“Our business with our customer is at three levels — three levels of understanding and meeting his needs. At the bare minimum, which we call direct sales, we talk to the customer to understand his application requirement and what we can do to make his business more profitable.
We try to grasp what we call his key buying factors. These translate into how we define our products and develop them. The voice of the customer is very important to us. In order to arrive at what we call customer-inspired solutions, we even have workshops with our customers involving teams from product development, sourcing, manufacturing…everybody. At this level we, and the product we provide, are very tightly linked to the customer’s application.
The second level is service. If you have bought our vehicle, how do we ensure that it stays up and running? We have to give you the right network. We’ve created a dealer locator on our Website — simply enter your start point and destination and it will generate a Google map detailing where all our sites are en route. And we have a Tatkal hotline you can call for assistance to get your vehicle up and running within 48 hours.
If your vehicle is not up and running, you need to know where parts are available, and where you can find a mechanic. Even beyond that you should feel linked to Ashok Leyland, so how do we promote that? How do we do our advertising, our brand communication? This is one level higher.
At the third level in our customer interaction, we listen to the customer’s latent requirement. He says, “Sir, aapkigaadiachchhichaltihai, parts miltehai… If I have to buy a vehicle I will buy only yours. But driver nahi mil rahahai.” That could be one problem. A customer in some remote part of the country may say, “Resale nahihotahai.” Or, “Aapkigaadibahutachchhichaltihai, but can you help me with return loads? Can you help me with insurance?”
Ashok Leyland is a big company, if we do insurance on a larger scale, can we do it differently? Not just vehicle insurance — can we help him with comprehensive driver insurance? This third level is the one we are focusing a lot on. And historically, we were already doing this through a CSR-type activity. To date we have trained over 500,000 drivers. We were the first to offer a transport exchange — if you don’t have a return load, call Ashok Leyland and we’ll help you get one. We were the first to launch what we called Altrux — if you buy our vehicle with an annual maintenance contract (AMC), we guarantee a buyback.
We started to do all of these, none profitably, but all driven by the same thing: if this is our customer’s need, and this is what it will take to make him profitable, we have to find ways to do it. Our penetration in AMCs, given the number of vehicles we sell, is probably three times what our closest competitor can claim. But we don’t make money on AMCs, they’re not a profit centre. They do two things — give our dealer improved viability, and our customer better uptime and air cover.
Ashok Leyland takes care of his vehicle, so he doesn’t have to worry about whether he will get parts or service. He no longer has to maintain a fixed workshop and parts depot, or hire and pay mechanics. That’s not his business. We take that headache off of him, and put it into variable cost. He pays us a fixed rate per truck per kilometre. It’s almost pay-per-use. That’s the level of interaction that we want to have with the customer.
We are shortly going to create an organisation that only focuses on this highest level, that will go out and talk to the customer to find out what we can do, that we haven’t already done, to help drive his business. That’s where we start getting into ‘Get me loads’, ’Get me resale’, ‘Get me insurance’, ‘Get me drivers’, etc.
Okay, so how do I get him drivers? We already have a driver training institute, and establishing more facilities is not a problem. But putting them up is a long-drawn-out process — the government has to give us land, and we have to set up a society and build the infrastructure. If every truck hub is to have one, and they must, how do I scale this up from the five or six we’ve done to 20 in a year?
There are three parts to this. One is just to scale up the infrastructure in a manner that I can offer a low-cost solution to this, and don’t have to depend on the government all the time. For the second aspect, I still need help from the government. Having imparted this training, I still can’t issue licences. So how do I create drivers with a licence who are branded Ashok-Leyland-certified drivers?
Today, when I ask drivers to come train with us, with the intention of recruiting them, they say, “Why should I come to you? I know you treat us very well, but I could just go down to the other place, pay some money, and get my licence. Why do I need to spend the three months that you require us to go through?” We don’t just train the person in driving skills, mind you; we teach him healthy habits, try to make him a better person.
Now there are ITIs and there are ITIs, you have diplomas and then you have more diplomas. Likewise, there are driving schools and there are driving schools. So how do we create a distinction? You’re an engineering graduate? Okay, from which engineering college? There are 240 around Chennai, and there’s one down the street called IIT. There’s a distinction.
So how do we create a driver of distinction, get him a licence, and position him at a higher level than those that are available on the market today so we can charge the customer a premium? You might get any Tom, Dick and Harry for Rs 5,000, but an Ashok-Leyland-certified driver will cost you Rs 10,000. And customers are willing to pay, because they know he’s driving a vehicle that costs Rs 20 lakh and is hauling goods that are very expensive, and their entire business depends on it. Fuel economy, uptime, and adherence to delivery schedules all depend on how well he drives.
But the most important thing here is the third point. It’s not about getting a facility up. It’s not about getting them paid well by setting up an Ashok-Leyland-certified driver training programme. The whole thing will boil down to, how do I uplift truck drivers as a community in my society?
I’ve talked to these guys, and we’ve even videotaped many of them. They told us, “If I reach somewhere late it’s my fault. If I reach somewhere early it’s my fault. If I get into an accident regardless of what somebody else did, it’s my fault. I get beaten up by government officials. I have to bribe my way every single day, even though I’ve done nothing illegal. I get stopped at every toll naka. Why am I treated like this? And then society thinks that I cause the spread of bad diseases, so I have trouble getting my children married.” When I listen to this, I cringe in my heart. These are guys who are at the very core of our country’s economy, and we treat them badly. So what can we do to uplift them in society? Today when a truck driver leaves home, he’s not going to be back for 25 days. I’ve been thinking about this, and I don’t have a solution. So we are going to create this group of people and hire a consultant to help us find one.
One thing we’ve already hit upon is to look at our own problems domestically. When I don’t have a driver my home comes to a halt, because my wife doesn’t drive, and my children don’t either. So what do we do? We pick up the phone and call an agency that provides drivers on hire. Now there’s an idea. Why can’t Ashok Leyland become an agency that gives out drivers?
(This is all hypothetical at this point, but I’ve sounded out some customers and all said they’d be very happy if I could give them trucks with drivers. I don’t want to set it up as a profit centre, and I will do it only for Ashok Leyland customers, for existing customers also. I have equal responsibility to them — in fact more to those who have bought our vehicles… How do I make them more profitable?)
So let’s say we create this pool of 1,000 certified drivers. Now you as a customer have a right to hire from this pool, but I will also keep 800 of them with me. You want your vehicles to go from Chennai to Delhi and back? You give me a contract and pay a fixed price per kilometre. By the way, how many drivers I use is my business; I will guarantee that your truck gets from here to there.
You might think of Chennai to Delhi as one leg, but I could see it as eight legs. I will have your trucks going from Chennai to Delhi and another set of trucks returning from Delhi to Chennai. And I will have one driver do the leg from Chennai to Hyderabad, where he hands over to another driver and comes back. So then he can be back home in four days, and then go off on another trip. He’s a uniformed driver, and we’ll have two of them in each truck to back each other up.
It costs money, but at least the customer has the peace of mind that he doesn’t have to worry about drivers. One customer told me, “You know, driver ka problem itnakharabhogayahaiki last year I stopped beating my drivers.” I was shocked when I heard this. “What do you mean you stopped beating your drivers?” “Haan, chorikartehai, yehhai, wohhai.” So they are all considered thieves. Come on, in any industry, in any function, in any community, you’ll have that 1 percent of people who are probably bad. But that doesn’t mean the whole community is bad? They have unnecessarily been stereotyped.
Today people do not mind being a taxi driver. If you have a personal car and you want a driver, you won’t get one. They are all so busy becoming taxi drivers or call drivers, because they love that freedom. We are looking for a solution that allows a driver, if he works for Ashok Leyland, to ply various routes, maybe from Chennai to Delhi today and Chennai to Bangalore another day.
Of course, he will be back home in 4–5 days. He will be fully insured. He will have full communication with our facilities. He will be properly uniformed. He will be properly paid. And he will not be called a truck driver anymore, but a truck operator. Because he’s ‘operating’ equipment worth many millions of dollars.
We need to find a way to offer this at cost. Today our driver training activities are cost-neutral. Can we scale them up but not lose money? Can we have, instead of five or six driver training centres, maybe 30 or 40 or 50? Instead of 1,000 drivers, can we generate 10,000, and create a pool of them? Of course, not all of them will stay back with us. Some will go drive competitors’ vehicles, some others will be poached by a customer. Jaane do. We are doing CSR. We trained 500,000 drivers anyway, and they don’t work for us. And we did that with the intention of serving the community and the industry; we didn’t do it to generate profit.
We will need an organisation to run this. I’ve suggested we follow the Aptech or NIIT model — go out into villages, let’s say, and recruit. If we just advertise that we’re recruiting for truck drivers, it won’t work. But if we brand it something sponsored by Ashok Leyland, and show them uniformed drivers who get a monthly salary, who are home at least five days a month, and every weekend, we’ll have something that could work. We’ll be creating a profession. We’ll be creating professionals.
Those guys who are eighth-grade-passed, the minimum required for a truck driver, and can’t aspire to get a BPO job — we’ll have created something they can aspire to. And the best of those drivers can become trainers, the best of the trainers then can become Ashok Leyland R&D drivers who are tuned to the finest variations in steering and gearshift feel. And the best of those guys then could even start to design trucks for us in future.
You have to create a channel to recruit them into a profession that doesn’t condemn an individual to being a truck driver for the rest of his life but offers him growth perspectives. This thought came from our successful Blessings scheme in Pantnagar, where we made it clear we were not going to hire workmen who would be workmen for the rest of their lives.
In Uttarakhand we go out into the mountains, far away from our plant, and hire youngsters who have passed their 10+2, mostly in the second division. We don’t give them a job; we give them a channel to grow. They are hired as students of the Nettur Technical Training Foundation (NTTF); we give them a stipend, they work on our factory floor for five days, and the sixth day is mandatory training.
My guys were worried that when these youngsters graduate in four years, half of them might go. I said, let them go. Let them aspire for something better. We have 1,000 of them now, and if they continue with us, we have a slew of very well-trained executives. I can make them mechanics, I can make them service engineers, I can make them shopfloor supervisors…
In fact we are now thinking of how we can take this to the next level — can we add another programme on top that allows them to earn a bachelor’s in engineering? They could then go and work in R&D or product development. Imagine a 10+2 guy from faraway Uttarkashi, who’s never been beyond a 25 km radius of his village — whenever I talk to them I say, “I want you to aspire to become plant heads someday, I want you to aspire to become a managing director of a company someday.” You see sparks in their eyes. Now even if we lose a few of them, we’ve created a community.
This is our CSR. We call it business with a heart. We are not in the business of charity, but whatever we do must benefit the community in a sustainable manner. We are not going to create employment; we are going to create employable youth, which is big problem in our industry, and in our country. So similarly, can I do that with truck drivers? And I can only do that if I can show them a career path. That’s the second way of looking at it. And we are completely open for ideas. This is not going to be a competitive weapon — I’m not looking at it as if it will gain me 4 percent in market share. No, I don’t even want it to be translated into market share.
We have two primary goals here. One, our customer requires this because it helps his business. Two, drivers as a community are integral to the success of our industry and, as such, our company. We owe it to them to create something that uplifts them in society. These are the only two things that drive us to do this.”
— As told to Eliot Lobo.
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