Sunday, July 14, 2013

Guest is God

After having lived and worked in India for nearly five years, and now working and living back in the U.S., there is one Indian cultural practice I would like to import: the value imputed to guests.

In most crowded, bustling cities of the world, people behave indifferently to the strangers around them. If one were to greet strangers in a city of 7 million, he would never get anything else accomplished. India is no different. As odd-looking foreigners, my family was often the object of stares or even shock from some individuals who hadn't had much in-person exposure to outsiders.

There was a stark contrast, though, when we went from being a "stranger" to a "guest." As guests in someone's home or at a family event, such as a wedding or even a funeral, we were treated with honor, served food first, entertained and engaged by relatives of our host, and given prominent seats. Some of our friends even asked their grandmother to move and insisted that I sit down in a chair near the wedding ceremony while most other guests stood. We were always grateful to be treated with such kindness and were sure to express our thanks and reciprocated this behavior to the best of our foreign ability whenever an Indian guest visited our home there.

We learned that, when surrounded by strangers and feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, such as when negotiations with a taxi driver weren't going well, we needed to recategorize ourselves in the minds of the crowd around us in order to make progress. If I was haggling with a string of taxi drivers over the price of a trip across town, I simply needed to ask another pedestrian for directions and usually that total stranger would volunteer to negotiate with a taxi driver in my behalf. I went from being a stranger, and thus treated by other people as just part of the scenery, to being a guest. Therefore someone whose name I didn't even know would spend five or ten minutes explaining the best route to get somewhere, getting me a good price from a taxi driver to get there, and then cautioning me about how to ensure I was not going to be taken advantage of.

The phrase I often heard when Indians were discussing the honored status awarded to guests was, "Guest Is God," which I have since learned is from a Hindu scripture and may be best understood as an admonition for someone who aspires to be virtuous: "be the kind of person for whom the guest is God," alongside treating one's mother, father, and teacher as God as well.

I would like to convince businesspeople in America that treating guests, or in their more specific case, customers, as if they were God himself would be a "best practice" when it comes to customer service, product development, manufacturing processes, cost control, and marketing. Unfortunately, modern Western business practices center around the honored place of the shareholder, not the value of the customer or of any other stakeholder (like employees or local communities). There are many exceptions - companies who want to trade goods or services at a reasonable profit - but the vast majority of managers, executives, and administrators have nothing like "Guest Is God" in their value system, but rather they repeat the daily mantra, "Maximize Shareholder Value."

What do you think - how should the classic dilemma between the value of the customer and the value of the stock be settled?

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