Our servants in the plantations were wonderful people. Many were old hand downs from the British planters who had trained them in their ways. Some had special attitudes inherited from the British, who they imitated faithfully.
The pecking order of servants was very strict. At the top was the Butler. He was cook, waiter, and until you got married, the valet; all rolled into one. He would cook your meal – usually to his own satisfaction. He would serve you at table; supervise those who took care of your clothes, house, car, and garden. He would more often than not iron your clothes himself and would cook some of the special things, especially the puddings. He would ensure that there was always soap in the dish and that the towels in the bathroom were always freshly laundered.
The Butler was followed by the Chokra (a Hindustani word with a derogatory tone which literally means ‘urchin’). This worthy was the assistant of the Butler who did all the cleaning, scrubbing, and polishing work in the bungalow. Then there was the gardener who did all the work outside. If you had a cow, there was the cow-keeper. There was the dhobi (washer man) who washed and ironed your clothes. All these for you as the Assistant Manager.
The Butler made sure that there were always flowers arranged in every room. Some Butlers were excellent artists at arranging flowers, having learned these and other skills including cooking European meals from the wives of British planters. Most useful for us of course.
This experience also gave them a sense of standards that is almost impossible to find today. For example, my Butler Bastian would always be dressed in clean white shirt and dark trousers with a belt. He would always be clean shaven, would always have used something to hide the smell of the cigarettes he used to smoke, which I would never have imagined if I hadn’t actually seen him once without his knowledge. As a courtesy, I never walked into his pantry without making some noise on the rare occasion that I did go. It was always more polite and convenient to ring the bell, conveniently located in every room in the house. He would not wear shoes inside the house no matter how much I tried to force him to do, especially in the cold winters. When we had guests and he could not serve from the correct side, he would say, “Sorry, wrong side Sir.” Nothing was taken for granted, including the fact that most of those who heard this statement had no idea what he meant. They hid their confusion by laughing. He would always greet me at the door when I came home, push my chair in when I sat at table, and then serve me with a towel on his arm. And at the end of the day when I had eaten dinner and he knew I was not going to need anything else, he would come and say, “Good night, Master.” This would be followed by the other servants in strict order of precedence.
When you decided to have a party and invite some people, a very essential part of plantation life, your Butler would advise you about who you should invite and even more importantly, who you should not invite; either because of the wrong image that would give you or because that person did not get along with the other more important guests. He would advise you about what each one liked to drink and what anyone was allergic to. Bastian was horrified when I told him that we would not serve any alcohol. For a long time, he was convinced that he was working for the wrong person because the Butler’s prestige would go up if I was promoted quickly and we moved into the Manager’s bungalow. He held the popular opinion that without serving Scotch whisky at parties to the bosses, I would get nowhere. I suppose he also did not like the thought that he would not be getting his quota free of cost either. I, on the other hand, was of the opinion that promotion must come as a result of performance, not on account of the amount or cost of whisky served. Mercifully, my career progression bore me out and proved him wrong. What, if anything, he did about his quota I never discovered and neither did he ever appear to be under the influence, as it were. So that part of Bastian’s life remains a secret.
When you got promoted and went to the Big Bungalow, you got an additional servant inside the bungalow and a driver for your car. The pecking order remained the same. The pecking order was very strictly followed. Almost always the only person you spoke to or who spoke to you was the Butler. He was the one who handled the money. You would give it to him, to give to the others or to the provision merchant from whom food for the bungalow was bought on credit. Credit played a major role in life as most assistants had no money. Many who liked high living had club bar bills that took up most of their salaries and so they lived on credit. This was obviously an evil because apart from the obvious reasons, many Butlers set up their own kickback systems as a result. It was a given that you would pay more for provisions than other people but that was the burden of being the Chinna Dorai (Small Boss). Many British managers were very stingy and corrupt and set up systems of gratuity and underhand payment in kind that they would write off to some estate expense or the other. These systems were well learnt by their Indian subordinates who added to these systems of subterfuge and deception and ran a very corrupt ‘ship’ as it were.
One cardinal fact of plantation life always took its toll – nothing in planting life was private. If you took a bribe, its exact amount, who gave it, and for what, was the subject of much conversation in the bazaar. If you refused to be corrupt and lived a life of honesty, that also became common knowledge. The result was that the actual love and respect that you received from the workers and staff was directly proportional to the kind of life you lived. And in the end, it affected your own success, the loyalty that people showed you, and the peace of mind you lived with. People spoke with great respect about managers who were seen as incorruptible and with disgust and disdain about managers who were corrupt. And in a place where you were the subject of most conversation, public opinion made a very big difference.
I had two Butlers during my stay in the Plantations. Bastian was with me when I joined in Sheikalmudi as Assistant Manager and remained with me for two years. Then he left and Mahmood (more about him later) joined my service. Mahmood was with me when I got married and stayed with me for a total of about three years. When I returned to Lower Sheikalmudi as the Manager, Mahmood left and settled down in Ooty, his hometown. Bastian then returned to my service and remained with me until I moved to Ambadi Estate in Kanyakumari. He then left and settled in Kotagiri.
A few months later we learnt through the grapevine that Bastian had passed away. I was very sad indeed to hear about his passing. Bastian had been a friend and a very good guide for me to ease into plantation life. A few months later I was in Kotagiri visiting my dear friend Berty, when driving down the road, who do I see walking up the hill, but Bastian. I was so delighted that I yelled out his name and swerved the car to park it, almost making the rumor about Bastian’s ending true in the process. Passersby must have thought it very strange indeed to see this Peria Dorai (Big Boss) jump out of his car and hug an old Butler. But that was my Bastian. A man who served faithfully and who was a friend more than a servant. He was completely loyal to me, preserved confidentiality in all matters, and treated me with utmost respect.
Bastian was a brilliant cook and claimed that he knew more than 100 recipes for soufflés and puddings. I have no doubt he did, and I was the beneficiary of many, if not all. His cream soups were brilliant. So were his fruit soufflés. He would top some of them off with caramelized sugar like an elaborate web. Very stylish. But for the love of anything, he wouldn’t teach anyone else how to cook those things. My wife and many other ladies tried every trick to learn. Bastian would very politely say, ‘Of course Madam. I will teach Madam. Madam come when I am making it.’ But when Madam went there, at the final moment, he would do something to distract attention and there it was all ready and made and Madam would have to wait for the next opportunity. After a few such attempts, Madam got the hint and satisfied herself with eating Bastian’s cooking without trying to learn how to cook it. On one occasion, my wife suggested to Bastian that he should teach the houseboy who was his assistant in the kitchen. Bastian’s response was classic. He said, ‘No Madam. Chokra dull Madam. Can’t learn anything.’ And that was that. Chokra dull Madam. I sometimes say this to my wife about myself, when I am feeling a bit under the weather, “Chokra dull Madam,” and we both have a good laugh remembering Bastian.
Bastian like most of his tribe spoke ‘Butler English’ and was very snobbish. My wife used to speak to him in the same way to make it easier for both to understand what was going on. So sometimes I would come in to hear, ‘Bastian, tomatoes got, not got?’ And Bastian saying, ‘Got Madam. But when Madam going Valparai please kindly bringing cream Madam. Need to make vanilla soufflé for Wood Dorai Madam’s dinner party. If Madam want, I am coming to Valparai with Madam.’ And life would go on.
To understand the snobbery of this breed of Butler, let me tell you about something that happened one day. I was informed at about 10 am that the Tahsildar (a District Administration officer) was going to come to the estate to check on some land matters. I was to give him lunch at my bungalow (most estates had no guest houses or hotels and so all official guests had to be entertained at home for which managers were paid some token amount). So, I drove my old Royal Enfield Bullet, kept running mainly due to the daily attention of Thangavelu the mechanic, up to the bungalow and said to Bastian, “Bastian, the Tahsildar is coming for lunch so please make some extra lunch.”
“O God, Master!” said Bastian.
“What happened? Why are you O Godding, Bastian?”
“Master, I had planned to make fish in white sauce for Master,” said Bastian.
“So just make some more, Bastian!” I said with some impatience.
“Unh! What that man know about white sauce!” snorted Bastian.
So duly, rice and Sambar with two other curries was made. At the end of the meal, Bastian in his usual style, produced crystal finger bowls with warm water and a small slice of lemon on the edge. The Tahsildar, who naturally knew nothing about finger bowls and who came from a place (Pollachi) where people drink warm water, squeezed the lemon into the water and drank it up. As soon as he left there was Bastian with a big grin on his face telling me, “See Master! What I told Master about that man?”
The interesting thing in this story is that the standards that Bastian exemplified were the standards of the British, taken from their culture. The Tahsildar was actually a man who came from the same culture as Bastian himself, yet Bastian identified with and got his own sense of significance from the standards of the British rather than from his own people. The power of indoctrination and identification with the ‘ruling class’ was very visible in plantation society where the culture of the White Sahibs was very much alive and followed to the T by their successors, the Brown Sahibs. Not to say that all these standards were bad. Not at all. Many of them referred to manners, ways of dealing with subordinates with fairness and dignity, the importance of appearance and presentation and the power of the ‘Covenant’ that made the managers ‘Covenanted Staff’ as against all the other staff who were called Non-covenanted. But there was also the element of superiority of race, caste, and more importantly, class. Social class.
For more, please read my book, “It’s my Life”
Whenever I speak of customer service I am reminded of how some people from north India, from the Hindi speaking belt of UP and MP pronounce it. They say, ‘Kasht-mar service’. Now ‘Kasht’ in Hindi means ‘difficulty’. And ‘Mar’ means to die. So, the literal translation of ‘Kasht-Mar’ would be (Kasht-say-mar) meaning ‘die slowly with difficulty’. Not a very nice thing to say but that is what some people in the business of providing service seem to be saying to their customers (Kashtmars).
Customer service is about customers, not about the content, technology or industry in which those customers operate. This is a very important thing to understand and accept if one is not to fall into the trap of feeling that somehow our own industry is so unique that the lessons learnt in the airline, hotel, BPO, IT or hospital businesses are not applicable to us. If we deal with people, lessons learnt in any industry that have to do with people, apply to us and we would be very foolish to ignore them. Customers and people and people think holistically. When we experience bad service on board a plane we compare it quite happily (albeit sometimes unconsciously) to the overall service standard that we are used to in our own environment and feel proportionately bad about it. If we come from a country like Singapore where the quality of service is generally very superior, we will tend to feel highly dissatisfied with bad service. But someone who comes from another country where service standards are generally pretty low, they may find the same service to be acceptable because their expectations are so low to begin with. When experiencing on-board in-flight service, we don’t compare it only to our experience on other airlines. Even people who are flying for the first time feel dissatisfied with poor service. So, lessons are transferable.
In my view great customer service is a combination of two things: a genuine desire to serve and some key things to do (tools). Let us look at each of them.
Attitude: Whenever I think of an attitude of great customer service I remember when I first went to Singapore in 1994. I was there to teach a course in teaming skills at GE Asia. I reached my hotel by about midday and having had lunch and rested, decided to go out in the evening to see the city. I came out of the hotel and stood at the curbside waiting for a cab. One came along in less than 2 minutes and then it happened. The driver pulled up, got out of the car, trotted (he didn’t walk, he trotted) around the back to where I was, opened the passenger door at the back and ushered me into the cab with a flourish. I realized that I was in the presence of something special and silently got in.
The interior was spotlessly clean and smelled of some pleasant mild perfume. I sat waiting for the next act of the play. And there it was. He said to me as I was sitting in the cab, ‘That is today’s newspaper for you Sir and some water if you’re thirsty. I hope you are comfortable.’ I said that I was and thanked him. He shut the door respectfully, trotted (once again he didn’t walk) back to his seat and said, looking at me in the rearview mirror, ‘Where can I take you Sir?’ I replied, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to just sit here so that I can enjoy the experience of being in your car.’
I still remember this incident 16 years later as if it happened yesterday. The point is that he was an ordinary taxi driver who had never gone to a single training class in customer service. He was in a business where customers commonly have the least expectation of service and are only interested in not being deceived to pay more than their due. His customer is with him for probably the shortest time of any service; just the few minutes it takes to drive to the customer’s destination. And typically he would probably never see that customer again. Yet here was a man going out of his way to be nice to his customers and to give them an experience to remember. Why?
The only answer I have is, because for him service was about who he was. Not about who the customer was. Neither I nor anyone I know would expect, much less demand a taxi driver to get out and open the door for them or keep clean drinking water (sealed bottle) and the day’s papers in the car or to keep the car in an absolutely pristine state. After all we are used to shabby taxis and as long as it is not horribly dirty we don’t give it a second thought.
He did what he did because he saw his service as defining him, not because he thought the customer cared about it or wanted it or demanded it. It was his own pride in his work and his desire to serve.
Let me give you another example. In 1997, I lived in Bangalore and wanted to buy a Maruti 800 car. I called a number which I thought was the number of the agency which financed Maruti purchases. A lady answered, and the conversation went like this:
‘Good morning, this is Citibank Car Finance. How can I help you?’
‘Good morning. I am looking to buy a Maruti 800 car and want to know if you finance it.’
‘I am sorry Sir, we finance only Opel Astra (four times the price), but if you hang on a minute I will get you the number of the company which does Maruti.’
Once again, I knew I was in the presence of someone with that key attitude – the desire to win customers. So, I waited. She came back on line in less than one minute.
‘Here’s the number Sir. And if you change your mind and decide to buy an Opel Astra, please do give us a call.’
She knew perfectly well that I was not an Opel Astra customer, but she still said that so that I would not feel bad about not being able to afford an expensive car.
Once again the power of attitude.
The first thing I would ask anyone who has to deal with any customer in any kind of business at all is, ‘Do you really want to do this job? And if you want to do it, how much do you want to do it?’
- Is it an, ‘Ah! Here comes another one’, kind of thing?
- Or is it a, ‘Well, since I am here I may as well get it over with.’
- Or is it, ‘Another fantastic day for me to give some customers service they have never seen before. I love the look on their faces as if they can’t believe their own eyes and ears.’
Which one applies to you?
It’s really as simple as this.
Now how about if you are not the # 3 kind of person?
Well, you have two choices; change your job or change yourself.
Changing your job may neither be feasible nor is it easy to find a job where you don’t have to deal with people. There are such jobs, like feeding crocodiles in a zoo, but not so many fall vacant unless the feeder slips into the pool. Like it or not you are going to have to deal with people. So, what should you do?
Here is what you should do:
- Stand before a mirror and tell yourself, this is the BEST job that I could possibly be doing because I have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. Now what is more worthwhile than that? I was in the airport in Hyderabad and wanted to use the washroom. I entered the room and found that the toilets were being cleaned. The man doing the job saw me and said to me, ‘Please give me a minute Sir.’
Then he not only cleaned the toilet, but he sprayed air freshener and then took some tissue and dried the toilet seat. Did that make a difference in my life? You can bet it did and I ensured that I gave him the biggest tip he would have received in a while. Though going by his attitude and quality of service it would take a shamelessly stingy person to pass him by without emptying their pockets into his hands. Once again, I don’t think that man ever saw the inside of a Customer Service Training class. So, stand before your mirror and tell yourself, ‘I want to make a difference in someone’s life today.’
- LEAD: Listen, Empathize, Accept Responsibility, Do Something
- Listen: Listen to the customer. Listen to what they are saying and to how they are saying it. Sometimes it is not the words of the customer but his tone of voice or his body language which gives the one who listens well, the real message.
- Empathize: Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. How would you feel if someone did to you what you or someone in your company did to your customer? The reason it was done is immaterial. That he had to suffer is what the customer is conscious of. Let me give you an example. I was in San Francisco at the Marriot, having arrived there by a late night flight at midnight. I had asked for a non-smoking room as I am allergic to cigarette smoke. When I went up to the room almost at 1.00 am I found it reeking of cigarette smoke. I complained but the person at the front desk told me that they did not have any other room. I was furious but there was nothing I could do so I slept as best I could. Next morning, I had to leave early for work. When I returned, I was met at the lobby by the hotel manager who took me up to another room, this one smelling sweet and asked if I liked it. I said that I did. She then asked if she could have my luggage moved there. I agreed. Then (only then) did she say to me, ‘Sir, I apologize for the problem you had last night. We had booked a non-smoking room for you but unfortunately it seems that the guest had someone else in the room who smoked and so the room smelled of cigarettes. We did not realize this until too late and there was no other non-smoking room available last night. I blocked the first room that fell vacant this morning and here it is. My apologies once again.’ The beauty of this response was that she first solved my problem and then (only then) gave me the explanation for what happened. It was clear that they were empathetic about my problem. They did not try to brush it aside or pretend that it was not really a problem nor did they try to justify or explain it. They addressed it and solved it and then explained why it had happened, once the problem had been solved.
- Accept responsibility: Accept the fact that the problem of the customer is really your problem. This is something that we don’t see too quickly and act as if the problem has nothing to do with us. It is our problem because it is causing our customer to be dissatisfied. And a dissatisfied customer is very much our problem. Own your responsibility and don’t send the customer to someone else. This is one of the biggest aggravations that customers face; being shunted from person to person and having to repeat their story over and over.
- Do something: Take action. You take action. Don’t tell the customer what to do. You go do it. And then let him know what you are doing and how it is going to solve his problem. Reporting periodically is essential for customer satisfaction. People don’t like to be left in the dark. So, tell them.
- Pre-empt problems: It is a known fact that in most cases it is the same things that tend to go wrong again and again. Identify the three or four major things that tend to go wrong most often and have preset responses for them. In order to do this, it is essential to document what happens in your customer interactions so that you can correctly identify what goes wrong most often. Preset responses take away the stress from the interactions and ensure the fastest recovery from failure. Research shows that customers who had a problem that was solved well are more satisfied than those who did not have a problem at all.
- Moments of Truth: Identify and monitor your moments of truth. A ‘Moment of Truth’ is defined by Jan Carlson, ex-CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, who first used this phrase in the context of customer service as that moment when a customer or a potential customer comes into contact with any aspect of your operation and has an opportunity to form an opinion. If you know what that point of contact is and can control the interaction such that the customer’s experience is positive, then you have a winning operation. If you either don’t know what your moments of truth are or where they occur or have no control over them, then you have a losing operation. It is as simple as that. However, knowing moments of truth and controlling them is a matter of rigorous measurement and documentation which most organizations are unwilling or unable to do and so they blunder along and create dissatisfied customers and lose business and in some cases go under.
Great customer service is about concern; being genuinely concerned for the customer. It is about pride in your own operation and your own identity; wanting to be the best. It is about wanting to add value to people’s lives; about seeing value in serving. It is about being a shrewd business person; recognizing who pays you and ensuring that he/she is not just happy to do so but simply delighted that you are there to serve them. Great customer service is the only guarantee for survival and growth and the only insurance and hedge against bad times.
Customers don’t remember what you did. They remember how they felt. That is the key.
Much has been written about building a winning brand and about the importance of brand and branding in general. In my view successful branding is the culmination of a 2 – step process which is as follows:
1. Ask: What do we want to be remembered for?
2. Act always and consistently to create those memories in people’s minds.
So that every time they think of what you provide, they have only one name that they can recall and that is yours. Like all truly powerful ideas, it is very simple. The key is in execution; passionately, seamlessly and consistently.
In my view, if you are competing against anyone, i.e. if your customers or potential customers are even considering your competitors as potential fulfillers of their need, then you have failed. In the words of Sun Tzu, ‘The best general is the one who wins without fighting.’ And that is the hallmark of successful branding – that you leverage yourself out of the competition.
So how can you do that?
1. Asking: What do we want to be remembered for?
It is essential to ask this question and the answer lies in another question: What am I most passionate about? We can only be remembered for what we do best and we can only do best what we are most passionate about. So ask, ‘What am I most passionate about? What do I truly want from life? What am I willing to do anything to achieve? What do I get the most satisfaction from?’ Make up your own questions and answer them and you will arrive at that which you are most passionate about. If you always do what you are passionate about you will become known for it and people will remember you for it. So identify that passion.
2. Act always and consistently to create those memories in people’s minds.
If there’s one word which is critical in this statement it is the word ‘consistently’. It is regularity that creates dependability. People must become used to expecting the same standard of excellence when they come to you for whatever it is that you provide. Consistent Excellence. Flashes in the pan are good to create awareness but if the pan doesn’t flash every time, then credibility gets damaged very quickly.
When you do this – produce excellence and do it consistently and regularly then dependability ensues and brand is created. Brand is not built by you but by your clients who tell others and become your ambassadors to the world. One referral by a satisfied client is worth a million bucks of advertising. I am not against advertising and PR but want to emphasize that one must keep it in perspective and not imagine that it is some kind of magic wand that once waved will wipe out all the bad taste of indifferent product and service quality. It won’t. On the other hand the PR will come across as an exercise in deception and destroy credibility even more.
Many branding ‘experts’ talk almost exclusively about ‘customer perception’ and the ‘mind of the customer’ as if they can read minds. They talk about how to ‘influence the customer’ to think this way or that as if the customer is a puppet in your control who can be influenced independently of your actions and what you provide. Their ‘campaigns’ are almost exclusively about logo design, ad copy, tag lines and color combinations. They don’t talk about product quality, delivery efficiency, service excellence or follow up. The result is that ‘branding exercises’ are all about advertising and PR and not about creating sustainable quality. This is a very big mistake because the damage to the brand which results from the eventual and inevitable disappointment that the customer feels when the PR mask is off, is something that can’t be measured and seldom corrected.
So what must one do?
Focus on ‘Moments of Truth’ and ensure that these are defined, designed to create the impression you want the customer to take away and monitored to ensure that every single time, the customer has the exact same experience.
What is a ‘Moment of Truth’?
In the words of Jan Carlson, the CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, who first used the term in this context, ‘A Moment of Truth is that moment when a customer or a potential customer, comes into contact with any aspect of your business and has an opportunity to form an opinion.’
I have underlined the key phrases in this definition to highlight their importance. Who is a ‘customer or a potential customer’? In my opinion it is anyone in the world. Anyone who meets you, speaks to you on the phone, logs onto your website, reads your brochure, billboard or any of your literature or contacts you in any way at all must go away with the most positive impression possible about who you are and what you do. This must happen even if the person decides that you are not the person he/she needs to fulfill their need at that time. They must still feel that you are the best thing that happened to them.
Moments of Truth are defining moments but are for the most part handled either mechanically (websites, answering machines and so on) or by the least paid, least trained employees (telephone operators, security guards, receptionists) with predictable results. I am not suggesting that the CEO must man the phone or stand at the gate (though having said it, is not a bad idea at all to do once in a while) but must know what anyone who calls his company or comes to meet anyone experiences. Most CEOs and managers when I get them to call their company anonymously are unpleasantly surprised at what happens. Most Moments of Truth in most organizations go unnoticed and uncommented upon except by customers, which is a very dangerous situation to be in.
The key to brand building is to ask, ‘What do we want our customers to feel when they think of us?’ Then talk to them and ask what they do feel and bridge the gap. This VOC (Voice of Customer) is the most valuable tool for brand building that you can imagine. It is a thermometer to gauge the warmth the customer feels towards your organization – the warmth of love and good feeling or the warmth of irritation and anger. Organizations that listen to customers regularly (by this I mean actually speak face-to-face not run anonymous surveys) have their finger on their pulse and are able to leverage that knowledge. They build relationships that result in customer loyalty and give them an insight into what their customers want. Apple’s iPod and iPad were the result of listening to customers and the resultant sale success is an indication of how well they know their market. Singapore Airlines advertising is supported by in-flight service that even other airlines talk about. BMW’s advertising is supported by unmatched engineering to produce a benchmark, not merely a car. Brand building therefore in my view is to listen to the customer, build a close relationship with him/her and deliver a quality of service that leaves them spellbound. Advertising and PR then is merely to inform them about new products and services.