MINDLESS COMPETITION IS, SADLY, THE NEW NORMAL

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Last week, I had my car serviced at an authorized service station of one of the most popular car brands of the country. I had asked for the car to be picked up from my residence on the appointed day. Due to some miscommunication, the car was picked up about two hours later than the appointed time and taken away after a diligent inspection, photography, et al. The servicing was professionally completed with appropriate feedback rendered and approvals of estimates being sought over the phone. The car was dutifully returned in good order the next morning, with the driver happily whistling a tune as he walked away with his hundred-rupee tip. So far, so good.

Now comes the interesting part – closing the feedback loop. Periodic interactive voice response calls kept coming over the next few days attempting to seek feedback on the performance of the service station in respect of my recent car service. Being a bit allergic to IVRS calls, I kept disconnecting them, sometimes because they came at odd times, and at other times, the IVRS allergy kicked in. After several such rejections, I finally received a call from a lady from the service station. This was when I was sitting inside an aircraft that had just closed its doors in preparation for take-off. These sales folks catch you at times when you are either inside an aircraft, in the middle of a meal or running late for work. I sometimes really wonder if AI is at play here.

Risking the wrath of the rather stern-looking flight attendant, I proceeded to take the call out of sheer courtesy and the guilt of having rejected several IVRS calls. She asked me several routine questions regarding my satisfaction with the service or otherwise. Then she asked, “How would you grade our service overall?” Hoping that this would be the last question before she would hang up, I quickly said, “Excellent.” Now came the trick question, “Sir, if you were to recommend us to a friend, how would you rate us on a scale of 1 to 10?” I thought for a moment and said, “Umm, perhaps 9.”

I felt as if she was punched in the face. “Why 9, Sir?” she wailed. “Why not 10? What have we done wrong?” I replied, “Nothing, it is just an assessment, as you sought.” I thought 90 percent marks was a most respectable distinction. She sounded completely distressed as if she had failed an important examination. She pleaded, “Sir, it is ok that you are saying this to me over the phone. But if you receive a call from the company asking for feedback, please, please, give us a 10 on 10 grading. Anything less would be viewed as an adverse report, and we would have to explain our poor performance.” Sensing her distress, I told her, “Please don’t worry. Is there a grading beyond 10? I’d be willing to consider that, too.” She thanked me profusely as she disconnected the phone. I could visualize a lady of around 35 years sipping cold water and wiping beads of sweat off her brow.

Quite an ordinary happening, but one that is indicative of our times. This intense competition and the attendant high levels of anxiety begin early in life with trying to get a child admitted into a decent school. Thankfully, the parents bear this part of the stress. Soon, children get into performance pressure and have to prove themselves to be better than others. Our education system and standardized testing convert every child into a series of numbers. Examinations and procedures are designed to eliminate, not to facilitate learning and creativity. This is where the culture of ‘performance at any cost’ is nurtured and rewarded. A huge price to pay – sometimes reflected in ultimate acts such as the infamous Kota suicides when students do not make it to top engineering colleges despite two years or more of back-breaking preparation.

Today, even 99 is not good enough. It is time to get real about competition and expectations, not just in schools and colleges, but in every sphere of life.

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