In 1980, when I completed my master’s in environmental science and Engineering at IIT Bombay, my father advised me to start my career in marketing. “Marketing will connect you quickly with the real world” he said. He was absolutely right. He disliked IIT type education.
I joined Hindustan Dorr Oliver (HDO), one of the leading companies in mixing and separation technologies. HDO had an environmental division headed by Mr R Natarajan (RN). RN had uncanny marketing skills. We used to say that RN could sell a ceiling fan even with no blades – just by jabbing. So soon RN became the mentor.
In those days, we used to sell fixed low speed surface aerators as part of our solution in wastewater treatment. High speed floating surface aerators (HSFA) were not around.
Interest in HSFA arose when Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) started preparing tenders for aerated lagoons with floating high speed surface aerators. Everyone in the business, started pushing for HSFA to increase chances of getting pre-qualified for the tender. The Vadodara engineering division of HDO and the technology head in Mumbai Nick Doshi were charged with the responsibility to be ready to make HSFA . Testing of the prototypes commenced in the existing Malad aerated lagoon.
RN called for a meeting and told all of us that we must do hard sell of HSFA and on a war foot basis. Rumours were around that one of our major competitors M/s Voltas had already made an aggressive plan for marketing HSFA.
Week after RN’s brief, we received an inquiry from M/s Wipro from their Jalgaon vegetable oil factory for 2 fixed low speed surface aerators. RN passed the inquiry to me, winked and said “Modak, sell the HSFA instead”.
HSFA had both cost and efficiency advantage. Firstly, there was no need for a gear box that had nearly 30% share of the costs. With the three pontoons, there was no need for a concrete bridge saving significant cost of the civil works. And finally, the HSFA could be “towed” around the lagoon with the guy ropes so that there were low chances of any “dead zones” in the lagoon. I prepared some technical notes and references on the superiority of HSFA. My IIT style of doing research through journals greatly helped. Remember, there was no Google search engine then!
I called Mr Joshi at Wipro to get more details on their effluent treatment plant (ETP). Before I could sell my proposition on HSFA, Mr Joshi said that Wipro has changed their mind and decided to go for HSFA instead of slow speed fixed surface aerators. He told me the same advantages that I had researched! “So, Mr Modak, talk to me only if you can deliver HSFA” he ended the conversation. Later, I was told that someone from Voltas had approached Mr Joshi earlier.
I spoke to RN. RN advised that I give a very competitive quotation to bag the project. When I told RN that I will go and meet Mr Joshi in their office in the Indian Express Tower, RN gave me a photo album. The album had number of photographs of our prototype floating aerator “swimming” in the Malad aerated lagoon. When RN saw my perplexed face, he said “Modak, did you notice that each photo of the HSFA is taken with different angles and sports different people?”. When I nodded, RN said that Mr Joshi was bound to ask me a question where our HSFA installations are. He said that I should go ahead and show this album of our “several installations” in “different companies” just as a glimpse. He winked when he saw my shocked face. Then he warned “Modak, if Joshi asks if he could visit these installations then say that all these installations are in Southeast Asia, Middle East and African countries”. By then I had gaped my mouth wider.
I met Mr Joshi with our catalogues on HSFA and RN’s album. I was lucky that Joshi did not ask for any “evidence” about out HSFA installations. His focus was on price. I was told by RN that I should agree for any price that Wipro is comfortable. “Get the job Modak” RN had yelled.
Voltas had already reduced the price. I offered the same price and explained to Mr Joshi the “superiority” of our HSFA and our unflinching after sales support. I could however sense that Mr Joshi wasn’t impressed with my pitch. He ended our conversation and said in a firm tone “Mr Modak, quote 10% lower than Voltas if you want this job”. I agreed. Delivery was fixed by 2 months as Wipro had pressure from the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board.
When I returned to HDO’s Andheri office and told RN about the “victory”, he was very happy and patted on my back. He then called our Vadodara engineering unit. The Unit head threw a bomb shell and said that the delivery of 2 HSFAs will take at least 3 months as it was a new product. Most he could do was delivery of 1 HSFA in the agreed time of 2 months. Second HSFA will be delivered in another month.
The case was getting complicated. I decided to assess whether Wipro required 2 HSFA’s in the first place. I met Mr Joshi once again that while we are processing the order I would like to see the calculations done by their consultant regarding HSFAs. Well, like it happens in many “biased” assessments, I could find that there were several assumptions made on the “overdesign” and only 1 25 HP HSFA was perhaps adequate. Need for an additional HSFA could be assessed after commissioning of the ETP and chances are that it may not be needed.
I told Mr Joshi that we could save Wipro’s expenditure by this “rational approach”. Joshi was very appreciative and in fact was shocked to see such a customer friendly vendor!. This time he gave me a prepared tea with cashew nuts.
To be more prepared for any further bomb shells from our Vadodara engineering unit, I proposed Mr Joshi to seek loan from IDBI that was available then on a concessional basis, for buying innovative pollution control equipment. “Sir, why not take advantage of the Scheme” I told Mr Joshi. He give me an enthusiastic nod when I said that I can even help in the loan application. “You are simply super sweet Mr Modak”, Joshi said while ushering me to the door.
So, we sold the HSFA. As expected, our Vadodara engineering unit delayed the delivery by 15 days, but the fact that we had taken the loan from IDBI under the Scheme, the delayed loan processing insulated Wipro from the wrath of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board.
Very interestingly, we assessed the ETP performance after 3 months, and we found that there was no need for a second HSFA.
After this “hard sell”, I lost my interest in marketing pollution control equipment. My father noticed that I wasn’t able to sleep well at night and so he told me to shift to a consulting engineering company. I enjoyed consulting work. Later, I started Environmental Management Centre LLP, my own consulting company. Now I have been steering EMC for the past 25 years.
When you are in strategic consulting business, there is not much templated consulting possible and each “transaction” is different. Further, the ToRs keep evolving. On many occasions, the proposals we make after a considerable effort and brainstorming, get highjacked. We become a free resource to give a clarity to our potential client on what is exactly to be done. Once clear, the client passes the assignment to one of the big fours as brand names matter. This can be frustrating at times. Skills that I had honed from my mentor RN in selling HSFA to Mr Joshi don’t help here.
My Professor Friend had a good laugh when I told him the HSFA story. He heard me seriously though about my frustrations in providing strategic consulting services. I asked him how he markets his advisory services as I saw him occupied all the time.
“Well Dr Modak, in my case, it goes something like this – I ask “Mr, thanks for reaching me to look into your problem. But is there someone else who could help you solve? If yes, then don’t waste my time and go to that somebody and if no, then let us start our conversation over a coffee”
I was stunned to listen to this kind of a strange “marketing” approach. I wish I could do the same to my clients following his style. But not all are so fortunate and so bold right upfront and can call for such shots!
Imagine, if I had told Mr Joshi that go to Voltas if they could offer him the same HSFA what HDO was offering.
Selling strategic services is quite different from selling products.
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