Southern Investments (SI) added Sales to my portfolio about two years into my career. I was placed as the Sales Manager along with my old friend J, as my assistant, at our Head Office in Madras. I had been handling, what is today known as CRM, for almost six months prior to this. I was extremely lucky that I had directly been in construction before this and between actual site experience and CRM, where I handled the modifications required by the Clients, I had a fair idea of what the product I was selling was. SI gave me a grounding that I doubt too many business promoters would give their own children. I was trained so well and had bear my share of being chewed up for mistakes including owning up to idiocy I committed. I got the confidence to be able to sell the product because I had spent a lot of time at site, gaining what can be referred to as , ‘shop floor’ experience. To be able to sell well, you need to understand your product. Selling residential units is a very different task to selling any other manufactured goods. The closest it can be compared to is when you are sold a holiday package. Why? Its because you are selling a dream. Till a short while ago we sold apartments before we even broke ground. We took money, hard earned money, from people for whom this was going to be their only house. We asked them to believe us and wait and keep paying us till we gave them their apartment. Risky? Very. However, we had to sell and people bought. We delivered; so there was trust. Selling an SI product was not very difficult in those days.
In the early days of my career, there were no home loan facilities. We sold to people who had the savings and therefore when a sale happened we were sure of the funds coming in on time. Interestingly, one of the first buildings that I handled both CRM and then Sales , was one where SI, for the first time, pitched its product based on the needs of a community . T. Nagar, in the early 80’s etc was a very Tamil Brahmin area and this building sold very quickly.Out of 32 apartments 29 were sold to the Tamil Brahmin community. Two went to the craziest Tamil Christians in Madras, in those days, and one to a Malayali. What stood out was the fact that we had worked out a payment schedule of payments every alternate month. I would send out a reminder two weeks ahead of the scheduled due date and without fail, almost 100% of the payment came in on time. I realised the strength of India’s middle class and their total aversion to debt, in those decades, when I started dealing with this building and the clients there. The crucial design that we had to ensure was one Toilet having a European Water Closet (EWC) and the other had to have either an Indian Water Closet (IWC) or an Asian Water Closet (AWC), in this building.
Then I moved to Bangalore. Bangalore was another cup of tea. So, totally different from Madras. Remember, the Madras of 1986 and the ‘Chennai’ of 2020 ran on two different engines. As a college going guy the joke was – ‘ If you have a car of your own go to college in Bombay, if you had a bike it was Bangalore and if you had nothing, Madras’. Anyway, Bangalore was and still is the strangest city in India. When I moved here we had a mix of more non Kannadigas than Kannadigas in the city. At one point the mix had tilted to almost 85% being non Kannadiga. ( It is still warped in favour of non – Kannadigas).More than that the dreaded colour of money was more prevalent in Bangalore than Madras. I learnt all about that and more – selling in Bangalore. I also learnt that I had to be careful and count every bundle of money if people paid receipted cash. On one occasion I nearly lost 120 rupees – 6 notes of 20 rupees each. Considering my salary was 1500 bucks, that would have meant it was almost 10% of my salary. Thankfully we counted the bundle and the fellow who nearly had one on me took the six notes out of his pocket and pretended that he made a mistake . I never had to do this in Madras. Never in those days.
We were selling beautiful apartments opposite the Ulsoor Lake at Rs.350/- per sft. I opened a new development on Hayes Road and started selling at Rs. 460/- per sft. I was told that the price was too high!! I learnt about negotiations. The bottom line on selling prices was drawn by our HO and I must say I was able to sell everything above the bottom line. I learnt very soon to watch customers, especially when they came with either their spouses or other family members. I learnt to suss out who the decision maker was and subtly moved my attention to that person. In my career I must have come across only about half a dozen cases where the male spouse was the decision maker. However, almost always the final decision maker was the wife. Remember, in those days women did not work, at a career outside their home, as much as they do today. Therefore, where they lived was determined by their access to schools, markets, places of worship, railway stations. Not airports, there were no malls, nothing fuzzy. Simple and straightforward. Then there was proximity to the Clubs too. We, at sales, had a hand in deciding if locations were good as they had to meet these criteria. We had problems selling near the Ulsoor lake – why? because of mosquitoes in the evenings. Also the lake emitted a smell sometimes. Can you imagine today’s Bangalore having such issues as negatives?
There was a thumb rule we followed. It was that we should convert between 1 out of 7 walk in customers to a maximum of 1 out of 10. Now, in the days prior to 1997/98 – there were people who inquired by post, by telephone and also walked in. I learnt to be able to make the conversion rate fairly easily in the early days. The market was quite good and SI was the Leading Developer. I also learnt to be able to converse with walk ins and make them comfortable. We never went with them to the site in those days, they visited it themselves. I realised that a conversation must be a mix of ‘the subject’ and other subjects that may interest the walk in. So, I started reading about topical matters, never discussed politics or religion and also learnt to know what interested my visitor. We also made it a point that a sale had to be concluded by the second visit of the interested persons to the office. If you did not close the deal by even by the third, there was a problem with you. If it did not happen by the second, you needed to assess the concerns and try and bring them back to meet again with an answer to their queries. We had to send reports of visitors and inquiries to the HO, every weekend. It was possible that you asked the General Manager if he could have a word with some difficult client. This was very rare. However, we also got feedback from HO as some visitors were prone to complain about any kind of behaviour, from us, which did not suit them. That was a part of life. We also had prospects calling the Directors and trying to get discounts. They were mostly very clear that they would not interfere. SI was excellent in delegation and we were given responsibility for targets. So, if a Director gave a discount he was responsible.
We advertised very rarely and it was almost all in Black and White, in the newspapers, till the end of the 80’s. Advertisements were approved by the HO, later we had the authority to approve. I remember that on one occasion I approved an advertisement that showed a chess board and the copy said that a decision to buy was like a chess move. Now, I got flak from the Director in Charge of this saying that we should not equate buying an apartment with a game. Okay, point taken. I also remember we advertised, that for the price of an apartment we sold in 1981 we could get only a bedroom and a kitchen in 1989. A delegation of buyers from V Bank came to meet me asking if we had the option of selling a bedroom and a kitchen. I explained the advertisement and ensured they were not embarrassed but both sides left the meeting with a smile at what was a faux pas on the part of the V Bank employees 🙂
In July 1985, while I paced the corridors of the nursing home , an advertisement for a new project of ours was released by mistake, on the day my daughter was born. After I saw my child I went to office to tell them I am taking the day off when I realised the advertisement was released and the office was full of walk in visitors. I sold three apartments by lunch time at which point my Secretary sent me home as I was exhausted and told the others to come the following day or sent them on site visits. The three I sold to did not even see the site. Strange? Well, that was how it was. We sold the building of 32 apartments on Millers Road, in one month. Price started at Rs. 315/- per sft and the final price was Rs. 375/- per sft.
Before I end this part of the blog, I thought you must know that the builders in those days, had extremely good relationships as almost all were old Bangalore folks or like us were from friendly Madras. I have, on many occasions, sent prospects for apartments in localities where we did not build, to other builders who had buildings in those localities. Can you imagine that happening today? Somewhere Bangalore lost its innocence and selling became a tough battle and survival of the fittest was the name of the game. More on Sales later…