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.)

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.)

Responding to misbehaviour in public

(From December 04, 2014, I have been inactive on the blogging scene, mainly due to increased work pressure. Starting today, I shall be publishing a blog post every Tuesday.
In these 25 days, I collected quite a bit of inputs for future posts, mainly in the form of incidents described to me by friends and relatives who have been following my blog. This post describes one such incident.)

Five persons were standing in the checkout queue at a supermarket. All of them were buying 3 items or less. Suddenly, a man jumped the queue, kept a bunch of coriander leaves on the checkout counter and started removing his wallet from his pocket. He did not offer any explanation to any of the persons standing in the queue, but merely said, “Only one item” to the checkout clerk.

The checkout clerk politely told the man that she could oblige him only if the persons standing in the queue agreed. Without a word, the man threw the bunch of coriander leaves at the checkout clerk and started walking towards the exit.

While everybody else was too stunned to react, the customer at the head of the queue immediately said, “You have no right to do that! You must apologize to the lady.” Since the man ignored her, the woman said loudly, “If you don’t apologize, I’ll ensure that you cannot leave this place!”

The man stopped, turned around, looked at the checkout clerk, unapologetically said, “Sorry,” and walked away.

There are quite a few people, like the man at the supermarket, who believe that they can misbehave openly in public with people who cannot retaliate. Such people get away with their misbehaviour because almost all onlookers do not intervene. In this case, the man assumed, correctly as it turned out, that the checkout clerk would not speak up, perhaps fearing that, in the event of her senior(s) or the management getting involved, they would choose to support the customer. After all, the customer is ‘king’! What the man had not bargained for was another ‘king’, or ‘queen’ in this incident, challenging him!!

One cannot say whether the man’s attitude changed for the better, but he will probably think twice before misbehaving openly in public in the future.

It is really heartening to know that there are people like the woman who intervened in a matter that did not directly affect her! If more of us emulate her, there will be fewer people misbehaving with others openly in public. Of course, those who have been misbehaving similarly in private, or covertly in public, will continue to do so, but we would have taken one step forward.

Are we a nation of cowards?

When I visited my bank yesterday, I found it unusually crowded. I realized this was because of the strike by bank employees the previous day. There were about 20 persons standing in the waiting area. Obviously, all seats were occupied. As I walked to an empty corner, I noticed one seat was occupied by a backpack. I wondered whether the backpack belonged to the young man sitting in the adjacent seat or to somebody who had left it there while (s)he had gone to one of the counters. I walked up to the seat and asked the young man whether the backpack belonged to him. He silently picked it up and placed it on his lap. There was no word or expression of regret from him.

This young man could clearly see many persons, including a couple of elderly persons, standing. Forget offering his seat to one of the elderly persons, he had kept his almost empty backpack on another seat!

While I was disappointed by the young man’s thoughtlessness, I was much more disappointed by the fact that nobody else had bothered to find out why the seat was occupied by a backpack. I’m sure some of the persons had seen him keep his backpack on the seat. The young man may have been insolent, but he did not look threatening in any way.

I’ve seen many similar incidents where people silently tolerate the inconvenience caused by the thoughtless behaviour of their fellow-citizens. I’m sure everybody has seen many such instances.

Most of us Indians do not speak up against such thoughtless, but relatively harmless, behaviour of our fellow-citizens. Why, then, are we surprised, shocked and outraged when we read reports of people being silent onlookers when girls/women are subjected to verbal and/or physical sexual harassment in public places? Can we expect meek persons to suddenly transform into assertive persons?

Why do we refrain from speaking up? Why do we quietly walk away from undesirable situations or, if that is not possible, choose to suffer in silence? I think we are groomed to do so because this is one of the so-called ‘middle-class values’. “We have neither the strength nor the money to deal with them. We are common middle class people.” This is what most ‘middle-class’ parents tell their daughters and sons … yes, sons also. Parents tell children that they should avoid undesirable situations. By chance, if the children get exposed to an undesirable situation, they should quietly walk away. They should not hit back, they should not talk back, they should not ‘lower themselves’. In short, most middle-class parents groom their daughters and sons to be cowards.

We should all remember Mahatma Gandhi‘s words, “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”

Speech Disorder or Spinal Problem?

One morning at a domestic airport, I was standing in a long queue for Security Check. A well-known politician, then a state minister, walked past between 2 queues with his entourage. One of his sidekicks was pushing people aside to ensure his boss had a wide path. When I protested, he gave me a condescending look and said, “He’s a Minister,” to which I replied loudly, “Is he a public servant or is the public his servants? You guys beg for our votes during elections, but act like kings after we elect you!” The sidekick did not respond, but he stopped pushing people aside. After the politician and his entourage left, some of the other passengers said things like, “These politicians will never change” and “No point wasting our energy.” One person advised me that speaking up against politicians would only mean inviting trouble.
I was not surprised that none of the other passengers had bothered to protest even though they knew what was happening was wrong. I was not surprised that none of them had supported me when I spoke up. But I was certainly surprised and disappointed that none of them said even a word of support after the politician had left.

On another occasion, a late evening domestic flight (ETD 8.15 pm) did not take off for about 45 minutes after having taxied to edge of the runway. It was announced that we were awaiting clearance for take-off, but no time frame was given. When a couple of other flights took off while we were waiting, some passengers asked the cabin crew why our aircraft was held up. The cabin crew had no explanation. At that point, the Captain announced that we would take off after about 30 minutes. Hearing this, the passenger seated next to me called the flight attendant and started rebuking her loudly. She listened patiently for a few minutes, then left to attend to other passengers. My co-passenger continued grumbling. He calmed down after we took off. He then told me that this was the third time in the last couple of months that this inexplicable delay had occurred on the very same flight.
I told him that, when I had faced a problem with the same airline in the past, I had sent an email to the CEO, who had ensured that my grievance had been redressed in the best manner possible. I suggested that he should send an email about this matter to the CEO, but he replied that he was not very conversant with email. I offered to send the email to the CEO if he provided accurate information about the previous flight delays. He promised to have this emailed to me the next day. After 2 days, I sent him an email to remind him, but got no response. After 2 more days, I telephoned him, but he mumbled something about being very busy with work. There is a very small chance that I am wrong, but I got the feeling that he was not keen to put the matter on record.

All of us grumble in private. Many of us speak strongly to persons who are not in a position to hit back. Very few of us speak up to persons in positions of authority. Why? Do we need speech therapy or spine strengthening exercises?

(This post was originally published on July 23, 2013.)