Compared to any Tata company, I head a miniscule one at best. I don’t have any pretenses about who I am personally and professionally. But I am a powerful entity when I adorn the hat of a customer.
Long before the Ratan Tata / Cyrus Mistry war broke out, I as a customer knew that something was radically wrong at one of the Tata group’s flagship venture; the Taj group of hotels. A Tata venture is regarded as a ‘safe pair of hands’ when it comes to business ethics. The Tatas are quiet philanthropists who believe in giving without sending their PR department into a tizzy. But something changed over the years. The focus of the hotel moved away from ethics and came to reside purely on the profit motive. The legendary Taj hospitality lost its sheen. The entire ‘can do’ attitude and customer centricity simply faded into the background. Poor performance was camouflaged by trying to ‘pay’ the customer off. I should know, I experienced it first-hand.
I sent an email to the then Chairman (Cyrus Mistry) along with a copy to the Chief of the Ethics Committee at Tata Sons recounting my experiences over a period of 2 years. This was well before the spat broke out. These were not small indiscretions; they were monumental shifts in the way Tata conducted their business.
The gist of my experience was this.
In mid 2014 we contacted the Taj Group for SAGE’s 50-year celebrations in March 2015. There were various events planned around a particular Delhi venue. The team at SAGE worked with the Taj team to iron out details and a contract was issued. Discussions were on and when the contract was to be signed, we were informed the venue was no longer available. It had been contracted out to someone else. Naturally we were shocked and inquired as to why. Ethics vanished and the legal team took over. They found one clause in the contract buried between the pages. It basically stated that from the date the contract was issued (read sent to the client), if the contract remained unsigned OR even if it were signed and no advance sent within a specified timeframe, the contract was void. I questioned my team who produced several emails volunteering to pay the money but the Taj representative (who had since left the company) had stated ‘there was no rush’.
The Taj group gave us an alternate venue within Delhi. My team documented with them that Sara Miller McCune couldn’t climb stairs and needed wheelchair access. They assured us that this existed. The day Sara arrived, the wheelchair access was ‘under maintenance’ and ‘would be ready in a few hours’. It wasn’t ready for 2 days. There was no access from the hotel rooms to the banquet area. Sara had to take a service elevator to host the event. I cannot imagine a more humiliating experience for anyone. There were other slips and Sara did register a formal complaint with the hotel.
In 2016 SAGE India was to host a joint meeting with the Asia Pacific team. My team started a conversation months ahead of the scheduled date in September 2016. About 3 months prior to the event, I visited the property to finalize the agenda and review the arrangements. Over the better part of the morning, we talked through minute details. When we finalized the agenda we were told the venue was NOT available on the last night and we would need to spend the last day at an alternate property in Delhi. I was livid that the same sort of treatment was being meted out again. We ended up hosting the event at another property.
I don’t know if Mr. Ratan Tata is right about Mr. Cyris Mistry, I am not privy to their exchanges. But as a customer I can clearly state that there was something wrong at the Taj group of hotels.
Yes, I received a response from a senior executive at the Taj group who apologized profusely. He wanted me to believe that these were 3, one-offs (I know its laughable). I don’t think anyone was made to pay for these trespasses and I don’t know if any internal processes were strengthened. True to my word, I haven’t stepped into the Taj for any personal or private event since August this year. I did oblige a visitor by having a cup of tea with him there.
As the CEO it is important I am honest with myself. I also need to take responsibility for the actions of my team mates.
If a customer has been wronged, first apologize in writing without fear that one day the letter would come to haunt you. I never received a response from the people I sent the email to. The response that came to me was over a phone call. I didn’t offend the caller but I didn’t really think the apology was genuine. I did learn something valuable from these experiences though.
Here is what I learnt:
If I have done wrong or have strayed from the path I was expected to walk on, I would acknowledge my mistake.
If there is retribution, I would be ready to do what it would take to set things right.
If I haven’t done anything wrong, I don’t care who is in front of me, I stand tall and I know I will never stand alone.
I hope Mr Tata and Mr Mistry sort out what the institution (Tata Sons) needs. It surely doesn’t need dirty laundry being washed in public. It’s just not what the Tata’s stand for.