Leave home…… to get home.

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The Perumal Kovil @ Pittsburgh (https://www.svtemple.org). It is one of the oldest Hindu temples in the US, and very meticulously maintained too. This was my third visit in 12 years. I have been there twice more after this trip. All in all, this temple and me go back a long way. I am talking 15 years.

It was the year 2002. I was out of a job. Nearly out of money. And pretty much out of hope………………… Then all of a sudden, my phone rang. I had a job waiting for me I was told. Provided, of course that I was willing to move some 1100 miles to an unknown town.

As an Indian expatriate in the US, acclimatizing myself to a new place was not a skill that I lacked at the time. Still, I had come to like living in Florida, and was not completely happy at the thought of leaving all the sunshine for the bitter winters in the American Midwest. So, for a brief minute, I acted like I had a choice and thought about it. Then, precisely 20 minutes later, I was on the road heading north.

I was moving to a place where I knew no one. No relatives. No friends to call up ahead. Not even a distant family contact on whom I could rely to help orient myself. It was all on me. This was going to be a bit hard. So, I resolved to put my best foot forward. But, just as anyone else would do at a life juncture such as this one, I hedged my bets with prayers. My father had told me about the Pittsburgh Temple after one of his visits there; and before I had started my drive north, my parents had spoken to me and asked me to stop by the temple on the way. I was a bit concerned about the slight detour that I would have to make to visit the temple. But that day, I really needed to pray. So, I decided that my parents knew best. Now that I think back about it, what I had really needed was some sort of reassurance that someone had my back as I ventured out yet again into the unknown. So, when I got to the temple, I offered my prayers and asked for safe passage through all that came afterwards – on the road and in life. I believe that the Lord heard me that day.

But, the story of how I located the temple itself makes for interesting telling.

When I got into town, it was quite late. I was trying hard to find the place and was having no luck. The temple is unobtrusively tucked away behind a hillock, and all online mapping aids had the wrong routes at the time. Incidentally, Google Maps and smartphones have saved the day for me during subsequent visits to this temple. But, in 2002? In 2002, Google was still only a website. And my Mapquest printouts were proving to be summarily useless.

Then, there was the weather. It was October and winter was setting in. It was dark and cold. Being someone who was used to hot and sunny weather, I was more than a bit disoriented. I was also running low on gas and didn’t have much money for hotel rooms. I had to find the temple fast, say my prayers, get to a gas station, get back on the road, and get to Ohio while I was still alert.

As the day grew darker, I grew more anxious because it was getting to be nearly time for the temple to close for the day. Maybe this was not such a good idea. Maybe the Lord was just too busy. Maybe He wanted me to come another time.

Just as I was going to bail on the idea, a young couple noticed me driving in circles around the neighborhood. When I caught them watching me, I remember getting very nervous. 911 was fresh on our collective memories and I didn’t know what they could have been thinking when they kept seeing a strange brown-skinned guy driving around repeatedly on their streets. Finally, the guy came running out of his house and flagged me down. I hesitated for a brief second. In my mind, the best course of action was to floor the gas pedal and get the heck out of there. But, better sense prevailed and I stopped the car to have a conversation. The guy asked me if I was looking for the temple. I breathed a sigh of relief and said yes. Then he asked me to follow his car as he and his wife led the way.

The road was winding and they drove slowly so that I could keep pace. If not for those two locals, I would not have found the temple that evening. They helped me navigate a proverbial maze. Finally,  the temple rose majestically into my view as I turned a corner. I parked the car; got out and went up to the two Americans. I thanked them for helping me of course; but, I also expressed surprise that they knew the temple so well despite the fact they were of a different faith. They were like, “….sure we know this temple. Why wouldn’t we? You’re like the 4th or 5th person that we have personally brought here. Yeah, people come from all over to this temple….

That’s the day I knew that my family was watching over me from some 10000 miles away.

Looking back now, that incident is pretty much a metaphor for my life – lost and aimless until certain outsiders showed me the way to my own house.

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The Joy of Mentorship

Being a sports fan, I am avidly following CWG. I couldn’t find the footage of our girls winning gold at the CWG 2018. But, I did find this video showing Mirabai Chanu’s gold medal run in the Clean and Jerk at last year’s World Weightlifting Championship in the US.

It is highly recommended to view the full clip. But, those who want to fast forward to the climax may want to start from 10:55 when the commentators start to give us the context about Mirabai’s competition.

I was of course, blown away by her performance. However, what struck a real chord with me was the effort from Mirabai’s coaches. It is brilliant to watch them dote over her every action…… watching, fretting, hoping, believing and driving all at the same time.

Watch @ 11:25 as they feverishly prep her for her final lift of the Championship. While she walks to the podium, you can feel their anxiety and energy behind her – running down the lift, pumping her up, pushing her to pull out all stops. Then as Mirabai sets up stance and proceeds with the lift, you can still hear her coaches in the background – talking her through each part of the lift and reminding her of the correct technique (first for the clean, and then for the jerk).

Watch their joy (@ 12:35) as she completes her victory; and then (@ 14:15) watch them congratulate her, and each other, when it all finally sinks in.

Amazing!! That is the joy of mentorship!!

Watching her coaches I was reminded of my own parents and teachers. People who came running after me to hand me my tiffin box, or to pepper me with last minute advice as I madly rushed out to give my exams, or to catch a train or plane to some place.

Those coaches might as well be Mirabai’s parents. That’s the extent of their devotion to her. Let us remember that none of these coaches will have their name in history. Only the athlete gets that glory. But right alongside the athlete, the coaches do all the hard work and make HUGE sacrifices. Incidentally, people in the know will tell you how Ramakant Achrekar personally ferried Sachin on his scooter to ALL the games that Sachin played during his school days. We are talking in the range of over 1000 matches. Let us think about that for a second. Shuttling between Dadar, Bandra and Churchgate twice or thrice or four times a day in the stifling heat of Mumbai….for almost 6 years.

Seriously, it’s a remarkable thing to be able to put someone else’s life ahead of one’s own, and then to invest oneself completely in their success to the point where one perceives the other person’s victory as one’s own. This is a “note-to-self” that I am going to paste on my work desk.

Kindly shut up and bat.

Sandpaper-gate is reaching critical mass. There is tonnes of coverage.

http://www.bbc.com/sport/cricket/43580069

http://www.bbc.com/sport/cricket/43565737

https://www.smh.com.au/sport/cricket/cheat-cheat-steve-smith-booed-as-he-leaves-south-africa-20180329-p4z6sy.html

https://www.indiatoday.in/sports/cricket/story/he-is-not-a-criminal-cricketers-furious-as-steve-smith-is-booed-at-johannesburg-airport-1200299-2018-03-29.

Then, there is this article by Mike Hussey – https://www.playersvoice.com.au/michael-hussey-truly-remembered-for/#Pd2fTseuXMOvK4uY.97

Hussey’s article is a great read. But, here’s the thing. While this whole ball-tampering story is certainly disappointing and extremely depressing, I feel that it is a lesser crime than others in sport… Like say, match fixing. In that sense, the punishment meted out to them is way too harsh in my opinion. An year? That’s a lifetime in sportsman’s career.

Let’s get some perspective people. Match fixing is conniving to sink one’s own team for personal gain. That’s as low as it gets. So, those match fixing POSes undoubtedly need to feel the full weight of the wrath of God.

Now, coming back to the issue at hand, did these guys cheat? Yes. Is it reprehensible? Yes. Are we disgusted? Yes. But, is it also forgivable? Yes, in my opinion. In fact, it may even be borderline admirable. Let me explain.

Today, the game is loaded in favor of batsmen. They are given every advantage in the book. Bowlers are simply lambs for slaughter. It is in this context that Smith, Warner and Bancroft, went astray. They just wanted to give their bowlers and their team a chance to win.

If it were up to me, I would have let this slide and then given a fat bottle cap to the South Africans and said, “Have at it fellas. Make that ball talk. Let’s see which one of you teams plays reverse swing better”. That ought to have evened the scales a bit.

Seriously, what’s wrong with a little reverse swing? It’s just like swing. Only in the other direction. So, it’s time for teams (read BATSMEN) to stop crying like a bunch of wussies and man-up a little. Just shut up and bat already. Anyways, all the rules and circumstances are in your favor.

Me? I would give anything to watch an attack like the old Windies pace quartet, or the Lille/Thomson pair, or even the likes of Imran/Waqar/Akram to come for the batsman’s blood. I mean to experience the hush as those bowlers slowly marked their run up; and then to feel that giant swell of  Adrenalin rise and rise and rise and reach a crescendo as those guys came rushing in to deliver veritable ballistic missiles down those 22 yards!! There wasn’t a greater sight I tell you. Actually, there still isn’t. The misery for the batsmen was absolute. No respite whatsoever.

Now if a batsman overcame such circumstances to emerge bruised, battered, and victorious, then… THEN you knew that you were witnessing something great. That lump in your throat, that’s what watching sport is supposed to feel like. To see a man or woman overcome. To see them reach deep down to find that elusive gear. To see them take beating after beating and yet find the strength and the skill to dispatch the next scorcher to the square leg boundary. To see them leap right out of the TV set and straight into our hearts. That. THAT is the true spirit of sport. Champions are worthy only when their challenges are worthy.

Incidentally, I like Kohli and think that he’s wonderful for Indian cricket. But, for all his achievements, I entertain no notions of him being a true all-time-great. I say that because there is no real opposition to speak of for Kohli and his contemporaries to take on and tame. On top of that we have drop-in pitches, top notch protective equipment, a myriad of complex rules regarding bouncers…and… and… I could go on and on. Today, batsmen are almost guaranteed to meet with no hostility.

Incidentally, our old guys had to deal with that Windies quartet, and do so with almost zero protective equipment. Even Tendulkar had to contend with Warne, Waqar, Akram, Saqlain, Steyn, and McGrath.

Can anyone name one bowler today whose reputation is respectable, let alone fearsome?

No.

So, it’s time for these batsmen to smell some leather. That’s my take on it.

Give Smith and Warner a five match suspension in all forms of cricket. Fine them their match fees for five more games. But, allow them to come back and play after that.

Also, while you are at it, please make it legal to rough up that ball, and change some rules to favor bowlers. For starters, remove the bouncer limit and allow leg befores for deliveries pitched outside leg stump (as long as the ball is headed for the wickets).

Dominar Diaries. Vol I – Sales. Customer Experience. Product Development.

(While this piece is definitely NOT a work of fiction, some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.)

Chunnu Munnu de Papa di gaddi“. This tagline appeared in a print advertisement for Bajaj some 3 decades ago. It was painted on the rear-facing cover of the spare wheel of a scooter being ridden by a burly Sardarji, while his two adorable toddlers rode pillion while looking back at the photographer. Although I understood zero Punjabi at that time I got the message immediately. Since then, that line has remained etched in my memory along with the picture of that Sikh family. It was wonderful I tell you. Evocative advertising at its best. Little did I know that my perception of Bajaj was only set to grow as my father brought home the legendary Bajaj Chetak.

With both my parents working, I spent my early years with my maternal grandparents. My parents would make the long trek to visit me every day after office. Then my dad would spend at least 30 minutes giving me joy rides on his Chetak before trudging back home.

In a couple of years, my parents saved up for their own place and I came home. There parked in the driveway was that blue Chetak that was so central to our lives. One time, I was standing in the front part of the scooter as we returned home from a showing of Balu Mahendra’s Moonram Pirai. Unable to get Kamal’s heart wrenching performance out of my mind, I bawled throughout the ride from Satyam theatre to my house while standing in that tiny area of the scooter in front of my dad. My parents were beyond amused. But, to this day, I remember the wind blowing cold on my tear-streaked face as we rode home on Mount Road late in the evening.

Since then, my father’s career in sales and marketing have afforded him the ability to buy progressively bigger and more accomplished vehicles than his Chetak. And yet, he spent an entire week in silence in 2010 when Bajaj decided to exit the scooter market. Such was the pull of that vehicle.

But, this story of a brand enjoying a larger than life presence in a household isn’t unique to Bajaj. It is a story that typically plays out in every average Indian middle class home. Almost everyone in India can draw a straight line back to their family vehicle; whether that vehicle happened to be the humble Chetak or the mighty Ambassador. Even bicycles enjoyed a unique prestige. Indeed, any piece of personal transportation was immediately accorded an honour akin to the family deity.

Fast forward to a few years later, and my father was kind enough to buy me my first two wheeler during college. A Kinetic Honda. It was a wonderful vehicle that never let me down. Between my friends and acquaintances, we have collectively owned and ridden motorcycles and scooters from every manufacturer from those times – Kawasaki Bajaj, Yamaha RX 100, Hero Honda, Kinetic Honda, Suzuki Samurai, Suzuki Shogun, etc. You could name a vehicle from the 90s, and chances are that I can find someone to talk eloquently about it. All of those vehicles performed flawlessly. They took us everywhere and played the roles of stellar supporting cast members in the life scripts that we were collectively writing. Although, none of the vehicles were completely problem free, the remarkable thing is that not one person I speak to today remembers the problems of their vehicles from years past. All of us carry overwhelmingly positive memories of our steeds and the experiences that they enabled.

Between them, Bajaj, TVS, Royal Enfield, and of course Maruti and Hindustan Motors, command an enviable mindshare of the Indian automotive psyche. These are storied Indian brands that can rightfully take pride in collectively informing the Indian motoring sensibility. So, it was with considerable excitement and an undeniable sense of historic occasion that I made the decision to buy a Bajaj vehicle. This is the story of how that journey played out for me.

To be clear, I have not written this to denigrate the manufacturer or their sales organizations. This piece is necessary because a customer’s point-of-view needs to be articulated with the goal of communicating the same to the brand principals and their sales organizations. What I have written here has to be read and understood in that sense. This blog entry also offers an unpacking of the point-of-view of the sales staff (as narrated by them to me, the customer). Many of the issues that they discussed with me are genuine, and customers would do well to understand the constraints within which sales staff operate. Better understanding all around would provide for better experiences all around.

So, let’s get started.

The Motorcycle – An exercise in design excellence.

I have always had a thing for two wheeled automobiles. In another life, I spent my first salary on an absolutely delicious looking Ducati Monster. That story ended quickly and sadly. But, the motorcycle bug never left me. Almost 15 years later, in December of 2016, Bajaj launched their new motorcycle – https://auto.ndtv.com/news/bajaj-dominar-400-launched-at-rs-1-36-lakh-targets-20-share-1638148. https://auto.ndtv.com/news/bajaj-dominar-400-everything-you-need-to-know-1632176.

Christened Dominar, the motorcycle’s fuel injected and liquid cooled single cylinder engine displaced 373 cubic centimetres of air to produce a peak of 34 brake horse power and 35 newton meters of torque. More importantly, the bike offered two features that upped its safety quotient.

  • The front wheel sported a huge, class-leading, 320 millimetre disc brake that provided very good stopping power. Then there was the dual channel anti-lock braking system (ABS) that modulated braking power to the front and rear wheels individually, thereby preventing each of those wheels from locking up in emergency braking situations.
  • A slipper clutch ensured good behaviour from the rear wheel during aggressive downshifts at higher speeds. In situations where the wheels are spinning faster than the motor, the slipper clutch worked by temporarily disengaging the transmission from the motor thereby mitigating the negative effects of hard engine braking on the rear wheel. In days past, this feature could only be found on high performance sports bikes that lived on race tracks where fast and frequent downshifts are the norm. But now, such technologies are trickling down to street motorcycles making it possible for the average rider to enjoy a more forgiving ride. Nicely done Bajaj. Very nicely done indeed.

Apart from the above two distinguishing features, the motorcycle came with a six speed transmission, a twin spar frame with a stamped metal swing arm, full LED headlamps, and a two tiered digital console.

Certainly, the features on the Dominar made for a long and impressive list. But, none of it mattered. Because one look at the picture in the media release and I was besotted. It was lust at first sight, and at every sight afterwards. The muscular, low profile design of the bike, with those smoked out headlamps, simply exuded presence. I could literally not stop thinking about this motorcycle. It didn’t matter that the Dominar’s engine was only half as powerful as that of my previous bike. Nor was it of consequence that I had not ridden anything in over 16 years. The only thought that I could recognize was the longing that I felt for this motorcycle.

Friends were exhorting me to make the purchase and enjoy the experience when I could. They had a point. But, I had some reservations.

First, being a family man, I had to be cautious about any financial outlay. I certainly wasn’t going to find 1.8 lacs lying around in my savings account. I would have to save up for a while and not encounter any sudden expenses in the middle that would liquidate my savings.

Second, there was the small matter of safety and risk of riding a two wheeler in today’s chaotic traffic; especially by someone like me who hadn’t ridden in a very long time.

And finally, there was the fact that I really didn’t have a pressing need for two wheeled transportation.

These aspects helped me stave off the cravings for a while. But, my own love of motorcycles and the exemplary design work from Bajaj worked together to chip away at my defenses. Slowly but surely, I inched closer to a purchase decision.

Many months were spent devouring every single piece of information available on the bike, be it from Bajaj’s own marketing division or from customer ownership threads on venerable forums like Team BHP (www.team-bhp.com) and XBHP (www.xbhp.com). Then one day, I came across an article that talked about how Bajaj had worked hard to empower women; case in point being their all-women manufacturing assembly line for the Dominar (http://www.india.com/auto/bike-news/bajaj-dominar-400-aka-kratos-production-begins-ahead-of-mid-december-launch-30767/). That did it. I liked the bike, and it had progressive DNA in it. What more could I ask for? I was at a dealership the next day.

This is essentially where this story begins. And it gets mighty interesting mighty fast.

The Shopping Experience – A textbook case of poor customer engagement and poor sales enablement.

I visited three dealerships in Mumbai, and spoke to one on the phone. For the sake of this discussion, let’s call them Dealerships A, B, C and D.

1.) Dealership A – The place itself could not have been more than 200 square feet in area. The sales guy was a very young chap. He was polite and respectful and gave me all the information that I asked for. But, when I asked for a test ride, he said that the dealership didn’t even have a demo bike. Case closed.

2.) Dealership B – They had a test bike. Good. Great. Then came their next statement; “Sir, please ride within our premises only.” What? Really? OK!!

I did not get past 1st gear for the full duration of the test ride which lasted about 10 minutes, 7 of which I spent standing still behind one of their workshop cars. I would have ridden maybe 50 meters, 60 at best. When I asked them for a longer test ride, they asked me to come the next day and said that I can take the bike to the nearby signal and come back – total distance of 2 or 3 KMs. Not enough at all for a bike this size.

3.) Next, I visited dealership C. They too offered me a test ride of not more than 100 meters. Again, I had no way to ascertain if this bike was for me.

4.) The next day, I called up dealership D. They flat out refused a test ride of any significant distance. They said that their test bikes are typically not registered, and therefore they do not allow prospective customers a test ride of more than 500 meters, and even that would happen ONLY in the service road behind their dealership. Their statement meant that the vehicles that were being offered for those brief rides were vehicles waiting for buyers!! Not cool at all.

By this point, I was getting increasingly frustrated. At a cost of 1.8 lacs on road, this motorcycle was not inexpensive; and yet, customers were being expected to understand the power delivery, braking power, riding comfort, ergonomics, etc. without getting a chance to ride the bike for any meaningful distance. Are we to hand over 1.8 lacs based on a 50 or 100 meter ride?

Just for good measure, I actually went to the KTM dealership to sample what they had to offer. They told me that their formal policy is to provide a test ride of 500 meters ONLY!! And this for a motorcycle that is touted to be a premium performance machine costing 2.8 lacs on road.

This attitude seemed to be par for the course across all our local brands. The more I dug, the more I found horror stories all around.

Apparently, at Royal Enfield, their motorcycles aren’t the only things that are legendary; so is the sub-optimal experience that their customers have to endure (both in sales and service). Online forums are full of people venting on Royal Enfield. Then of course, who can forget Maruti? Any one of their showrooms could easily be mistaken for a government Tahsildar’s office. One time, I went to a Maruti dealership to make inquiries about a new car. I spent almost 30 minutes trying to get someone’s attention and no one even noticed me!! Really, automotive companies in India appear to be leading a charmed life at the expense of abysmal customer experience. In any other country, they would be up the creek without a paddle.

Incidentally, during the Dominar’s launch Rajiv Bajaj declared unequivocally that they were shooting to sell 10000 copies of the motorcycle each month. Sadly, the reality turned out to be much different. Bajaj doesn’t appear to be selling even half that number of Dominars every month in India (http://www.india.com/auto/bike-news/bajaj-dominar-400-records-lowest-ever-sales-we-tell-you-why-33204/). This made me wonder why Bajaj’s sales organizations and sales processes hadn’t been prepared and trained to align with such an ambitious target set by their top man for the Dominar. Certainly, going by my own experience, Bajaj was far far away from hitting its target of 10000 units a month for this motorcycle.

Just on an aside, my maternal grandmother once advised me against being swayed by posh locations when house hunting because, according to her, the high prices in such locations are typically a function of their up-market hype, and have very little to do with the value that is actually on offer. This from an 86 year old housewife!!

So, coming from a school of hard-nosed common sense, it was painful for me to watch storied brands making obvious mistakes in customer engagement. Hence, I decided to write to Bajaj and to request them to intervene at one of their dealerships regarding a test ride for me. Here is their response copy-pasted from my email inbox:

Quote

Dear Sir

We are in receipt of your mail and noted the contents. Such a long test ride for 10-15kms is not provided.

With Warm Regards

Customer Care Cell

Unquote

This was the limit. Being shabbily treated by a sales team is one thing; but, getting an official communication from the manufacturer endorsing and backing regressive sales practices was an entirely different thing. Here was a brand principal essentially stating that they were going to do their best to not sell the product that their CEO had so audaciously declared to be a world beater!! I couldn’t wrap my head around it. What on earth were they smoking there at Bajaj?

Next, I took to online forums to discuss my experience. To no surprise at all, I found lots of people bumping up against the exact same brick wall that I was encountering. But, the picture was not entirely hopeless – Some people, a fortunate few, were having better experiences. In those cases, dealerships were raising the bar by going the extra mile. These dealerships were offering customers multiple test rides, and then going even further to suggest that prospective customers conduct the second and third test rides with their significant other in the back seat to ascertain pillion rider ergonomics, and two-up riding comfort. These dealerships were undoubtedly converting sales leads into customers.

But sadly, the methods of the above-mentioned dealerships were not being emulated by other dealerships in the country; certainly not in Mumbai. Here the dealership guys haughtily told me that all buyers were basing their decisions on such short test rides, or even no test rides.

I had to conclude that the ability of some customers to move forward with a purchase within the idiotic constraints imposed by the existing sales process was actually misleading the sales organizations (and the brand principal) into thinking that they had set up an optimal sales process. Of course, they had no means by which to measure the sales that they were actually losing through their practices. The whole thing was just a text book case of rationalizing bad practices.

I was at a loss as to what to do next. Luckily, plenty of netizens came to my rescue. I received lots of support from forum members. Indeed, some of them were more agitated than me. At this point, I gave Bajaj a heads-up about the response that I was getting online.

Then lo and behold, the sales manager from dealership B, one Mr. Aniket, called me and offered to bring the test motorcycle to my house. The KTM dealership too reached out to me and offered as long of a ride as I wanted on their motorcycle. To say the least, I was pleasantly surprised by these developments. From no test ride to test ride at my door step!! There was hope indeed.

In a week, true to their word, dealership B dispatched a demo Dominar to my house and I was given free rein to do with it as I pleased. I took the bike for a 16 KM test ride and came away thoroughly impressed – The riding posture was perfect; the deep catchment-basin like saddle area created a reassuringly low center of gravity that, along with the bike’s long wheelbase, gave the motorcycle great straight line stability; heat dissipation from the engine area was fantastic (I didn’t feel even a slight amount of warmth in my legs during any part of the long test ride which, incidentally, happened right in the middle of a hot day); the engine just pulled all the way up to the red line in most gears; and aided by its ABS, the huge motorcycle came to a quick and stable stop when I jammed the brakes in a hurry. Perfect!!

In short, here was a splendid product that appeared to live up to its marketing hype, but was being let down by lackadaisical organizational behaviour downstream from the manufacturing stages.

Next, I took the KTM for an equally long test ride and felt that that machine too deserved its accolades, but was being let down by less than optimal sales practices.

Moving on, I made up my mind that the Dominar was the motorcycle for me. I also decided that despite having another dealership much closer to me, I would give my business to dealership B because they had amended their ways and demonstrated good faith to satisfy my requirement of a test ride.

The buying experience – Some hits. One HUGE miss.

Once I communicated my decision to buy, dealership B’s team rose to the occasion. They answered all my calls and text messages promptly. A sales person, Ms. Sheetal, travelled to my house at the time that I indicated to accept my booking. We agreed on a mutually convenient delivery date that was set to two weeks since the booking. We had plenty of time to take care of administrative steps in the buying process. So, on my request, I was offered the option to choose my exact motorcycle from the dealership’s stockyard. Little did I know that the stage was being set for the next interesting knot in the storyline.

Without further delay, on to the stockyard we bravely ventured. Let me tell you that no lover of motorcycles should ever visit a dealer stockyard. The place was filled to the brim with brand new motorcycles… covered in dust, dirt and bird droppings. It was painful to watch. Still, I soldiered on and requested one of their attendants to dust off two motorcycles for my inspection. I had taken my wife along and wanted her opinion on the colour. In retrospect, that was a mistake. For one thing, she doesn’t share my enthusiasm for bikes. And second, she was less than impressed with the down-market atmosphere of the stockyard. But, to her credit, she too set aside her reservations and participated in the shopping process. She gave me her views; we talked about it, and then communicated the chosen bike’s chassis number to Ms. Sheetal at the dealership. I arranged for the money and made full payment after which I was formally allotted the motorcycle that I had chosen.

Next, I thought I was being punched in the gut when I was told that a rider would transport my brand new motorcycle by riding it from the stockyard to the dealership. I had deep reservations about someone else riding my bike after I had paid for it. I wasn’t alone in my dissatisfaction either. Going by the chatter online, plenty of customers shared my angst. When I discussed my reservations with Mr. Aniket, he assured me that this was normal practice. Somehow I just could not swallow that line. At one point I offered to pay for the transportation of the bike to the dealership by tempo. He advised me against it. I wrote to Bajaj, offered to pay, and requested that they intervene in this regard with the dealership. Again the official communication from Bajaj was far from empathetic:

Quote

Dear Sir

We are in receipt of your mail and noted the contents. Kindly inform your dealer regarding the transport charge if you are ready to pay.

With Warm  Regards

Customer Care Cell

Unquote

Really Bajaj? I mean, really?

My offer to pay was intended to convey the exasperation that I was feeling, akin to banging my head against a wall. I certainly didn’t expect for them to take my words literally.

Nevertheless, I had made the offer and I would stand by it. I told Bajaj that my offer to pay had already been communicated to the dealership. But after that, I didn’t receive any communication from the dealership or Bajaj. So, I called the sales manager, Mr. Aniket, and requested that at the very least I be allowed to accompany their rider as he transported the motorcycle from the stockyard to the dealership. I wanted the satisfaction of personally supervising the transportation. Mr. Aniket agreed. He asked me to coordinate with Ms. Sheetal regarding when I would travel to the stockyard again to accompany their rider.

The day before the delivery, I called Ms. Sheetal around noon and told her that I was starting to drive to the stockyard. She gave me the go-ahead and said that she had everything in place for what was to happen after I got to the stockyard. I took her on her word and drove for the next 1.5 hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic to Kandivali.

Once I got there, I thought it best to relieve and refresh myself before embarking on the next leg of the journey. So, I asked for the washroom. The attendant went “Sir, washroom vagaira tho nahin hai. Aap vahaan us taraf gaadi ke peeche kar deejiye sir.”

A 1.5 hour drive and no washroom!! Chalo theek hai. Koyi baat nahin hai. Aage ki sochthe hain. Gaadi tho mil jaayegi!! These were the thoughts running through my head as I chose not to follow the attendant’s suggestion of relieving myself against the corner wall. I suppose that I could not bear the thought of peeing next to brand new motorcycles. So, I risked a bladder infection; held it in; and desperately searched for my allotted motorcycle. If only I could find it, I could get the heck out of here and get going to the dealership.

I asked the attendant to help me with my search. He looked around, shrugged his shoulders and then led me to the stockyard manager, Mr. Omkar.

With a sympathetic nod, Omkar sir promptly showed me a log ledger and said, “Aapki gaadi gyaarah pachaas ko idhar se nikal gayi.” I had left home for the stockyard at noon, and the motorcycle had left the stockyard for the dealership 10 minutes before that.

Result = 1.5 hour drive. No washroom. And no motorcycle either.

At that point, I clutched my aching back and looking skywards, muttered under my breath to no one in particular “B****e, waat lag gayi.”

Seeing the look of resigned exasperation on my face, Omkar sir appeared amused and felt sufficiently moved to suggest that we call the dealership. “Phon lagayiye sir Sheetal madam ko. Abhi saaf kar lete hain baat ko.”

I called Ms. Sheetal and she insisted that she had explicitly instructed Omkar sir to NOT let my bike leave the stockyard until I had gotten there. I handed the phone to Omkar sir.

Omkar sir:Madam, tumcha kadoon phone aala hota ki “dio” chi sagale gaadi patava manoon; manoonats patavla ami gaadi ithun.

Ms. Sheetal:Pann sir… mee tumala specifically sangithla hota ki enchi gaadi thithats rahoo diya manoon.”

Omkar sir:Mala saangoon kaay honar madam? “Dio” madhe number milala manoon porga nigoon gela gaadi giyun. Tumala “dio” ek don dah check karayla payje na madam?

For the life of me, I couldn’t make out what “dio” meant. Looking back, I think he was talking about a “DO” which could mean “Delivery Order”. Anyways, while this back and forth was ensuing, I realized that there was nothing to be done to rectify the situation. So, I took leave of Omkar sir and proceeded to dealership.

The gridlocked drive to Andheri gave me more time to think about the experience that I was having. I could not fathom why after I had just told her that I was starting to drive to the stockyard, Ms. Sheetal could not have simply called the stockyard to confirm that her instructions had been implemented and that the bike was still there. If she had done that, she would have discovered that the bike had left for the dealership and then could have asked me to come straight to the dealership. Yes, I would have still been disappointed in not having had a chance to personally supervise the transport of the vehicle. But, at the very least, my tiresome and wasteful trek to Kandivali could have been avoided.

Once I made it to the dealership, I undertook a quick inspection of the motorcycle to ensure that the trip from the stockyard to the dealership were the only miles on the bike. I did notice a slight chipping of the metallic paint on the left pillion foot peg and pointed it out to Ms. Sheetal. After that, I quickly glanced over the papers and went home.

The next day was the day that I had been waiting for for over 11 months. I resolved to wake up early and make it to the dealership in time to conduct all final inspections of the motorcycle and paperwork. But, between office work that pulled me well into the wee hours of the morning and my two small children who required care in the morning, we could not avoid a delay of more than an hour. Consequently, our drive to the dealership happened bang in the middle of the morning rush hour. We managed to get to the dealership with only 40 minutes left in the auspicious window allotted to us by my mom. I rushed through the paperwork and conducted one last inspection of the bike with the help of a checklist that I had printed, thanks to the prolific vlogger Vikas Rachamalla (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxqeFMKujr4); and also the wonderful people at XBHP.com (https://www.xbhp.com/talkies/motorcycle-ownership-experiences/31717-pdi-pre-delivery-inspection-thread.html).

I noticed that Ms. Sheetal had taken my feedback to heart and changed out the foot peg with the chipped paint. Good for her for having paid attention!! Next we signed all the papers and I was handed the keys. After the customary photographs with the family at the dealership, we left for the temple where a priest kindly blessed the new beast and us.

Finally, after my father, I became a proud owner of a Bajaj vehicle.

Dominar Front_Zeke

Dominar Back_Zeke

This is what I have to say to Bajaj:

The Dominar is an excellent motorcycle. If this bike measures up to even 70% of your marketing statements, I would consider it a satisfactory ownership experience. In which case, you can bank on me to be a vocal advocate for your vehicles. But, that said, there are a couple of points for you to take note of.

1.) The sales folks at your dealerships appear to be doing their best; and given a chance, I would recommend Mr. Aniket and Ms. Sheetal to other prospective customers of a Bajaj vehicle. But, despite their best efforts, the sales experience for me was nothing short of excruciating at various points. It’s another thing that I chose to feel amused by the Bollywoodesque script upheavals in my journey, rather than to feel disappointed. But, I doubt that other prospective customers will share my sense of adventure in this context.

2.) Really, it should not be this hard. Buying a new vehicle from Bajaj should not be like pulling teeth. The reality is that the dealership and its sales staff are working within the parameters that the brand principal defines for them, either directly or indirectly. So, my request to you guys at Bajaj is to take cognizance of the esteem that you enjoy in this country, and to take ownership of the sale experience. You owe it to your customers and to the brand that is Bajaj.

Thank you for investing in your product development division that has given us this excellent motorcycle. Now, please invest the time in establishing a world class sales organization downstream that does justice to the vehicles you create.

Bottom line, I should buy a Bajaj vehicle in part because of the sales and service experience; not in spite of it.

A note to consumers like me:

1.) Let us please resolve to not tolerate unacceptable sales practices. In this context, being denied a test ride should actually be a deterrent in our buying decision. If one of us goes ahead with a purchase without experiencing an expensive product such as a motorcycle, then that person risks serious buyer’s remorse at the very least. At worst, it could be downright dangerous to purchase a vehicle such as the Dominar without experiencing it for a minimum of 30 minutes. The bike weighs 182 kgs and produces 35 NM of torque, at least 20 NM of which becomes accessible fairly quickly in the RPM range. Although these figures aren’t superbike spec, they are not completely trivial either. So, unless one is sure of being able to handle its weight, power, and stop-on-a-dime ABS capability, one should not buy the motorcycle.

2.) At every point in the buying process, let us please insist on accountability. Paying for a bike in full and then having it be ridden by a stranger for long distances before delivery to a customer is actually a high risk proposition. Once a customer has paid the money in full, and has been allotted a particular motorcycle with a chassis number, that bike is that customer’s even if the guy delivering it to the dealership happens to wreck it. Such events contribute to needless trauma and heartache.

Jai Hind

___________________________________________

Epilogue:

After the sale, I spoke with Mr. Aniket and told him how unhappy I was with having a stranger ride my motorcycle first. This is how that conversation went:-

Mr. Aniket:Sir, the margin on this motorcycle is very low; and we cannot spend any money to transport it to our dealership from the stockyard. Consequently, some wear and tear on a new motorcycle is inevitable.

Me:But sir, this is not a good practice. Yeh acchi baat nahin hai.

Mr. Aniket:Sir, hum toh sirf 15 km chalake laate hain. Other dealerships in the country have stockyards that are 40 or 50 km away and the bike is ridden for that distance by riders only sir. So, unke comparison mein tho hum better hain sir.

Me:Sir, that is wrong thinking. Just because someone is worse doesn’t mean that your practice is acceptable. That is like me telling my father that with my second last rank in class, I am better than the guy who came last. There is no way that my father would have tolerated such an answer.

Mr. Aniket:Right sir. Yeh tho sahi baat hai. But, hum kuch nahin kar sakthe hain sir.”

Me:Ek suggestion deta hoon. Why don’t you consider conducting delivery for customers at the stock yard itself? That way, riders won’t be required and the customer gets an odometer with no miles clocked.

Mr. Aniket:Sir, for customers like you that would be OK. But, other customers expect delivery at the same place where they booked the motorcycle. So, we have to get the bike there.”

Me:In that case, at least leave it up to the customers. Tell them that if they want delivery at the dealership, then the bike would be brought in by a rider. If they want a motorcycle with no miles of the odometer, they can choose to take delivery at the stockyard. In which case, all you have to do is to send one of your sales guys to the stockyard to meet the customer there. This way, you satisfy both kinds of customers. Think about it.

After this conversation, I have not had a chance to talk to the sales staff again. But, in my mind, this seemed like a decent enough solution. But, irrespective of any solutions that I suggest, it is ultimately up to the sales organization and the brand to summon up the professional will to seek and implement solutions that satisfy customer aspirations.

Buying a vehicle should be a memorable experience for everyone. I am pretty sure that when customers see sincere effort from a sales organization and the brand, they would be amenable to cooperate in all transactions, and do their bit to meet the sales staff in the middle with respect to finding solutions to problems.

Marketing Casestudy – Parle

I am not sure how many people have watched these TVCs from Parle. But, I am always interested in all things business and I thought that this campaign is one of those rare marketing efforts that is both purposeful and substantive. It would be interesting to hear from others if they feel the same way.

 

#Parle has been around for ages in India. But, it is possible that they have quietly suffered the lack of any meaningful notoriety while Britannia has successfully positioned itself as the hip and aspirational brand that is more socially acceptable.

Also, my guess is that Parle’s market research is telling them that a.) despite being regular customers, plenty of folks don’t bother to recognize that their biscuits are made by Parle (and are maybe even making the error of chalking up their biscuit choices to Brittania instead??); and b.) there isn’t sufficient awareness in the market about Parle’s portfolio which today extends well beyond Parle-G which, incidentally, enjoys unparalleled entrenchment in the Indian subconsciousness.**

These TVCs attack each one of those perception issues head on by showcasing a.) how people of every age group are probably actually consuming a product that is tailor-made for them by Parle; and b.) the fact that the brand’s offerings today span the full gamut of flavor profiles – “salty, sweety, buttery, nutty…. sab milega” is the tagline.

Each spot consists of one person saying “I didn’t know (insert contexual statement)”, and the other person responding typically out of context with, “Of course not. You didn’t even know that these two brands of biscuits are made by the same company – Parle.”

Normally, it would sound contrived for someone to deliberately insert a product placement into a conversation. But, the humor in these screen situations effectively undercuts all notions of ridiculousness to drive home the overarching message – #NaamTohSunaHiHoga which roughly translates to “we are sure that you must have heard of us by now”.

P.S.

** Personally, I think that Parle-G’s strength is Parle’s weakness. The brand is so ubiquitous across all tea stalls in the country that it may be contributing to Parle’s down-market image while, on the other hand, middle-class Indians consider Britannia biscuits acceptable enough to serve to their guests during tea parties.

You can see the other spots in this series on Youtube.

 

Aside

Waiting to be knocked out cold..

The dust has now settled on Tendulkar’s retirement. Personally, I have been surprised at how tough this week’s been on me. Friends and colleagues have inquired about my well-being. My family tried their hand at perking me up. When that didn’t work, the next logical thing for them to do was to call me crazy for feeling so deeply about a sportsman. Yeah, great strategy if you want to help someone move on!!

All these social cues have made me ask myself why I feel this troubled, and what I value so much about this man that his departure has left me in a state akin to mourning. After considerable reflection, I think I have some answers…

There is a lot of talk about Tendulkar’s personal traits, his humility, his conduct, etc. And rightly so. Because those are great qualities and we all love him for having them. But, I realize now that the only thing that ever mattered to me was the weight of his work. Prior to Tendulkar, we had not witnessed such ferocity of talent fused with a titanium work ethic. He made the connect between promise and performance over and over again; so much so that the duration of it all simply challenges all notions of logic. I mean, how can someone be this good for this long? But, he has been. And that in itself is a matter of great discussion. But, longevity and performances are quite different from brilliance and genius; and brilliance and genius is where he had me. If I were to talk about a single moment when Tendulkar reeled me in, it has to be 1992.

Although, he had already been around for a couple of years by then, I had never gotten to watch him during the tours to Pakistan, NZ, or England. But, 1992 was the year of my board exams. And to say that I abhorred academics would be to put it mildly. The only upside to my life was the great game – watching it, playing it, and reading about it. I would be up at 4 AM to catch our performances Down Under, which were almost always humiliating. Still I kept going back for more. What can I say? I guess, we diehards are like that.

And, that’s when I first saw it. The impossible being accomplished before my very eyes. Let me explain.

To play shots square of the wicket on the offside, most accomplished batsmen would move away from the line of the ball, giving themselves more room to free their arms and then swing their bats along a horizontal curve. Even in this, its conventional form, the shot is beautiful to watch and very difficult to execute. Indeed, the annals of the game are littered with the corpses of good men who have perished trying to play some form of the cut shot.

But Tendulkar took it to another level.

On what was the fastest wicket on the planet at that time, with Michael Whitney’s diagonal line wreaking havoc, Tendulkar moved back and across to a delivery angling across his body at maybe 3 or 4 inches outside off stump. He brought himself closer to the line of the ball, thereby giving himself even less room!! Then getting on tip-toes, he swung his bat at warp speed to describe a circular plane that was parallel to his body and perpendicular to the ground!! At a precise point during the downward swing of the arc, the ball found the middle of the open face of his bat and singed the grass on its way to the point boundary.

When I saw the shot unfold, I wasn’t immediately delighted. I mean, I was. But, that came later. First, I remember being stunned into a dumb stare. Wait, what? Did he just….? Oh my God, what the hell was that?!! Were we to now believe that we can breathe naturally underwater? I mean, there were at least three slips and a gully. So, how could you even attempt a shot towards point when the ball was rising up to chin level from good length? And then to play the shot using a vertical bat swing while cramping yourself? That’s just insanity!! And, just as my mind was sorting through these confusing questions, he did it again. This time, he found the boundary at backward point. Then, a couple of overs later, he adjusted to a slightly front on posture and employed the same sequence of actions to smack a similar delivery between covers and point. It was madness, I tell you. Sheer madness!!

But, here’s the real kicker. Each time that he played the shot or one similar to it, my confidence grew, and I started to come to terms with this new solution to the rising ball outside off stump. Unfortunately, just then, someone else would get out edging the ball to the keeper or to slips and serve up an example of the negative consequence of attempting to play a similar delivery. So, while my notions of batting were being shattered to bits by Tendulkar at one end, they were being reinforced by the rest of humanity at the other end!! It was cognitive dissonance at its worst. Imagine feeling elated and miserable at the same time.

Till date, of all that I’ve seen of the man, that’s the Tendulkar image that’s burned into my memory – standing on tip-toes with his feet inches off the ground, his body ramrod straight, his head still and looking towards point, his arms curled up after having gone through with the shot, and his bat pointing up at the sky almost like a sword. And every time that this image pops into my head, it has such searing intensity to it, that he could well have been photographed slaying a dragon. After that, I mentally slotted him into this brand of beautifully explosive batting, and settled down to enjoy what was to come.

And just then, he pulled the rug from under me again.

It was 1999 and the ball was turning square at the hands of Saqlain Mustaq. We could see the pitch crumbling as early as the second session of play on day 1. Those big puffs of dust exploding off the deck with every delivery were simply terrifying. And on that spitefully turning track, Tendulkar crafted an innings of near perfection, full of patience, wrists, forearms, and footwork. If Perth and Sydney were stamps of authoritative defiance, then Chennai was all about discretion and dialogue. The manner of his play that day was an acknowledgement of the prevailing conditions; a symbolic doff of the hat to a spinner at the top of his game – I remember him taking a huge step forward to catch a fizzing off break at half-volley. But, the ball dipped before the expected point of bounce. Tendulkar quickly adjusted to make contact on the rise and softened his wrists to absorb the bite while pushing the ball to covers for a quick single. Not to be outdone, Saqlain let loose another lethal drifter. This one came in wide outside off stump, and the batsman moved forward. Then, the ball pitched and turned sharply, almost 60 degrees!! A surprised Tendulkar compensated by jumping back and pushing his elbows down to keep the ball from lobbing in the air. After contact, the ball bounced high off the deck and almost got past the close-in cordon. But, the fielder at silly point lunged to his left, intercepted it, and in one single action, transferred the ball to his throwing hand, and spun around to fling it at the stumps. Tendulkar who had started for the run, spun back and grounded his bat. Brilliance!! Frustration!!.. Saqlain grimaced and tried again with an airy delivery inviting the batsman to step out. Instead of taking the bait, Tendulkar moved deep into his crease and waited for the prodigious turn to play out. Then, in the last millisecond before a possible leg before, he quietly closed his wrists, deflected the ball to fine leg, and scampered for a couple. This was heart stopping stuff!!

A while later, we saw a floater curving in towards off stump. Tendulkar quickly shuffled back and across. And just when we thought that he was going to play for turn, we watched in shock as he shouldered arms to offer no shot. There was a collective gasp of “ooohhhoowww!!!” as the ball sailed barely 6 inches from off stump, and thudded into the keepers goves. “Well bowled, well bowled Saqlain bhai…. well bowled”, came Moin Khan’s trademark encouragement through the stump microphones. Despite no perceptible change in the the bowler’s action, Tendulkar had correctly read the spin to decipher that this one was going to straighten after pitching. All of us exhaled and looked at each other. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. An epic battle was raging right in front of our eyes, and no one moved.

By this time, it was obvious that Tendulkar’s back spasms were getting worse. The Pakistanis were suffocating him. In his crease, Tendulkar clutched his hip and stayed bent over. We could literally feel his pain and exasperation. What was he going to do, we wondered. Then came the next ball, flighted towards middle stump. Tendulkar danced down in a flash and BOOM, clobbered it flat between long on and the straight boundary!! It was sheer explosion; like he was saying “ENOUGH. I’ve had enough of these restraints, and am going to break free”. As both the umpire and the non striker scrambled to protect themselves from possible decapitation, the stadium went absolutely nuts!!

Minute by minute, and run by painful run, Tendulkar was inching India closer to the target. This was test cricket at its best. The skill on display was breathtaking. And tragic. When he finally skied one to Akram at long-off, I broke down weeping. The knot in my stomach was telling me that the rest of the sorry brigade weren’t going to be able to scrape together the 17 runs needed for a win. Even as I tried to comfort myself at having had the privilege of watching Saqlain and Wasim work their magic, my heart just could not bear the thought of losing after having come so close to victory through an innings of such mastery.

Yes, I remember that day as if it was yesterday.

Through the years, even my own family could not lay claim to my emotions as much as Tendulkar did. Watching him, I felt the perverse pleasure of those who went to watch a gladiator beat others to a pulp. And mind you, it wasn’t just because he was tearing attacks apart. In due time, he had plenty of company there (Virender Sehwag anyone?!). His allure came from the quality of his shot making which was at once angelic and vicious; exhausting, yet invigorative; picture perfect in its devastation. It was savagery elevated to high art.

But wait. Here’s where the script went for a toss. Because if we thought that we were through with our quota of geniuses per generation, we got thrown for a huge loop. Alongside Tendulkar came Dravid, Laxman and Kumble, all of whom became giants of the game; Masters in their own right. Even Ganguly was a sight to see when he was on song. Add to this mix, Lara, Ponting, McGrath, Warne, Kallis, Akram, and Shoib Akhtar, and we were just spoilt for choice. It was a cornucopia of gifted cricketers; a huge windfall of huge talent translated to great careers. And for us to have lived with these greats; to have watched them ply their craft and do battle out in the middle. That’s just been extraordinarily special.

Looking back, I think we just had a lot of plain dumb luck. I mean, after Sunny, Viv, Marshall, Hadlee and Kapil, who would’ve thought that their cricket could be outdone. But, that’s exactly what happened.

Now, with Tendulkar’s departure, it is finally over. The era of sheer cricketing brilliance and greatness as we knew it. And that’s why I have been in a crappy mood. Because despite the achievements of the new lot, I am still waiting to be knocked out cold. Waiting for someone to shake me up right down to my socks. Waiting for them to grab me by my soul and say, “Hey buddy, here I am. Take heart, there is great test cricket ahead”.

Yeah, I am still waiting for that.

I think we desperately need another mild-mannered 15 or 16 year old to make his test debut somewhere in the world.