Hi… I am Aishwarya (Rai)…

Friday, February 12, 2016

“Hi Guys… I am Aishwarya… Good to meet you all…”

Sanju (Sanjana – Aishwarya Rai nee Bachhan) just stopped short of asking for Pepsi… because half the men in the room had swivelled out of their swivelling chairs… the other half had their tongues lolling out, salivating for the snickerdoodles that were never served… the third half had flailed their arms in the air to catch those eyeballs that had just shot out of their sockets to put them back where they belonged…

With (Lehar) Pepsi coming into the market in 1993, it would only have been the right choice, had she said… “Hi… I am Sanjana… Got another Pepsi”?

…The Lehar Pepsi ad 1993 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aptaw0QgcsA

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One of the most prolific customer oriented brands in an emerging Indian Economy of the early 1990s… American Express, one of my first employers, had started putting together some delightful dudes and dolls to serve the customers of a new era…

Short of just an army that was being assembled for a war that would fore-write history… some of us fresh hires used to flock into our Basant Lok office in (New) Delhi on foot (physically living out of the basement at our B-Lok offices 24/7)… some came in the Maruti 800s (a sign of ‘arrival in life’ of those times)… but many of us, on bikes… and I… on my BC (Bajaj Chetak)…

For the more affluent – the Blue Box customers… the American Express Card, billed in Indian Rupees, was one of the first (credit) cards launched in the country… and flaunting it in your wallet – even today – is signalling “having arrived in life”

But for the wannabes with a panache for upward mobility… Ogilvy and Mather, the advertising partner provided an absolute high level titillation – with advertisements that read – “Quite Frankly, the American Express Card is not for Everyone…”

What unfolded was history… for the newly set up American Express TSC – Telephone Service Centre – of which I was a part… receiving calls from the wannabes was ever eventful… and in a fairly “English” driven Economy of the times, a credit card from a multinational brand meant you, as a customer, needed to measure up to the “English” of the brand…

And we were ready… our Marketing proposition for the product was clearly spelt out in each word that we used… particularly in Delhi where a Khanna wanted a card because Kapoor got an “invitation” to become an Amex Cardmember…

From – so, why the hell didn’t Khanna get “invited”…

To… why is this a “Cardmembership” – after all, I will put a piece of plastic in my wallet…?

To… and if this is a Membership – are you a Club…?

To… and what is a Charge card and why is this not a Credit card…?

To… and how are you different than “Indian Express”…?

To… and why was my card application declined…?

To… and what do you want Ravi – tell me your price – I want the Card…?

And… to… don’t tell Khosla that my card application got declined – otherwise he would tell the entire neighbourhood…

From questions… to pleas… to qualms… to plaints… and plaudits in between… we braced them all… after all, being a part of the industry even before the industry is born… is like “Barkhuddaar – tum jis school mein padhte ho… hum us school ke Principal reh chuke hain…” (I have been there much before you, buddy… and have been a pro at it)…

The “Call Centres” were yet to be born later in mid 90s in a big way… but Sachin Bountra, William Rikh and I, Ravi Kodukula formed the 3 member team of one of the first Call Centres in the country… and reporting to Joby Joseph, this formidable team started serving customers 18/5 to start with… taking it to 18/7 later… and 24/7 eventually…

For both my BC and I… it was sheer serendipity that we were a part of the spectacle…

Every day was eventful… I had dealt with customers across the spectrum…  and when we launched the “Welcome Call” to the new Cardmembers… it was a dream come true… my conversations with Dev Anand, Gulzar Saab, Boski (Meghna Gulzar – Gulzar’s daughter) and Rishi Kapoor welcoming them to the American Express family… stand out in my memory…

Alongside the Telephone Service Centre – ran the other 24/7 customer interface unit – the unit that dealt with Merchants (Service Establishments as Amex calls them)… and Travellers Cheque (TC) customers – typically those who lost their TCs… or the banks and FSIs which needed TC authorisations…

This was a male bastion for years to come… and for India, the American Express Card Authorisations (Auths) at B-Lok, was the Sanctum Sanctorum of all that had to do with the Mind, Body and Soul of the firm… and the Telex Machine was called the “GOD”…

Entry to this longish room on the ground floor was by “invitation”… and any entry by any living being other than male… was prohibited by law of the Auths land… and the inhabitants inside the room had to be forewarned at least a half hour in advance so that they get into propriety… of language… of sitting, standing or snoring postures… and of general human behaviours that are acceptable in an otherwise civil society…

And when Aishwarya Rai entered the room… that evening in November 1993, just a couple of months before she was crowned “Miss India World”… and unannounced at that… the behaviours were far from proper…

Who cares for propriety anyway… when one of the most gorgeous women in the world comes calling…

Aishwarya Rai was a celebrity as an upcoming model at that time, and was in Delhi and in Amex Auths… brought in along by none other than John Smith (name changed to protect John’s sanity… John is still with Amex today and is a celebrity himself)…

John himself was a model at that time, and was still hobnobbing in the modelling world after he had recently joined Amex… John’s most lucid commercial that I recall, was “Clinic Plus” in 1993… now, that’s a hint…

There were no mobile phones at that time… none whatsoever with cameras on them… the only memory that you could save was to walk up to Aishwarya… shake hands with her… and not wash your hands for the rest of your life…

The Aishwarya Rai, Ritu (Mahima) Chaudhary, Aamir Khan Pepsi ad had just hit the market… and I had just shaken hands with Sanju (Sanjana – Aishwarya Rai)…

November 1993…

By the Way… Got another Pepsi?

Have a Great Weekend…

Ravi Kodukula

 

——————–

The above expression is in response, to put up a post in the Facebook – “Becoming American Express” – share your memorable experience as an employee… this came up in Facebook this week of February 08…
What I shared are my personal, anecdotal experiences and I have no malice towards any individual or brand – loved or hated… what I wrote is history, and will go down into the future as recording electronically, something that happened in a pre-electronic era…

 

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