Major Fun, Minor Peeves

Many of my friends from the west are excited about exploring opportunities in India – after all there aren’t too many markets that offer the excitement of working in a high-growth, fast-paced environment. Common questions from those who have never worked in India are – “is the excitement is real?” and “under the hood, how is working in India different from the west especially at a day-to-day level?” My answers are “YES!” and “it depends”! And it’s the second answer that I want to talk about in this post.

Despite working in India for more than 12 years, I still hesitate to generalize about ‘working in India’ as my experience is not representative. I have always worked in tech multinationals with virtual teams spread across the globe – which from my conversations with friends in much more Indian workplaces is very different from theirs. After giving this context, I share what I think is the biggest adjustment to make in India especially if you have never worked here – do not expect “professionalism”, at least not in the same way you are used to in the west. To illustrate what I mean by that, here is the list of the top 3 behaviors that annoy me most frequently, in descending order of irritation:

  • I love my ringtone so much, you should hear it!

There is not a single meeting that goes by without the phone ringing out loudly. While I am extreme and keep my phone silent ALWAYS, the least I expect from others is to keep it on ‘vibrate’ mode during meetings. But, I have learnt not to expect this and with time my irritation has reduced and I have started enjoying break the ringtones bring. Though I still haven’t gotten used to folks answering calls in the meeting without as much as even excusing himself (and that happens frequently too!).

  • I love suspense thrillers so much, I will keep you guessing whether I will meet you!

Not responding to meeting invites: there are many folks who just will not respond to meeting invites – at least a ‘decline’ would greatly help in planning out a day of meetings but you just won’t hear. You have to reach out to the person over the phone (text/whatsapp) multiple times to get an answer either way. I have heard people say that email as a tool is relatively new to Indians and hence we don’t follow the same etiquette – but I don’t buy it. The tool has been around for many years – more years than the ringtones – surely we can learn to use the calendar.

  • I love my office art so much, I want you to look at it for hours!

Lack of punctuality: this is a particularly tough one for those who expect and depend on being on-time all the time. First of all, you have to discount those folks who are traveling to meet you – there are just too many variables on the road to expect full control. Even after adjusting for that, you will find that several folks don’t make it to meetings on time even when they are in the same building. Not just that, they are unlikely to even extend the courtesy of letting you know they are late. There seems to be a lack of discipline in managing meetings efficiently and a lack of respect for others’ time. Of course incidences of this reduce with your seniority, but if you are impatient and demand punctuality irrespective, it can be frustrating.

Would love to know if others have different pet peeves that make it to the top of the list!

August 26, 2015 at 11:55 am Leave a comment

Ads that add up

I love watching ads on TV. I really do! When done right, they can captivate, move and connect – all within seconds. It is incredibly hard, takes a lot of time & effort to create, but the final output is magical. And though I am no expert in creating a good ad, I know one when I see it.

Most of my friends know that I have strong opinions about ads (which is a euphemism for saying I dislike most of them!). Most of the ads I remember are trying to forcibly occupy space in my memory by being outrageously stupid and idiotic. Whenever I say this, there are always a number of people who pounce on me to suggest I should eat my own words – after all if I recall the ad, it has served its purpose, they say. Really? Is that how you wooed someone? Was that your strategy for an interview? If it was that, I congratulate you on your consistency. But if not, I must ask – why is ‘recall at any cost’ a good strategy for a brand?

But this post is not a rant about bad ads. For a change, I wanted to talk about three ads which (I think) did a great job. It’s not to say they couldn’t have been better, but it’s good to see at least some people (& brands) take the effort to create something I would remember for its beauty.

“Ladke nahin rote” (VogueEmpower)

This ad did so many things right. It hit upon a phrase (‘ladke nahin rote’ which in English reads ‘boys don’t cry’) that almost every one of us would have heard growing up in India. By repeating those words in multiple situations throughout the ad, they got the phrase stuck in your head. They almost exclusively portrayed middle class, well-educated families to break the myth about education & income being related to abuse of women. And in the climax, they twisted the phrase (‘ladke nahin rulate’) to convey what we should be teaching our sons instead. They connected immediately and created a message that’s unforgettable once you’ve seen it. Brilliantly executed ad that delivers an important message in a simple yet powerful way.

“Shot on iPhone 6” (iPhone 6)

This ad should be an instruction manual to create a no-clutter, minimalist ad or a reference guide on what to do when you are in that classic “I have so many things to talk about, my communication should include all of them” mindset. Indeed, the iPhone has many features to talk about but all this ad talks about is the most important use case for its target audience: taking pictures and videos. And it does that very simply by showing you phenomenally beautiful pictures & videos that were all shot on an iPhone 6. It is a minimalist ad which is in keeping with their overall design philosophy and one which makes you desire the phone almost immediately.

“Daddy” (Dove)

This ad wins your heart only on the basis of great execution. The idea – to associate Dove men care with dads – is not too bad in itself, but isn’t one that will make you sit up and say ‘wow’. However, in its execution, it managed to recreate many moments that everyone would relate to and sign-off with a line that most dads would relate to – which gave the ad viral wings. All you hear in the ad repeatedly is ‘Daddy’ – which helps build the connect with the audience and the brand.

August 18, 2015 at 9:55 am Leave a comment

Celebrating the net cord

In tennis, when the ball hits the top of the net mid-rally and suddenly changes trajectory, it is referred to as a ‘net cord’. When you win a point because the ball caught the net cord, it is customary to ‘apologize’ to your opponent – not because you did anything wrong, but just because you benefited from a random event. It has become so customary that players lift their racquet in apology almost by habit when they win a point this way.

Through the years, several people have asked me about the tradition and its relevance. The questions include:

  1. Do you really mean the ‘apology’ or is it merely symbolic – a result of (unnecessary) habit?
  2. If you really mean the ‘apology’, would you be ready to concede or replay the point?
  3. If you are the receiving end of a net cord, does the opponent’s ‘apology’ help you in any way?
  4. Why should you be ‘apologetic’ at all about winning a point the fair way – after all, you didn’t cheat or even deceive? It is part of the game, so in fact why wouldn’t you celebrate winning the point?

First of all, when I raise my racquet in apology, what I am doing is acknowledging that I got lucky in that point. I am not apologizing for what I did as much as empathizing with the opponent. But even as I empathize, I don’t think it’s necessary to concede or replay the point – these interventions by fate are part of the game & its uncertainties. When I am at the receiving end, I absolutely hate it but accept it. The opponent empathizing with me doesn’t do anything to lower my irritation, but seeing him celebrate the point would definitely be more annoying. In fact, this has happened to me on a couple of rare occasions and after the few initial moments of irritation, I have always been amused at their ignorance and/or stupidity.

It’s important to state this the right way – just because I win a point on a net cord doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard or deserve it. I might have very well played out of my skin to that point and thoroughly deserved winning it. But the intervention of the net cord threw chance into the mix – the point could have just as easily been lost. Acknowledging that stroke of good luck doesn’t make me any less (or more) deserving of the point. But to pump my fists after that only makes me immature and incapable of acknowledging a lucky break – which can only look stupid not just to my opponent but to everyone else watching too.

Which brings me to the last point – is there a place for such ‘feelings’ in competitive sport? Even if I didn’t celebrate the point, I can just not react and go about my business? After all, I am playing to win and there is an equal likelihood of a net cord going against me, so why raise my hand to apologize? This is a very subjective call and something each person has to decide for himself/herself. Speaking for myself, even though I play very competitively, I don’t make an enemy out of every opponent. Further, even though I didn’t intend the net cord that won me the point, I do believe I received a little help from outside. Hence I think apologizing is the right thing to do. And doing the right thing doesn’t make me any less competitive just as much as arrogance doesn’t make me any more competitive.

One of the biggest lessons that sport teaches us is to accept wins and losses as part of life. The lucky net cord that goes your way is a reminder that everyone benefits from some random events once in a while and the best way to deal with them is to accept them with humility and grace – not arrogance.

August 4, 2015 at 11:41 am 1 comment

Customer Service – Designed to make you ‘Just Give up’

As luck would have it, following my posts on using Tenets vs. Rules and lack of emphasis on customer experience in India, I had a run-in with a major phone manufacturer’s customer service. Fresh from my ranting, I decided to make meticulous notes about my experience (don’t worry, I will not bore you with ALL the details). As you would expect, there is plenty of scope to improve almost each step of the customer journey but here are a few call-outs.

  • Reaching customer service: I googled for “customer service <brand>”. The brand’s own site was lost in the second page – almost every other directory service (e.g. justdial) was listed higher up. (wonder why the company cannot bid for the customer service keywords)
  • Once I reached the company’s website, I found a number that I could call to speak to a customer service agent. (Wonder why tools like chat wouldn’t be used to make this simpler)
  • After going through the IVR menu to select the product & language and then waiting approx. 5 minutes though ‘my call was very important‘, I spoke to a person.  (not too bad I guess)
  • After confirming that my phone was not in warranty period (had bought it 14 months ago while warranty covers only 12 months!), she assured me that I would still get ‘premium’ service as I had purchased a high-end phone. She offered to get the phone picked up within 12 hours and give me a loaner phone. I told her I can’t be that long without a phone (seriously, who can?!) and I would prefer visiting a service center right away and fast-tracking this process. She then gave me the location of the nearest service center, which was less than 5 KM from my office (there were around 15 of them throughout Bangalore city – pretty good).
  • At the service center, my first impression was great– the service center was not crowded – just two people ahead of me – one each in 2 counters! After all, it cannot be a good sign to see an overcrowded service center!
  • The service center was prepared for more people though – they had a self-service token system! After unsuccessfully trying for about 5 minutes to get a token, I swallow my pride and ask one of the agents how to do it – she politely told me it doesn’t work, but I can take a seat! Duh!
  • While there was only one person ahead, the agent needed three different forms filled for each customer and it was a full 15 minutes before I got my turn to discuss my issue with the agent.
  • After listening to me she made me fill the three forms (needless to say each sheet asked me again and again for my name, mobile number, etc). Finally the agent confirms that I am outside the warranty period and hence am ‘not eligible’ to receive a loaner phone! What happened to ‘premium’ service? Apparently it’s not what her manager has told her and not what the head office has told her manager. After putting up a fight, I eventually give up!
  • Later in the day, I got an update on my phone – it’s a hardware problem and it might never get fixed. But if it were to be fixed by their head office, it will attract a ‘fixed cost’ of INR 11,000 (which is just over 40% of what the phone cost me to begin with). Apparently based on the model, each phone has a fixed cost of getting fixed. After trying to debate this approach, I eventually give up!

Clearly, this process has been designed to make the customer give up trying to fix a phone. What’s ridiculous is not that this is the average customer service experience but the fact that several of you reading this will think my experience wasn’t too bad – which is quite possibly true. None of these things are very difficult to solve – and yet, they aren’t. Which leads to the inevitable conclusion – organizations do not consider this a priority. And companies that do not prioritize this are very likely to fail in the long run.

FAQ: Why didn’t I mention the name of the manufacturer?

Does it really matter? Is the experience really different by manufacturer? If so, do let me know as I am now in the market to buy a new phone and will take this into account. And I definitely didn’t intend this to be a rant about the customer experience of any brand in particular – I have had similar interactions with customer service across a range of products & services.

August 3, 2015 at 6:39 am 1 comment

Rules and Tenets

All of us who reach out to any customer support almost always reach a point in the conversation where the person at the other end of the phone goes – “I am sorry sir, this is (not) our policy”! This is usually the cue for us to hang-up but some of us keep trying and the rest of us lose it & start yelling. Neither approach helps resolve the issue at hand, but in my experience the second option gets the angst of your chest (at the cost of giving everyone around you a headache!).

What is this mysterious ‘policy’ everyone is referring to? It’s essentially a list of rules and the agent can help you only if your situation is part of the script. However, every now and then, there is someone who goes beyond it, understands your problem, applies their intelligence and talks to you like a human being instead of a bot. And that usually makes your day. Note that I never said this person solves your problem – very often you hang up happy even when your problem is not solved – it’s sufficient just to hear some sense on the other side.

Why are customer service interactions so painful? I think it comes down to the ‘rules’. If an agent is instructed to follow ‘rules’ in an inherently ambiguous situation, then he is not going to know what to do when the conversation doesn’t follow script. Since he is not empowered to think, there can be only one outcome – frustration. That’s why I think tenets work better. How are tenets different? They do not prescribe how a person should act, but only provide a framework of desired outcomes. For example, ‘Accept product returns ONLY if they meet all these criteria’ is a rule; ‘Accept product returns in genuine cases’ is a tenet. The key difference is that tenets expect you to apply your intelligence and act wisely in a way that meets the goal whereas rules are prescriptive on how to act to meet the goal.

In this ted talk, Barry Schwartz makes a case for using practical wisdom to overcome challenges posed by rules. In one example, he talks about a dad who mistakenly gets ‘Mike’s Hard lemonade’ (which contains alcohol) for his son when he intended to get him lemonade. The son drank it, the security guard noticed it, the cops were called, the kid was rushed to the hospital and luckily all was well with the kid. But that was just the beginning of the nightmare. Then the child welfare protections agency decided to send the kid to a foster home, a judge refused to let the kid go home and it took two weeks for the family to be reunited. And everyone involved said they couldn’t avoid it as they were following rules. This is definitely an extreme example, but it makes a strong point – rules were created to ensure the key principle of safeguarding kids but following them without applying wisdom leads to the opposite result. We can think of many situations in our lives, from religion to work where we see rules trump wisdom.

I know what many of you are thinking – letting everyone apply their wisdom will lead to extremely inconsistent results for the same action. After all everyone reacts differently to the same situation and this will lead to chaos. But does it? We already allow (and encourage) this behavior in a very important aspect of our lives – education. We constantly encourage our teachers to tailor their message and method based on the feedback they receive from the students. The process is certainly not uniform, but it isn’t chaos either. Indeed, the freedom allows teachers to experiment and provide the best way to reach the ultimate goal – educate the kid. The same is true in healthcare – no two operations are the same but we trust the doctor to use judgment to ensure the best outcome for the patient.

I am not naïve enough to think this will work for every situation – I do think we need traffic rules and not just tenets (even with rules Indian roads are chaos). But very often we find ourselves in ambiguous situations where rules inherently cannot cover all cases and fail basic common sense. Defining tenets and hiring people who can use their judgment to do the right thing to meet the stated objective would be a much better approach.

July 7, 2015 at 8:18 am Leave a comment

Using your network – is there a line you should not cross?

Have you been approached by a friend/acquaintance to join their ‘entrepreneurial organization’ which helps people earn ‘royalty’ on the network they build much like McDonalds makes money by just franchising their brand? After all, who doesn’t like the idea of getting rich through the commissions made from other people’s sales? If you haven’t experienced it yourself, you must have at least heard of it from other friends. There are different names for this, but ‘direct selling’ or ‘pyramid marketing’ continues to thrive and evolve to now include virtual goods as well.

Irrespective of what is being sold, I have always been irritated and annoyed when I have been approached by friends under the pretext of discussing an ‘exciting business idea’. I wonder why. Surely I cannot be against friends asking me if I am interested in something they are doing. Friends do that all the time, why I do that all the time – whether it is going together on a weekend trip or trying out a new restaurant. What’s more, friends get together very often to start a business – and that seems quite natural to me. It can’t be that I am against friends seeking advice – I seek advice from friends all the time and derive great satisfaction about helping friends when they seek advice. It also can’t be that I don’t appreciate that friends lean on each other – that is a fairly normal social expectation. So what is it about this ‘chain marketing’ business that upsets me?

I feel this kind of ‘leveraging’ of your friends network is actually an abuse of trust and an attempt to profit from the relationship. However, doesn’t a friend profit if I refer her to a job in my workplace? Sure, she might, but that isn’t an abuse of trust and here’s why I think it’s different. Asking a friend for a favor even if you gain from it, is still a favor. The key difference is the motive – if it is to profit then it is an abuse of trust, if it is to seek help then it is isn’t.

Starting a company with friends can get tricky too but the explicit difference in contexts helps set boundaries and the ones who navigate this road are those who stay within lanes. When you start a business with a friend, you are telling him/her “I think we share the values on which we can work together”. When you build your marketing pyramid with your friends, you are essentially telling them “I would like to monetize this relationship”. And that is where I draw the line.

July 2, 2015 at 6:42 am Leave a comment

I am sorry I couldn’t take the time to be brief!

This quote (or a variant of it) has been attributed to Blaise Pascal and Mark Twain (and maybe a few others). The beauty of the quote is that it is true and yet it is counter-intuitive. Almost everyone who has written an essay or document to fit a word limit knows how incredibly hard it is to convey everything and yet stick to the limit. It takes a lot of effort and time. And yet, I routinely receive requests for notes or documents from folks with the byline – ‘all I need is a paragraph, can you send it in the next hour’! My usual response is – ‘I can send you whatever I have, can you shorten in?’. I can confidently say that this response usually works.

In most organizations the primary use of writing is for communicating through emails. At Amazon, we write documents for any new product, plan, update, strategy, review, etc. Imagine writing a document for anything that most other companies use a presentation or spreadsheet. And then imagine being forced to stick to a page limit. The volume of documents I have created (and read!) in the past three years has taught me a few useful things about the science and art of writing which I think can be applied to emails and most other forms of writing where brevity is important.

The best documents I have read have managed to convey the core message very succinctly – in almost a line. The key skill to doing that seems to be to focus on the core message only and supporting it with a cogent & simple argument/finding. The simplest and most effective way I have found to enforce that discipline on my writing (and on the reader) is to start the document by explicitly state the purpose and scope (what’s in and what’s not). While it is initially hard to focus on just one key message without providing the context and everything else that’s also important, through the discipline of sticking to the approach and iterating a few times it’s possible to distill the message to the most important piece. By all means, we should provide the context, support data and everything else but later in the document or in the form of appendices. If you fail to deliver the most important content in the shortest possible volume of words possible then you risk not only losing the message but also confusing the purpose of the meeting.

To me, this is the genius of using documents over presentations – it forces you to write, review, iterate and perfect – which then leads to a lot more clarity in thought and message. While presentations are useful in some situations, I have become a believer in writing the details instead of talking to high-level themes. At the same time, I have also seen many people who definitely know what they are doing but find it very difficult to write long-form. It is something that may need training, coaching and mentoring, but is frankly inescapable in business communication.

June 29, 2015 at 6:51 am Leave a comment

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