Monday, December 6, 2010

Speaksfree: Whose Mutter Paneer is it Anyway?

Speaksfree: Whose Mutter Paneer is it Anyway?: "Whose Mutter Paneer is it anyway?Bas naam hi kafi hai. Or what Shakespeare asked, ‘What’s in a name?’ Actually... Mutter Paneer is neither a..."

Whose Mutter Paneer is it Anyway?

Whose Mutter Paneer is it anyway?
Bas naam hi kafi hai. Or what Shakespeare asked, ‘What’s in a name?’ Actually...
Mutter Paneer is neither an invention,  nor is it a discovery. We cannot even trace back its origins. What we know confidently is that, our mother knows how to cook it best and our fingers can vouch for it. Cannot say about any other dish, but Mutter Paneer happens to be the most easily available dish in any part of the country, readily understood and widely consumed. However what changes from plate to plate is the color, texture, taste and appeal for the senses.
I am married to a hard core Vegetarian and what I have learnt is that, she is bored of it. All her life she has had it almost so regularly that when it’s time for her to cook in our kitchen, it is the last preference in our menu.
So we decided to not cook at home and find ways to appease our hunger for Mutter Paneer somewhere else.
To our surprise, as a dish it was easily available at any retail outlet in a packaged format. More literally speaking, in today’s consumerization, a ready to eat format. Or more precisely, pre cooked only heating required before eating. There were many brands available on the shelf that were offering not just Mutter Paneer but a range of other delicious variants like Dal makhani, chole, chicken and what not.
But before I delve further in the modern retail scenario and the availability issues, what makes me think about, is the inception.
Our tiffin box is probably the closest ancestor that I can think of. My mother used to give me home cooked food in my tiffin box so I could eat properly and not run after the street food which not be so hygienic. She used to cook fresh every morning and pack the tiffin with some chapattis, one subji, pieces of carrots, two cream biscuits as sweets etc. Normally the menu was different at least three-four days a week unless there was some demanded repetition. Eating out experience was first in school. You could also share or mix the subji from other friends and create your own lunch plate. Otherwise eating out, I mean, eating in restaurants was a seldom affair and we used to go out only on occasions. Special ones I must say, like birthday or parent’s anniversary.  
I also remember and I am sure others will recall, when I was young and used to go away from home for studies, outside of home town, my mother used to pack some dry snacks in a steel container for me. This was meant for those lonely nights when I would be (expectedly) studying and feel hungry in the middle of the night. These were the delicacies, intended to remind that someone somewhere really takes care of you and is watching you while you ‘study’. Not sure about the later half but definitely the remembrance would drive the deepest of emotions and compel me to study harder. Mission achieved. I would often keep them stored inside in the most secretive place to avoid being noticed by my other outstation friends, as this was something you did not want to share. Without being selfish, I would share a fraction of that on the day I would arrive and declare assets as finished.
Marrying the two thoughts as narrated above, I realize that ready to eat (heat and eat) food category is doing macroscopically abysmally. The brands are just not getting what they are expected to do and don’t do eventually and get nowhere but on the shelves.
If you look closely, stop at any of the food category aisles and watch the Ready to eat food brand packages, you will be surprised to see how Mutter Paneer looks so different from each other. Everybody is trying to sell you Mutter Paneer, and that is, but ironically want us to decide which one tastes better by selecting which one looks better. And the whole game is this. It is like a game.
You will never win if you were to compare any of these with what your mother cooked and served at home.
Recently while working for a foods company (as a brand design consultant), who have a range of products in the ready to eat (heat and eat) segment, I was actually confused about what should the ‘brand design speak’.
Several marketing / branding platforms have been tried in the last ten years but none have seemed to work for any one of them, at least in my view.
In the beginning, as an entry strategy or category creation move, brands looked at the time factor and used the scarcity of it, to convince the harrowed customer. The critical factor is the paucity of time to cook for a working woman. Because she is so busy with work, has to manage family and profession, has to take care of kids and adults, has to manage the kitchen and office, she ends up running behind schedule, quite often. And therefore she looks for something that is quick, easy to manage, less tiring and satisfying for all. So she picks up Ready to Eat (heat and eat) products from the shelf on her way home and makes her life easier. But is this true? Is she really the one who is moving the SKU’s from the shelves? Does she feel guilty about the short cut she adopts or the excuse for not cooking?
Another way of looking at time, is the lengthiness of the recipe. There are some foods which taste good when cooked as per the recipe. There are particular women, who follow a cooking process. They are the ones who do every step of the cooking to make sure that it tastes just like the veterans (their mothers or mother in-laws). They are keen to prepare different delicacies at home but feel short of right recipes, information or inspiration. The cookery shows, magazines do not motivate them much as they seem to be over indulging with ingredients, materials and preparation. For them it was a bonus but didn’t go down well as it lacked the “touch”. For us, Indians, there has to be that touch or haath ka kamal to appreciate the consumption.
The other strategy was price. This was meant for consumers who often got tempted to eat out but could not spend a couple of hundreds. India is a population of struggler's. We are always running around to make two ends meet. Our lives are like railway tracks. The tracks never meet, the track for income and the track for leisure. Meet if anytime, it is always a compromising situation. For the not so well off households, this was something that came as relief from pressure. Highly economical compared to restaurants and above all in the comfort of home watching TV. But what struck negatively is the limited quantity, less of mutter and paneer and more of curry, inability to fill the stomach aptly. Given that all Indian households are not ‘hum do and humare ek’ or even ‘ hum do aur humare do’.  But in average, families are more or less large, with at least three adults, of which two could be senior adults. If we are talking about ‘hum do and humare ek’ specifically then they are not the ones deprived of currency or ambition. But in regular Indian family of four or five, it is often arranged as an accompaniment and not the main course. While two things would be cooked, like one subzi and dal, this modern ready to eat Mutter Paneer would be served as an additive/ topping.
The other strategy was to target the well off. The segment which is considered as the shopper of Indian retail. High disposable income, travelled, educated , brand conscious and aspiring. They are looking for experiences out of the normal. They have the will and wit but rarer by choices. The strategy was to ignite the temptation of high life, fine dining, exotic mouth watering delicacy. The kinds that are served in so called Indian five stars, where dining is only a gift for someone you love or on invitation. But then everyday you cannot have dinner at a five star. And if you are the likes of those who have dinner at five stars, then we are not talking to you. So, to bring the sensation and the experience home, neighbours envy owners pride types, this was something special. The strategy was to attest the recipe or taste by the Chefs of five star hotels. This X Mutter Paneer has been prepared from the recipe books of the chefs of Nawaab’s/ Indian Maharaja’s. It didn’t cut ice as health was a concern, lot of Masala has been restricted, pills are more than the will at heart. Besides, the perception developed that to make the taste exotic, possibly there are artificial ingredients or flavourings or color used that would have adverse effect on the health.
Yeh bhi gaya kam se!
Now it was the turn to make us feel miserable and emotional together. That you live away from home and are deprived of good food is not your fault. It is your destiny. An insight used as strategy to appease the loners, near and dear one’s away from home thousand miles away. It was supposed to work with the youngsters who would get bored of eating out of tiffin everyday or could not afford junk food everyday affecting their health adversely. So Mutter Paneer that tastes like your mother’s recipe, as if cooked in your home kitchen in Lapata-gunj (a small town in a difficult to locate city on the map of India). If you are away from home, you miss the food that your mother prepared for you with all the spices of love, ingredients of Mamta and made you feel so special. But even this didn’t cut through with a generation hardly found in the four walls of what is called home away from home. Life is a struggle and even more struggling is to manage expenses. On top of it who cooks at home when there is “Raghu” downstairs giving you credit period for his smoky egg omelette's and hot tea with rusk or universally acclaimed Indian vada pav for Rs 5. If it is about substituting the taste of mother’s hand cooked food, then it is an illusion. Competition in today’s world cannot taste good with illusion.
And that you are staying in strange land is your company’s fault (to say the least). You were born and brought up in Bihar, studied in Delhi, graduated from Bengaluru, working in Chennai and married to a Gujarati.  Who is to be blamed for that? No one but your own self. So when you miss Delhi go and grab an Heinz Kitchen Klassic Amritsari Chole pack and if you miss your mamta pick up KCDas rasgulla, if you miss your friends pick up MTR Rasam Rice and if you love your wife so much get a Vimal Dhokla. Distances and memories were being challenged in the most myopic way. A generation that networks through bbm, lives on facebook, shops on ebay, meets on skype, shares on you-tube, will they need food to connect and express their emotions, knowing that nobody can ever prepare or compare with the Aloo parantha outside your college which you had with your un-facebook friends, whose memories are only there on a 5X7 Kodak photo paper.   
So finally we come back to Mutter Paneer.
How wisely all the Mutter Panner’s on the different packs look so different? With as many looks are as many questions of where is the ready to eat – heat and eat Mutter Paneer going to go. Who is the next cook, chef, loner or where is my kitchen?
What is the next wave of brand positioning? How do we make a Haldirams/ Kurkure/Polo/Mountain Dew/Alpenliebe/5 Star/ Fanta/Bisleri out of Ready to eat – heat and eat or any other in the category?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

City that never sleeps often keeps you sleepless

Of all the cities I have been for work, leisure or studies, Mumbai definitely is unique and has a different impact on everyone. It has its own way of welcoming strangers and quite strange in its approach towards that.
I remember the first time I came to Mumbai, I had no clue about the city neither the desire to know as I was a guest for a day. Now that I have spent five years, I see that I was lucky and very fortunate that the first time I came here I got to stay with my relatives at Breach Candy. That was really good luck, I feel today. The place is one of the most upmarket residential localities in Mumbai and has the nerve to make you feel that you are so small. As a student, I had come for an interview 12 years ago, to get admission in a reputed MBA college in suburbs. Suburbs was not a word in my dictionary then. I did not know how far or close was this suburb and what makes it the so called suburbs. There were pictures of the city in my mind and I had made up my mind to visit them in reality, but was wrong as I didn’t know where they were and how to go about explaining anyone where I wished to go. These were pictures that I had registered while watching Bollywood movies. Bollywood movies were the only gateway to know the city which was 1700 kms away from my small town in the East. I still feel, the way Bollywood created the hype of Switzerland, thanks to Yash Raj Films, the same way I had impressions of Bombay in my mind. For e.g. the scene where Mr. Bachan driving his motorbike sings the title song of Muqaddar Ka Sikander, my favourite song, in the 80’s. Others being the car chase scene’s of Mr. Bachan’s movies and many other movies on Marine Drive , the bungalow on Band Stand which now is owned by King Khan was a favourite, the Kabutar Khana of Parinda where Mr. Anupam Kher gets shot, the Juhu beach where several romantic songs have been picturized, the bungalow from where Mr. Bachan used to wave at the fans, the hospital where he was admitted post the accident in ‘Coolie’ and many more . But these impressions were very un-glamorous and not heavenly like the snow clad Alps.
I had planned to make my 24hrs stay the most memorable one but unfortunately 6 hrs of that went in only visiting Mr. Bachan’s bungalow at Juhu. But the ‘moment’ standing there at the bottom of his bungalow dreaming that he would come out and wave at me and I would make that one big impression for which he would call me in and I would tell him how big a fan I was, was the most dedicated and foolish dream I have ever seen. He never came out and I never got any chance to wave back at him and cast my spell.
The most interesting and cooperative citizen of Bombay (in those days) was my black – yellow cab driver who did not let me down. His patience and enthusiasm, both were like ice on my wounded heart. However he was upset when he realized that I was a visitor for a day and would be leaving back for home the next morning. I also came to realize that he was my neighbour from East Uttar Pradesh, quite close to my place in the adjoining state. And he very well empathized with my condition. He took on himself to show me the more generous monuments for which you did not have to wait endlessly for a two way communication. The Fountain, Kala Ghoda, Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel were a delight to some degree but I was still upset. This time the reason were the people, pardon me, hundreds of thousands of people. I was too amazed to see the overflowing population of the city and people were like the bricks on the wall. While they moved they did not respond. They were like robots walking the talk, in their busy minds. They were all going somewhere, precisely, and were only focused on their destination. They were not bothered by who was walking next to them or who passed by next to them. But a small disturbance in the equilibrium, would cause the people swarm like bees around the spot. I also realized that somehow people who were exiting the Victoria Terminus outnumbered the ones going in or was it an illusion. Where were all these people coming from?
By evening I had lost all my strength and curiosity to wander any further. So I was dropped off at Colaba in a cafe for a few beer shots. I didn’t realize that you are not supposed to go everywhere without knowing where you are going and what for. Every place has its own ambiance and loyalists. I happened to visit a small cafe in a lane behind the Taj and was shocked to be in odds with African nationals. They were the only people hanging around in the cafe and were really very loud. They seemed to know almost every waiter, manager and the menu. They were gulping beer as if it was going to be a dry day the next hour. I was too insignificant for them, both in size and space. I perched myself on the bar counter with little room for 360 degree view. For the next hour or so, I guess I learnt how to make few cocktails and mocktails while staring at the bar tender, but have never tried offering my unique talent to someone till date. I did not realize in the beer buzz coupled with new talent acquisition that it was past midnight and in some time I would have to leave for the station to catch my train and end this whole episode of adventure.
When I stepped out, I was overwhelmed to see the density of heads and legs in that one street, which was smoky and barbecued. The whole place smelt of non veg being cooked on coal and barbecue and people were hogging as if curfew was going to be imposed in the next hour. At first I didn’t notice the place where all this was coming from and kept wondering if I had intruded in some one’s street party. Never heard of such a concept, but in this city you could expect the unexpected. I cursed myself for filling on burger and fries in the cafe, which is the last thing I would like to have after drinking beer. But the smell was so penetrating that I could not resist the temptation and gave in to the delicious kebabs and rotis.
This treat at two hours past midnight took away all my sorrow. It completed the adventure and filled in the gaps of disappointment during the day.
I can say for sure that this was the first day in my life (at 19 years) that I was awake for 20 hours in the day. The remaining four hours had to be given to sleep, to a night, that left me sleepless as I couldn’t get over the whole experience of the day even when I was asleep.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The City with One Flyover

A small town in Bihar was transformed into capital of a new state overnight. It was a struggle for almost a decade before separation, which finally came, but people could hardly make sense out of it. As always, change is criticized, so was the new found land. People were very skeptical about the future and governance, but after a decade when I look back, I feel proud and thank the people who took the ownership without rights, roles, responsibility, motive or profits. Its been a decade and the growth doesn't seem to stop. A lot of this change is attributed to the youth of the city who were once like the frog in a well.
I am referring to a small town on a plateau which was once the Summer Capital of the region and was renowned for its wonderful climate. A town which was a popular tourist destination for the travelers and people who were keen to go on holidays with family. There was one street in the town that was the centre of attraction for the whole of population. Very rightly it was called ' Main Road". It was an address that reflected the wealth and pomp residing in the city. There were only shops and shops on both the sides of the road. If it was a bridge it would have collapsed under the pressure of the number of people who visited the place every day. Still there was room for everyone and stands long and wide. Even today the most convenient mode of transportation in the city is the paddle rickshaw which is not obliged by any RTO and can carry as many passengers as can be dragged along. People were highly creative in those days as they managed to fit almost everyone on the 3X3 rickshaw. I am sure the small car brands could find a deep insight from them. Time was ample and it didn't matter how much time it would take from point A to point B. The point was to reach in one piece and with all in the family. In fact the male members would often get down and push the vehicle from behind on slopes or pull back when going down. It often resulted in re-arranging the seating position. The extra weights would really feel pity rather than embarrassed. They would cover up by giving another 50paise for the muscle that got pulled or could have and get going. Children would get squeezed in between or get perched on someones lap but never given proper seat. Often hanging from one side fiddling with the bangles or watch, held only by the arm and being dragged upwards once in a while when the ass was repositioned.   
This was a city with one flyover that was the bridge between the rich and service class people. A bridge that connected the commercial capital to residential haven. It was the bridge that was a deciding factor, at what age children can go beyond or remain within the boundaries. For the teenagers/young boys and girls, crossing the bridge without adults was perceived as rebellious. People (mothers/fathers) would often talk about seeing someone across and question the presence. Neighbours would often judge others children on the basis of the latitude and longitude of the notice point. And back home one had to think of a really good excuse or answer to justify the existence on the other side. One often wondered who was this person who was so interested to see who crossed over the bridge and who was doing what on the other side. I doubt if they were descendants of border security guards or paid spies.
The bridge had two different lives on either side. One side for purpose of simplicity was referred as "Colony". This side was full of peace, greenery, traffic signals, zebra crossing garages and cooperatives. The 'Colony' was inhabited by the more conventional intelligent lot working for PSU's, banks, hospitals, schools & tutors. Parents were more controlling, disciplinary, career oriented. Vehicles were more of the fiats and ambassadors. The first Maruti 800 was brought and driven on the Colonial side.
The other side was referred to as Main road and was full of jams, shops, motor transport, cattle without any fields but concrete roads, loud chanting of shlokas from gita, quran and granth sahib. People would park at their convenience and stop wherever they wanted to get down. The sides would be lined up with stores of all sizes. Those days there were no supermarkets, malls or departmental stores. And of course the dimly lit bars and restaurants. Eating and drinking in the not so well illuminated spots gave a sense of luxury and upmarket. There used to be one prime restaurant that would never stop serving. If the seats inside were full, orders would be served in the car by the road side. One sweet shop that was considered respectful and valued more than the wealth one had. If one would not carry sweets from this shop when making a social visit, it was considered disrespectful and cheap. One mega shop where being seen was attestation  of being modern and well off.
In all this, life was difficult for the growing up population as well. No girl would dare to walk the main road all by herself. And if noticed, there was something fishy about it already. And believe me, parents would have to go through hell explaining. Any girl with a boy was a disaster, even if the brother was mistaken for a stranger.
Today the city has changed completely. While the chaos still remains but the colonial and main road divide has fallen apart. Unlike the Berlin wall, the bridge was not broken down but has more brothers and sisters. The access to either sides have become easier from different points of the city. Flyovers have taken over but the charm is lost. No more are boundaries so relevant for social conclusions and freedom. 
They city has been set free.
Thanks to the same generation which used to suspend from one arm on the rickshaws. They have brought back a new lease of life for the city from wherever they have come back from. We can see Barista, Levis, Mcdonalds, Inox, Audi, Citibank, Delhi Public School, Wills Lifestyle and many more such miracles. All these brands have acknowledged the needs of the generation that saw the big divide ruling their lives and will continue to charm the no more suspended babies but the peeping out of the car window generation, while the streets still continue to clutter with more labour intensive transport.
There can never be any other Ranchi, even in my dreams. I miss even though we have changed.   


Friday, September 24, 2010

Speaksfree: The Nights of an Aspiring Entrepreneur

Speaksfree: The Nights of an Aspiring Entrepreneur

The Nights of an Aspiring Entrepreneur

This is hardly news..Everyday we come to know or read about a new business coming into existence. Somebody who was well settled in a quality job left to start his own business, somebody who was studying  in a foreign country to pursue a different dream suddenly realizes that he has to run his family business back home, somebody who traveled somewhere got the enlightenment that he should be doing this or that to make living and lives easier and many many more such tales keep coming in front of us and I keep coming across for certain. Wonder what is there in them that is so unique or what is in the business that they do now that I don't understand? Of course there is merit in them, their skills, their background and their spirit of 'get things going'. I even read their stories to get inspired or attend consciously to what our management gurus have to say about the new age entrepreneurs/leaders. Even try to decode how circumstances can be different functionally and how they can be similar spiritually. But nobody seems to talk about emotions.

Yes, Emotions, the only facet of ones behavior or personality that cannot be eclipsed. Emotions are difficult to hide or more simply put, emotions are for real. No matter what you do, your emotions will reflect on you if they are real. Emotions don't need any mirror, they are self reflective. So they say, love can happen at first sight, pictures can bring tears, happiness can make you cry, idea of distance can make your nervous, luggage can make you weak, age can make you behave like a child and so on..

Words are the poorest form of emotional expression as they tend to either exaggerate or pretend.

I don't know if I have ever tried to hide my emotions, but they seem to have their own moment. For me they don't come when they are supposed to. And when I am by myself, they seem to be so loud and deafening, bright and pinching, bold and miserable.

Anyone who decides to leave the warmth of life, pleasure of regularity, convenience of accessibility, pleasure of immediacy, comfort of singularity, peace of predictability, is an emotional baron.

It is not easy at all to overcome the emotional dilemma. Functional simplification is easy, spiritual attendance is easier but emotional trauma is impossible to get away with.

I wonder what goes on in the minds of the aspiring entrepreneurs. What do they do when they are caught in emotions? How do they respond to their heart when nothing is working as per the mind? What do they say to themselves when no body seems to listen? Whom do they talk to when their ears are not prepared to listen to anything but their own answers?

How do they measure the days? Is it from the day they began or when they had the burn?

How do they measure their righteousness? By believing in themselves or justifying to the questions?

How do they wait for the first success? By being patient or becoming patient to critics?

I dedicate this to all my friends who have or are planning to step into the wild world of entrepreneurship.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Speaksfree: How to own your clients? Or what is ownership?

Speaksfree: How to own your clients? Or what is ownership?

How to own your clients? Or what is ownership?

This is actually specific to the service industry where account management or client servicing is crucial for business partnerships, relationship building, recurring income and long term benefits. To be more precise, in an industry where clients or accounts are created or acquired over a period of time and not overnight but lost in split seconds. Various kinds of efforts go into the acquisition, repeated follow up is required and one has to go through a lot of disappointment in the process as well.
The nature of service businesses are changing and the demand to control and manage the accounts is putting a lot of pressure on the front line. Who is completely responsible or who shares the responsibility is a debate in itself. People on the front line are under tremendous pressure to forecast the next move, next plan, next need of their clients. Whether it is possible or not is very subjective, but evaluation is certainly objective.
Rohit works as a Senior Account Manager at a reputed branding services company. He is a qualified MBA with three years experience in an advertising agency. He has recently switched over from Advertising to pursue his ambitions as a brand consultant. He dreams of becoming a well known Brand consultant in five years. But the transition puts him in a client servicing or more precisely account management role, which according to him is the beginning of his journey towards his destination. Not that he has not done client servicing previously but he is shown the brighter side of servicing which is more involving and is a  platform for learning brand management with the brand managers on the account. For him servicing is simple. He has to listen to all that the clients say, forward it to the concerned developers/planners, liaison between the creative department and planners, keep the client posted on the work in progress, prepare proposals or estimates for the job undertaken. ensure timely payments, fix appointments for the presentation, arrange for gate passes, make sure all the things are ready before the D day and after. He is quite happy with what he does and so are his bosses, but he wonders where is the learning. The moment he asks permission to be part of the preliminary or crucial discussions, he is shown the desk and asked to get more information or find out what else is happening. He thinks, where is he learning the brand management techniques/tools/processes? His role is limited to making sure that the things are in order, that proposals are signed in time, billing is done as per schedule, payments are collected when due, calendars don't clash and some things more like these. More than the learning, what he is also missing is the ownership of his client or account. There are several reasons for such occurrences. Company policy, hierarchy, attitude, experience, background etc etc......But one thing is for sure, whatever the reason, if Rohit does not understand this then he is not going to reach his destination ever. You can advise as a consultant only when you are asked and you are asked only when they know that you are a worthy owner of their brand.
Just by taking this example I would like to share some of my views.

Ownership is not about accurate account management procedures, it is not about clean records in account books, it is not about friendly relations with your client, it is not about delivering the project on time or keeping the client happy by organizing working lunches or after work leisure activities often termed as 'bonding'.
Ownership is also not about number of calls made to the client everyday or number of visits to the clients office in a week. It is also not about how many people you know in the clients office from admin, finance, production, marketing, r&D, legal etc.
Ownership is also not about how many sms are shared between the two parties or face book interactions.
Ownership is always mis-understood as something that has a direct consequence or something that will show results immediately. Ownership cannot be traded. Ownership cannot be priced. Ownership cannot be transferred. You cannot demand ownership, you have to command it.
Often people like Rohit get stuck in the definition and the action.
They start believing that constant interaction, being in the radar of the clients, exchanging some dozen mails daily with their clients means that they have ownership or they really own their clients.
One has to look at both the sides of the ownership coin.
One side is the side that Rohit belongs to. He is doing his job as per his KRA's and what he sees his peers doing, may be even better than some of them.
The other side of the coin is the client side. No doubt all of the above mentioned actions of Rohit will not cause any damage to the relationship but it will fall short of complete ownership. It will keep the client well informed and on track of his expenses and budgets, time table and deadlines, but they will not give the ownership.

It is important to know what the client wants from us. And within that what they expect a particular person to demonstrate so that they can give ownership or share. Clients want a peaceful working relationship but when they are under pressure or not in their minds, it gets passed on to the client servicing person from the agency. When their ass is on fire, they don't mind burning the behinds of everyone from the agency. Instead the equation should be that of sharing the problem and discussing the solutions. If the account manager is able to provide practical and favorable solution, he is in the circle of trust and already owns a part of the brand. He will always be the first to be consulted by the brand manager on his problems. He will have the trust of the client and the client will always depend on him. This sets the path for ownership.

It is important to understand that all clients are not the same and so are the brands that they manage. So how can the requirements be the same. Like every brand has specific expectations from its customer, every marketer has certain expectation from its brand, similarly every brand or brand manager has a specific requirement from the account manager. The account manager should not weigh them in the same scale. The account manager should have a reasonable understanding of the brand history, the activities of the brand in the last few years, what are the initiatives or actions of the current brand manager, what did his predecessor do, how many weeks/months/years the brand manager has been managing it and so on. It is also important to know the other affiliates of the brand like the printer, supplier, ad agency, photographer etc. Knowing them helps the account manager to know his client better and his needs. But above all, the account manager should never do any mistake with the brand information else he will lose trust. The account manager should always seek to know more and more from the brand manager in order to match his wavelength. This not only gets him closer to the brand but also the brand custodian who then does not mind sharing his dreams and actions with the account manager. This sets the path for ownership.

It is important to understand what is going on in their minds and doing it proactively. Only when the mail comes or the call is received, the job should not start. As an account manager, one should be able to think about the next steps or the next expectations. Knowing the forward and having solutions ready brings confidence between the two. The client will also discuss the plans before formalizing the brief. The client will always put down the challenges and threats before even crafting the intent/purpose of the exercise. The client will discuss the odds and ensure with you that all things are perfectly organized and worked upon. This sets the path for ownership.

It is important to provide 'knowledge ingredients' to the client. Never repeat what the client already knows or has shared with you. Neither say that you didn't know when it was already mentioned. Knowledge ingredients are the best tools for building ownership. These are ingredients that have a direct consequence on your impression, status and stamina. If you constantly share with your client direct or indirect information, information on what competition is doing, what is new at the retail shelf, what is the new hoarding etc etc and try to engage the client in  a healthy discussion, you are certainly going to score brownie points. Clients are interested inn updates that they might have missed, because they tend to believe that they really don't have as much time to keep up with everything that is going around. And as an account manager if you are able to fill in the blanks, then you are already on the path to ownership.

It is important to share your own achievements or company's achievement from time to time. It is important to showcase the 'Secret Sauce' of your company. How you or your team members managed work in tight deadlines or unfavorable circumstances. This brings a sense of comfort for the brand manager. Success stories or stories of distress management result in building faith in you. Your successes will not only bring accolades from the client but also his belief that his brand is in safe and responsible hands. This sets the path for ownership.

These are some of my views that I have been able to put down basis my experience as an account manager, observing other account managers and interacting with the brand managers of some of the most reputed FMCG firms in India.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Speaksfree: When you have to Layoff people

Speaksfree: When you have to Layoff people

When you have to Layoff people

Not the most desirable situation especially if it is not controlled by HR and the organization is small (less than 50). In small organizations (likes of boutique companies/single owner) HR systems are not so organized, controlled and procedures are not very well planned and exhaustive. In such situations when the pressure is on the bottom line, profit margins and EBIDTA, decisions about laying off people/trimming the strength are tough to make.
I have known someone who has been through this and the narration was equally nightmarish.
The toughest challenge is the selection or preparing the list of people. Definitely easy to decide on the basis of performance/contribution and project a professional approach, but there is a lot more that runs behind the scene. Performance in small organizations are not easy to assess as people tend to multi-task and KRA's are merely on paper. Their are certainly obvious roles but employees tend to perform various roles and provide support on extended responsibilities.
The first learning was into the term of the particular employee, the number of years the employee had spent. There are often one or two employees who are part of the company from day one with the owner/entrepreneur. They have been through the thick and thin of the circumstances, learnt from the early failures, partnered every planning process and contributed their extra hours without question. And then suddenly a time comes when the account books are under pressure and investors are asking for favorable results with numbers. It is indicated that remove the least productive, old horses, low cost entities, single role players to make the numbers look pleasing. There is also pressure to get specialists, aggressive workers, energetic and passionate MBA's fresh out of college or with relevant experience that the environment gets even more tensed. The question looms as to whether we should do away with the "old is gold" policy and lay them off or try to change the scenario by figuring out ways to handle the stressed bottom line.
There are often one or two employees who happen to be the bread earners/single earners of a family and their income sustains the daily running of the family. Unfortunately the number of people dependant on that one source is also not a good realization. The person is under tremendous pressure to make ends meet. Often compromises on temptations, always tensed about sudden expenses and always on the edge. There are often fixed payouts every month towards loans, education fees, medical bills etc and there is a thin line between pleasure and paucity. In such circumstances how will a decision to snap the source of income be accepted by the family members and moreover the employee himself. 
There are often one or two people who have been waiting for the next appraisal/ pay hike so that they could buy the color TV, washing machine, cooker or geyser. They have been sincerely planning for the next elevation, child's education, maternity, purchase a flat, buy a car/bike, child's bicycle, new school bad, new shoes, study table, cooler etc and then the company decision to part ways comes as big blow to ambitions and dreams. Just when they thought they had reached a certain level and superior place they seem to be exiled in endless despair. How will the blow and damage to emotions sink in with the family and especially the employee.
There are often one or two people who would have taken an educational loan or trying to meet the part time educational expenses through this job. Then there are people whose parents are ill and need medical support constantly, newly wed couples, just blessed with the first child or second one, admission fee for child's higher education, child's marriage or any such change in regular life that might have recently happened and then the company decides to make further changes in its structure.

How sensitive are we as decision makers about such instances before taking any decision? Is it considered irrational to even think in this manner? Will it reflect unprofessionalism if we get stuck up? Will it reflect incompetency? Will it question your job instead on failing to take bold decisions?

Many such questions come to my mind and I sincerely don't have answers. Is our HR Policy prepared or do they accomodate such considerations? What should be the managers role play who has to take these decisions and how does it affect their own lives? I am sure it affects them equally like those who get disowned.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

How not to look at your employees when you are new

Often a change of leadership leaves employees wondering about the next best or the worst thing that could happen.
While many choose to remain silent and go with the flow, some take proactive measures to know the change and the guard. They will seem to agree and disagree with the lead and often try to impose similar thoughts upon others. They basically are unconscious people and want to be the first one to join the gang. They will be seen opening all chapters of no consequence to them and revealing stories that would win them the confidence of the lead. They don't seen to know what they are supposed to do, so spend a lot of time in the past. They don't realize that they behave like obstacles for so many others who would otherwise devote time to share the positive plans. They often give their judgement about people and what they think about them because of this and that. A new leader should beware of such species and try not to get caught by their attention seeking behavior. The leader should not develop any perception by listening rather should analyze and understand people on their own over time.
There are some, often in minority who really don't know what is going to happen or why did all this happen. They are happy to assume that may be the new lead will air their beliefs and expectations or even dues. They are the ones who get all different stories about the lead from sources unknown and as alien as their thoughts. They seem to portray that they know the reason, the person, the past and are very sure of what they would do. All this to hide under their own fears or lack of knowledge. They seem to assess what people say about their beliefs and information shared, or who is on which side, who can be trusted with the new change of guard and who should not be. They confuse people more than their lives.
There are still some who don't seem to lose the pace or the path. They are the ones who were and are working for the organization. They are the ones who hold the strings and the pillars of the organization. They do not intrude or interfere with the new lead. They let the lead settle and come to terms with the business. They gradually let the lead discover the secret sauce of the organization over a period of time. They believe in preserving the knowledge and very shy in disclosing stuff. They have a wait and watch policy. Often a lot of important information never gets revealed that might be crucial for the lead. This is harmful as these people tend to use the same to show their superiority over colleagues or even the lead.
Still others who always complain of how the past was always better than the present without knowing the future or the new lead. They seem to be convinced that the new lead could not even half match up. This is not by their wisdom, but by the lack of security and identity crisis. They seem to know that they will not be asked or even called for or introduced if they don't take the initiative. They seem to be driving on the unknown pride of their past with equal anonymity as feared for the future.
In scarce numbers are those who want to change themselves at the behest of the organizational change. These are ever evolving people who look for a base always. They will suddenly seem to be over active and responsive to command. They will work hard and try to push themselves to complete work. But all this is very short term. Very soon they will realize that nobody is paying attention and so they will retract and be themselves as always. They will again go back to their philosophy/den that nothing can be done here, nothing can improve, nothing will change and so on. This is all because they are themselves very impractical and believers in instant gratification and not long term hard work and benefits.
These are some personal observations of my experience at work.