Lessons from the Madras Club – Lesson 1: Customer service is an oxymoron

Lessons from the Madras Club – Lesson 1: Customer service is an oxymoron
The Madras Club

Don’t feel like reading? Listen to me tell the story.

These Lessons from the Madras Club are based on observations I made during my time in India, when I lived in the elite Madras Club in Chennai on and off for an extended period.  They are drawn from quirky differences in cultures I noticed in my time at the Club, in my business dealings, and traveling through wider India.

This is not a series about the Madras Club or its members, and no individuals are identified. 

However, I have a brief introduction of the Madras Club to give context to my experience and the Lessons.

I will also highlight in italics some Indlish terms, or rather Indianised English terms, which I was not used to hearing in Australian, English, or American vernacular.   I find many of them are from a bygone era of colonialization, or adapted terms and phrases that fit the culture there in unique ways. 

The Madras Club

“The Club is like an extension to your home so you don’t want to let just anyone in.”

“The Madras Club, founded in 1832, is the second oldest surviving club in India after the Bengal Club in Kolkatta. It has had three homes including its present one, the Mowbrays Cupola.

“… the Club played host to grand balls including one in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1870, another for the Prince of Wales, (who later became King Edward VI) in 1875, for the Prince of Wales (Later King George V) in 1905, for the Duke of Connaught in 1921, and for the Prince of Wales (Later King Edward VIII) in 1922. On these occasions, ladies were allowed into the all-male, well protected precincts of the Club.”[1]

The Madras Club and The Adyar Club merged and moved to its current, beautiful location, the Mowbrays Cupola in 1963.

“Mowbrays Cupola was built sometime before 1792 by George Mowbrays, a respected businessman who later became the Sheriff and Mayor of Madras (now Chennai). He returned to England after his retirement in 1792 and the entirety of Mowbrays Gardens comprising 105 acres was acquired by Mr. John D’Monte, who died without any heirs, bequeathing his property to the Archdiocese of Mylapore, Madras.”[2]

Today the main building stands regal as ever, housing three bars, a ballroom, a formal dining restaurant, billiards room, cards and function rooms, a gorgeous, expansive balcony area, and an impressive foyer entrance.  Other than that, there is a beautiful 25-meter lap pool which is actually cooled so it is bearable to enter in the sweltering summer months (which essentially extend year-round…), next to an ice-cold Poolside Café run by one of the local five-star hotels.  There is a large change room with a well-stocked, and well attended gym above it.

Otherwise there are five tennis courts, two badminton courts, two squash courts, 14 suites and a cottage guests can stay in, a bakery, library, meeting rooms and office space, a lovely walking / jogging track between the front of the main building and the Adyar River, and large car parking areas for both member driven and driver driven vehicles.

It is a membership owned and run elite Club for predominantly wealthy Indians and now very much includes women.  Much effort goes into keeping the Club exclusive, to the chagrin of many who would like to join, but are rejected for some reason or other.  Madras Club membership is certainly something to aspire to. There is often much discussion on who is given membership, who is rejected, and the injustice of it all. 

There are often rumours as to why someone opined to not be ‘clubbable’ was accepted, or outrage as to why someone deemed perfectly ‘clubbable’ was rejected without proper explanation.  Rejection comes from three committee members, who remain anonymous, ‘blackballing’ you. They do not have to give any reason.

As one member explained, and which was echoed time and again since, the process is not meant to be fair.

“The Club is like an extension to your home so you don’t want to let just anyone in,” she said.

Another member diligently researched the origin of clubs in London, and found they were started by the Freemasons and the Kafkas.  They formed them as places of refuge from their wives, their problems in the world, and others they did not wish to spend time with.

Once you understand this, it is clear why the process does not have to be ‘fair’. The committee is elected by ‘full members’ every two years.  Members cannot be elected until they have been an ‘invitation member’ for over 10 years.  They then earn the right to anonymously blackball a potential candidate from any class of membership for reasons as simple as, “They look like a bit of a dickhead and I don’t want to see their face or hear their voice while I’m trying to enjoy a drink at the bar with my friends.”

It is not perfect by any stretch.  There are certainly some crazies, some convicted criminals, and others who should have been, which adds a certain colour to the place.  But by and large, the Club is filled with lovely people who are genuinely a pleasure to be around.

About the Author

“Ha! So for us the Madras Club is like Christmas every day!”

I moved into the Madras Club for some time when I was a childless, agnostic, fluorescent white woman in my very late 30s who had never been married.  I could not have been less Indian.  It was never my plan to land up[3] in India and certainly not to move there.  It was entirely accidental as many of the best things are.

I studied with two good friends from Chennai in Australia many years before, and when one invited me to his wedding, I knew I had to go.  My other friend, an active Madras Club member, offered to have me stay at his place for a month or so, and introduced me to the Club and its wonderful culture.

There is no question I was lucky enough to be accepted by the Madras Club crowd because my friend introduced me.  There was the other small small thing[4] about me being a single white woman.  Was I going to be a husband-stealing gold digger?  That was firmly on the minds of many initially, but most people became reasonably comfortable with me after some time without any such incident.

My friends there regularly told me they liked me because I’m ‘simple’. I told them that is not a compliment where I come from. In Australia it implies some sort of intellectual disability… But they assured me being uncomplicated and not having an agenda there was a rarity and a pleasure.  I began to understand as I learned the Lessons outlined in this series.  Being Indian is complicated!

I loved living in the Madras Club for so many reasons. It is a beautiful oasis in a crowded, polluted city. I loved that on dry days (politically imposed alcohol free days to stop the masses getting drunk and doing stupid things when sensitive things are going on), people (quite rightly) assumed they could still come, work out, and then just land up in my room for a drink instead of going to the bar. And I loved getting to know the amazingly intelligent, witty, and generous people I am now privileged to call my friends. 

At Christmas one year, a European friend asked me how we celebrate Christmas Day in Australia.

“We just drink and drink to get through the day with our families, and EAT way too much food,” I replied.

“Ha! So for us, the Madras Club is like Christmas every day!”

Lesson 1: Customer Service is an Oxymoron

“The customer is the biggest enemy in your life.”

Indians are some of the most hospitable people you will ever meet in all the world over.  If you visit their home, you will want for nothing.  If they are dirt poor, you will be offered the best of what they have, and if they are not, you will be showered with affection and food… so much food…  The attention to detail and clear concern and deference to your happiness whilst in their homes is humbling.

Surprisingly, but most definitely, this innate gift of hospitality does not translate into a culture of customer service. At all.  Something happens to the Indian the moment they step out of their front gate.  All of that generosity and ‘mi casa sou casa’ mentality switches off, and in that instant, the instinct to screw over anyone and everything in their path moves into overdrive.  The same person who just offered you (read pressured you into) your third plate of mangos and icecream while pouring you a glass of their finest brandy, will now be screaming at a poor street vendor to reduce the price of an item by the equivalent of a few cents.  They will ruthlessly cut off other people in traffic and push people out of the way in queues.  There is a very real understanding that life outside the home is every man for themselves, so take what you can from whoever is stupid enough to let you get away with it.

Being a country where caste systems and large income disparities are economic and social norms, it affects the way people view ‘service’. Many see serving others (outside of the home of course) as beneath them.  Many others have no concept of what it actually means.  For example, many people working in hotels are from a socioeconomic background where they have never stayed in a hotel, let alone a five star one.  They have no understanding of the standards expected, rituals that take place, or tone with which guests expect to have their issues dealt.  Without significant training and attitude adjustment, the results are disastrous.  This disparity also means the further you move up in the hierarchy, the more deference you can expect.

The customer is always… there…

When consulting captain Google for some answers, I got some gems. The Learning India website purports the following:

“In India, your boss is always right and the guest is god. The customer is…always there.”[5]

With 1.3 billion people, they have a point.  If you don’t get it right with this one, there is another one potentially right behind them.  The Hindu Business Line website takes this explanation even further. 

“Most Indian CXOs know that customer service plays a large role in building brands but usually don’t care because a) they can get away with it because the laws are so weak; or b) it does not affect their brand today (usually they have the next sucker they can sell stuff to).”

The site then goes on to expose the real goals of ‘customer support’ in organisations.

“A repeated brand behaviour is to ask you to “DM us your phone number” and then nothing really concrete happens. The brand’s intention is not to resolve but make sure that you don’t go berserk on social media.”[6]

Expectations, it seems, are managed by keeping them extremely low across the board.

One famous economic principle is all value comes from scarcity, and if you are in the consumer business at least, they are in abundance in India, so why kill yourself for this one, when the next one is right behind them?

Be my customer

Then there are times when ‘customer service’ jumps way across the appropriate line and becomes harassment.  I stayed in New Delhi one August near the lovely Lodhi Gardens and decided to go there for a walk.  I then planned to go to a café a short walk from the opposite side a friend recommended to grab a bite and do some work.  All up, it would be about a 20-minute walk if I didn’t get too distracted looking at things in the gardens.

I started off down the surprisingly lovely tree-lined street (I was expecting Delhi to be a zoo) when the first auto[7] pulled up beside me.

“Where you go?” the driver shouted at me.

“For a walk,” I replied making the walking motion with my fingers to drive the point home.

“There is nowhere to walk down there.  I will take you somewhere,” he continued.

I had my Google Maps open and knew I was very close to one of the Lodhi Gardens entrances and it was beautiful to walk around. 

“No thank you.  Have a nice day,” I said, hoping that wasn’t too subtle for him to get the message he was not getting a fare from me.  It was.

“Where you go?  Nothing down here,” he lied again then jumped out of his auto and chased me down the street.  “I can take you to CP, Humayun’s Tomb, very good price.”

“Have a nice day,” I said again and decided there was no point in responding beyond this to this crazy.  He seemed sure that by being creepy and stalky I would eventually give in and give him some money to take me somewhere I didn’t need to go.  He was wrong, but I guess this was some sort of sport?  Was he just bored?

Apparently the entrance to Lodhi Gardens was kryptonite for auto drivers, because once I entered, he vapourised.  Oh what a shame.  I walked around soaking up the lovely surrounds and finally left the park through the opposite corner to find the recommended café.  There, again, was my ‘friendly’ auto driver.

“Hey!” He jumped out of his auto again.  “You need a ride!”

Really?  Really??

“Where you go?  Very good price.”

I ignored him and powered my way up the street towards my destination.  Of course he followed for some distance despite my non-responsiveness.  Inevitably just before he finally gave up there was a tirade of anger and insults at my clear impertinence of not getting in his auto.  How DARE I not require his services!?  How RUDE! 

It is not uncommon for autos, hawkers and the like to get outrageously offended if you don’t want their wares.  Is this how to gain customer loyalty?  Do people just give in??

“The customer is the biggest enemy in your life…”

But this phenomenon is not just prevalent in consumer-focused industries.  I was sitting in the ‘Sports Bar’ at the Madras Club with a couple of wealthy industrialists.  After one or two beverages, one of them decided to educate me on the way things worked in the business to business world.

“The customer is the biggest enemy in your life,” he said emphatically and deliberately.

I let out some uncontrollable laughter as I often do when hearing such pearls of wisdom from my esteemed Club mates.

“That’s funny,” I said. “In the West we have this philosophy that ‘the customer is always right!'”

“The customer is your enemy, because he is the one trying to take away your profit,” he further explained.

I laughed even harder this time, as knowing him and his B2B and B2G businesses, it was hilarious.

Another friend watched quietly on. He spent a number of years living in the US and felt he could bridge the cultural divide.  For him these arguments made complete sense and were nothing to laugh at.

“No, no, the customer is King,” he conceded.  “But he’s still a fucking arsehole.”

It was then I lost it completely!  Welcome to India.

“It’s a dog eat dog world…”

In the business to business world, it is not uncommon to bribe your customers to buy from you.  Or you might bribe your suppliers to supply to you.  It really depends on who is at the pointy end of the power differential.  But often there is bribery all around.  If your business deals with Government, you are bribing somebody, probably multiple people on a regular basis.

In a previous post on supporting Donald Trump when talking about corruption in India to contextualise Trump’s questionable business history, Jeevan said, “Most people do crooked stuff because you deal with crooks.  You deal with people who always want to take money, and growing up in India, I deal with that.  Right? It’s a dog eat dog world.  If I don’t get this business, my own relative will try to pull me down and get that business.”

Bribery is illegal in India, but it is a national sport to game whatever system is put in place.  Rules are meant to be broken or at the very least pushed to their absolute limit.  Have you ever seen how much cargo an Indian can fit on a motorbike?  The ‘system’ doesn’t just refer to administration, but to the laws of physics and other sciences as well.  But when you have a broken system, it costs money to make it work for you again.  That is the reality of an awful lot of business in India.  If you want to be in business, my observation is it is very rare to get around that.

Trying to extract cash from customers?  Good luck!

Not long after I decided to stay in India for a while, a growing start-up hired me to design and be their master of ceremonies (MC) for a weekend strategy session for some forty or so of their senior staff at a retreat just outside of Chennai.  I was all over it and knew I could add value and get a great outcome for them. Because I could use one of their services, I decided to ‘mystery shop’ to get a feel for how they operated.  It was immediately evident their systems were not as robust as they thought and their quality was off.  This is not what I said, but I did throw in a little report on purely ‘what happened’ when I used the service as a freebee because as a business owner, I would want to know.

The weekend went well and using all my fun strategies, I kept all the presenters on time so we got through the content.  The number one feedback I got from attendees prior to the session was the two leaders were massive bottlenecks to solving problems.  We tried to focus on this in one of the problem solving exercises, but framed it as, “How can we free up the workloads of (those two leaders).”  The participants, who were actively participating up to that point, flat out refused to work on that issue.  I was stunned, and clearly showed my lack of Indian cultural understanding.  We aborted that exercise.  Remember that quote from Learning India earlier?

“In India, your boss is always right and the guest is god. The customer is…always there.”[8]

Culturally, most Indians will not challenge their bosses at all.  For the purposes of this exercise, which was actually to help them all work better together, even the implication their bosses may not be perfect, and they could offer some potential solutions their almighty bosses hadn’t thought of yet, was too much and no one would contribute.  Those two leaders were only concerned about unbridled growth, not the significant systemic issues that lead to their poor customer service, and would eventually begin crippling their business.  The boss was always right, and their bosses didn’t care about the customers and their poor customer service, so neither could they.

Throughout the process and after I finished, they were very happy clients.  Until it came time to pay.  For reasons I am still to understand, that was a part of the transaction they didn’t think applied to them.  I was recommended by someone who they regularly asked for help for their business.  This was an embarrassment to him.  When bitching about it so some close friends from the Club, it turned out one of them was their first investor and (unsurprisingly given the way they were running things) all was not rosy.  He told them to pay me.  They didn’t. 

Then the stories about the woman who ‘hired’ me came out of the woodwork.  I don’t think she knew how well known I would become in the Madras Club, although those two early connections should have given her an idea.  That other lovely Indian term of karma[9] is coming for her.  In fact, I suspect she lives with it constantly.  If she is reading and wondering what she has to do to shut me up, the answer is simple.  Pay me for the service provided.

But I was not, by any means alone in struggling to extract cash from customers.  I was conversing with the (Indian) CEO of a marketing agency based in Bangalore when she told me she wanted more international clients. Why? Because she was sick of chasing her local clients for money all the time.  Everyone I talk to agrees on this point (inside and outside of India), but why is it so?

Why is it so?

Most people I asked explained in some form India’s scarcity and poverty reality and mentality.  People don’t not line up because they have attention deficit disorder, or feel more entitled than everyone else (although there is a bit of both of those things going on).  They don’t line up because they don’t know if there will be any, whatever, left if they wait patiently because traditionally everything WAS scarce.  Survival and feeding your family IS a brutal business when there is not enough to go around.  Even if this is not a current reality for many individuals (and for many of the 1.3 billion it is) it is an ingrained part of the national psyche and the possibility of being back there is never that far away.

Without getting into the nuances of the awesome stereotypes of different races and classes in the country, many I asked talked about a not insignificant subset who want to be smarter than everyone, and believe a demonstration of this is “getting one over someone else.” This is the entire point of price negotiations in India.  Everyone knows the customer needs to feel they are “taking away your profit” to the maximum, so prices are inflated accordingly so the ritual can play out, and the happy, “screw you” endorphins can release into the brain.

In business to business situations a customer might not pay their smaller suppliers and use them as a line of credit rather than paying interest to a bank.  They would not do this to their larger ones, because eventually they would punish them back, so it is all about testing the waters and seeing who is vulnerable and what you can get away with.

This brings us back to Jeevan’s statement that even his own family member will “pull me down” to get that business.  I have heard numerous tales of family members and friends taking the liberty with others to go on credit to buy goods and then just not pay.  They are emphatic it is not because these people CAN’T pay, but because they mistakenly think they are somehow smart or superior if they can get away with it.  Maybe they think those friends and family members will be impressed at being screwed over?

Is it right?  No.  But if those suckers are stupid enough to get caught out, they deserve it, right?

What is the real lesson here?  Being a guest in India is a unique and wonderful experience I can’t recommend highly enough. But let the buyer beware…

Want more Lessons from the Madras Club?

The next topics I planned to cover in the Lessons from the Madras Club might be a little too hot for the internet so I am switching to new content.

But if you want more, there is plenty I have left to say!

If 100 people to sign up, I will send you exclusive NEW Lessons including on:

  • Politics and leadership
  • Sex and fidelity
  • The trials of extreme wealth

I want more Lessons from the Madras Club!

[1] From the Madras Club website https://www.madrasclub.org/ on 21 May 2020

[2] From the Madras Club website https://www.madrasclub.org/ on 21 May 2020

[3] Indlish Translation – Land up – to arrive somewhere; possibly but not necessarily unexpectedly. E.g. “What time will you land up this evening?” “She just landed up without any warning.”

[4] Indlish Translation – Small, small things – a term that is often used sarcastically to describe some major problem or issue. E.g. “Why won’t I fly Air India? Last time I flew there was a crack in the windscreen.  You know, small, small things.”

[5] Reference – http://learningindia.in/the-customer-is-always-there/ accessed 6 August 2020

[6] Reference – https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/catalyst/Why-customer-service-sucks-in-India/article20899417.ece accessed 6 August 2020

[7] Indlish Translation – Auto – a three wheeled open air motorised rickshaw mobile exactly like its not too distant cousin, the Thai tuk tuk.

[8] Reference – http://learningindia.in/the-customer-is-always-there/ accessed 6 August 2020

[9] Karma – (in Hinduism and Buddhism) the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences; or good or bad luck, viewed as resulting from one’s actions.

To be continued…

Thanks for reading and/or listening.  I hope you enjoyed it.  If you did, please like, comment and share on social media.  I’m on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin and my handle is @ClaireRWriter.

If you want to work with me, check out my website ClaireRWriter.com and book a meeting.

Until next time!


This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Indu Palaniappan

    A very interestingly accurate synopsis of doing business in India!
    Specially agree with your theory about the curious phenomenon of ‘a scarcity syndrome’ continuing to influence the citizens – even the affluent ones!
    I enjoyed reading it Claire, well written

    1. ClaireRWriter

      Thanks Indu! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Stay tuned, there are many more ‘Lessons from the Madras Club’ to come!

Leave a Reply