E-Box and the plight of small businesses

March 27, 2020

My sister & brother-in-law’s company. They have built E-box, a software product – an AI based learning platform. Completely bootstrapped and self-sustaining for the last 12 years. No loans, no VC funding so far. Absolutely passionate about reforming engineering education. They have managed to do this by hiring and mentoring students – many of them their own – mostly from the so-called tier 2/3 colleges.

It has taken this long for a small story on them to emerge on a popular media platform.

They had started the E-box Colleges initiative this year by taking over the management of 3 engineering colleges . Now their 200+ employees are at home and their clients locked down. They had planned to take their longest leap this year and now face their most challenging obstacle.

Hope they, and many more small businesses like them, get through this phase.

A prelude to Digital dystopia

November 12, 2017

Reliance shut down its mobile operations in Coimbatore without any notice. My father and father-in-law were among the scores of customers who were left with an unusable and unportable connection (no sms- no porting number; it came a week later). And, they had no one to even talk to. It was some dark fun to watch Airtel showroom turning into a helpless customer care centre for Reliance. One can imagine the plight of people for whom personal lives, businesses and banking operations are all tightly linked to their mobiles.

Not that Reliance Communications had declared bankruptcy. The press reports talked about closure of 2G operations by Nov 30th but their 4G and other business operations were to continue. What is TRAI for? I don’t follow news regularly but was there any great furore in the media? Ok, it is understandable if there isn’t much fuss…PV Sindhus don’t use Anil’s Reliance anymore, do they?

I am tempted to resolve never to buy anything remotely related to Reliance (Mukesh or Anil – doesn’t matter). But I am not sure if the Bhartis and Vodafones would be any different when they are in a similar crunch. (Already, Airtel has used the rush to dump an unwanted post-paid card on my dad, instead of the cheaper pre-paid).

So much for Digital dreams and disrupted sleep!
Thankfully, my life is de-digitized to a large extent, at least for 4-5 days in a week.

Sweat, stink and some management gyan

April 20, 2012

A 50+ year old man sat next to me on the Volvo bus. The first thing that struck me was the stink. It was a hot afternoon in Bangalore and it showed in his sweat. The driver had not yet started the bus and had not switched on the AC. I am sure he must have felt the same about me.

“What a pain it is to sit in an AC bus without the AC on…with all these sealed glass windows!”.

Both of us didn’t have confirmed tickets yet, and so didn’t venture out.

I told him there was also a private Volvo bus outside the bus stand, with tickets costing Rs.50 less. He exclaimed, ” Oh, had I known, I would have taken that bus! I could have asked them to boost the price on the ticket by Rs.200 and claimed it.”

Ah, finally, the driver had come and the AC sprang to life.

I asked him, if he was working for the government.

“No, no, I have worked in private companies for the last 25 years.”.

He is now in a company that is primarily into manufacturing transformers.

“I am travelling to Chennai, and have to take a train to Delhi early in the morning. From there, a bus to some place in Haryana.”

He then talked about various other places he has visited in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Punjab and Gujarat.

He didn’t have the polish of a Sales guy. Are you in Sales?

“No, I  travel to attend to service calls. To fix our machines that have broken down”.

But he wasn’t a full-time service person. When he was not on the road, he was working on the shop floor, in production.

“If I work for a full day at my company, I bring in Rs.13 lakhs of revenue. Look at what I am doing now – travelling to an obscure place in Haryana and then to Gujarat, spending most of my time on the road. All this is because our middle management doesn’t care about process and quality.”

He also feared that they would soon need a full-time service team.

“Some of the problems that I am fixing at customer sites are very basic. There are new machines that have broken down because there is no oil. The seal is intact, there is no way the customer could have tampered with it – it is a clearly our fault. This is absurd. I have no idea how these machines were cleared to exit our factory. Our managers, with their fancy engineering degrees care only for the revenues.”

But before we jump to the conclusion that this is typical anti-management mumbo-jumbo, expected from any factory worker and even IT professionals, he is in awe of his MD.

“Our MD is a good man. He is young and wants to build a top-class company. He is willing to listen. He gave us Rs.30000 hike at one shot after one of our discussions. He is always willing to be convinced. But that works to his disadvantage too. He is easily convinced by the managers. He is open and I have personally hinted about the attitude of managers to him. But I can not talk more than throwing some hints.”

He thinks money is the root-cause of all problems.

“Including me, I think we are being paid too much. It kills the desire to work hard.”

I didn’t ask him, why was he then ruing the missed chance to claim Rs.200 more, wrongly.

Despite everything, he believes the workforce is motivated and loves his organization.

“We have a very good workforce. Even a person, about to retire, works at 120% productivity on the last day. If only we had good managers…”

$700 billion bailout plan in US Vs. Farm Loan waiver in India

September 30, 2008

There was a hue and cry from the corporate world and business media about the farm loan waiver. I found it amusing then. It looks even more amusing now, in the wake of the $700 billion bailout plan (now aborted) in that, presumptive, most capitalist of capitalist countries, the US. There was a muted response to this plan in the mainstream media; most debates were about how best to finetune this plan. 

P.Sainath ridicules this plan, in The Hindu, contrasting these reactions against the earlier rage over the “historic farm loan waiver for $16 billion”. (Sainath belongs to those rare breed of journalists, who slog it out in the vast rural hinterland to unearth the real truths, while his more elitist counterparts hog the limelight with lazy-sleazy sting operations and Arushi sagas. His apparent Socialist leanings notwithstanding, it is the existence of honest contrarian-journalists like him, which will make democracy and ‘free markets’ work and evolve).

Whether we like it or not, for those of us who were waiting for the crash, the developments are interesting, to say the least. This is definitely a serious test for capitalism and at the end of it, hopefully, we will evolve to a higher, humane form of capitalism (or whatever new -ism) and not find recluse in retrograde initiatives. The real danger is not the impending recession or a repeat of the ‘Great Depression’ with ripples across the world, but a reactionary withdrawal of heads into an excessive-regulatory shell. A temporary recession, which doesn’t hinder future growth, is more welcome than a few more decades of decadent licence-raj.

Dirty Sales tricks

March 17, 2008

I have no intention of converting this into a consumerist blog or to launch a tirade against Citibank. But still, here is a second post on Citibank in the last one month.

I received a call from a Citibank (or its DSA) executive. She started off innocuosly saying it was confirmation call from customer service division. Then came the shocker :

“Did you receive a credit card, which we had sent to you?”

I – “No, I haven’t applied for one”.

Citi- ” Sir, this is a lifetime free card, which is sent to all Suvidha account customers. It is not activated and will be activated only if you ask for it”.

I – “How can you send such a card, when I have not asked for it. I have enough credit cards and I dont need one more. Please make sure it is not sent to me.”

Citi – “Sir, but this is a lifetime free card. Why are you saying no?”

I – “I have my own reasons. I dont need a credit card. Please dont send it to me”

Citi – “Ok sir. I will check and let you know”.

I have been in Sales (credit card sales, to be precise) but never could I resort to such cheap tricks, which is probably why I moved out of it at the earliest opportunity. I have seen a few tricks during my days in the bank but this reeks of utter disregard for all RBI regulations, either ways.

First case – banks are not supposed to send any credit card (activated or not) to a customer without an explicit request from the customer. If Citi is doing that, then they are in clear violation of this rule and have to be pulled up severely.

Second case – my guess is that some smart Sales Manager at Citibank must have come up with this brilliant idea to bluff the customer by saying the card has already been sent. Chances are less that there will be snobs like me who will return the card and insist on the card not being sent. Citibank employs some of the brightest management talent in the country and it is sad that such talent is being put to use for third rate dirty sales tricks.

I will put my bet on the second case being closer to truth. It is unlikely that Citibank will violate the RBI regulation so openly. It is easier and less expensive to pull a bluff on the customer.  

Budget aftermath: Farmers versus corporates

March 4, 2008

Why is Chidambaram being accused by the corporate world of bowing down to the pressures of politics in announcing the waiver of loans to farmers? Yes, it is a political move. But how different is it from giving tax holidays to the industry. By not taxing sections of the industry but still investing in infrastructure, does the Government not dole out freebies to the industry also? The industry, which,  continously clamours for less taxes or no taxes, now cannot digest a similar gesture being made to the farmers. This reeks of collective selfishness.

The very foundation of democracy lies in the fact the politicians need to worry about winning elections and therefore bring about policies which will benefit a larger mass of people. This somewhat counterbalances the capitalist tilt towards merciless meritocracy. Capitalism is about survival (and prosperity) of the fittest. A capitalist democracy not only ensures survival of the fittest but also facilitates expanding the base of the fitness pyramid.

Loan waiver is indeed a short term measure but is a small step in the right direction towards a more inclusive growth.

Do Whites hate money when its colour is brown?

March 4, 2008

First came the Indian software and BPO industry. People in the west started getting worried about the work and money that was flowing into India. But more than these industries, the Whites are getting nervous about a challenge from an unexpected quarter – Cricket. Browsing through many articles by English and Australian writers, it is obvious that they are worried that the colour of money is turning brown.  A cursory glance will throw out headings like ‘Silly Money’, ‘I dont need IPL money’, which miserably fail to mask the contempt for the money earned by Indian cricketers.

There was a time when Indian cricketers yearned for county contracts. Now the English board and the Australian board are struggling to keep their players from moving to Indian shores due to the lure of money.

I hate the BCCI for its complete incompetence in managing the sport in the country. But they must be appreciated for unlocking the financial value of the game in India and storming the White bastion like nobody else before. They can even be forgiven for acting no different from Whites, when it comes to misuing the power bestowed upon them by money. Let India make the most of it, as long as it lasts and make it last as long as it can. White capitalists can continue to whine like Indian socialists on why so few are earning so much.

IPL is not the end. And this phenomenon is not going to be restricted to cricket. The colour of money is changing.

Dumbing down of customer service

February 20, 2008

I am going to post a sequence of emails, which clearly demonstrate the dumbing down of customer service due to the mass-market approach to service. As a customer, I dont have a face to talk to and the responses that I receive from the faceless customer service agents are mind-numbing.

This post is after a series of ‘mental harassment by inefficiency’ by ICICI Lombard, India Today Book Club, HDFC Bank, Fidelity Mutual funds and Big Bazaar in the last month alone for me.

Mail 1 (to CitiBank, dated 6-Feb-08):


I have an auto loan with HDFC Bank and have opted to pay EMI through ECS on my Citibank Account (A/c No xyz). The ECS has been happenning smoothly since August-07 till Jan-08.

On 2-Feb-08, ECS for Rs. 16275 has been done and then reversed on the same day. There is an entry in my Citibank account statement stating “ECS BOUNCE : MANDATE NOT RECEIVED “. When I contacted Citiphone Banking,  I have been asked your executive to contact HDFC Bank regarding this – I have been told that ECS instruction for this month has not been submitted by HDFC Bank to Citibank.

I am not too clear who is at fault here. Request you to confirm if I have been given the right explanation and whether I have to pursue this matter further with HDFC Bank.


This mail, as is obvious, is written after I g0t a thoroughly incompetent and inconclusive answer over phone from Citibank Customer Service. 

There was not even an automated response to this mail till 14-Feb-08 and I had to send a reminder.

Mail 2 (dated 14-Feb-08):

Hi I have not received any revert on my previous mail.  The communication that I have been receiving so far from HDFC Bank is that there is nothing wrong from their end and the ECS needs to have happened. Please revert on what needs to be done. — 

Finally I get an auto-response on 15-Feb-08.

Dear Customer,  

Thanks for writing to Citibank. We have received your Query.  The reference number for your query is abcd.  We shall get back to you in 3 working days.   Please reply to this mail for any future communication on this query.   

 Sincerely ,


Then I do get a real response on 16-Feb-08.

Dear Mr. Kannan,  

This is with reference to your email dated February 07, 2008.  We confirm that due to operational error the ECS Debit Instruction received for Rs.16,275.00 from the Service Provider ” HDFC Bank Limited ” has been erroneously returned on February 02, 2008.  We aplogise for the inconvenience caused. We assure you of our best attention at all times. 


Officer – Customer Care


After this mail, I am no more knowledgeable on what to do next than I was on 6th Feb. Here goes one more mail from me on 18-Feb-08:



The next step to be taken is still not clear to me. Will you be correcting the error and completing the ECS Debit for Rs.16,275? Please confirm when this will be done. I should not be penalized by HDFC Bank for this error. 



By now, HDFC Bank insisted on making me pay by cheque, which I have done, after having to unnecessarily visit their branch. A threat of late payment charge, for no fault of mine, from HDFC Bank is still looming over me.

I am at the peak of my impatience. This is sheer harassment by inefficiency and negligence.

Then comes an email from Citibank that pushes me off from my peak.

Dear Mr. Kannan, 

This is with reference to your email dated February 14, 2008. We have already responded your query vide email reference number xyz. The response is stated below for your reference. 

We confirm that due to operational error the ECS Debit Instruction received for Rs.16,275.00 from the Service Provider ” HDFC Bank Limited ” has been erroneously returned on February 02, 2008.  We aplogise for the inconvenience caused. We assure you of our best attention at all times. 

Sincerely,  Officer – Customer Care

Oh, yes, I am getting the best attention possible in this world. 

I can do nothing more. How do I explain to this faceless customer service machine that I deserve an answer with more clarity. Will the ECS happen or not happen? Having already given a cheque to HDFC am I going to be debited twice this month? Will the ECS happen smoothly next month?

I can only do this post now and hope that next month this doesnt recur.  I am shooting off one more mail seeking assurance that next month I will be spared of this torment.  


Am  posting this update a day after my original post.

Finally I got a sensible answer that I deserved long back.

Dear Mr. Kannan,

This is with reference to your email dated February 18, 2008. We inform you that ECS instructions are maintained with the service provider by the customer, to repay for the service enjoyed. The specific amount will be transferred from the customer’s bank account on a specific date of every month.   These ECS instructions are routed through RBI with specific Utility Code number, to the customer’s bank account for execution. Hence, on receipt of the ECS Debit Advice through RBI, your account will be debited with the respective amount.  Henceforth, on receiving ECS Debit Advice from the Service Provider(HDFC Bank Limited ) under the Utility Code number 5609124 the respective amount will be successfully debited from your account. Any inconvenience caused to you in this regard is regretted. 

We assure you of our best attention at all times.


Officer – Customer Care

This reply, had it been sent in the first place or even better given to me during my first phone call, would have saved a lot of time, heartburn and tension for me. Modern institutions, even as they are adopting newer business models and technology to cater to the mass market, have to learn to get it right the first time and more importantly, retain the human touch in customer service.