Transitions – Manufacturing to Service Industry

Its been a little more than a year now, since I moved from a company where I sold products, to a company where I sell consulting and other services. Its been an interesting learning experience, and the differences between the two industries are quite a challenge for a salesperson. In some ways though, they are also similar. I thought it would be worthwhile putting down my thoughts on these, for anyone who is making the transition from a manufacturing to a service industry.

Product selling in many industries, has an established pattern of sales, steady expectations of offtakes, based on which one makes forecasts, passes it on to the production and so on. Sure, there are ups and downs, but some of these can be predicted. (I am ofcourse talking about established markets here, not emerging technologies or products). Consulting, advertising or other such services, on the other hand, it is difficult to make such predictions, for the simple reason, that I can’t sell consulting. I can’t go up to a client and convince them why they need to do a project with us. I can only present to them what we do, how good we are at it, and why those skills could be of use to them. Then, when they do have a project, I hope they come back to me.

Product selling often involves a distinction between selling and execution. I sell, I pass on the orders, someone else does the back-end integration, someone else runs the factory, someone else does the logistics to get the raw materials in from China ! Services, on the other hand, the gap between selling and execution is very close, to the point of nil. Even if there is a distinct project execution team involved, the client liaison manager always has his or her head on the block. The stakes of doing the project well then, are really high. Also – its very difficult to sell a knowledge based service without being knowledgeable yourself! To some extent, ofcourse, this applies to products too, especially industrial products, where application methods can make a big difference. But in many consumer product industries, it is possible to sell without getting into the nitty-gritties of the product itself.

Conversely, this closeness between selling, execution and delivery also often means smaller teams and greater ownership. Atleast in my case, I’ve found that its far more difficult for anyone in a service industry, to pass the buck. There is no production delays to blame, no shipping goof-ups, no third party vendors. Ofcourse diehard blamaholics will find someone to blame, but I am talking of ordinary people here ! Seriously, for me, personally, working in smaller teams closely focused on client needs has proved to be an enriching experience. There is less bureaucracy, less intra-company dealing (or politics), since each time works on its own deliverables. The basic assumption is ofcourse that within this sphere, the team is managed well. (And that is an imperative, regardless of manufacturing or a service industry).

Lastly, what do I love about consulting? The sheer novelty of each project and the change in requirements every time. While there are processes, and processes do help, every project requirement is different. Even given the same requirement, two clients seldom are the same in their internal company cultures or capabilities. These often make all the difference to how one approaches a project. The learning experience is therefore fantastic, given the opportunities to interact with new people and problems all the time. So, if you are a person like me, who craves change, then definitely consulting (any kind, though I specifically am into industrial products), or project based work is probably a good industry to be looking at now.

Gender Roles at the workplace

OR – Should they have a role at all?

I‘ve never felt discriminated at work in any tangible way, because I am a woman. No one has ever denied me a promotion on account of my gender. I don’t think the pay varies in my industry. Even on less obvious things, for e.g. allotment to a project, I’ve never felt gender has mattered to my career. This could partly be because I work in an industry where the presence of women, and high-ranking women at that, is no longer anything to be commented upon. Media, Market Research, Branding – all the industries I’ve been associated with, employ a good percentage of women, to the point where there is no longer any question of having to prove yourself specifically on account of being a woman.Still, there are times, when I notice gender quietly rearing its head and making its presence felt at the workplace. This is not so much to do with my organisation or how it works, but simply because while men are much more comfortable with women at the workplace, perhaps their ways of dealing with women in their personal lives has still not completely changed. (Note – some men, not all). Naturally this flows over into the workplace.

For example, in one of the companies I used to work in, I noticed that my divisional head had this tendency to automatically assume that some of the men had more work experience, or were more qualified. This didn’t directly affect us at evaluation, because there were some processes to see that through. But he seemed to suffer from a “little woman” syndrome, where he tended to see many of the women as a little more ‘delicate’, ‘emotional’ , ‘impulsive’ than they really were. By contrast, he was always assuming that men with roughly the same kind of experiences were more ‘hardy’, ‘practical’, ‘older’ and so on. It used to annoy me no end, since there was nothing very directly implied, yet somewhere in the background, I used to have a sneaking suspicion; If his inherent impression of these men was as hardy breadwinners who would therefore be that much more involved with their jobs, he could be thinking of me and other women, as little people who were doing a decent job, and so, deserved to be treated ‘nicely’, but not really to be considered pillars of the organisation. I could have been wrong – since he was never explicit about it, but I felt that he did bring in his inherent biases about the roles of men and women into the job.

Then, there so many small ways in which some men betray these biases and make you cringe, without even realising that there is anything unprofessional about what they are doing; The other day, we had a colleague’s birthday party being celeberated at office. Once the mandatory song and clapping routine was done with, the birthday boy proceeded to cut the cake, displaying his ‘natural’ helplessness in the face of something as complicated as, well, cutting cake. One of my colleagues had a brainwave, “Hey, step aside na, let the ladies do it!” Excuse me! My role here is as a consultant, in no way different from what your role is. I am not sure why you think being a woman makes me automatically qualified to cut and serve. Ofcourse, my outspoken self was not content with thinking all this and blurted out instead, “Thats so sexist!” whereupon the fellow proceeded to pretend to sink into the earth and not hear.

What surprises me is that some young men don’t seem to be aware of how unprofessional this sort of thing is. We are becoming politically correct in so many other areas, some would say too much so. Maybe it will be a long time before these men start considering the women in their lives as true equals, or as people in their own right, without pre-assigned gender roles. But still, I can’t wait so long – In the meanwhile, one hopes they learn some political correctness atleast and keep it out of the office.  

Value, and who makes the most of it?

Business Line has an interesting piece today, on how Indian lanterns are finding buyers abroad, becoming hot-selling “antiques” or curios. It’s a good example of how value can be measured in terms of what a product or service means to someone, not necessarily something, or anything to with its cost.

Apart from this, what stood out in the piece was this mention of a startling difference between the selling price in India and the retail price in the US –  ” We sell them at an average price of $5 per piece. The US retailer sells the same at around $200 per piece,” said Mr Rajesh Sharma, Head – International Marketing, Ralson India Pvt Ltd.

In an earlier socialist era, this would have been decried in India, as the ‘evil middleman’ making away with a disproportionate share of the goodies for nothing. As things stand today, its a comment on how even in an increasingly global marketplace, access to the market is still not a given, and those who have it will naturally gain the most. The unorganised lantern producers in India and even some of the bigger organised ones, don’t have the know-how to access premium Western channels where I assume these lanterns will be sold. The US retailer is charging then, for his ability to bring a desired commodity to his customers, and not strictly for any tangible value addition that he may bring. (No doubt, there is some tangible benefit he brings, in terms of actual transportation etc, but perhaps this is not what he is being paid for!)

How does your company interview?

 

With the kind of crunch that there is at middle managerial levels today, in many industries, finding the right person is increasingly becoming a tough task. To do this now, companies are setting up processes in many areas – how to identify the good resumes, how to conduct background checks in industries where experience is easy to fudge, and ofcourse the right compensation packages to offer. There is one area however, where it is still difficult to do away with human intervention, and by association, human error. This is in the area of interviewing. Based on my own experiences and on stories I’ve heard from reliable others, these are some common mistakes that companies, or people often make.

  1.   Making an interviewee wait – Too often, a candidate goes through a preliminary interview with HR, and then – cools his heels waiting for the concerned business manager or head to appear. This may have been acceptable in the days of job scarcity, not now. Many companies seem to be under the fallacy that theirs is the one dream job that everyone is waiting for. Even if that is the case, not all those waiting are the right person for you. You don’t want to drive away that one right person who is disgusted at your unprofessional behavior. While being late to conduct an interview is bad manners at any level, when you are interviewing for mid to senior level positions, you are also wasting a significant chunk of what is known as time-cost.
  2. Being inflexible – Too often, companies seem to forget that the people they are interviewing have full time jobs currently. That means deadlines to meet, bosses to please, and no, they can’t kick them aside to meet you at 2 pm in the day. If they did, you probably don’t want such people in your company, do you? Companies can try being more flexible on these issues, perhaps arranging meetings at lunch time, after 5 when it’s easier to get away, or over a weekend. Sometimes, employees may not be comfortable coming over to a competitor’s office. This does happen in highly secretive industries. This may mean meeting them at a neutral venue, or perhaps a telephonic to begin with. Some companies do operate like this, but in many cases, interviews are scheduled based on when senior people within the company are available. That may be convenient to you, but not likely to get you the best person.
  3. Gender stereotyping – A favorite question this one. If the candidate happens to be a woman, interviewers will often feel compelled to ask whether she is married, planning to get married, or planning to start a family. Grow up, people! Employees move jobs for all kinds of reasons, including men moving for a better pay package or to be back in the hometown with their parents. Women moving due to a husband’s transfer or the arrival of a child is only a subset of that. Please don’t treat women as some sort of special candidate on whom a large X mark signifying danger needs to be placed. It reflects very poorly on the kind of workplace you will offer them.
  4. Asking personal questions – This is related to the previous one, but applies more evenly to both sexes. While being friendly with an interviewee is acceptable, and may even help you gauge personality better, there is no need for getting excessively personal. I am not here to marry you, so please stop asking me about my dad, his career, my siblings, what they do and so on. (No kidding, this has happened to me). It makes me wonder whether I am being evaluated on parameters totally unrelated to the job.

I am sure there are a few more, but the bottomline is that companies need to put in place some sort of a guide to professional interviewing. Very often, the interaction is great till a professional HR person is present. Post that, every business head simply plays it their own way. Which is fine, if there are basic minimum standard s adhered to. It would be interesting to read of companies which have formulated such guidelines, and if so, how are they being implemented.

Whats this blog all about?

For some time now, I have been feeling the need for a place where I can place my non-fiction writing, talk about my professional experiences, about the marketing world to which I belong, how I perceive the Indian workplace. I overcame that laziness today and finally started on this one. The look and template is not completely in place yet, but will be shortly.

The reason I felt the need for a blog like this, is that the Indian workplace (not a neatly defined category, but a term I use for the sake of convenience) is changing at an astounding place. From the time I started my career, in 2000, to what it is today, there are many changes in the way companies function, in the way markets are moving faster than ever. The question is, however, whether companies are changing fast enough internally. Corporate culture, the way organisations look at employees, rewards and measurement mechanisms – what is happening, or not happening to all of these.

In my spare time (which I sometimes manage to generate, by just sitting in my cubicle and looking at the screen while pretending to work), I think a lot, on many of these issues. Some of these are closely linked to my own experiences, some based on conversations with friends across industries, some just based on what I see around me. Not all of them weighty perhaps, but yes, definitely important to me, and hopefully interesting to readers (where are you?!) looking at this sphere, whether you are a HR professional, consultant, scaling-up entrepreneur or just another employee like me.