Questions worth asking yourself

A few years ago, 2004 to be precise, I came across some questions that forced me to introspect and come up with the answers. Recently, I re-discovered the document in which I had written the answers and was pleasantly surprised.

I’m listing down the questions here, do think about your answers –

* What were the significant events of the year?

* What were my accomplishments?

* What trips did I take?

* Who was I closest to?

* What significant reading did I do?

* What gave me joy?

* In what ways did I grow?

* What personal gifts did I use to serve this year?

* What did I learn this year?

* What in my life is dying (literally or figuratively)?

* What in my life is rising (literally or figuratively)?

*What are my goals for the next year?



Celebrating Diwali without firecrackers

While driving back from work this evening I noticed that most shops along the way are all lit up and decorated well for the festive season. It hit me that Diwali is just around the corner. I don’t know when but somewhere along the way I had a random thought of convincing my kids to celebrate Diwali without bursting firecrackers this year. Absolutely no firecrackers. Not even a sparkler.

Since when did this festival of lights turn into a festival of noise and air pollution. Don’t we have enough pollution around us already? I’ve heard some TED talks in which they say this might be the last century for our species. It’s shocking. We’ve already polluted our environment enough to cause global warming and that it’s too late now to stop the impending catastrophe.

What’s so macho anyway about bursting crackers anyway? Hundreds maybe thousands of kids work long hours without food or toilet breaks to churn out firecrackers in the Sivakasi factories. They get killed or maimed due to lack of safety regulations when there are fires or explosions in those factories. Is this the way the festival was meant to be celebrated?

I don’t want my kids to associate Diwali with the noisy firecrackers and pollution. I want them to have fond memories of celebrating Diwali the way it was meant to be celebrated.

When I reached home I had a conversation with my kids (aged 3 and 8) about my idea. It ended up being an easy sell somehow. May be the bribe of a gift of their choice for giving up firecrackers helped ease it through :-) So this year we’ll be donating some books and clothes to under-privileged kids. We’ll light lamps around our house. We’ll draw up a rangoli outside our door. The elder one volunteered to to attempt making an Indian sweet dish.

They said they’ll try convincing their friends to try giving up firecrackers too this Diwali.

Just because it has been done like this for years doesn’t make it right. Don’t follow the herd. Think and do the right thing.

My kids got convinced to do the right thing, what about you?

Happy Diwali.

Update: On Sunday we went ahead and donated the stuff at St. Catherine’s Home, which is an orphanage located on Veera Desai Road in Andheri West, Mumbai. When we reached there the Sisters were kind enough to explain their concept & vision and give us a tour of the facilities. The facility is divided into various cottages. They have a massive campus which is kept tidy and cared for. They also have the facilities to take care of HIV+ kids. The Sisters also told us of success stories of kids who’ve now grown up and moved on and are successful in life. Visiting the orphanage was a leveling experience.

Why is it so hard to get good, predictable service?

I write this post in extreme frustration. Can someone tell me, why are companies in India not willing to provide better quality services? Why do they make it impossibly hard for their prospective customer to give them money?

We recently shifted our office to a new location and so we needed a new internet connection and a laser printer.

The ISP was quick to send in someone to our office to get the paperwork done, but then the guy said that the net connection would take 3 days after the cabling is done. They said that they’ll need to create an account with userid and password and that takes three days to get done. C’mon, you gotta be kidding me. Three frigging days to create an online account. It should be as simple as writing a mail. Even simpler.

Next, let’s take the case of this HP dealer that we got in touch with. We told him that we need a printer urgently and asked him the details of a couple printer models. He said the he’ll get back in a few minutes with pricing info. He never called back. Why won’t you call back someone who is willing to give you business?

Now imagine a scenario where I could’ve just applied for a new connection online and gotten my userid and password at that very instant. As simple as setting up your email account. The customer rep guys would show up the next day, collect the required documents and activate my account. Simple enough?

For the printer, imagine if I was able to select the printer model online and make the payment and then have it delivered to my office the next day. Simple enough?

I am having a hard time understanding why don’t retailers or service providers in this country take this approach?

Improving Air Deccan’s reservation process

Very recently I read in a newspaper that almost all low cost airlines operating in India are suffering from huge losses. Although, I fail to recall their specific reasons for flying in red, I can venture a guess for one of India’s first low cost airline – Air Deccan. The short answer is that their reservation systems, both the web-based and telephonic, are horribly broken. They make it very difficult for someone to get online, purchase tickets and make a payment.

Here is the long version:

  • I always have trouble finding their airline ticketing website. Maybe it is just me, but I get confused between their and websites. One of them is their corporate site and the other one is their online reservation site. I almost always have to do a google query to get to their site.
  • When I recently tried to book my tickets online, my credit card got declined (no reason was given). Later when I called up the customer rep, I was told that Air Deccan has stopped accepting international credit cards due to security reasons. As far as I know, all other airlines still accept national and international credit cards.
  • While talking to a customer rep, I got transferred twice without being given any reason. I had to give them all the trip details all over again.
  • Their call center issued PNR numbers cannot be used on their website. This is pathetically lame. So if the customer rep issues me a PNR for my reservation, I cannot use that PNR to get online and make a payment for the tickets. I need to call back the customer rep and hand them over my credit card details.
  • On their site, they have about a dozen different customer service phone numbers depending upon where you are calling from.
  • Make one mistake on the site and you need to fill out the entire form again. If you filled out the cellphone number in the contact details as 98xxxxxxxx instead of 9198xxxxxxxx, then you got to fill out the entire form including the name of the people traveling, the address etc all over again. Not fun if you ask me.
  • Untrained customer reps, make you repeat the names of passengers 2-3 times before getting the spelling right.

Here is how I would fix their reservation process:

  • A simple easy to remember website address for their online air reservation site.
  • One toll-free number for people to make, cancel, change reservations or even to check flight status. If a customer wants to give you business, you can atleast absorb the cost of a phone call.
  • A website that takes no more than 5 clicks for someone to make a reservation. Go checkout SpiceJet’s website for inspiration.
  • While making the reservation, if something on the form needs to be corrected, only that part needs to be highlighted, all other information on the form stays filled in.
  • Knowledgeable customer reps that help you out without any reservation, flight status or any ticketing related issues you might have.
  • If for some reason the airline cannot accept credit cards, then they need to send someone out to collect the money from the person who booked the tickets. If a multiplex can hand-deliver movie ticket for free, an airline can surely send someone to collect payment. Labor is cheap in India, use it to your advantage. Don’t ask people to goto the airport and make the payment. No one has time for that. They will just use a competitor whose online payment system is not broken.
  • Make the reservation process the easiest process possible. It should be really easy for someone to give you money. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Improving Cafe Coffee Day’s store operations

Recently I went to a smallish Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) outlet in Infiniti Mall located in Andheri West. That outlet was horribly overstaffed and their service levels dismal. The place was staffed with 8 people. There was one guy at the cash counter, one cleaning the floor, getting in the way of customers as they were trying to order. The other 6 were just chatting amongst themselves. They were all wearing the CCD uniform, so I assume that they were all employees.

Infact when I went to the counter, no one greeted me. It took them a good 4 minutes, before they took my order and that too when I drew their attention. It was not a good experience for me.

Given a chance, here is how I would run that Cafe Coffee Day outlet:

Considering their store size (12 x 6 foot) and footfall traffic, there should ideally be three people running that place. One person to operate the cash counter, one person to prepare the coffee and one (kind of) manager to make sure that the operation runs smoothly. Infact the manager and the cashier should pitch-in and do whatever it takes to deliver the orders faster. Basically use their common-sense to get the customers whatever they need in the fastest possible way. It could mean helping the coffee-preparer, taking orders etc. Each customer is greeted and asked what do they want within 10 seconds of the customer showing up at the counter.

The cashier should ask people to form a queue. He shouldnt serve anyone outside of the queue. This is a big problem in India. People dont form queues. They just line up parallel across the counter and thrust money at the guy operating the cash counter. The cash counter guy too accepts money at random and takes the order. This obviously leads to inefficiencies and unruly behavior. I’ve seen this happen at even upscale places. If the cashier just enforces the queue then its a win-win for both the customers and the cashier. He doesnt have to choose whose money to take, and people are happy as they get served in a predictable order.

The coffee would be served in paper cups. So there would be no need to collect the cups and wash them. The customers would be requested to dispose off their paper cups in the trashbin.

The team uses slack hours to clean up the place, restock the inventory and do other work.

The money that the management saved from firing those extra employees should be distributed (or a part of it distributed) to those three employees.

The place runs smoothly. Customers happy, Employees happy and Management happy.