Service Standards in Public Service

I recently posted a tweet after a visit to the local post office:

A visit to the local #postoffice (to pick up a missed courier delivery) will put to rest any doubts you may have on how the #public #service machinery operates in #India in the year 2018!

I had purposely worded it in a way that did not make it too obvious if my “experience” was positive or negative. I wanted to see the kind of responses it elicits. And, it looked like my approach worked!

Here are some snippets from some of the comments that ensued…

“Similar sentiment when i went to cash out Kisan Vikas Patra”.

“Not sure if there is a sarcasm in your post. I have very good experience with Chennai Posts.”.

“… In South India, I would not trust large public hospitals, that are indeed one way ticket to hell or heaven. But I owe my life to three public hospitals in Delhi – Lohia, Safdarjung and AIIMS. BTW – private enterprises in the health care have no less horror stories to offer.”.

My own experiences with the Post Office, and the public service machinery in general, have been quite disappointing, to say the least. Of course, there are pockets of excellence in every field, and public services would not be an exception to that rule. But, public services, in general, are often characterized by poor pay and appalling work conditions (as compared to their private counterparts). The question is: Does that give them a license to lower their standards below acceptable levels?

Yes, I am also cognizant of the pathetic experiences I periodically encounter with private enterprise: The only consolation in those is that at least it is not my tax money at work. More importantly, when it comes to most private enterprise services, one has the ability to simply walk away and choose another service provider. Often, that is not an option when one encounters a public service.

As one commenter added, “Most of us in metro cities have better choices in almost every aspect of our life’s needs (education, health, food, transportation, communication, clothing, housing, etc.). Just consider the plight in hinterlands… Also, the ones which have no choice… Police, Civic Administration… May God Be With Them.”

Does it always have to be like that?

I think the key lies in understanding that the ones that need to use such services the most, are often the ones that have no other choice.

When designing a public service, bureaucrats, government officials and public servants would do well to remember that context, so that they can empathize with the “customer” needs that the service aims to ultimately address. The less privileged among us deserve a good standard of essential services. Public transport, education, healthcare and communication are all included in that list.

Enrique Peñalosa, the Mayor of Bogotá, captured it eloquently when he remarked, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.

Richard Branson: Two Gems

The typical commute in Mumbai is harsh, to say the least. And, listening to insightful podcasts is a great way to make the most of your drive time.

One such talk I really enjoyed was a conversation with Richard Branson, founder of the international conglomerate the Virgin Group. Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics fame, spoke with Branson as a part of the series: “The Secret Life of a C.E.O.

While the entire series – including this episode – is worth its weight in gold, here are two takeaways that really made me stop and take notice.

1. When asked if he is actually the CEO of any of his companies, Branson had this to say:

… I’ve delegated pretty well all the C.E.O. roles. And I actually believe that people should delegate early on in their businesses, so they can start thinking about the bigger picture.

 

If I’m ever giving a talk to a group of young businesspeople, I will tell them, you know, go and take a week out to find somebody as good or better than yourself. Put yourself out of business, and let them get on and run your business day to day, and then you can start dealing with the bigger issues, and you can take the company forward into bigger areas, and you can — maybe if you’re an entrepreneur, you can start your second business or your third business.

 

And so I think too many young entrepreneurs want to cling on to everything, and they’re not good delegators.

I can’t tell you the number of people I know – personally – who need to hear this and truly internalize it. An “entrepreneur” and a “CEO” are two distinctly different mindsets. Some folks may be able to traverse the two worlds – fleetingly. But doing both simultaneously, and over a sustained period of time, is nearly impossible. The sooner an entrepreneur makes peace with that fact, the sooner he/she will be on the path to growth and success.

2. When asked about his famed approach to motivating people via employee-friendly policies across the Virgin group of companies, Branson replied:

… Let’s just look at this business of forcing people to come to an office.

 

First of all, you’ve got maybe an hour or an hour and a half of travel time in the morning, another hour and a half of travel time in the evening. And, you know, when you’re at the office, it’s important that you say hello to everybody and that you’re friendly with everybody, so you use up another hour or two, you know, socializing with people. Then, because you’re not at home, you need to communicate with your family. So you spend another bit of time communicating with your family. And so the day carries on and you might get a couple hours of work done.

 

If you’re at home, you know, you wake up. You can spend a bit of time with your family. And be a proper father, which is perhaps the most important — or mother — most important things that we can do in our life. But you can also find the time to get whatever your job is done, because you’ve got another four or five hours free to do it. And you know, we’ve never been let down by people that we’ve given that trust to.

Think about that. How many CEOs or business leaders do we know who are sensitive to the realities of day to day Life, the way the average employee perceives them? And, how many organizations can we speak about that actually “trust” their people to this degree? Work-from-home is just one dimension of this thinking; Branson also talks about a ‘prisoner program’ that Virgin runs to employ current and ex prisoners across roles, including in Security!

In my view, there has never been a better time to access the world’s riches. Insights are all around us, and conversations with folks who have done it all, are just a few clicks away. Some of us will make the most of it and learn from these experiences, while some of us will spend our time watching cute cat videos.

Change Is The Only Constant

The idea of ThinkShop was born way back in 1999, when I first started a web-design studio called UncommonWisdom to work on Internet-based Communication Design. My boutique consulting firm was way ahead of its time, but we were able to deliver some interesting work in the digital space, including digital strategy, website design and UX for enterprise-grade applications.

In its second avatar, ThinkShop began life in 2013, helping its clientele bridge the gap between Idea and Execution, until the end of 2017.

As an independent consultant at the helm of ThinkShop, I was fortunate to work with some of the leading players in Financial Services, Insurance and Education, on projects that included developing Customer Engagement strategy and Marketing Communication frameworks, User Experience Design across multiple platforms, and architecture for a 100,000+ page web presence.

With the beginning of 2018, I have decided to take up an assignment that, once again, offers me the opportunity to apply my skills to problems of scale. With it, I commence a new chapter in my professional life, as ‘Group Head – Customer Experience’ at the Edelweiss Group – one of India’s leading Financial Services conglomerates.

A big Thank You for all the support you’ve shown to ThinkShop and me.

Knowing It All

As we get older, most of us assume that we get wiser. This is seen to be true for both individuals and organizations. We may call it different names – learning, experience, insight, etc. Some of us may accelerate the process by learning from others’ experiences (through books and training), or by exposing themselves to changing environments (think travel or shifting industries). Others may see themselves as a “lifelong student”, constantly seeking out ways to add to their knowledge base, or challenging themselves to step outside their comfort zone.

But, what does this “wisdom” really mean? Why do we assume that being wiser means having all the answers? Why do we take it for granted that while we are doing the right thing, others (those whose actions are not in sync with our’s) are on the wrong path? Again, this is often true for both individuals and organizations.

Let’s take a look at some of the issues that business enterprises face today: Should it be scarce or abundant? Should it be free or expensive? Should it be about what used to matter or what really matters today? What should we do when our hunches don’t match the data that’s pouring in?

We live in a complex, interconnected world. And, organizations of all shapes and sizes struggle with questions to which they do not have the answers – even if they bring all their experience to bear on the issue. So, why pretend that we know it all?!

The way I see it, knowing what you don’t know is an essential attribute of being wiser. And, working on filling those gaps only means that we are on our way to becoming a better version of ourselves. To me, continuous learning means having the humility to ask a lot of questions, being receptive to other (dissimilar) perspectives, and developing the ability to synthesize them suitably.

We’ve all heard of IBM predicting a world market of “maybe five personal computers”. We know that Kodak missed the bus with digital photography standards, even after inventing the digital camera! And yes, “uberization” is a word now. In other words, just because someone (including your competitor) is on a different path, it doesn’t mean they are wrong.

Believe it or not, organizations can admit – to their employees, customers, stakeholders – that they don’t know every thing, but that they have learned a few things along the way about what works (and doesn’t work) in their unique context. And, so can individuals. Yes, even those in “leadership” positions!

Let me end with the words of a wise Economist who once remarked: “When the Facts Change, I Change My Mind. What Do You Do, Sir?”

Travelling Abroad 101

This post was also published on HotFridayTalks.com

Who doesn’t like to travel? Our glossy magazines and social media feeds seem to be filled with pictures of people in exotic locales across the world. And let’s not forget the steady diet of Switzerland and Canada in our Bollywood films! But, if you haven’t yet left desi shores to travel outside India – I mean, ever – it can all get a bit intimidating.

No worries, this post might help you master the basics and make the transition a pleasant one…

Visas

First things first! If you are an Indian traveller going abroad, you will find that most places will require a visa, which typically means documentation and visa fees. Some countries also require explicit permission letters from the destination country as a part of the application process, while others involve in-person interviews that may or may not be scheduled in your city of residence. That said, there are also a few countries that are relatively easier to access via simple visa formalities or even visa-on-arrival. So, do some research online (or through your preferred travel agent) to learn what it takes before you zero-in on the destination. Of course, visas get stamped on passports. So make sure you have one that doesn’t expire in the next 6 months.

Getting By

Most popular cities have traffic congestion during peak hours on popular routes – way worse than you can imagine. Thankfully, most popular destinations also have cheap, fast alternatives to help tourists (and locals) get around. These include Rapid Transit systems like the MRT or SkyTrains popular across South East Asia, with many major international airports also connected to the city center through an Airport Express system. Bear in mind that in some cities, it may cost you nearly as much as hailing a cab (for a group of 4), but you’ll save a significant amount of time not being stuck in traffic.

Connectivity

Carry your India SIM for emergency, but ask for a local SIM (destination country) as a prepaid card for your second slot. You can even carry a spare handset if you don’t have a dual-SIM phone. You will find that most travel destinations have very attractive short-term offers for calling, data and messaging on prepaid plans, aimed at visiting tourists. You may need to show your passport to get a connection.


“The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.”
Augustine of Hippo


Sights & Sounds

When it comes to taking in the sights, tourist-friendly destinations have a lot to offer. Unlike most places in India, you may not save much money by showing up at the venue and buying the ticket there. Online ticket websites and travel desks of popular hotels may charge you the same (original) price, and include free transport to and from your hotel. Ask around to figure out what works better.

Shopping

At most popular malls in tourist-friendly cities, there will often be a designated place/exit/gate where you can queue up for taxis that take you back to your hotel. The queues may be long during peak hours, but are the quickest way to get a cab, unless you have a vehicle on standby.

Lost?

Many hotels I have stayed in across the world have “contact cards” at the reception with the hotel’s contact details, a tiny map and the address printed in the local language and in English. Pick up some copies from the hotel desk, and carry them with you, especially if you are travelling to a city where the locals may not speak/understand English. It will help you re-trace your steps back to the hotel from an unfamiliar location. On that note, it is also a good idea to carry a print of some emergency numbers like the nearest local hospital, the Indian embassy, etc. for those times when unforeseen events happen.

Respect

Last but not the least, remember to conduct yourself in a manner that is appropriate and respectful of local customs. Some countries also prescribe what is appropriate (and not appropriate) to wear for ladies, or inside their temples of worship, or on the palace grounds of the reigning monarch. Other cities have very strict rules about what is permitted through customs or what is allowed (and not allowed) as a part of their traffic regulations. Read a little about what’s ok and what’s not, so you are on the right side of the law. And, don’t forget to set a good impression for your country, when you’re in a foreign land!

Enjoy your travels…

Social Absurdities

When someone we know is admitted into a hospital, social norms dictate that we visit them while they are hospitalised. If unable to do so during that window, those of us who are closely related to the patient, are expected to pay a visit to them in their home, after they have been discharged. That’s the norm, isn’t it?

But, what happens if you’ve already paid a visit once, found that the patient was recovering well, and after a few days find out that he/she has taken a turn for the worse? Should you go again?

What happens if, after your visit, the patient has been sent home, only to be rushed back to the hospital after a day’s rest? Are you expected to re-visit?

What happens if the event in question is not an illness, but the birth of a child? As a mother, you may think that the last thing you want with a newborn is to attend to visitors. Should you extend that kindness to the mother currently in the hospital, and spare her your visit? By doing so, will you be remembered for your generosity of spirit, or for the fact that you did not bother to show up, despite being a close friend or relative?

If the event is, in fact, an illness, should the severity of the illness determine how many times you are expected to visit? Should a recurrence qualify in severity as much as the original ailment? How many visits are adequate?

Yes, there are those among us who are genuinely concerned about the patient in recovery, and would like to show up just to let them know that they are not alone, and that help is at hand. But, the bulk of visitors in any given hospital are there as a social formality, is it not?

Like the ‘hospital dilemma’, I find that many of the social norms we religiously follow, border on sheer absurdity!

We all do it, because every one else is doing it, and because every one expects us to.

Like complimenting the host for a yummy meal. If some do it as a social nicety, and others do it only when they really like the food, how does the host know which is which? Of what use is the compliment to you, if you yourself say such things all the time, without meaning it?

Are we becoming a society that almost never means what it says, or says what it means? What will the world look like if more and more of us head down that path? What will Truth mean in such a world?

I wonder.

Just The Beginning

ThinkShop completed 3 eventful years, last month. In that time, we have been fortunate to work with a number of clients on a variety of interesting projects, through solutions that spanned Technology, Business and Marketing.

We helped design the User Experience of a multi-device Trading Platform, and developed a Career Portal for a Life Insurance major that integrates with their Recruitment Engine and call-centres. We performed a Need Gap analysis for a Sales Mobility tool in Health Insurance, and helped define the Project Scope for an Online Securities platform. We conducted a Boot Camp on Understanding Social Media for the senior executives of a leading pharmaceutical firm, and helped develop Marketing Strategy for a startup in Education services.

If there was a common theme running through them, it was that every solution was focused on improving Customer Engagement, with Technology serving the role of an enabler.

These past three years, we have also seen many of you face some common challenges while trying to make sense of an ever-changing world. The Think! blog was meant, in part, to help you gain relevant insights into the Digital world, understand key trends, and figure out viable ways to meet your business needs.

Yes, Mobile has gained significant ground, and Machine Learning is all the rage, but RoI on Digital initiatives continues to elude many, while Business tries to figure out what is the best way to engage in a multi-screen, multi-format, always-on world.

So, what can you do? How can you make sense of an ever changing dynamic and engage with customers despite their ever-decreasing attention span?

If you are new to the Online world, and are looking for the essentials involved in creating a digital footprint for your product or service, the Digital RoadMap offers a quick guide to get you off the ground. In it, you will learn about what constitutes success in the Digital arena, how you can be more customer-centric, and how much is too much. While you’re at it, if you would also like to improve your chances of success when working with external vendors and service providers, here are some good insights on How To Be A Great Client!

All the Technology in world can only help you do a few key things well: Amplify the reach of your message, reduce the Response times involved, improve the Relevance of a product/service fitment or achieve exponential Scale. What’s important to keep in mind is that business is, and has always been, about defining a target Customer, understanding their specific need, and meeting it in a profitable way. If you are able to provide exceptional value to your customer, at a sustainable cost, you will succeed in your objectives. No two ways about it.

As you go about your own journey of leveraging the Power of Digital  to engage with your Customer, don’t be afraid to seek help from those who have walked the path before you. If there is anything we can do to help, it will be our pleasure…

India – Three Countries

A few days ago, Founding Fuel posted a cogent piece by Haresh Chawla on How India’s digital economy can rediscover its mojo. In it, Chawla speaks about the current crisis of confidence surrounding the digital economy and the so-called unicorns. It’s a great piece on the realities of the startup mania, and has a lot to offer to many of us – regardless of the role we play in the ecosystem. What was most intriguing for me, however, was Chawla’s thoughts on how India is not just a huge mass of consumers as many in the western world mistakenly assume. Here’s how he articulates it…

 

India One: Club the top 2-tiers above and you find that the top 15% of Indians, i.e. about 150-180 million, earning an average of Rs 30,000 per month, are the ones who have money left over after buying necessities. These 15% of Indians control over half the spending power of the economy and almost its entire discretionary spending.

India Two: This is the middle 30% or 400-odd million Indians, earning an average of Rs 7,000 a month… They are the ones who “service” the $1 trillion market (yes, read that again) that India One represents… Of course, we report them as internet consumers in our slick presentations on Startup India.

India Three: These are the forgotten 650 million who subsist and don’t have the money to buy two square meals. Their incomes rival that of sub-Saharan Africa… However, they are the ones who form our vote banks and determine the political future of our nation.

 

Think about that for a minute. Yes, as Indians, we all know that there are huge disparities in the wealth that surrounds us. And that is unlikely to change in the short term. But to think of India in terms of “three countries” puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they were thinking of “building an app” as a path to striking it rich…

Of course, it is a silly notion to think that one app – any app – makes for a healthy and sustainable business model. And I’m sure the marketplace will address such misplaced notions appropriately, for the most of us who venture into this ‘glamorous’ territory completely uninformed about what lies ahead. But there is a larger issue at play, here.

Even if you don’t intend to start an app project on the side, if you’re reading this, you are most likely a part of the ‘India One’ that Chawla writes about, and therefore, in a position of some influence in Society. You are more likely to be involved in making decisions on behalf of your employers related to the products or services you manage. You are more likely to spend your waking hours in the pursuit of making your product or service available to consumers across categories – India Two and Three included.

Do we really understand the customer we seek to satisfy? Do we know what their world looks like? Do we identify with their trials and tribulations? Or do we assume that their lives more or less resemble our own, except for the fact that they don’t watch Star World or converse in the Queen’s English?

Think about India in terms of three different worlds, and you may just have a greater chance of success when it comes to translating your lofty ideas into success on the ground. After all, understanding your customer’s needs and addressing those needs profitably is the very foundation on which any business is built. Is it not?

Freedom!

This post is not about how to recover from a crashed disk. It’s about how not to let a disk crash affect you in the first place…

A few weeks ago, the hard disk of my home computer crashed. Just like that. It wouldn’t turn back on. I ran some diagnostics using a recovery drive to check if there was any chance of salvaging it (the hardware, not the data), but there wasn’t. So I unplugged it, ordered another one, and went about my business on another device.

When the new drive arrived a few days later, it took me less than 30 minutes to have it up and running with every thing I needed. No data files to transfer. No settings to copy down or migrate. No nothing.

This was the goal when I began moving to a device-independent setup a few years ago. Piece by piece, I had successfully moved every thing I ever do on a computer to the cloud, so that if the day came when my hard disk crashed, I would not be affected.

And, it was satisfying to see that it worked! Today, all the mobile and computing devices I use (at home or at work) are irrelevant when it comes to the data they work with. It’s all online. Synced in real time. No fuss. No muss.

Here’s what works for me…

Laptops/PCs:

  • Google Calendar – To manage multiple calendars online; Synced across devices
  • GMail – For my work/personal emails; Synced across devices
  • Google Drive – For all my personal work documents; Synced across home PCs/laptops I frequently use
  • Box.com – For all home/common documents; Synced across PCs
  • Evernote – For long notes; Synced across devices
  • SimpleNote – For short notes; Synced across devices
  • Google Photos – To backup any photos I shoot (on the phone/cameras) to my Google account
  • Pocket (plus its Chrome Extension) – To save any bookmarks from my phone or PC that I need to read/retrieve later
  • ToDoist (plus its Chrome Extension) – To save any To Do items (with/without reminders) from my phone or PC

Mobile Devices:

  • An Android device serves as my primary mobile phone
  • All my Contacts are saved on a Google account – nothing is saved/stored on the phone
  • SMS Backup & Restore – To periodically save SMS messages & threads (when migrating from one phone to another)
  • Google Photos – To auto backup any photos shot on my mobile device
  • Apps for SimpleNote, Evernote, ToDoist, Pocket and Drive, as above

Second Level Backups:

  • All documents & pictures from any computers I use are also backed up – once a year – to two external (portable) hard disks… This goes in a folder with the name YYYY
  • I also keep one of the two external disks in a remote location as an offsite backup, just in case

That’s it, really! This simple setup now enables me to work from anywhere, with instant access to all my data, as long as I have an Internet connection. Plus, if one device fails, I can literally switch over to another in minutes, without any loss of data.

 

Mumbai-Pune Puncture Scam

If you live in any of the major cities of India, and own a vehicle, you’re more than likely to have heard of many popular cons that happen in and around the city to unsuspecting motorists. Typically, they involve someone flagging your running vehicle down, and pointing out a problem you need to get fixed. Then, another helpful someone shows up out of the blue, and attempts to “fix” the problem, eventually making it worse, and making you shell out thousands before you can be on your way again. One variant of this also includes throwing out sharp nails on your road stretch, causing some punctures, and then going about fixing them.

Since I was aware of many of these, I thought that I would be insulated from such scams. But, I was wrong.

On a recent trip with the family to Pune, just as we entered the Pune city limits on the Mumbai-Pune expressway (near Hinjewadi), a man on a bike signalled that I should get my front-left tyre checked… and rode away without stopping.

Since he didn’t stop to “help” me, I took his warning as genuine, and soon stopped the car by the kerb. The tyre pressure in my tubeless tyre did look a little lower than normal, so I thought I should get it checked as soon as possible. As it turns out, close to where I’d stopped was a roadside tyre repair shack, so I headed there and asked him to check it.

Again, note that there was no way for me to link the biker who rode away without glancing back, and the tyre shack who was supposedly minding his own business when I drove upto him.

Anyway, he jacked up the wheel and starting checking the tyre in question with some soapy liquid for air bubbles. I did ask why they use soap (which would froth and bubble on its own) instead of plain water, but he said they help him spot the puncture leaks better. I wasn’t too worried since I was keeping a sharp eye out for what was a real air bubble from inside the tyre, and what was on the surface.

During the conversation, repeating the process through the entire surface of the tyre, the good man found (and showed me proof of!) 8 different puncture leaks – big and small. The physics seemed sound: Unless the leaks are fixed, they would keep increasing in size. Plus, I was travelling with kids and the trip hadn’t even begin yet. Plus, I was 200 kms from my home city (and trusted garage). So, all things considered, I asked him to go ahead and fix all of them at 150 bucks a pop.

All the way home, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss. So, when I returned, I went to have a word with my local garage, who I have known for years and has yet to cheat me in any way. Here’s what he told me…

This is a very common scam on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. In all likelihood, while the chap at the tyre shack was “checking” for a puncture, as soon as I glanced away, he probably used his poker to make more tiny holes which later he could prove as punctures, so that he could charge me for each fix. Checking for punctures in tubeless tyres should be done by dismounting the wheel, putting it in a bath of liquid and filling it with high pressure.

Not only did I get conned for a thousand bucks, but I also ended up damaging a good tyre for the long run.

Shockingly, I came home to look this up on the Net and could hardly find any stories of similar experiences. Hence, this post to warn other unsuspecting motorists of what to watch for. If enough of us are armed with the correct information, it will be difficult for the scamsters to do their thing, don’t you think?

Hopefully, this should save you from ruining another good tyre and a few thousand bucks…