the equipment that we supplied would be most suitable for his requirement. After discussing for a few minutes, I confirmed that our equipment did meet his requirement. The total cost would be Rs.1.8 million + 10 % Sales Tax. The equipment could be delivered about 4 to 5 weeks after we received an order with 10 % advance. He immediately confirmed his order and gave me a cheque for Rs. 180,000. I was surprised that he had made a decision so quickly. I asked him if he had taken competitive offers from any other suppliers. He replied that he did not need any competitive offers. Based on our earlier encounter, he was sure that, if any other equipment was better suited for his requirement, I would have told him so myself!

After the customer left, I turned to my colleague and said, “We got a huge order on a platter today because, that day, I LOST the order but I WON the customer’s confidence!”

(This post was originally published on August 10, 2013 as Is honesty the best policy?)