Sucheta Dalal :Repeat performance
Sucheta Dalal

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Repeat performance  

Jul 9, 2006

Five days of heavy downpour thoroughly exposed the Maharashtra government’s false claims about being prepared for the monsoons. Mumbai’s creaking civic infrastructure is slowly corroding the city. But ordinary people whose daily commute involves navigating blistered roads and walking unstable wooden planks that cover enormous trenches and rubble (left open by the Mumbai Metropolitan Development Authority) to access their offices, always knew they were in for trying times. Surprisingly, the private sector is not doing too much better. For instance, car servicing companies, who struggled to cope with repairs in the aftermath of last year’s deluge, have not quite regained their former standards of excellence. For months after July 26, customers were grateful for quick patch up jobs that made their cars motorable again; but that seems to have become a habit even at the top firms. The big surprise is Honda Motor Company, whose reputation took a battering last year, when its inability to cope with repairs even six months after the deluge cost its customers a lot of money. Given its global reputation for excellence, Honda has still not bothered to invest sufficiently in improving its customer handling in Mumbai.


Mischievous mail


Last week Ratan Tata decided to raise Tata Sons’ holding in Tata Steel to ward off the possibility of a takeover threat. Tata Sons will increase its holding through a preferential issue. Lakshmi Mittal’s victorious ways and global dominance is clearly the trigger for Tata’s worry. Adding to piquant touch to the situation is a mischievous email that is circulating widely in cyberspace since January this year. One the face of it, the mail is a column praising the wonderful work done by the Tatas at Jamshedpur. The mischief lies in the fact the column has gained tremendous following because it is forwarded as an article by Lakshmi N. Mittal after a visit to Jamshedpur. In fact, it was written by Suhel Seth in May 2004. Seth has clarified the situation, but only a small group of bloggers have bothered to correct the authorship. Why would a column written by a well-known columnist in 2004 get re-circulated as L.N. Mittal’s writing when he is in the midst of the Arcelor takeover? It was obviously meant to frighten the Tatas. Sometimes praise can be more unnerving than criticism.


Reference checks


High attrition rates and the inability to get good, qualified, employable people is the bane of Indian industry today. It is not restricted to engineers and IT experts but goes all the way down to secretaries, clerks, sales staff, marketing agents, counter staff and analysts. Smaller companies have bigger problems because their employees are constantly head-hunted by larger firms who can afford fatter pay cheques. To add insult to injury, the IT industry’s system of seeking reference checks has been reduced to a farce. Firstly, these checks have not prevented the industry from being riddled with a high percentage of fake qualification claims or exaggerated bio-profiles. Secondly, reference checks are perfunctory and outsourced to firms who bombard former employers with email requests instead of earning their fees through discreet background checks or duly authorised requests. One IT chief says, ‘‘emails seeking references are now like the Nigerian 401 scam and unheard of in a civilised world’’. Culprits include big names like KPMG, which has what it calls a ‘‘H.R. analyst Forensic Services’’ to scores of Jack-in-the-box outfits that recycle emails without even ‘‘amending dates to logical correctness’’. A Pune-based firm has even threatened action against KPMG for harassment and spamming. Nasscom’s answer to some of these problems is a comprehensive database of employees that will provide up to date bio profiles of all employees of its member firms for a fee. In a market where employees dictate terms, there are bound to be complaints regarding privacy violation and the system will work only if all Nasscom members guarantee that all their employees will be part of the database.


Cornering sales


Aggressive, multi-product banks are another group that often ends up annoying customers by choosing untrained outsourcing firms using stolen customer lists. Ironically, big foreign banks who keep out small customers through minimum balance conditions have no qualms harassing a large universe of unlikely customers by hiring extraordinarily untrained outsourcing firms. For instance, the ABN Amro bank uses an agency whose customer acquisition style does nothing to enhance its reputation. This usually happens because hiring a well-trained telemarketing firm probably comes at a hefty price tag that these organisations are unwilling to pay. But they really need to re-examine their sales strategy, because pestering customers at airports and shopping malls only damages their image. ICICI Bank and Citibank especially need to take note. A reader also complains that the top private banks also push customers trying to open fixed deposit accounts into their taking life insurance from sister companies instead. He alleges that the bank staff probably gets an incentive for re-directing customers to the insurance company because they turn rather unhelpful if a customer insists on a fixed deposit account.


-- Sucheta Dalal