Interview of Prof Batra

Excerpt: Mr K L Batra retired in April 2014 as the managing director of Chugoku Paints ( India ) Private Limited. Presently, he is the Advisor with the same company.

| K L Batra |

I have known Mr K L Batra for a long time. He had a long stint in Asian Paints, where he set up industrial division and led it for ten years. He has been with the Japanese paint major, Chugoku Marine Paints Ltd since 1997. He retired in April 2014 as the managing director of Chugoku Paints ( India ) Private Limited. Presently, he is the Advisor with the same company. He has been an active member of Indian Paints Association and has spoken on paint and Indian Paint industry in various international forums. However, one of the most interesting part of his persona is his passion for teaching management subjects.

He has conducted vast number of workshops on negotiation skills, handling customer complaints, both in house as well as open programs. One of the well kept secret is that he has been teaching an elective subject "selling skills, sales management and channel management to the second year, Masters in Management in Shailesh Mehta School Of Management, IIT , Bombay. This is the 15th year of his teaching at IIT. He is an MBA from the Indian Institute Of Management, Calcutta and is on the roll of Honour of the institute. We decided to request him to answer some of the problems faced by the paint industry. He has agreed to do so. The first question to him was raised by the editor.—Dilip Raghavan

Mothering the customer-- the concept and practice

Question: We heard a lot about the concept called mothering the customer. Can you explain in detail about this concept??

Customer is the king is an oft repeated phrase. It has become a cliche and seems to have lost its meaning . Those companies , who treat the customers with respect, concern and earnestness get compensated by the customers in terms of continued business, loyalty and higher margins . Industrial business is equally demanding as the mass market. In many of the business segments, the relationship goes beyond the formal format. The customer when faced with harsh market conditions seeks advice and support from all quarters, including its suppliers.

It depends upon the philosophy of the supplier, how it wishes to handle such situations. The suppliers have resources and information which may be of great value to the customer. A proactive approach can be of immense value to the embattled customer. The help can be of financial nature or your contacts in the emerging technology or your experience in similar circumstances. It is during such periods that the bond between the two sides grows and becomes stronger. The understanding leads to better working relationship.

In many circumstances, there are frictions between two sides on pricing, payment and supply terms. The supply lines are disturbed due to various commercial concerns and contract violations. Yes, these concerns are genuine and need to be addressed. However, for ongoing relationship and long term business, some exceptions need to be made. These have to be made based on some principles. A haphazard action may lead to disaster for both the parties.

Looking for some answers, we found the mother's concern for her child to provide some answers. A mother may be sick, busy, short of money, lack resources. Under no circumstances, she fails to feed the child or look after the child's concerns. The overriding principle is that the child comes first and despite problems, she will not abandon the loved one. Business is not as altruistic as a mother can be. Can we at least learn something from her and use it to mutual advantage?

We had a customer in commercial vehicles sector. We were the sole supplier. The sector was in deep trouble. So much so that finally, half of the companies folded up or went to sick bay. The organisation was in deeper waters. The assumptions had gone wrong. Higher capacity of the plant, unutilised by more than 50% became a big drag. The sophisticated plant added to the high overheads, which could not be recovered under the circumstances.

The payments were delayed. This was despite close follow up and every intention of the customer to pay up. Once the payments were made, production would be asked to produce the paint. This obviously took time. The pain at the customer end became more accentuated. We started holding hands, by manufacturing paint in advance and keeping it next to the plant. The moment payment was made, supplies would flow to the plant. This was appreciated by all concerned.

The payment situation was not improving and was not likely to do so for at least a year. We suggested a meeting between the two top managements. For a period of one year, we will enhance the credit period to double the number of days. After one year, it will reduced to one and half time and two years later it will be brought to normal period. The management informed the customer that they understood the predicament faced by them and were in a position to offer liberal terms for a while. In return for the offer the customer promised to continue the single supplier status even after they start doing exceedingly well.

There are many examples of mothering the customers. In each case, the supplier treated the customer with extra graciousness and made sure that the relationship was not hampered due to pettiness, myopic contract terms etc.

Critics of this concept find many holes in the principle. How can we compare the greatness of a mother to a commercial transaction or relationship. Yes, we agree. But, where is the harm in learning from her and use part of the goodness in a business situation.

Please send in your questions to:- and Prof Batra will answer them.

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