My father lived a fulfilling life. Even though he migrated to a new culture in Calcutta early in his life, he learned mannerisms and nuances of languages, something very few could relate to. He was perhaps more learned than he was educated, and we used to call him ‘Abbu Sahab’.
He had built an optical shop with his rigor, in the busiest business district of Calcutta. Because optical is a personal wear product, a high level of subject matter expertise and personal touch are required. This was quite unlike today when optical products are sold more like commodities. Given that the shop was located in the heart of the old business centre in Calcutta, the shop provided an opportunity for him to interact with a high volume of customers from different backgrounds.
I grew up noticing the ease and felicity with which he would architect conversations with established businessmen, scholars, doctors, imams, poets, pandits, cobblers, daily wagers and vegetable vendors. And each of them would end on a very satisfying note for all the people involved. Looking back, it required a command on more than just the language, more importantly, on the emotional intonation of the phonetics and expressions.
For instance, much before face recognition evolved as an AI manifestation, I had evolved within me, by virtue of looking at people over a period of fifteen years from various cultural backgrounds and interacting with their faces, the human version of face recognition technology. By the time I graduated, I could by looks and the phonetics of people, place a Japanese, Nepali, Chinese, Korean, Malaysian, Brits, Bihari, Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Gujrati, Marwari, Keralite, Christians, Muslims, Anglo-Indian, Iraqi, Irani, Luckhnavi, Rampuri, not to mention the people in between.
As fate would have it, I traveled from the optical shop to the user experience space, and found early success as I rose through the ranks to lead design teams across Sapient, Nokia and a few successful startups. The exposure at my Abbu’s shop had provided me an early understanding of cultures, languages, human emotions and above all, a ring-side view of creating delightful experiences for humans.
First impression should be humane (Garam Joshi / Shafqat)
This was the motto which Abbu would repeat quite often. He would welcome each customer like a long-lost friend, with a smile and by extending his hand for a firm hand shake. For others with whom he had a stronger rapport, he would get up from his seat to welcome them.
This was a great start to the relationship – human, emotional and warm. This could be the reason why customers would come, from as far as 100 kilometres, to get their optical glasses made at our shop. It used to defy logic why a customer would travel 100 kilometres just to get their glasses made. Perhaps they would come to receive the warm welcome or maybe for other reasons outlined ahead.
Name always and language first
Abbu would almost always remember the name of the customer and often use a smattering of the customer’s native language to put him at ease and warm up to the customers.
I have learned over the years, that remembering and calling a person by his name has an empathetic effect that cannot be equaled by anything else. It rekindles dormant feelings and strengthens emotional bonding which is now taught as the cornerstone of customer experience personalization.
Empathy cannot be a process, it is a feeling
Abbu Sahab had a seasonal routine. At the start of a season and at the end of the day, when we were heading toward our home, Abbu Sahab would buy a larger lot of seasonal fruits and distribute it among the poor. So that the poor could get to taste the seasonal fruit before we could relish it through the season.
It is the same empathy he extended to his customers as well. Customers who were waiting for their orders to be completed, would be asked to join us for lunch at the shop. It is another matter that none of them would join, but as their smile reflected, they were delighted that somebody had empathy towards their hunger or the physical / mental state they were in. At times, sandwiches or some other lighter snacks would be ordered for lunch for these customers.
This I believed stemmed not from his quest to build customer relationship but was rooted in his approach to connect at a human level. And I have come to realize that empathy can’t be a process, it is a feeling. For I believe if serving lunch was made a process at the shop, it would have taken the away the warmth and the stoking of emotional satisfaction.
Honesty is not by design but by intent
Even by the standards of interiors in the 90’s, our shop was not the best-designed shops, and at places, appeared run down. But it continued to attract a wide range of customers from well-placed backgrounds – the Marwari money lender, the Bengali tea garden manager, IIM graduates and distributors – the list could go on. And this used to baffle me and other shop keepers around as well… How come so many well-heeled customers kept coming to our shop.
I was to realize it much later, when I discovered Clement Mok and that Design means being good and not just looking good.
And so, honesty has become the cornerstone in the way I make design fulfil the objectives of the business or the needs of the users. It has also been my guiding philosophy on how goodness should stem from the spirit of the product or solution and should not just be an appearing-good factor.
Always and always part on a high note
At times, the shop would be loaded with customers but amidst all the din he would make sure to have a word and a parting smile for departing customers.
He would always separately stock exclusive optical cases and eyeglass cleaning clothes. These were mostly reserved for highly loyal (repeat) customers, well placed executives and would also get extended to a customer whose order execution had faced glitches. This was an attempt to make up for the rough patch during the interaction cycle and it worked. It was like saying with a smile, that we regret that you had a rough patch and we are trying hard to please you – please keep coming back.
Though Abbu is no more, the understandings I gained at Abbu’s shop continue to be the guiding light on human experiences. And even in the age of Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence, I am committed to exploring how emotional intelligence can be infused in machine invoked human behavior and intelligence.
Published on 8 November 2021