Monday, November 11, 2013

The powerful charm of biometrics-based loyalty management

In an age where we are so used to technology smashing through its own boundaries all the time, it takes quite something for technology to take a revolutionary leap instead of an evolutionary one. It takes quite something for a technology to pack some “WOW” punch into its results.

Udupi – a small, tier-3 temple town – isn’t particularly the first place you would think of when you think of technology.

Udupi Residency is a somewhat nondescript hotel in the town of Udupi. I have been using this hotel during my not-infrequent trips to Udupi for over 8 years now. It’s certainly not a hotel that I would pick if I were vacationing. Pick any parameter that you would want to rate a hotel on, and I might give it a 2.5 in my most generous moments. Yet, ask me to pick a hotel in Udupi for a night or two that is family-friendly, conveniently-located, economical, offers good service and all I want the room for is to sleep at night and get ready in the morning, and I will unhesitatingly pick this hotel.

Then again, ask me to list the hotels that have wowed me with effective use of customer-delighting technology and Udupi Residency wouldn’t have figured in the top-5,000. Heck, it doesn’t even have an internet connection for guests, let alone WiFi.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised by my recent experience – and somewhat taken aback by the consequent realization – of how Udupi Residency has leveraged a very sophisticated biometrics-based loyalty recognition technology at all levels.

Starting with the watchman who helped me park. He greeted my effusively as I got out of the car and even apologized that he didn’t realize “it was me”.

I stopped dead in my tracks, dumbfounded.

It was only the first of the surprises in store for me, though. It was more than 8 months since I had last stayed at the hotel and I didn’t expect that anything had changed. But the receptionist, the bell-boys, the waiters in the in-house restaurant and the room-service boys were all equipped with this powerful solution and readily flashed me a “hello-again” smile.

What really took the cake – or served as the icing on it if you may – was at breakfast the next morning. The bashful morning-shift waiter gave me a “hey-its-you-again” smile and when I asked for the menu, he waved off my request, saying “Same menu, saar. Nothing new” instead of handing me the menu.

Early in my professional career, I was closely involved in building a fairly intricate and powerful loyalty and rewards management engine. Among other complexities, one of the particularly challenging features that we were proud of was the deduplication algorithm we were running. And here I was in Udupi seeing a far more sophisticated "deduplication" technology in action. 

Without a single line of code.

It took a while to sink in.

But when it finally did, I was left fascinated at how the most powerful and complex technologies we have today pale in comparison to the oldest biometric technology in the world: old-fashioned facial recognition by human beings. The most powerful loyalty management software in the world.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Like many other kids of my day & age I used to be an avid reader of Amar Chitra Katha.

One story that left an impression on me was of these two kings whose chariots came to block each other on a narrow bridge. The first charioteer submits to the second charioteer that the latter must make way for the first king since the first king was held in high esteem by his subjects and that "he did good to those who did him good and retaliated against those who sought to harm him". To which the second charioteer responds, "In that case, it is your king who must make way. For, my king is held in high esteem because he does good to those who do him good and even to those who seek to do him harm".

The first charioteer and king at this point, bow to the second king and acknowledge that the latter is indeed the greater one for he does good to those who do him good as well as to those who seek to do him harm.

The moral of this story - viz., do good to all whether or not they do good to you - served to reinforce the various incarnations of "do unto others as you would have them do" that were taught to us kids all the time. It also seemed to explain Gandhiji's "turn the other cheek" doctrine - another common refrain we were taught to drive home the point that violence isn't the right answer to violence.

These were my first and early lessons in "reciprocity" and its influence.

As we grew up though - and out of the Utopian world we created from our own innocence - we naturally began questioning the wisdom and efficacy of such total abstinence from aggression.

Sometimes consciously, sometimes sub-consciously; sometimes philosophically, sometimes out of despair; the doubts in our mind kept growing - as did our inability - to refrain from tit-for-tat.

In our lives and our roles at work and home, we encounter a slew of personalities. Whether or not we rationalize people's behaviours and whether or not we understand their intent and circumstances, fact of the matter is, we have to deal with unpleasantness. Sometimes it's benign irritants we have to deal with; sometimes it's an impulsive verbal jab that hurts; sometimes it's plain rudeness; sometimes it's inconsiderate behaviour; at times it's even ill-concealed malafide intent.

I am often faced with a quandary under such circumstances. Do I continue to do unto others as I would have them do, or do I do unto others as they did? Do I yield to someone who is deliberately trying to manipulate me to suit his or her own agenda or do I manipulate in return? Do I continue to be graceful to someone who is a pain-in-the-<whatever> or do I too make a nuisance of myself?

Sometimes it's just a matter of a behavioural trait. Do I don the hat of a diplomat and a gentleman even when dealing with a rogue? Or do I sully my own dignity and respond in their wavelength? Do I continue being kind to a jealous neighbour or do I repay his or her pettiness? Do I act haughty with an arrogant, selfish person or do I just continue being above-board? Do I continue accommodating the requests and whims of someone who is rigid and inflexible all the time or do I just tell him/her to go **** a tree?

But sometimes it gets darker and skirts matters of conduct and integrity. Do I cheat because I am dealing with a cheater and he has cheated me anyway? Do I indulge in sharp practices to settle scores with someone who has anyway taken advantage of me?

And then there's the role of reciprocity in international relations. Does possession of nuclear arms truly act as a deterrent or does it in fact, spur an arms race? Does stoic diplomacy always yield results or should you once in a while just get out of your chair and kick the aggressor hard where it hurts? By the same token, does aggression cause the opponent to cower or does it just foster a sense of hatred and revenge?

The answers aren't easy to come by and there's hardly ever a clear-cut answer or a black-and-white choice to make. There is always the temporary and vindictive joy to be sought by repaying unkindness with inkindness, but there's also the danger of setting of a continuing chain reaction.

Most far-reaching though, is perhaps reciprocity's other side: its utility as a subtle but effective behaviour-influencing tool. Reciprocity is after all, the basic human instinct to mirror the very treatment one receives.

When it comes to dealing with difficult people, I consider my father's and grandfather's track record to be an exemplary one. I have seen them persuasively drive things to an advantageous closure with many a obstinate moron, arrogant scoundrel and shrewd manipulator where the instinct of the average person - mine, certainly - would be to just reach out and deliver one tight slap. At least verbally, if not physically.

My abilities are a far cry from theirs but my limited attempts have yielded fascinating results. Be it trying to inculcate simple disciplines at the work-place, be it laying down an implicit code of conduct with children, be it making requests for some extra effort or be it negotiating prices with a measly vendor - not only has kindness, respect or considerate behaviour been reciprocated, but more importantly, by not succumbing to the temptation of reciprocating, tact won the day.

That is not to say that you blindly turn the other cheek. Indeed, experts believe that Gandhiji's satyagraha would have failed had it been Hitler and not the British that he was dealing with. In times of such quandary, I am reminded of another story I read. This one too, in Amar Chitra Katha, and is one that balanced out in some way, the story of the kind king's chariot.

There was this cobra that used to menace a village till one day, an ascetic bemoaned him to leave the villagers in peace. The cobra heeds this advice and begins to lead a peaceful life. 

A few days later, some children from the village happen to see the cobra lying still. They presume the cobra is asleep and decide to avenge all the months of trouble they faced at the hands of the snake and attacking it sticks and stones. Heeding the sage's advice, the cobra lies still and is badly injured.

That evening, the sage happens to come by and finds the injured cobra and asks what happened. When he hears what happened, he admonishes the cobra for lying still when he was attacked. 

"I told you not to bite, but I didn't tell you not to hiss".

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Through the Looking Glass

Before my very eyes, a year has passed!

At this time last year, I had just woken up with an overwhelming sense of "melancholy anticipation" as my wife and I prepared to turn the page on what has clearly been the most exhilarating chapter of our lives.

Notwithstanding our kind friends who stopped by to help (one of whom just took the day off impromptu in order to help us!), the tasks for the day ahead were as daunting as they were trivial: daunting in terms of the sheer volume of pending work, and yet seeming so trivial in comparison to the enormous leap of faith we were about to take and the uncertainties - of sorts - that lay ahead.

As I look back, I am bemused at the paradoxes that have defined the year - the very things we cherished so much turned out to be the source of our pain: the very friends with whom we forged the strongest bonds were the very cause of our relocation becoming so difficult! The very values, practices and mindsets that gave us our foundation as children and then as adults turned out to be at loggerheads with what lay ahead, as we grappled with a transition that spanned geographies and professions and a transition that had to bridge generation gaps and lifestyle-whitespaces.

As I lay suspended between yesterday and tomorrow, it is perhaps time to stop being fixated on the reflection in the mirror and focus on what lies ahead. It is perhaps time to look "through the looking glass". 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Nokia: Never Say Die

Nokia 3310 - victim of
its own success
I have been a loyal Nokia user for the last 12 years, ever since I starting using mobile phones - with the Nokia 3310 (the first ever product incidentally, which I have heard of being killed by its own manufacturer because it was cannibalizing the sales of other products).

In the beginning, it was the intuitiveness and standardization - of UI, charger and accessories - that won me over. Even though Nokia clearly missed the bus around 2005-2006 - and probably the whole point too - I continued to be an ardent fan of Nokia primarily because of the ruggedness of their phones. After briefly eloping with Sony and HTC for a couple of years, I returned home to Nokia in 2008 even at the peak of doomsday predictions pouring in from all quarters.

Connecting People:
Your Nokia is always returned!
The upside of the scorn heaped upon me for my open and stubborn loyalty for this then-pronounced-dead brand, came in the form of safety: I could leave my phone and bluetooth headset lying around anywhere in the office and at parties without fear of theft or loss: not only was there no one who cared to "keep a Nokia for themselves", but also, everyone knew it was mine so it was always returned to me!

Over and above all the falls my various Nokia handsets have survived, the most startling experience with Nokia's ruggedness came late in 2011 when I accidentally drove the edge of a tyre of my 4,500-lb SUV over my BH-607 bluetooth headset. The collage below tells you the story of what happened to it - viz., almost nothing! Of course, it isn't really usable, but it still works!

Story of a BH-607 run over by a 4,500-lb SUV - it survived!
(note the red light in the last picture indicating that the unit is charging)

Nokia Lumia 920
as featured on
Perhaps their products are a reflection of the company's attitude - ruggedness, perseverance and a never-say-die attitude. Even if sometimes fuelled by oblivion to what just happened in the real word! :)

While the Lumia series - most recently, the 920 - seems to have raised a flicker of hope, doomsday predictions haven't totally disappeared.

And yet, that does not seem to have deterred the spirit of the company in keeping at its goal.

However, what really bowled me over was my E-71 battery's performance in the last 72 hours - I was travelling and forgot to carry my charger. Unlike in the days gone by, Nokia chargers are hard to find and I had to literally reach out through my network to pull strings to get a Nokia charger. While I did get a charger, the morning I was to travel back, at 7AM, the phone began beeping "Low Battery". Given that the phone and battery are almost 3.5+ years old I knew the battery was already on an extended lease of life.

I had my fingers crossed even as I was frantically communicating over SMS, calls and WhatsApp with friends I had to meet that morning.Despite its incessant protests all morning, it was only at 2PM just as I was boarding my flight, that the battery finally gave up.

Nokia is dead! Long Live Nokia!