It was the early nineties; the winds of change were moving inexorably across the economic landscape of the country as India’s then prime minister, and his able trustees the Finance Minister , and the Governor of the country’s Central Bank, set about breathing new life into the country’s stultified financial climate.
To begin with, the economy had to open up and antediluvian laws and regulations scrapped before foreign investors were enthused enough to invest in the vast potential of the huge Indian middle class which was moving out from a culture of saving to spending-and-splurging mode. Without the much needed and long overdue liberalisation of the economy, who would venture into the morass of India’s bureaucratic red tape, not to speak of the notorious apathy of the Indian banking system?
Already, a few small private banks were showing the way banking should be done, and public acceptance of these small pioneers was evident in no small measure. As the sector opened up to foreign banks the public sector banks, including the one I worked in, could clearly see the warning signals: change or perish. Being public sector the Government of course would be there to bail you out, but what ignominy that would be to those of us who prided ourselves on our hard work and a sincere desire to change with the rest of the world, to be among the best banks in the country.
The first few years of the 90’s were spent in trying to wean bank employees from manual accounting to partial computerisation on the most basic machines which could automatically perform several tedious accounting jobs. Handling theses machines carried an additional allowance so the posts always went to the senior-most employees who actually shied from laying their hands on the keyboard, fearing the worst. The younger and computer-savvy staff were naturally left frustrated and what should have been a boon often turned out a bane.
But it was not only the bank employees who had to get used to this new concept; the customer also fought shy of computerised printouts of his statement of account – he would rather have his pass book than maintain a file of printout pages. The average customer would rather sit in front of a body and face than a machine, he would rather visit the bank than use a debit card. The average age of our customers was 50 plus and a significant segment comprised the pensioner, whose son was away at work for much of the day, the daughter in law either working herself or busy with housework, the grandchildren away at school. He therefore had all the time in the world at his disposal, so what better than to visit the friendly neighbourhood bank ( not those snobby private ones that had no time for oldies like him), where old friends at the counter were never too busy to have a friendly chat and a cup of tea with you and where you could meet your compatriots all as unbusy as yourself and voila, before you know it, it’s time to go back home for lunch!
My challenges therefore were two-fold. First, convince the customer that his bank would soon be able to offer all the latest technology without losing sight of the human element in our relationship. Then came the greater challenge: to convince our own employees that switching to machines would not compromise their jobs, that machines were meant to remove the tedium out of banking and allow them to focus on their core job of customer service. To use such words as ‘What can I do for you’ rather than ‘What do you want’, to be comfortable dealing with younger clients to whom time meant as much as money. To understand that what we with our tremendous manpower could offer was technology with a human face implied a major change in attitude and mindset. It was an uphill task but determination and deadlines made it doable. The spectre of a Y2K disaster had dissipated, the 21st century had come upon us and with it a whole new world in banking technology. Instructions were issued by the top management for total computerisation within 18 months. Those of us in the field had nothing to look forward to but resistance and more resistance.
Exactly 18 months later, after many sleepless nights, many wild swings of blood pressure, much planning and re-planning, many many altercations and pow-wows with the unions, and many frustrations, total computerisation of the 800 plus branches of the Bank was declared. My greatest moment of fulfillment came a few months later, when executives of some of the world’s biggest banks visiting my office, expressed their amazement and wonder at the almost impossible feat achieved within such a short time by a largely computer-illiterate work force .