You would have heard of Mirch Masala stories? Stories that are laced with spice! What you are going to read are some of the real-life instances that I was privileged to witness in the last 16 years of my involvement in the senior living and care segment. That is why Masala Mirch! If any of these incidences can be related to anyone living or dead, it is purely intentional! No hard feelings please!
Circa 2004.Lt Col Ravi Menon was the Project Manager (PM) (Not Prime Minister!) for Soundaryam Comfort and Retirement Homes and had his office in a converted cowshed. Nearby, there was a huge open well with water, water snakes and of course, frogs. The farm’s caretaker and his family along with two ferocious black dogs, which were chained as these would attack anyone except the caretaker and his family! Real guard dogs at night. There were cows in some sheds and cow dung collected in another shed. Mosquitoes were in plenty, thanks to the surroundings! Real Maan ki Baat surroundings for the PM to function!
One day I called the PM and told him that a difficult client is wanting to book a villa in our project and if possible, try not to sell a villa,since he would be a permanent headache for us! This gentleman arrived at the site and was received by the PM and briefed about the project. Construction had already commenced. Suddenly the prospective client asked the PM, “are there snakes here?” What can you expect in a farm? With a straight face Menon Sir told him, “Yes Sir, there are snakes here” “How long are the snakes?” asked the prospective client. Without blinking, PM told him, “six feet seven and half inches!” (two of my favourite books are Blink and Tipping Point, both by Malcom Gladwell)
The prospective client asked the PM, “How did you know the exact length of the snake?’ Menon Sir replied, “this question is asked by many clients. So, we caught a snake, measured it with a tape and left it in the field!” The prospective client was so terrified that he decided not to invest in a villa and saved us headaches for the future.
If this was a method for not selling a villa to a client whom we do not want, you must also know how we sell! When business expanded and we had more projects and had moved to a larger office, we had Shri KS Shivaraman as Vice President (Sales). In fact, he had come to us to buy a villa for his mother, wife and for himself, but ended up joining Covai’s Team! He was highly experienced in Sales having worked in many Corporates, much senior to me in age (but looked younger!) and had come to settle down in Coimbatore from an Ashram, for which he was a Trustee. He had to take care of his ageing mother and needed better hospital facilities.
Shivaraman Sir was the defacto mentor for sales and CRM Teams. He was energetic, looked much younger to his age, a stickler for time and extremely loyal and sincere. He set high standards for all of us. If Menon Sir took care of the retirement community projects, Shivaraman Sir could manage Sales and CRM. He never dictated any email to any CRM staff. He used to look for one-sided paper, write the draft and hand it over for them to send the replies! He had learnt the art of convincing clients and to each, he had a different method! He gauged within minutes of meeting a prospective client as to who wore the pants. If it was the man, he concentrated speaking to the man. If it was the lady, his line of convincing was different and filled with instances of services and care that Covai provides! An amazing man with such drive and energy that our clients even from real estate projects remember him to date.
One of the methods that he adopted was to tell the prospective client, “only one flat or villa is available” and, he would speak about that flat or villa as if that was the best in the project. Very rarely, if the client insisted on changing the flat or villa, he would say, “one client had reserved another plot and he has not returned so far. I will handle him if he calls. Would you like to take this villa or apartment?” Viola, it would be sold. He always made it a point that the clients met me in my office. But before he brought them to my office, he would tell me, “price already fixed. Do not offer any discount!!” More about Shri KS Shivaraman later.
In CovaiCare Retirement Communities, funerals are organised in such a manner that the family of the deceased is given all assistance from keeping the body in a freezer in the house or in the mortuary, receive and house the kith and kin who come for the funeral, organise the rituals as per religion, coordinate with the concerned crematorium and provide all assistance in the final journey, documentation, post-funeral rites etc. Over a period of time, we have a refined our systems and procedures so that the family of the deceased does not feel the burden of the arrangements needed for the funeral. In fact I was complemented by a comment from a lady, “if any has to die, die in CovaiCare RC!
But there was an instance which I remember vividly. One of our resident’s mother in law who was staying with them passed away due to old age. We organised the funeral. Normally, I make it a point to go to the crematorium for the rites along with our VP (Services) and Head Services. My driver was the fourth man and many a times, we four become the pall bearers. In this case, when we reached the crematorium with the body and the concerned resident, the man in charge of the crematorium saw me and said, “I am seeing you after a long time Sir!” I simply smiled. Then he asked me if we had the photograph of the deceased. I told him that we did not have but only the Death Certificate. He said that rules have been changed when a dead man came alive after a few days of his cremation and there was chaos in the family!
I asked the resident if he has any photograph of his mother in law. He replied in the negative. I conveyed the same to the crematorium in charge. He said, “you can take a photo of the body, get it developed, paste it on the Death Certificate and get the signature of the Doctor. I said that this would delay the cremation. He said, “no problems Anna. You are a regular customer. Send it to me in the morning. After you take the photograph, we can commence the ritual for cremation!”Advantage of being a regular customer in a crematorium!
I asked Edwin, our Head services to lift the head of her body and took the photograph which I sent it to our Manager HR. I called him and told him, “Kathir, take this to the studio and get it printed. If possible, get her eyes opened through Photoshop! I will meet you soon”
Kathir, an ex-serviceman who joined his career in the army in 1987 when he met me at HQ Western Command Chandimandir, immediately went to the studio. The studio owner who was well known to me, refused to open the eyes of the lady and exclaimed, “Has the Colonel committed a murder?”. Kathir got the prints of the photograph and returned to our office.
After the cremation, I went home, had bath and lunch and went to our office. Kathir promptly came and gave me a colour photograph of the deceased lady which was a larger than the Death Certificate! I asked Kathir, “what is this for?” A typical soldier, he replied, “I got this large sized photo thinking that the resident would like to get it framed and hang it on the walls of his Living Room”. I asked Kathir, “Have you ever seen a dead body being framed and garlanded in any house?”. Later, we got a passport size black and white photograph, pasted it on the Death Certificate, got it signed by the Doctor and handed over to the crematorium in-charge! We faujis are different!
When we completed Soundaryam in 2006 and commenced services, we had problems galore! Every resident was different and expectation levels were also different. From housekeeping to dining to attending to issues of new buildings, we had our hands full. Staff selection was another problem. While we could get ladies for housekeeping from the nearby village that we adopted, training them from dusting to sweeping to swabbing and worse still, get the residents satisfied were some of the problems that we never thought about. Menu for the meals that we served, and taste of the food was very difficult to satisfy one and all. If someone liked spice, another resident did not. Some wanted less salt, and some wanted rich food with oil and salt! If the husband said, “this dish is like what my mother cooked”, the wife said, “your mother was a lousy cook!” There began a fight and I would quietly leave the dining room! Lt Col Menon and I had tough time those initial years!
I went to a multi-specialty hospital, met the Nutritionist, worked out a Menu for one week. I requested the residents for a meeting and read out the menu given by the Nutritionist. There was a pin drop silence. I said with a broad smile, “silence is taken as acceptance and I will have this menu implemented” One of our senior resident Shri Sankaran got up and said, “Sridharan, you go and give this menu to your wife Chitra and, ask her to cook this for you. We will tell you what we want, and you ensure that it is cooked well and served in style!” I never went to meet any Nutritionist since that day!
Catering was the most exacting. Who said, “army marches on its stomach?” In retirement communities the problem was not marching after filling the stomach but how to solve the problem of taste (mother’s cooking vs wife’s), dishes (variety vs fixed) , spices and salt (more vs less) menu (easy to select tiles in a tile shop), ego (residents vs cooks) etc.! Remember the song from Sound of Music – “how to solve a problem like Maria?”
Lt Col Ravi Menon and I cracked the problem of catering meaning cater to the likes and dislikes, whims and fancies, moods (good bad and indifferent), and expectations as against reality and bring happiness through food that fills our stomachs!
On that, please wait for the next!
Bye for now!
By Colonel Achal Sridharan, VSM