Soaked knowl­edge

If ap­proached as an ex­er­cise in lis­ten­ing and learn­ing, pow­er­ful con­ver­sa­tions with clients and cus­tomers can of­fer long-term lessons. A chal­leng­ing client may seem like an ob­sta­cle but can also turn out to be some­one who will mo­ti­vate you to do qual­ity w


Ambi Parameswaran, Brand-Build­, nar­rates use­ful lessons he learnt from his clients.

Could you tell what the SPONGE Learn­ing Frame­work is about?

SPONGE is re­ally just a sim­ple acro­nym for a learn­ing frame­work I have cre­ated in my new book SPONGE – Lead­er­ship Lessons I Learnt From My Clients. S stands for Su­per Ac­tive Lis­ten­ing. P stands for Prob­ing and Ques­tion­ing. O stands for Ob­serv­ing Be­hav­ior. N stands for New Be­hav­ior to Em­u­late. G stands for Get­ting the new Be­hav­ior In­ter­nal­ized. And fi­nally E stands for Ex­pand­ing, Ex­plain­ing, and Shar­ing.

When we meet clients or cus­tomers, we can all learn a lot if we adopt the SPONGE Learn­ing Frame­work. The idea is to get out of the ‘sell’ ori­en­ta­tion and adopt a ‘SPONGE Learn’ mind­set. If we can do that then we can

end up get­ting coached (and men­tored) for free by the smart peo­ple we deal with. It could be cus­tomers, it could be as­so­ciates, it could be col­leagues.

The book con­tains 25 sto­ries dated be­tween 1980 and 2005, cap­tur­ing some of the con­ver­sa­tions I have had with my clients. And what I learnt from them.

The first chap­ter, ‘A Shiny New Car’ is about the pas­sion of a leader to vi­su­al­ize and ex­e­cute a plan. a. Where does a leader/ man­ager draw the line so that he does not end up mi­cro-man­ag­ing things? b. Mr Tata found an is­sue with the car that oth­ers could not, which re­flects his pas­sion for the prod­uct. What is the ‘SPONGE learn­ing’ from this?

There is a fine bal­ance be­tween mi­cro man­ag­ing and be­ing pas­sion­ate about one’s job. In the story A Shiny New Car, I could see how Mr Tata had iden­ti­fied some­thing in­ter­est­ing and wanted his team to fig­ure out how to do it. They had failed in their first at­tempt and he had asked them to try again, only if they wanted to. But the en­gi­neers at Tata Mo­tors ERC in Pune are a com­mit­ted lot. They fi­nally got what they thought was ac­cept­able and Mr Tata dropped all that was on his plate that af­ter­noon to see their work.

I was just an in­no­cent by­stander when the story un­folded out­side Bhabha The­atre in NCPA Mum­bai. But I had my SPONGE Learn­ing sys­tem work­ing. So I de­cided to probe and ques­tion the en­gi­neers on what had hap­pened. And when they ex­plained the story be­hind the shiny new car, I re­al­ized that Mr Tata was help­ing his team learn new things and was there at the venue to give them a pat on the back.

In my own life, I have tried to bal­ance the two as­pects of mi­cro man­ag­ing and dis­play­ing a strong pas­sion for the job. If you are work­ing with a trusted team, then they un­der­stand the dif­fer­ence and will not get put off be­cause you are re­quest­ing for a par­tic­u­lar color of the car, or a par­tic­u­lar mu­sic for the ad. And you should also be ready to let it go af­ter the first pass. If you con­tinue to bad­ger the team, then you will end up de­mo­ti­vat­ing ev­ery­one around you.

As­sum­ing that one will not al­ways get a ‘sage’ client, can en­cour­ag­ing in­trapreneur­ship be the an­swer to re­solv­ing cus­tomer com­plaints ef­fec­tively?

In the chap­ter ‘Sages and Books’, I have ex­plained how some­times you are lucky to get a client from whom you can learn a lot about all kinds of things. I have been in­tro­duced to new books, new videos, new ar­ti­cles by my sage clients. You need to en­sure that your team rec­og­nizes the im­por­tance of learn­ing from sage clients.

The is­sue of your team mem­bers tak­ing on new chal­lenges is not nec­es­sar­ily con­nected to a sage client’s ob­ser­va­tions or views. I learnt about the book/con­cept ‘Mo­ments of Truth’ from one of my sage clients. It speaks about how an em­ployee, es­pe­cially in a ser­vice­ori­ented in­dus­try, needs to be ready to re­act when in a sit­u­a­tion of cus­tomer cri­sis. The em­ployee has to go be­yond her de­fined role to help a client or cus­tomer out of their sit­u­a­tion. It could be a pas­sen­ger who had for­got­ten his pass­port in the ho­tel, or an old lady who needs a walk­ing stick in a strange new city. You could call this ini­tia­tive ‘in­trapreneur­ship’ but I think that is a big word for some­thing that is a lot more sim­ple: em­pa­thy. Do your em­ploy­ees have em­pa­thy to un­der­stand what your cus­tomer is go­ing through and are they em­pow­ered to act on be­half of the com­pany? Of­ten, com­pa­nies are rule-bound and this makes the em­ploy­ees also be­come com­fort­able within their own lit­tle roles. As a leader, you need to en­sure that the rules do not be­come bar­ri­ers for pro­vid­ing bet­ter cus­tomer ser­vice.

“There is a fine bal­ance be­tween mi­cro man­ag­ing and be­ing pas­sion­ate about one’s job.”

You talk about an in­ter­est­ing idea of bring­ing Army vet­er­ans into the cor­po­rate world to man­age op­er­a­tions. How­ever, such lead­ers could in­dulge in tough de­ci­sion-mak­ing, lead­ing to dis­so­nance. How can they avoid cre­at­ing an at­mos­phere of dis­so­nance be­tween them and the em­ploy­ees?

In the chap­ter ‘Af­ter Ac­tion Re­port’, I have spo­ken about my in­ter­ac­tions with ex-Army of­fi­cers who are do­ing a great job in In­dian in­dus­try. We, from the civil­ian side of the fence, tend to have a bi­ased view of Army men and the much-touted Army reg­i­men. We tend to paint all army folks with the same brush. They are reg­i­mented. They are not cre­ative. They only know how to com­mand a team, they have no skills to re­act to team mem­bers in a sen­si­tive way. This is to­tally in­cor­rect. The ex-Army man­agers I have met have tremen­dous team-build­ing skills. They are able to adapt their own way of be­hav­ior. Yes, they are stick­lers for rules. For in­stance, Madras Man­age­ment As­so­ci­a­tion’s (MMA) meet­ings start on the dot, thanks to Gp Cap­tain Vi­jayku­mar, the ED of MMA. But the same leader is able to mo­ti­vate a team to per­form to peak po­ten­tial. And that has been achieved not by pulling rank, but by show­ing your team that you care for them and are will­ing to roll up your sleeves and do the job in a pinch.

“Of­ten com­pa­nies are rule- bound and this makes the em­ploy­ees also be­come com­fort­able within their own lit­tle roles.”

You opine that be­ing open to dis­sent can lead to suc­cess too. In the In­dian cor­po­rate cul­ture (where flat hi­er­ar­chy is a rar­ity), how open are lead­ers to a team mem­ber’s con­trar­ian views?

In the chap­ter ‘Fly­ing With­out a Net’, I have pre­sented the chal­lenge that high-per­form­ing lead­ers need to watch out for. It is easy to stay within your com­fort zone and do ex­actly what you have been do­ing all the time. But this may very well limit your or­ga­ni­za­tion’s po­ten­tial. How­ever, if you are will­ing to ac­cept dis­sent or will­ing to look at an al­ter­na­tive way of do­ing things, then you may end up achiev­ing a lot more. When my team rec­om­mended that Cobadex CZS be po­si­tioned only for pa­tients suf­fer­ing from di­a­betes, the com­pany balked. But over many meet­ings, they got around to agree­ing that this could be the right strat­egy. So in a sense, like a trapeze artiste, they were fly­ing with­out a net. But they man­aged to cre­ate a new sub-seg­ment in the mar­ket and ended up be­com­ing the mar­ket leader. This would not have hap­pened if they had done the same old thing. So they took the con­trar­ian view, in­ter­nal­ized it, and then ran with it. It is in­ter­est­ing to note that even ten years later, the com­pany has con­tin­ued the same strat­egy. And it is still work­ing well.

Or­ga­ni­za­tions, es­pe­cially those with mil­len­ni­als con­sti­tut­ing a ma­jor­ity of the work­force, need to de­velop an abil­ity to learn bet­ter. How can a leader fos­ter a learn­ing cul­ture in the or­ga­ni­za­tion?

Or­ga­ni­za­tions of the fu­ture will have to be­come even more dili­gent at build­ing a learn­ing cul­ture. And not only that, the learn­ing needs to be cod­i­fied and saved, so that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions can con­tinue to ben­e­fit. I learnt this les­son when pre­sent­ing a new logo iden­tity for ITC Bhadracha­lam Paper­boards, enu­mer­ated in the chap­ter ‘The Story Be­hind a Logo’. The in­cum­bent CMD of ITC took time to ex­plain to me how the logo of Bhadracha­lam had been orig­i­nally pre­sented to the com­pany by the agency de­sign team. I was amazed at the power of that story; it had stayed alive twenty years af­ter it was orig­i­nally pre­sented. Two things emerged from that dis­cus­sion. It al­ways helps to build a story around what is pre­sented, even if it is a sim­ple logo. Se­condly the story helps to keep the idea fresh and vi­brant since it gets shared through the gen­er­a­tions.

“It al­ways helps to build a story around what is pre­sented, even if it is a sim­ple logo.”

Re­fer­ring to the fact that the ‘think tanks at North Block’ lis­tened to your (agency’s) con­trar­ian ideas as also crit­i­cism of their be­liefs about tax­payer be­hav­ior, how im­por­tant is it for a leader to be a good lis­tener?

When my col­league and I walked into North Block to present our con­trar­ian views about tax pay­ers, we did not know how we will be re­ceived. We were ready to be shooed out af­ter the first ten min­utes of our pre­sen­ta­tion. But what we got was con­cen­trated, pa­tient lis­ten­ing. And the se­nior bu­reau­crats were all ears, and af­ter our pre­sen­ta­tion, the dis­cus­sions con­tin­ued for an hour or more late into the night. We re­al­ized that we had achieved some­thing that we set out to achieve, the fact that the In­come Tax de­part­ment can­not be seen as dra­co­nian but needs to com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter with the tax­payer base. The tax­payer needs to know what is hap­pen­ing to his tax ru­pees and hope­fully, this will bring about a change of mind­set. The Vol­un­tary Dis­clo­sure of In­come Scheme that fol­lowed a cou­ple of years later did in­cor­po­rate some of the sug­ges­tions we had made. And in­ci­den­tally, we did all this for no mon­e­tary gain.

How have prod­uct de­sign, pack­ag­ing, and pre­sen­ta­tion, among In­dian brands, evolved to suit the chang­ing tastes of the con­sumer?

As de­scribed in the chap­ter ‘The Chai­wala Test’, I saw a client demon­strate to his se­nior col­league how what we see as a LIG (lower SEC) con­sumer may ac­tu­ally have bet­ter taste that we think. This was demon­strated by show­ing five ads to the of­fice can­teen boy, who ended up pick­ing the

one, which the mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion man­ager had re­jected as be­ing too classy.

That in­ci­dent demon­strated to me how the taste of In­dian con­sumers is rapidly chang­ing. The in­flux of malls in more than 100 cities of In­dia is an in­di­ca­tion. If you were to ob­serve the dress­ing habits of a lo­cal­ity or town, when a new mall opens, and then do the same study two years later, you will no­tice a per­cep­ti­ble dif­fer­ence. Add to this the power of mass me­dia, color tele­vi­sion, and now mo­bile in­ter­net. Let me, how­ever, add that there will be dif­fer­ence in taste across dif­fer­ent in­come classes, dif­fer­ent geo­graphic re­gions, but we need to be cau­tious be­fore we make dras­tic as­sump­tions.

For many or­ga­ni­za­tions, at­tri­tion is a per­sist­ing con­cern and it leads to loss of rev­enue and man hours spent on re­cruit­ing and train­ing. How do com­pa­nies fare at mak­ing clear their ex­pec­ta­tions right at the re­cruit­ment stage (rather than, say, on­board­ing)?

The chap­ter ‘Sorry Please Leave’ is about how a bou­tique ho­tel that was strug­gling to get cus­tomers, de­cided to ask a money-pay­ing cus­tomer to leave and give a full re­fund. Why? Be­cause the cus­tomer was mak­ing de­mands that were a clear vi­o­la­tion of the avowed brand vi­sion of that ho­tel. Not many com­pa­nies will have the guts to dis­miss a cus­tomer. Let alone a fledg­ling ho­tel. But that hap­pened be­cause the founder felt that ac­cept­ing the client’s de­mands would dam­age, in some ways, the fab­ric of the new con­cept.

Ex­tend­ing the same logic, we need to de­cide when to ask a fel­low em­ployee to leave. Ob­vi­ously, the on­board­ing process is im­por­tant and it is there­fore crit­i­cal that this is done in the best man­ner. There is also a need to be a lit­tle more tol­er­ant of a new re­cruit. Most com­pa­nies have un­writ­ten cul­ture codes. On how to dress. How to be­have in meet­ings. How to ad­dress se­nior col­leagues. Even groom­ing. This could take some time to adopt.

Af­ter the ini­tial pe­riod is over, if the em­ployee vi­o­lates any of the rules of good be­hav­ior in the com­pany, who­ever he or she may be, you need to have the guts to say, ‘please leave’.

How vi­tal is it for a leader to find out where un­con­scious bi­ases lie in his or­ga­ni­za­tion and how can he/she get rid of them?

As a leader, you are to set the ex­am­ple and peo­ple around you are look­ing up to you to show the way. And you may have your own bi­ases. The best way to han­dle these bi­ases is to have peo­ple in your core team who are en­cour­aged to dis­agree with you. The chap­ter ‘Bi­ases Bi­ases’ presents an in­ter­est­ing story. If you en­cour­age dis­sent, then you will get enough in­puts from your core team to cor­rect the bi­ases. I also feel that ex­ter­nal con­sul­tants play a key role in point­ing out bi­ases that ex­ist in the com­pany. The con­sul­tant says, ‘you have an out­dated dig­i­tal pres­ence’ and many in the com­pany will cho­rus in ‘we have been say­ing this for years’. So is the con­sul­tant, as the adage goes, ‘bor­row­ing the client’s watch to tell the time’? May be. But as long as the pur­pose is served, why blame the mes­sen­ger?

“Most com­pa­nies have un­writ­ten cul­ture codes. On how to dress. How to be­have in meet­ings. How to ad­dress se­nior col­leagues. Even groom­ing. This could take some time to adopt.”

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