I recently found in the course of some research I was conducting that about 30 per cent of executive time in Indian companies is wasted on just following up with each other — to ensure that someone else will deliver on what was earlier agreed. Juxtapose this with the fact that customers the world over value reliability (defined as delivering properly on one’s promises the first time, every time and on time) as the most important dimension by which they assess the quality of service they receive.
A key attribute of reliability is punctuality — about which I learned an early lesson about 40 years ago, as a freshman in the Tata Administrative Service (TAS). Our batch of four TAS probationers had a meeting with the then chairman, J R D Tata, scheduled to start at 9.30 a m. Three of us were there when J R D walked into the room, about half a minute before time. The fourth member of our batch came in one minute late. J R D looked at the latecomer and greeted him politely: “Good afternoon. To what do we owe the pleasure of your presence?” The latecomer squirmed and murmured some excuse for his tardy arrival. J R D told him: “Punctuality is a courtesy ladies bestow on society. It is a natural habit of gentlemen. If you happen to be neither a lady nor a gentleman but wish to make a career in business, please understand it is a habit that has to become second nature to you.”
During my two decades in the Tata group, I had the good fortune to observe and interact with J R D on many occasions. Not once was he late for any event. Besides, he also finished his meetings on time so that everyone could make it to their next appointment punctually! If someone of his stature and responsibilities could be so consistent, what excuse does anyone else have for not being punctual?
I am aware that many of my fellow country folks are hypersensitive to criticism of any kind. Nevertheless, let me say it with no holds barred that we have the most appalling reputation for not keeping to time. To blame the government and others for the ills of our country is easy. Anyone who wishes to do so should first qualify himself/herself by assuming responsibility to just deliver on his/her promise the first time, and every time. Not being punctual is just one symptom of the general malaise in our country of believing that all promises made are open to renegotiation all the time.
Here’s an example to highlight how far behind we are on this critical aspect. In July 2008, during a meeting with a director of a major corporation in the UK, we agreed to a schedule by which we were to meet on a particular date and time in November, a full four months later. About 10 minutes before the scheduled time of the November meeting, I presented myself at the reception and was directed to the meeting room. Everyone who was meant to come for the meeting arrived on time and the meeting went on for the scheduled hour.
The point to observe is that neither the company nor I had to check with the other party whether or not the meeting would take place as scheduled. The fact that it was arranged four months earlier was not significant at all. A commitment is a commitment.
I was relating this to a friend a few weeks ago when she said: “Nobody in India would ever take such a chance. Just last week, after fixing an appointment with a senior executive, I had to remind him twice and, on the day before the meeting, also took the precaution to have his secretary remind him as well. Despite all this, the meeting was delayed by an hour and some of the key people meant to be there did not turn up, as they were travelling or had other meetings to attend.”
No amount of investment in infrastructure, IT, buildings and furniture will be of any help to India if we cannot deliver on our promises right the first time and every time. Tourists who arrive to find that their confirmed hotel booking is not honoured, a common citizen who finds that the bureaucrat he had an appointment with is not available at the agreed time, a customer who has to spend days on end chasing the equipment maker to deliver on time, passengers waiting for announcement of any kind on when they can expect a plane to depart, patients waiting for doctors and nurses to show up, students waiting for their books to be made available even after the start of an academic year, town dwellers chasing the municipality folks to clear rotting garbage, and so on are just a few visible signs that our service levels are way below acceptable. What’s worse, when a customer complains about such treatment and delays, service providers become quite aggressive and tell the customer off, as if the customer’s expectations are unreasonable.
Traffic jams, the non-availability of taxis, rain, VIP movement, a distant relative’s ailment, a family puja, the boss suddenly calling for an unscheduled meeting, and so on are routinely given as excuses, as if they justify making a customer wait or coming late for meetings and not delivering on our promise. Our reputation for not taking our promises seriously – or being unreliable, in service parlance – is such a serious failing that this alone could scupper all our plans to become a major player on the world stage.
If everyone delivers on his/her promise without having to be constantly reminded and chased to do so, we will not only save 30 per cent of executive time but also win markets and customers. All that is required is to internalise J R D Tata’s lesson: make punctuality a habit. Develop the self-respect required to cringe when someone follows up to check whether or not you will deliver on time. Demand it from your team members. Bar suppliers who fail to deliver on time. Recognise and honour people who do keep their promise.
The writer, a former corporate executive, was the founder-director of the Centre for Service Management at the University of Buckingham, and is now MD of Chennai-based VSM Consulting Services.