Two Sides of The Same…Country

Two Sides of The Same…Country

Little over a decade ago, I had just learnt how to drive a car, and, sorry; I must learn to be specific. I had learnt to drive a car in India. Yes, here, it takes more effort, selfless commitment, definitely more skill, and sheer bravery to even just want to learn to drive a vehicle here, let alone actually drive.

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Not even attempting to give you an idea of what it takes, here’s a picture I took on a holiday in Rajasthan a few years ago.

That said, every once in a while, random scenarios would pop up in my head. About what if I was driving and ‘this’ happened, or, how would I react if someone on the street did ‘something like that’. It was probably a natural part of getting accustomed to the newly acquired skill and to getting used to how perspective changes when you are behind the wheel.

I remember one of the ‘possible scenarios’ was about who would be to blame. Say, if a vehicle was driving within the speed limit, and if it were to inadvertently hit someone who decided to dart across the street at the last second. It would give the driver almost no time to react. So could the driver be blamed for the fault of a reckless pedestrian? One who, well knowing the risks, still decided to test their luck? The answer came back a resonating, ‘no‘. The driver could not be blamed. I then reassured myself with the example of trains. Trains travel at specific speeds, and have considerably large stopping distances. So if someone decided to cross the track when a train was close, and got run over, it couldn’t possibly be the engine driver’s fault? Knowing well that crossing tracks is unsafe, and that crossing streets recklessly, equally so.

It all seemed fine. Till yesterday. Yesterday, a speeding train in the state of Bihar in North India, ran over 37 [yes, you read correctly; thirty-seven] pilgrims who were crossing the track at the time. It was tragic. And it was the fault of the pilgrims. But for those who of you who don’t know what followed, angry crowds nearby went on a rampage, setting the train on fire, and attacking and killing one of the engine drivers, leaving the other one in a critical condition. [the news article]

So my theories on ‘who’s to blame’ went out the window. India. A superpower. Among the most promising economies, is still incapable of identifying who’s at fault in something as obvious as this unfortunate incident. It also gives one a glimpse into who we are. Not who we are capable of being, but instead, of who we have stooped to become. Hopefully not for long though. Knowing risks, we’ll still expect the other person to take preventive measures, while we try to kiss a runaway train, while we try to break Border Collies speed records while crossing before speeding cars. Yes, that’s who we have somehow become.

However, and incidentally yesterday itself, there was a story that ended the day on a note of optimism. Bombay’s public bus transport service, the BEST, has been infamous for menacing drivers who break signals, who have run over pedestrians, and damaged vehicles as well. In my family itself, we have two to three horrifying incidents to narrate. Of how BEST’s impatient drivers have damaged our cars just because they were in a blind frenzy to zip through bus stops and go home.

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BEST_Bus_Mumbai

But last night was different. I was driving mom to the market to pick up some groceries. The road I was on, required me to take a right turn to get into the market lane. However, before I could take the turn, there were vehicles coming from the opposite side, and passing my car on my right side. I had to wait with the indicator on, as 5-6 cars whizzed past. A BEST bus was approaching too. While I could have quickly made the turn, knowing them well, I decided to wait for him and the few cars behind him to pass. However, to my complete surprise, he stopped the bus, and signaled for me to take the turn, while cars patiently waited behind him. Still confused, I made the turn, mom still wondering if that had actually happened. Thank you, Mr. BEST driver, for the pleasant surprise.!

Well, we all have it in us to change. We all have it in us to make a positive difference. It all comes down to us deciding to make that choice.

I’ll leave you to think about this, with a quote immortalized by Rocky Balboa in Rocky IV.

“If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change.”

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Death and The Maiden

Death and The Maiden
Balance
 “Tonight’s happy song, kinda like a walk in the park ..the sun coming through the window in the morning on a beautiful day… and you have nothing better to do than commit Harakiri, so…is this? Alright. This is called..Estranged..”
– Axl Rose, at a GnR Live Concert 

Last morning I woke up to the news of young starlet Jiah Khan’s suicide. Possibilities and reasons were many. But whichever way you looked at it, the 25-year old hanging herself came as a shocker to most of us.

Now, to be honest, I have probably watched her in 1-2 movies, and even though she acted well and was very beautiful, I wasn’t exactly a fan.

But news of her death triggered a discussion with a close friend of mine, about what drives people to commit suicide. My friend was of the view that suicide is a cowardly way to go, irrespective of the magnitude of the battles one fights.

I used to be of that exact view until a few years ago. But along the way I realized I was wrong. Reading about similar suicides generated a curiosity. Questions like what factors could result in someone even considering suicide, can it be avoided, and what leads someone to intentionally race toward an eventuality that even the bravest of us fear and dread. Death.

“People fear death even more than pain. It’s strange that they fear death. Life hurts a lot more than death. At the point of death, the pain is over. Yeah, I guess it is a friend.”
– Jim Morrison

While I was in college, my mom bought me a t-shirt that read ‘Life’s tough..but I haven’t hit the Panic button yet.!’

In light of why I’m writing this post, that line on the tee somehow doesn’t seem as amusing as it used to. Anyway, I boiled my thoughts down to 5 factors that I believe influence a mental imbalance, which in turn results in somebody ‘hitting the Panic button’ (here’s my definition of it, and let’s just call it ‘Panic’ for simplicity. And if you’re wondering, yeah you too can make definitions of your own).

Panic: a reaction to a combination of the 5 internal and external factors that could manifest itself either in a

  • defensive way (nervous breakdowns, depression, suicidal tendencies, etc.), or offensive way (bursts of anger and rage, attacking people, etc.). Signs for both need to be identified and avoided.

Now here are the 5 internal & external factors which cause someone to ‘lose it’:

  • the situation or circumstance: tough boss, harassment, etc.
  • importance given to the situation: whether a situation or person affects you strongly, or you are indifferent to it
  • duration of the situation:
  • the strength or resilience: how much of a situation can you handle before you throw in the towel
  • a balancing factor(s): someone or something that helps you cope with a difficult situation (family, friends, pets, hobbies or work)

And the math for these factors works something like this.

On the left, you have three negative factors, and two positive factors on the right.

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That seesaw is mental stability. As you’re looking at it right now, the objective is to always keep the seesaw tilted to the right (where things go between well and manageable). The moment it levels off or tilts left, you’ve got a problem.

So whether it is you, or someone close to you, you have to be observant and aware of how strong you or that person are, how much they can take, and where you or they might need someone to step in (a balancing factor) to keep the seesaw tilted right. There are some problems one can overcome alone. For others, you have the option of facing it with a balancing factor, or of getting out of the situation (quitting a job, getting out of a strained relationship, escalating a matter at work, etc.) But whatever the factor, you need to understand what the problem is, how you are holding up, and what you need or might need to do if it continues. But you have to do something about it. And let’s not lose any more people to the swinging of the seesaw.

“I am troubled, immeasurably
 by your eyes.
 I am struck by the feather
 of your soft reply.
 The sound of glass
 speaks quick, disdain
 and conceals
 what your eyes fight
 to explain.”
 - Jim Morrison

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Au-shitz.!

Au-shitz.!

With all the ‘do good deeds’ and ‘do unto thy neighbour…’ that has literally been beaten into our souls while we were growing up, I often wondered why some corrupt politicians and other people in power seemed to go from crime to crime without losing any sleep over it, and they just seemed to prosper at the cost of the common folk.

And I wondered about it all the way until about 20 minutes ago. Because that’s when I read this news article about how the German authorities arrested a 93-year-old alleged former guard at the Nazi death camp Auschwitz on charges of complicity in the mass murder of prisoners [Link to the article]. He is believed to have worked at the camp between autumn 1941 and its closure in 1945. Now that’s a long way to judgement, but it has come nonetheless. And you can almost hear the old bugger mutter, “Au shitz.!”

And while that news of justice is not exactly to do with an of our corrupt folk in India, it does offer a big ray of hope; that karma does exist.

Nothing better to conclude with, than the famous line on the wall from the scene in Shawshank Redemption“His judgment cometh and that right soon.”

what-goes-around-comes-around

What goes around comes around, by Mark Ward.

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We Deliver.!

We Deliver.!

Several years back, I used to work in the ever so famous BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) Industry in one of India’s IT hotbeds, Bangalore. My job involved providing technical assistance to North American customers of our pretty impressive all-in-one printer range.

There was a time I wondered if the monotony could leave me permanently depressed. Or worse, brain-damaged. But right then, I received an email from my boss. He was forwarding an email from a customer I had assisted a few days before. The customer had needed print cartridges urgently. For some reason unknown to most of us, it took about 3-4 days after placing an order, for the cartridges to actually reach the customer. (And in case you wondered, ‘no, the cartridges weren’t shipped from India).

While this was a free delivery, there was a 1-day shipping for some charge. I was aware that in some special cases, I could request a senior colleague to waive off the charges on the 1-day fee, but it was not a luxury I’d like to take for granted. So I promised the customer a 3-4 day delivery period and that I would try to have the cartridges delivered earlier if possible.

Coming back to the email the customer had sent, it read something on the lines of  – I would like to thank XYZ for the quick shipping of my print cartridges. He said it would take 3-4 days, but when it arrived the next day, I was thrilled. He has done what we in the customer service industry call ‘under-promising and over-delivering’, the surest way to win a customer and a little more to that effect.

That was my first lesson in customer service; ok maybe not the first, but certainly the one with the most impact. It has been a while since that corporate ‘high’, and since those technical support days, but that feedback has stayed on with me. While I’m no ‘pro’ at customer service, I do understand its ever-increasing importance in any business, and I constantly try to figure ways of improving the customer’s experience.

And I have found many an Indian BPO employee, or for that matter, even your average sales or service staff at any retail outlet or business centre, bubbling with enthusiasm to cater to the customer’s every demand. And while this is a great thing for customers, there are 2 key ingredients missing in many cases. Those being  Planning and Communicating. A simple equation of their effect on customer experience would look something like:

Customer Experience = Communicating (Planning+Commitment+Delivering on Commitment)

Most of us are great at committing, but tend to fall a little short when it is time to deliver on the commitment. And this causes unnecessary customer dissatisfaction.

In our endeavor to give the customer that little bit ‘extra’, we often miscalculate delivery or commitment deadlines. And this ends up causing the exact opposite of the effect we had planned for.

If we were to take into account all possible influencing factors (Planning) and build it into a commitment or delivery deadline, and perhaps even throw in a little buffer if we have a gut feel about possible delay, we would be giving the customer a more realistic picture. And of course, nothing beats plain old ‘Communication’. It is extremely important that we communicate with the customer. Even a call or message updating them the moment you see a deadline getting stretched, does wonders. You cannot imagine how much customers appreciate that phone call informing them of a delay. It beats them arriving at your doorstep on D-day only to be asked to come the following week.

To my customer.
I may not have the answer, but I’ll find it.
I may not have the time, but I’ll make it.
-Unknown

Then of course, nothing beats delivering on a commitment or deadline.!

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what’SAPpening?

what’SAPpening?

You know the whole “effect” thing. It is all about how things are put, less about what things really are. Its more about the gift wrap than about the gift. More to do with the fanfare, and less about the intention; all about quantity, not much about quality,  and all that.

For the past few months, one of my responsibilities at work includes contacting the Management folk at Colleges and B-Schools and introducing them to the SAP uAcademy courses, which are an innovative way of enabling students to gain working knowledge of SAP by way of a Learning Management System, an online Audio-Visual module, whereby students can take the course at their own pace, re-work topics, and they can have queries immediately answered by SAP’s support team by way of call, email, chat or video chat. And all this at a heavy discount to the SAP courses available at Training Centres.

Anyway, a part of this task involves me looking up college websites, identifying the right person to contact. A Vice Chancellor (VC) or Chairman, and in many cases, the Director or Dean.

I had a list of colleges that I started tackling one by one. The first few calls felt like I was speaking to the gatekeeper to heaven. Whose only job was to make it nearly impossible to reach the VC or President. I heard every reason from ‘he is traveling’, ‘not in town’, ‘not at his desk’ to more direct ‘no one can speak directly with him’ and so on. Schools, and I thought these folks were supposed to be a little more approachable. I have not had even half the trouble speaking and meeting General Managers and Directors at companies. And here I was, struggling to meet people at colleges.

Then, one Saturday, a few days and many calls later, I called a college on the number given on their ‘Contact Us’ page. And to my surprise, the Director answered! (‘Wha.!’, I’d say to myself, just praying it wasn’t a prank by a bored peon looking for a kick out of his otherwise mundane routine).

As I kept working on my list, I got to some colleges which had mobile numbers listed under ‘Contact Us’, which belonged to Directors or Dean’s. A refreshing change from the otherwise fortress some institutes had around their heads.

And today, when I was almost at the end of my list, I call a college and asked only for the Director’s email id (no, couldn’t find any direct lines, and I was way too bored to request a direct word with the Director), saying I will first email him and then call to speak with him, and the generous person at the other end says ‘Hold on, I’ll connect you to him, you could speak to him directly’.

The more you want something done, people seem to make it that much tougher. When you don’t care, they’ll give you that extra push up the hill. Humans, never cease to amaze.

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An uncle and a friend

An uncle and a friend

I just heard a few hours back, that one of dad’s closest friends, Eshwaran, passed away this morning. That was extremely bad news.

I had probably met Eshwar uncle and his wife several times as a toddler. And then I met them nearly a decade or more later, probably when I was in the eighth or ninth standard at school. And yet the meeting still feels recent.

Anyone who ever knew him, knew him as an extremely light-hearted and jovial person. But something else apart from his great sense of humour came across strongly too. And that was his keen interest in photography. That, and of course the way he expressed that interest. He was probably around 40-45 or so at the time. But he’d sit and chat with me as if I was just another buddy of his. And yet, the conversation was always extremely interesting, relevant, and still, simple enough so as not to bore an easily distracted kid.

He would tell us about some hilarious incidents from bachelorhood when he, dad, and some friends hung out together. He would then literally zoom in on an important part of his life, his hobby, photography. And he’d  give us a vivid description of some amazing scenery that he’d seen. A scenery he had taken several photographs of, several years before. And yet, he’d remember it with more clarity than any of us would remember our last holiday anywhere. And he’d almost get into the technicalities of how he’d place his real fancy camera on the tripod on a slope perhaps, and adjust it to get that right shot.

Or of another incident at another holiday spot that would be amazingly breathtaking, and how he’d proceed to click innumerable pictures of. And it didn’t end there. Back in the day, photograph films had to be developed, and he’d do that too himself. So he’d talk about that too. The dark room, the negatives, and then, how exactly the pictures would have captured to a satisfactory level, a beautiful sunrise, or sunset, or a vast stretch of lush green.

And all that talk would just express his true love for his hobby. That was probably one of the few times when someone’s passion for something they absolutely loved doing, came through very strongly. I even bought my first camera on his recommendation; and just like he said, snaps did come out ‘superb’.

Not only did I learn quite a bit about the basics of ‘clicking a snap’ from him, but also little lessons on perfection. While most of us nowadays just pull out a digital camera and fire away, the little extra effort that I take when clicking snaps to make sure they come out good, are to a great extent, thanks to his photography tips  that I got on the few occasions that I got to spend time chatting with him.

And in our world of fads and herds, a few people like Eshwar uncle, stand out for pursuing even a hobby with more interest and dedication than many of us show towards even our work.

Uncle, you’ll live forever in our minds, and it truly has been a pleasure knowing you, as an uncle, a friend, and most importantly, a great human being.

And while I’ll always regret not having spent enough time with you; a line from the movie, Mr. Deeds, comes to mind; that I’ve reworded a little, and that goes like:

We never hung out (enough), and that makes me sad…

All the good times we could’ve had…

But when I die, uncle, you better say cheers…

Cause me and you are hanging at the pearly gates…

I’ll bring the beers… I’ll bring the beers.

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