Retaining Customers

So, after my two year stint at IIM Calcutta, am back in Mumbai. While it has been only a week since I came home for good, I’ve already shaken up the incumbent service providers…

When we shifted to the new place, the MTNL landline took a bit more time than anticipated to shift – involved changing exchanges, and no one knew which telephone exchange served the new building. And, as one may imagine, living without a telephone connection is rather difficult – plus, not everyone at home had cell phones then. So we got the just launched Reliance FWP connection – now called Reliance Hello.

Only, now the situation has changed – everyone has cell phones. Despite reducing the rental to the lowest (officially) possible, we don’t end up consuming all the “free” calls; essentially, we are paying an amount to Reliance to just retain the number – which everyone uses to call us, even if we don’t use it to call them. So terminating the connection, while an option, is not the preferred one. Instead, I researched on the Reliance website and discovered it is possible to go the “prepaid” way.

So, I first called their call center, explaining what I wanted done. They wanted to know why I wanted to convert. Told them. As expected, they tried selling me “special plans” reducing rentals – a strategy that I’m too aware of; after all, I did study Services Marketing, Consumer Behaviour and the like! So I tell them, nothing doing, I want to go prepaid. So they ask me to submit necessary docs and request to their center, which I did – repeating the entire conversation once more to the customer service agent at the counter there.

Finally today they called me, and after the same conversation being repeated – “Sirji, Reliance ke liye aapka yeh number bahut important hai…” Yeah, right! So they ended up offering me zero rental for three months with 60p calling. I demand – what after three months? We’ll then offer you the best plan available then. Hmmm, unless you can guarantee me a lifetime zero rental scheme, no thanks! But sir, she rambles on. Time to go in the firm mode: Look, either convert this line to prepaid right now, no questions asked, or I apply for disconnection! Now, I’m talking – and they are listening. She finally relents.

The other incumbent that got thrown out was Hathway – my ISP of about six years. They are fairly decent, only they have forgotten to keep up with the times – or so it seems. I got a very sweet deal from MTNL Triband – unlimited 1mbps connection – four times the speed of my previous connection at a marginally higher cost.

Here’s a verbatim conversation I had with Hathway:

“Sir, your account is due for renewal…” “Yes, I know. But we don’t want to continue. We’d like to disconnect.” Panic! “Disconnect? Why sir?” “Because your prices are too high!” “Sir, it is only Rs.XXXX”. “Yes, but have you seen the competition? They are giving me Y at price Z.” Background discussion with his supervisor. “Well sir, in that case, we would like to offer you the same plan at reduced price of Rs.XXXX/2.” “No thanks. I already have subscribed to your competition. Now, let me know your termination policy…” Gulp! This customer is now a lost case! How will I achieve my targets now! “Alright sir, you need to return the cable modem to our office, and send us an email for termination.”

I almost feel sorry for them – they have been generally decent with their service, and have served me well. And I have some loyalty – I’d even have negotiated with them for a better deal. But what irked me, is that they did not offer me that discount upfront. They were completely alright ripping me off only moments ago. There! I quit! I will go to your competition AND you will not be able to do anything about it! I’m the devil! And if I am in an especially foul mood, I will completely ruin your day by blogging, tweeting and crapping the daylight out of your reputation.

The point is, service providers will go through a lot of trouble to try and retain postpaid customers – a constant revenue stream, generally uncomplaining cash cows that can be milked forever. And, they will only offer the wicked dirt-cheap plans when you threaten to leave. This creates bad incentives – similar to what happens in any job – pay me more, else I’m off. The flip side is the providers point of view – they are probably at their wits end trying to retain customers. The churn, that is, the number of customers discontinuing, is a big worry. Competition does not make it any easier. They try to pacify customers by offering one time discounts and the like, but obviously, only if you “threaten” them to leave. And many stay – making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. The only real deal is the tact and technique that the touch point has – the experience to figure out if the customer is bluffing – asking for a discount for getting the discount, or really wants to quit.

The other thing with these changes is that it increases transaction costs for everyone – the provider side is obvious, they have to recommission everything. But even for the customer, it could mean downtime, changes, training etc. This represents significant productivity loss for the society as a whole. Rather unfortunate then, that there is no solution to this issue. At least, I didn’t find one. If you have one, do comment below.

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A Lot Of Thinking…

“I’m getting married next week!” she said.

And his world came crashing down. Life would never be the same again!

But he would obviously put up a brave face. After all, it had entirely been his fault. He had started off the relationship with the premise that it was to be only a fling, and nothing more. It would have no seriousness, and while it may have all the emotions of a conventional relationship, it would never progress to a level where it becomes difficult to live life normally.

Clearly, he had not stuck to his end of the deal – he had fallen in love. Or so it would seem to an external observer, in such a scenario. Because, while he was indeed hurt by the declaration, it was not so much because he was in love with her; he was in fact in love with no one but himself. It was more becuase she represented a lot more to him than what she should have represented.

She was an epitome of life passing by, of things changing, and of people taking stock of their lives and moving on. And while he understood, nay, he made himself believe that everything is alright and that he’d also get to that stage of life soon, his mind would not let him accept that.

They were friends, that changed into a mild relationship that fizzled out soon primarily because he was not ready, and she felt left high and dry. They came together again, only to decide that this time, it would not be emotional. Fair enough; they went from friends to friends with benefits. But it would be unfair to say that their relationship was purely physical, because they spend a fair bit of time just talking to each other, about life, principles and perspectives.

So when she declared that she had finally found the person of her dreams, of her choice, someone with whom she was willling to spend her life with, he went through a range of emotions, including disbelief, reluctant acceptance, self deprecation, and finally fact finding.

What was it exactly that bothered him more? The fact that she was getting married, or the fact that he wasn’t? He’d agree to the later – simply because he didn’t particularly care about her, or for that matter any other person. Then what aspect of him not being married bothered him? Ah, now this would be a tough one to answer, because he wasn’t too sure; in some senses, he was too afraid of what would the answer turn out to be!

But he knew it all too well – the physical is but just a perk. It was the emotional, and the ego. Someone to call his own, someone to start a family with, someone to show off, someone to talk to when the going gets tough, and someone to share the good things in life with!

The natural and logical progression of thought would be – if he cared so deeply about these things, and if he was capable of thought, why was he denying himself a proper relationship, something he could have had any time he wanted, with some exceptional partners, if not anyone of his liking. And this he wanted answers to, but didn’t have. At least not yet.

He had a lot of thinking to do.

Light Moods

This one made my day (from the InterWebs!):

It is said that once Russi Mody was on an official trip to (the then) Bombay. Even though it was a Sunday morning, Russi had to visit Bombay House, the Corporate Head Quarters of the Tata Group.

Russi was driving a Mercedes himself as it was a Sunday and there was very little traffic and also it was the chauffeur’s day off. Russi was wearing simple shorts and a T shirt.

Knowing that he would take just a few minutes to finish his work in Bombay House and that it was a non-working day in the business district with very low traffic, he decided to take liberties to park his Merc in an other-wise no parking zone.

A conscientious traffic cop noticed all this and he immediately rushed to Russi who had started sauntering towards the Bombay House entrance.

In a gruff voice the Pandu Havaldar asked Russi.

“Kyun bhidu, baap kaa sadak samajh kay gaadi rakha hai kya?”

Russi very non-chalantly replied: “Haan kuchh aisa hi hai.” “Aapko English padhna aata hai kya?”

Then he gently held the Pandu’s arm and walked him to the kerbside and pointed to the metal signage of the road.

He asked the cop “Kya Likha Hai?”

The cop said “Sir Homi Mody Street”.

A mischievously smiling Russi discloses: “Woh Mera Baap Tha”.

Russi was allowed to leave his car parked in the “No Parking” Zone that Sunday morning.

Of Marginal Returns

Some history (feel free to skip the first para as it isn’t really relevant): As a kid, I don’t think I ever took exercise seriously. I don’t think I was too much of an outdoorsy person either. Not many sports, except swimming, but that was largely confined to summer vacations and company in the form of cousins. During my early teens, I put on weight and was forced to join the gym, if nothing else. I don’t remember taking that too seriously either. A bout of  typhoid killed all the extra fat, and as I passed out of school, I actually was as “healthy” as I could get. And then during graduation, I decided to join the gym seriously.

So after the first day in the gym, muscles that I never knew existed made their presence felt. I suffered intense pain. These set of muscles were probably never flexed before, and the first week was unbearable. No wonder the instructor asked me to skip a day before repeating my sets; we had to let the muscles recover. But over time, the pain subsided. And I had to do increasingly larger number of sets, or use heavier weights to, um, “exercise”. I really don’t think anything helped me as much as the very first week – the muscles probably were more exercised in that first week than ever later.

I didn’t continue gym for very long – commitments, lack of time, boredom, lack of motivation – excuses galore! So the muscles returned back to their original state, possibly following exactly the same path as they took on their way up – they must have regressed the most in the later phases, than if I had skipped the gym for a day or two.

So, what’s the point I’m trying to make, and why now? I’ll answer the later part first: I restarted “basic exercises” many times between that time and now, the most recent being two weeks back. And the first few days are exactly the same – aching muscles. I wonder if this is indeed a case of marginal returns. Is it really true that the first “painful” days are the best stimulants for the muscles, and if so, why continue? Of course, my premise could be completely flawed: Pain may not necessarily equate to gain, and this stopping and starting is probably more damaging than anything else.

I will admit, that the “kick” one derives from the first few days of exercising after a prolonged break far surpassed the felling one derives from continual exercise. One actually feels bubbly and chirpy. Maybe some hormonal reaction / response to the exercise – but that’s a fact. In a sense, this is similar to alcohol – casual drinkers tend to get the “kick” faster than routine drinkers, who must also consumer ever-increasing quantities to get “high”.

So, is it habit? Is it moderation? “Stop-and-go”? If this is really a case of marginal returns, then how do we ensure optimality? What is your take?

Fail-Safe Systems Required

You may ask: For what?

The answer is: For everything.

For example, it could be for your tasks. Even for a student, there are multiple sources that generate tasks. They could come from notices put up by the school, requests for meetings by the study group, gyaan-sessions for juniors, credit card payments, stock market pursuits, birthdays, anniversaries and just about anything. The media is varied as well: extranet, email, internet, notice boards, announcements, informal chats et al. And these could be pushed (someone requests / commands / demands) or pulled (your choice to do something).

So where’s the deal about fail-safe systems? Well, soon one can be overwhelmed with the number of tasks one needs to track. If one has a system that uses the philosophy of immediate execution of every task that comes along, it too can get overwhelmed. There are only so many things that one can hold in their head, and far too many things vying for one’s attention. Lapses become frequent, with increasingly potent consequences. Hence the need for a fail-safe system.

It could be simply a diary, or a to-do list. However, it is the process that is important. Everything, however small or trivial should also be recorded, and ticked on completion. Sure, this has overheads and requires discipline, but is fail-safe. The additional advantage is that this gives you a neat little mechanism to track how you are spending your time, check on your productivity and perhaps improve those quintessential time management skills.

But fail-safe systems are not only at a macro level such as the above. They are also required for very specific activities, such as waking up in the morning. Sometimes, one alarm simply isn’t enough. Or two, either. One needs to leverage their neighbors, friends and just about anyone else who can be recruited for the cause to wake one up. This redundancy ensures that one does get up in the morning and be present wherever needed. The point is, the redundancy brings fail-safeness. It may not be the most efficient, but it works. Being disciplined works better, but it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

There could be a zillion similar examples. The core of this rambling is that having systems is fine, possibly a given. Having fail-safe systems is far more important. A system that fails is probably worse than not having one, simply because it brings a sense of false complacency, and one tends to rely on something that is fundamentally unreliable. So, give me my fail-safe systems. Required.

I missed a class today, because I didn’t wake up. Despite the alarm. This is the first time this term, and the safety net of attendance requirements affords my missing this particular class. But, I forgot to set up the usual fail-safe: Somehow, in the grand scheme of things, I forgot to tell my fellow classmates to wake me up. FML. 😦

New Year Parties

Also from A Momentary Lapse of Reason:

If you throw a New Year’s Party, the worst thing that you can do would be to throw the kind of party where your guests wake up today, and call you to say they had a nice time. Now you’ll be be expected to throw another party next year. What you should do is throw the kind of party where your guest wake up several days from now and call their lawyers to find out if they’ve been indicted for anything. You want your guests to be so anxious to avoid a recurrence of your party that they immediately start planning parties of their own, a year in advance, just to prevent you from having another one… If your party is successful, the police will knock on your door, unless your party is very successful in which case they will lob tear gas through your living room window. As host, your job is to make sure that they don’t arrest anybody. Or if they’re dead set on arresting someone, your job is to make sure it isn’t you…

Birth of Fandom

The following came up on A Momentary Lapse of Reason on our IIM Calcutta extranet:

It was over in a flash. The neutron bombs were delivered with so little warning, none of the government officials were able to get to their shelters in time. But the neutron bombs were designed to wipe out only people, and they were designed well. Buildings stood and petunias blossomed. Somehow, Dave had survived. The last boy on Earth. AS he sat down in his room, reading a Frederic Brown novel, the phone rang. With- out thinking, Dave picked it up. “Dave, this is Kevin. Are you going to be at the SF club meeting tonight?” Suddenly realizing what was happening, Dave reacted. “Kevin? But I thought I was the last person alive!” “Nah, the whole group’s still going strong!” “But…how?” “Same as you. You read a lot, don’t you?” “A novel a day.” “So, your walls are lined with books, aren’t they?” “Sure.” “Best radiation absorbers ever. Hardly a fan got burned, world- wide. Anyway, the meeting’s at the usual place. 7:30. See you there” And that’s how fandom took over the world.

Source unknown.

Weird Dream

I had two of the weirdest of dreams today; I will blame the fried maggi and double mixed fruit juice overdose, or maybe The Men Who Stare at Goats. Either way, they were absolutely strange in the sense that my behaviour in them was not in line with my real world self.

I do not remember the first one, but I do remember waking up after that one, seeing that it is still only 9am, and going back to sleep again. The second one caused me to wake up as well, but neither were really nightmares. It is also entirely possible that I got the causality wrong; the dream may have stopped because I got up. Anyway, here goes the second dream:

Scene is a road-facing consumer shop, where you can buy electronics, stationery and for some reason, also book travel tickets. I was merely observing some people transact business. Then, my mom tells me to go check if tickets to place X were available. I go there, and tell them to give me a form – apparently the booking and availability checking form is the same. Also, it’s some sort of a hi-tech form, in the sense that you need to tap the buttons and menu options for them to work; maybe it is a tablet or something. So I fill up the details and the overenthusiastic counter salesperson wants to know if I need his help, and where would I like to go. I tell him that I’m just checking availability and will let him know if I need his help. He sort of snubs at me!

So, I finish filling up the details, and hesitate for a second trying to locate the button for check availability, because it is between the buttons for check fare, book et al. One other salesperson looks over my shoulder and says: The button is there. The first salesperson says: No, he doesn’t want to book the tickets, only check availability. I just ignore them, and click the check availability button. The screen pointer indicates that the button has been hit, but nothing happens. The second salesperson says: No, you didn’t hit it hard enough. Let me do it. I hit it again, and give him a look.

The page opens and I get the data; I have no clue what it actually said. A third salesperson comes along, and says: May I have a look? I’ll book these tickets for you. He even started poking his head between mine and the form, and tried to pull the form away from me. This is when I lost it: I DON’T WANT TO BOOK TICKETS. HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU THAT I AM ONLY CHECKING AVAILABILITY. DON’T YOU PEOPLE UNDERSTAND. $#%^%$^%@#!

The third guy is now appalled. The first two look at him. I wouldn’t stop: You guys do not know how to do business or treat customers. (At this point I’m not sure if any tried to placate me, and if they did, it only worsened things.) I shot back: I have been a long-time customer here. I just bought 3 mobile phones from this store. (I swear during the dream I was thinking of what would be a fair number to put in here, because I had not actually purchased any mobile phones from the store before.) I AM NEVER GOING TO COME BACK HERE AGAIN. YOU HAVE JUST LOST A PAYING CUSTOMER.

By this time everyone in the store is staring at me and at the counter, and the salespeople are now genuinely concerned with sheepish looks on their faces. As I left the shop, I could hear their manager and the first two salespeople berating the third salesperson: What did you do? What did you do? Why did you have to ask him? Now who will recover these lost sales? You have single handed increased all of our workload…

[So far, I can see a mixture of Anupam stores in Mumbai, my Latitude XT, IRCTC website, Rocket Singh, a disgruntled me, observed customers who give pain to the salespeople, all coming together in this dream-streak. Of course, this is completely contrary to how I’d react in real life. But it doesn’t end there.]

Outside the shop, my mom and dad are waiting in an ordinary Mumbai rickshaw; dad is actually outside. I walk to them, all angry, and without any dialogue, get inside the rickshaw. Dad climbs in after me, and the rickshaw is off, possibly going home. I don’t recall any dialogue, but the rickshaw climbs to some height, and it looks like a derelict building terrace, with one edge facing the railway lines. I’m playing the incident back in my head, when the rickshaw-walla bhaiya simply drives off the edge of the building, over the railway tracks and I go: OH! WTF? WHY HAS HE JUMPED US ALL OFF THE BUILDING. Dad simply says: The angle isn’t right; you should have taken off at a higher angle.

My dream mind is numb. Taken-off? WTF? We start coming down, but we’ve now crossed the railway lines, and are passing over some buildings. The rickshaw-walla bhaiya says: It’s that pink building, right? Dad: Yes. Rickshaw-walla bhaiya: Oh, that’s going to be a tough one. Me: WTF? What do you mean it’s going to be a tough one? What were you even thinking when you “took-off” the other building? This is insane. This must be a dream.

The next few things happen quite fast in the dream. The rickshaw-walla bhaiya starts shouting, possibly to himself: The antenna, the antenna, we are too low, too low. He does some insane driving actions, more like that of a pilot trying to fly a single engine plane with the joystick – he was doing that with the steering bar of the rickshaw. Then: Look out for the cylinder, the cylinder. And then we float, and land on to the terrace of what I now assume, was our building. This is when I notice that Bana, my aaya from childhood days and now a family member, is also with us, and she was absolutely scared to death with all this flying.

I have no clue what the cylinder was, and my real world building is not pink. It does have a cellular tower on its terrace, so maybe that was the antenna. And this is where I get up. I tried hard to recollect if there was any flying gear connected to the rickshaw, but I can’t remember. Possibly there were two or three big white silk balloons, but I am not sure.

[I don’t even know what is the inspiration for all this – flying rickshaws and what not! What a crazy dream, really!]

Ed: Minor edits made, and link to IRCTC fixed. Thanks, Vidyadhar.

Dus Bahane

“So, where are we going to go for the movie?”

“I haven’t decided, yet.”

“Well, I need to pick out a dress.”

“Eh? How does that matter.”

“Oh, it does. I need to figure out how smartly I can dress.” Smart was her euphemistic way of saying how many layers she could drop off. “And also if we are going to have dinner.”

“Look, it’s not a date. It’s just a movie. Simple.” Rohit did not want her to get ideas. Once he had invited her to his college party, and she had absolutely eaten up his head with the pre-party prep! It was simply fortunate (for him, of course) that her mom fell ill, and she had to cancel at the last minute. Thankfully too, the party had turned really wild, and he did not want Zarine to be there; after all, not everyone is as saintly as him.

“Still…”

“Fine, I’ll let you know.”

“It’s not that way. I just don’t get out that often, you see.”

“And just why not?”

“There’s no company.”

“…”

“No, seriously. I’m just so lonely. You go out partying and enjoying yourself. I feel so jealous. It is unfair!”

Not knowing how to react to this, but saying ‘Look, I have a girlfriend. I handle her problems, and those are enough!’ did not seem right in his head. So he said nothing.

“Just let me know when you decide, alright?”

“Yep! I’ll.” He did not want to get into the discussion about how she should mix up with other people et al all over again this time.

Later that night, Zarine does her head-poking-in-from-the-door thing again: “Hey, you wanna come downstairs with me?”

“Hmmm. Why, what’s up?”

“Oh, nothing. Dad forgot to lock the car, so I’m going down to lock it. I could do with some company.”

“Okay.” Rohit didn’t have to even think for an excuse; Zarine was well prepared, hitting where it hurt. She wore a translucent night gown that did more than justice to her curves. Of course, it could be coincidental, but one couldn’t help a wandering mind.

“It’s getting a bit cold, isn’t it?”

‘Well, if you wear that, what do you expect?’ “Yes, gets quite chilly in the mornings.”

“Yes. And I have to go get fresh flowers for the morning puja. I hate to do that in this weather.”

“Why don’t you ask the vendor to bring them home?”

“Oh, he comes in too late. I prefer to be done with it before I do anything else.”

“Well…”

“Do you want to sit inside the car for a bit? Maybe listen to the radio? Come on, just get in…” Zarine had cut him and his argument, suddenly tugging at his arm.

“Um… sure!” Only the strong can resist a puppy face. Coupled with an outfit like that. And all the pulling.

“Yaay! Let’s see what’s playing… Maybe something romantic?”

‘Pop should be fine, really. Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves!’ Instead, Rohit offers expectant silence. Dus bahane karke le gayi dil plays on the radio.

“Hold my hand. And sing along! Dus bahane karke…”

Thanks Adi for the song reco.

A Cold Night

It was a cold January night. Colder than usual. Much colder than usual. He shivered – the standard issue jacket didn’t seem to work; it was largely unsuccessful keeping the cold out and the heat in. Some weather, he reckoned. Rather be in the tropics, drinking iced tea, than be here, struggling even to hold the glass cup containing rum and coffee. The room was only marginally warmer, and everything inside was freezing cold to touch. He snuggled inside the blanket and tried to sleep, rolling himself into a ball with the blanket covering him head-to-toe.

But sleep eluded him. Not because it was cold; cold is secondary when one is tired enough and Sleep just comes. But because his mind wouldn’t let him. He kept playing the incident over and over again in his mind. He felt colder every time he did that. His extremities were numb, even though he had curled them for minimum exposure. He was trying to breathe out hot air, hoping the blanket would trap some in; didn’t quite seem like it was working, it felt progressively colder.

And then he felt warmer. It was something that started from his chest and slowly spread all across his body. He couldn’t figure out at first, he was too busy relishing the warm feeling, as if he has nestled between the welcoming arms of a giant panda. Or maybe that of  sizzling chocolate fudge. It felt like heaven. Slowly, feeling returned to his hands, and he felt wet. His brain pondered: this doesn’t make sense; why am I feeling wet? His mind though couldn’t care less; it wanted to continue with the amazing feeling.

And that is how he bled to death.

They found him later, drowned in his own blood, now dry and clotted, with a smile of satisfaction on his face.