Nuggets from the telecom experience — a game-changer in every sense.

There are times when we don't agree with the way things are done in some companies. And then there are your own beliefs that you would like to challenge. There are a few opportunities that allow you to test your own beliefs and existing norms. My stint at Bharti Airtel was one such opportunity.

When I met Sunil (Mittal), I told him that I had never worked in an Indian company. He explained that at Bharti, the culture would be that of a multinational. I told him that wasn't what was being heard on the street.

He told me that I could run the company the way I wanted, but could not change a few things: for instance, the brand, the name, and his equity structure. Now, those are not things that you focus on as a professional CEO!

But he came across as genuine, and his vision had me all excited. He believed we could change the way Indians lived. He has done it. And I am fortunate to have played a role in the creation of an industry that has changed lives and put the economy in gallop mode.

To me, telecom was the mother of all industries. In the first 22 years of my career, I worked in industries where we only met the consumers through marketing research, in focus groups and such. With telecom, it was different.

And in FMCG, if something was not working in one vertical, it would not affect another department the way it does in telecom. It was all the more critical that every person in the organisation understood every function here.

It was very much the start-up stage, in a sense. Bharti had acquired JTM in three circles, two of which were operational. I was CEO of Bharti Mobiles Ltd, handling the Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh circles. When Bharti took over, JTM had 35,000 customers in Karnataka and around 30,000 in Andhra Pradesh. There was no looking back in terms of growth after the takeover. But as telecom professionals of the time will tell you, quality growth didn't come without effort.

Airtel Dialogues

In the first two to three years of our presence, we didn't have too much money to build towers. And at that time, there was no concept of sharing of towers. So it was very critical as to where the towers were located.

Not everyone had a mobile those days, so we could list our customers more easily, and decide where the next set of towers was needed. The belief was that as the customer base expanded, we would expand our coverage with more towers, which eventually happened.

The best thing to do in such a situation was to speak to the top corporate executives, who would be early adopters of the mobile, and the most valuable amongst them, and figure out where we needed to provide network or boost network strength. We didn't want to do it blatantly, but their constant feedback was critical to our growth.

We didn't want the brand Airtel to be seen as asking the route they took to work and back! We also wanted to understand their life, their passions, and dreams. This aligned with the core promise of partnering them, helping them live every moment.

As a CEO, I realised one doesn't find the time to do a lot of things. Paucity of time is an issue. There are CEOs who want to act, learn music, paint, and so on. So could we help them with that? We thought we could, and built ‘Airtel Dialogues'.

We brought together a group of 70 to 80 CEOs in Bangalore; it didn't matter whether they used Airtel or not. We had a meeting every quarter. We had ‘learning time' for an hour-and-a-half, and ‘networking time' post that.

I remember the first programme — it was by Remo, the musician. I told him he wasn't required to perform. He thought I was mad to ask him to teach music in 90 minutes. I explained to him that he needn't teach music, but could help us appreciate music.

Remo made an AV and live demonstration of how Portuguese music changed in different countries — how it is different in Brazil, in Goa, and so on. Another specialist taught us how to draw cartoons. Then we had a live Jugalbandhi with poet-and-singer Hariharan. Rajat Kapur made us write a script and made CEOs play roles.

In the bargain, without the intention of probing, we picked up stuff that helped us improve our service. Through another programme, the most interesting information picked up was this: I realised that N.R. Narayana Murthy didn't carry his mobile home from the office. So I asked him what he did when he needed to call someone while driving back home from work. He said he used his driver's phone while in the car.

We had another most valuable customer from that day; and absorbed one more learning along the way.

The one-rupee project

We started experimenting with quality. Our quality manager introduced us to the concept of PONC (price of nonconformance). He suggested that the price of non-conformance can be as high as 40 per cent of the top line. I initially thought he was saying it just to make an impact.

I called 30 people across functions and asked them to list all their nonconformances. We had a laundry list of around 100 issues. We tried to put a value to it. The total value, by our own calculations, was well in excess of 40 per cent.

Yes, we had to factor in that at the time, the top line for telcos was relatively small. But the fact was that in whatever stage a company is in, the concept was true. We decided to utilise this to change the way we do business.

I had just returned after presenting the budget for 2001-’02 to the board, for the Karnataka circle. After the presentation, the board allowed me to make a loss of Rs 30 crore. This was against a projected top line of, I think, around Rs 170 crore. I called in the executive team of the Karnataka circle (of around 10 people) together. I explained the concept of PONC. If we could reduce nonconformance by even 50 per cent, we would have wiped out our losses.

We picked the big non-conformances, by applying the 80-20 principle. I told the team, ‘Give me a profit of Rs 1 for the year’. It was called the ‘One-rupee project’. We delivered a profit of Rs 18 crore. There was no looking back from that point.

To implement PONC, people needed to understand how other functions worked and what impact each non-conformance would have on other parts of the company.Knowledge of the benefits of crossfunctional experience I was exposed to at P&G came in handy. At Airtel, I insisted that to become COO of a circle, one must work a year-and-a-half or two in atleast two different departments. It went down well. The VP sales and marketing came back and told me he didn’t realise how tough customer care was until he had to do it himself.

(Jagdish Kini is Founder, enterprise 5c Management Consultants. He can be reached on

(As told to Gokul Krishnamurthy)

(This article was published on April 13, 2012)
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