Telecom companies will go to any extent to convince you to go in for their product or services. But the moment you become a customer, they’ll place you at the mercy of their after sales and customer service.
There are a lot of Indians out here. Over a billion of us populate this planet. Naturally, the country is a huge market for anybody to sell anything under the sun. Be it mobiles, PCs, automobiles, bank accounts or fizzy drinks, every marketer is raking it in.
However, when it comes to after-sales service, it is a very different story.
Earlier, shops used to sell and also service products. But now, different entities take care of sales and service. That's why service standards have plummeted. Even in the case of banks, where both sales and customer service (should) be under the same roof, the treatment you get after you become a customer is more or less the same.
All telecom service centres operate between 10.30am to 6pm during weekdays. Are we back to the heady days of the mixed economy? One must admit, these centres manage to squeeze in half a day's work on Saturday. Sundays, of course, are when they rest.
So if you maintain regular working hours, and your mobile decides to develop a mind of its own and go on the blink, you face the prospect of having to leg it to the nearest service station and let your files (or emails) pile up. But better be warned. A visit to the service station is no guarantee that your device will be repaired.
I'll let you in on what happened to yours truly. Two-three months ago, I bought a Samsung mobile. Unfortunately, my son took a fancy to the device, and dropped the mobile while playing a game at home. The screen went kaput.
Now I had to read the fine print on the guarantee card. Screen damage, said the card, is not covered in the guarantee. The service centre wanted me to fork out Rs950 for a handset which cost me Rs2,500.
I had no other option, so I paid the amount. Unfortunately, the service centre did not have the required new screen. They asked me to keep my handset with them and promised that they will call me as soon as they get the screen. I waited for a week. No call from the centre. I had to phone them. Then they told me that they did have the new screen and it was promptly attached to my mobile.
But my woes were in no way over. My mobile was not getting charged any more. When I asked the service centre about how they plan to resolve this new problem (before accepting the handset), I was told that there might be a problem with my phone's battery.
You guessed it. They did not have a new battery in stock. After yet another week, I went to the service centre again, but the they still did not have a battery. Another week passed by. When I went to the service centre for the fourth time, to my horror, they told me that the problem was not with the battery, but with the motherboard of my handset. And pray, what was the cost of this motherboard? Around Rs1,200-Rs1,500. Great... I bought the handset for Rs2,500 and within two-three months, the 'authorised' service centre wanted me to spend the same amount to get it repaired.
The handset is a living proof of how easily I was fooled by Samsung and its authorised service centre. Every time I look at my handset, this thought still mocks me.
But the point is, this is not an isolated case of an errant service centre. I'm sure that you will have - or must have had - the same experience with all kinds of service centres. As soon as you enter any kind of service centre, the chaos you face will put a crowded fish market to shame. There are no indications, signboards, instructions or smoke signals on how your problem will be resolved.
If you stars are in the right position and the gods are smiling on you from the blue yonder, you might actually be able to speak to someone from the inside.
Let's assume that it is a mobile service centre that you are visiting. That elusive representative will ask you if your handset falls under the stipulated warrantee or not. If you answer in the affirmative, then you will be asked for a photocopy of your purchase bill - which, of course, you would not have thought of carrying with you.
Therefore, you have to come out of the service centre, search for a photocopy shop (it will always be nearby, since they get huge business from customers like you), get a copy and again enter the service centre.
From my experience - as well as feedback from fellow sufferers - one thing is pretty sure that unless you visit the service centre at least a couple of times, your complaint will never, ever, be resolved.
I have seen something happening all the time at these service centres. First, people plead with the service centre personnel, then they beg for their handset to be serviced and later they threaten them with some dire consequences.
But nothing works with these centres. You just have to grin and bear it. You are left with no other option but to get your mobile device serviced from your friendly neighbourhood mobile mechanic, tearing up your guarantee card into a zillion pieces in the process.
Why then, does the customer have to suffer at the hands of these 'authorised' service centres?
Am I being a conspiracy theorist, or does this have something to do with the business model of these companies?
Many moons ago, in my hometown, there were shops which sold all kinds of electronics goods. From different companies. But they serviced them as well. There, the shop-owner never treated any sale as a one-off deal. The customer was a lifetime patron. This may be the secret behind the success of these shops, despite competition from 'authorised' dealers located all over the place. Are the mobile handset companies listening? Are they even bothered?
(This is the first part of a two part-series)
It’s sad that Fair & Lovely is now busy parasiting on the insecurities of dark complexioned men as well, as if making dark complexioned women feel inferior for all these years wasn’t bad enough
So at least now makers of Fair & Lovely can't be dissed on the grounds that they make only the dark complexioned women feel like complete losers. With another new variant called Fair & Lovely Max Fairness, they have enlarged the scope of colour discrimination to include dark complexioned men as well.
The television commercial (TVC) for the brand features a typical corporate interview setting, where all the suits are naturally pretty, fair and lovely. However on this occasion, the maha confident Fair & Lovely Max Fairness using candidate is seen grilling the prospective employers. He is the one asking questions, egged on by his fair skin shade, instead of the other way round. So it's role reversal. And this neat little trick works for Mr Fair & Lovely Max Fairness. He is hired on the spot, without any back-checks, without any queries. (Just for the record: the man's so-called confidence is actually smugness… I would reject the dude immediately… fair, brown or dark skinned, but I digress.)
Quite naturally, since this is a Unilever commercial, the mandatory 'brand window' makes an unwelcome appearance. So graphics are used to educate us on boring things like maximum sun protection, spot reduction, skin lightening and blah, blah. Obviously the brand manager wasn't feeling as confident as the featured candidate, so he/she didn't want to risk losing out on providing chemical gyan to us dumb viewers.
Now while it's commendable that they have moved away from the usual men's personal products ad cliché, which is that all of them are positioned to impress them chicks, the commercial is quite dull. And the brand window makes it even more tiresome. The dialogue is pretty trite, the body lingo uninspiring, and the situation itself is very off-putting. The only thing going for the commercial is the little twist in the tale, about the role reversal, and once that's out, it becomes torturous to watch the commercial the second time round. In short, poor advertising.
Just two quick points before I rush off to purchase a Fair & Lovely Max Fairness: One, it's sad that Fair & Lovely is now busy parasiting on the insecurities of dark complexioned men as well. As if making dark complexioned women feel inferior for all these years wasn't bad enough. And two, as far as the creative goes, please bring back the much impressed girls! I miss them already!
Bond conversion: Where are the 'reports' coming from?
Lets first look at the 'conversion' story. Who triggered this rumour? IFCI officials told the media that they had no 'official' word from the government on the issue.
Then where were these stories coming from? Even after an extensive web-search, I could not narrow the source to any responsible publication. Theoretically though, only two types of entities benefit directly from such rumours-market operators and insiders (in this case government officials). They can take advantage of the price movement that follows such rumours and make a quick fat buck. Investors certainly don't benefit.
True or not, the market is naturally upset at the possibility of such a conversion of bonds to equity. If it actually happens, government holding in IFCI will rise to 42% (market reports suggest the conversion will be at par). The government already holds 28% in IFCI through banks and insurance companies (Life Insurance Corporation of India, General Insurance Corporation, IDBI Bank and Punjab National Bank). And, it clearly stands to gain if it increased its shareholding through a conversion to equity and then offloads a significant shareholding to a 'strategic investor'-which is also being speculated by the trader community.
In 2007, there was a big brouhaha about government divesting its holding in IFCI. The move was dropped when prospective investors pulled out because of the lack of clarity about government control. That lack of clarity still exists. IFCI ostensibly has autonomy,
but it is an open secret that government has a vice like control on the company.
Restructuring plan: And now a bank
In February this year, the government appeared to have started work on restructuring IFCI with three options in mind-bringing in a strategic investor; merging it with a public sector entity; or allowing it to continue as it is. It has even called bids to appoint a consultant to look at various options and shortlisted three names last November-Boston Consultancy Group, Ernst & Young and Mckinsey & Company-but nothing came out of that.
Of late, the buzz around the IFCI scrip is that it hopes to secure a banking license (most investors have given up on the government finding a strategic investor). This is based on finance minister Pranab Mukherjee mentioning fresh banking licenses for private players and finance companies in the FY11 Union Budget. A banking license could breathe new life into the company, and make it more accountable-a welcome change from investors' point of view. But for all these hopeful rumours about a banking license for IFCI, there are also counter-rumours that the company is uninterested in a bank license.
In June 2009, managing director Atul Kumar Rai had told PTI, "I don't want to say that I would like to be ICICI because ICICI was converted into a bank ... What I would say is, now you see ICICI, after five years there could be an IFCI way also."
Unwilling to share information
The Registrar of Companies (ROC) had issued notices to IFCI on 22 and 23 April, 2009, seeking information on loans-against-shares of promoters pledged by leading business houses. The ROC had sought details such as disbursement of loans, list of non-performing assets, perks of its top officials, etc. RoC had also directed IFCI to furnish information about whether Mr E Sreedharan, MD of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, had said (in his capacity as a director of IFCI) at a board meeting that he was unhappy with the functioning of the company. It had also hinted at some fraudulent activity in IFCI in the notices. However, instead of providing the information, IFCI moved the Delhi High Court for quashing of the notices.
The company has posted regular (though erratic) profits in the past four quarters and has been more or less consistently profitable from the September 2006 quarter (with only a couple of quarters of losses). In its FY09 annual report, its gross non-performing assets were at Rs51.5 billion, slightly higher than FY08. Its loans and share capital put together was Rs134 billion and investments were Rs41 billion. Its quoted investments (investments in companies listed on stock markets) had a book value of Rs17.5 billion and market value of Rs15 billion. The unquoted investments were much higher-Rs31.8 billion, of which Rs8.2 billion were in equity, Rs5.4 billion in preference shares and an ominous Rs18 billion was in others. Its freehold land was valued at Rs770 million in its FY09 balance sheet but the actual market value could be more.
In November last year, IFCI had said it had plans to offload its holding in some 16 companies including Hotel Paraag in Bengaluru (8.5%), Mela Hotels in Ghaziabad (4%) and Sun Granites Exports (16%). IFCI usually acquires these holdings in lieu of project finance. Sometimes when these companies don't buyback their shares it offers them to the public to recover its investments. Last year it took a Rs1.2 billion hit after the Hindalco rights issue devolved (it had underwritten it) and in June 2008 had taken Emaar MGF to court when the latter refused to return Rs500 million that IFCI invested in it in a pre-IPO placement.
In a December interview to Business Standard, managing director Mr Rai had said that IFCI had been revived but was not very clear about which lines of business it should pursue. He said that it has been lending for the last three years and has created fresh assets of around Rs30 billion each year. Its long-term cost of funds was around 9% and the strategy continued to be to lend where banks do not or cannot. In short a high-risk model.
IFCI has been planning to raise Rs 10bn to finance business expansion, but hasn't done it so far.
For investors, until there is stark clarity about the government's role in this company, how serious it is about inducting a strategic partner or how serious is the company about acquiring a banking licence -- in short, until there is a clear direction -- this stock will continue to be a puppet in the hands of operators and unnamed 'sources' who leak information to manipulate the price.
Disclaimer: The report is based on secondary sources and this writer's own experience of tracking the stock.