January 10, 2006

But she had no way of knowing that

She had the same voice as those who’d called before her, and there were many before her. Maybe she was the same person. I cannot be sure. But when the phone rang in the morning, I picked it up thinking it must be from one of my team mates on the project. It wasn’t. Nobody calls me ‘Sir’ where I work except for the credit card salespeople who dial my number. Actually they don’t know it is me on that number. They know the number, not me.

“Sir, good morning,” she said over the phone.

The voice had acquired the eager tone that is peculiar to people making a sales pitch. The tone turns apologetic in that extra effort to sound friendly, tinged by a tentative, often over-the-top softness that results from knowing that you are making an unsolicited demand on another’s time, and that it is important to say whatever you want to say, quickly, before the other person bangs down the phone.

This places me in an awkward situation: to bang the phone down on the caller or not. Try as I might I’m rarely successful in finding a pause in their sales pitch that I can latch on to and tell them ‘I’m not interested,’ or fob them off with ‘I’m busy right now, and cannot take your call.’ Like people on railway platforms awaiting local trains, their sentences are strung so close to each other, and the torrent of ‘benefits and opportunities to be had from the credit card’ so many that I almost never manage to get a word in, and I bang the phone down, at times, specially when work-deadlines stare back at me from the screen.

Today was different. I’m not sure if it was because there was no pressing work on my desk or because this sales pitch was different from those I’d heard before. For all I know she may have been different herself.

She introduced herself as Nisha from Standard Chartered. I couldn’t help wondering if that name was an interchangeable mask they wear when it is time to dial a number from the list before them because those before her had similar sounding names, easy on the tongue and common enough not to stand out.

The calls are usually made in the mornings, an hour or so after Bombay has settled down from the swirling traffic kicked up by office-goers negotiating the dug-up roads.

She proceeds to offer me a small loan facility of Rs. 15,000 that Standard Chartered has thought up for people who might baulk at larger figures. “All you need is a visiting card, company’s identification card, and you can repay it in six months. The interest rate is so negligible that you could actually think of gifting it,” she said.

“Gifting it,” I exclaimed. This was the first time I’d heard a loan packaged as a gift you can make to another.

“Why not,” she persisted. “You can convert it into a fixed deposit in the name of your parents. After all the interest rate you’ll pay on it is less than what you’ll get from making it a fixed deposit.”

She refused to believe that I had no use for 15,000. “How can you not want 15,000?” she asked, surprised. “How come you don’t want it,” she rounded off. It amused me no end to know that I’d managed to perplex her.

“Because I don’t need a loan,” I said.

She had dialed the number not knowing who would pick it up. She knew it to be a software company though. “I know you’re a software engineer and you earn lots, and 15,000 may not be lots. Maybe you can use it for a party,” she took a different line now. After I was asked which banks I bank with, the cards I use, she asked me to try Standard Chartered. “But I don’t need any. Moreover I don’t use credit cards, only debit cards,” I explained, admiring her persistence. “I’m happy with what I have,” I tell her.

“Imagine you ate pani-puri at a stall, and that you liked the pani-puris from there” she said before continuing, “Then there is this second pani-puri stall that you haven’t tasted yet.” I go ‘hmmm’ wondering what she is driving at.

“So, if you don’t taste the pani-puri from the second stall, how’ll you know it is better than the one you ate,” she asked me.

“What if I fall ill from eating pani-puri from the stall I haven’t eaten from before? Isn’t it better to stick with the one I know is safe?” I counter her.

“But you need to try once else you might be passing up an opportunity,” she refuses to give up, “this loan is an opportunity for you.”

Then I tell her of stories I’ve heard of Standard Chartered hiring criminal or criminal sounding elements threatening the elderly and housewives with physical harm during their loan collection drives.

“But you sound so decent, why should you worry when you pay your loan on time,” she says. I sense she’s taken aback by the turn the conversation has taken. “Have you had such experiences with Standard Chartered?” she asks me.

“No, I haven’t. I never had an account with your bank,” I tell her. “And its not about me having to be worried,” I explain. “It’s about not wanting to have anything to do with a bank that employs such methods. It just shows their mindset,” I tell her, confident she will give up on me now. But I had underestimated her resolve.

“How can you believe other people just like that,” she asked me, defensive.

“Because they’re people I know and trust,” I clarify.

She asks me for their numbers. “I’ll call them up and sort out their problems or misconceptions,” she tells me. I tell her that I appreciate her initiative in wanting to sort out their problems to help clear her bank’s reputation. I meant it. Few people seek to take the kind of responsibility she sought to take.

“Imagine you and your friend are answering the tenth standard board exams. Your friend is not serious about it and has not studied well, and finds the exams a difficult proposition, and hence is apprehensive about answering it. Would you also not answer the exams?” she asks me. “Why should you believe what your friend says, because if you’re well prepared you won’t find the exams difficult.” I see the point she is trying to make.

“Ok,” I say. Her approach, and persistence induced in me a politeness that I rarely display with unsolicited sales pitch. “Leave a contact number behind and I’ll get back to you when I need to avail of this particular loan scheme,” I tell her.

I’m averse to taking any loan unless it’s an emergency, and I haven’t faced an emergency yet. But by the end of her sales pitch I surprised myself by actually thinking of what I could go for with this short-term small loan. I actually pictured the Tamron 70-300 mm lens that I’ve been meaning to buy for quite some time now but could never budget for. I even picture the photographs I aim to take.

Strangely, I sense a hesitation in her voice when I ask her for a contact number I can get back on if required. Her voice is muted.

“Leave a contact number behind, and I’ll call you back if I need the loan,” I repeat. It is met with a murmur at the other end, silence mostly.

I’m surprised at her hesitation. It strikes me then that maybe asking for a number to get back on later is a common practice used by people to shake off the sales pitch, and that most people never get back, mostly because they never meant to, and to the sales person those words indicate that their sales pitch has failed. I’ve done it myself several times, using the same approach, with the same words. But this time around I was serious even if the words I used were the same; I did mean to get back if I felt a need for this loan, and it was likely I would have.

But she had no way of knowing that.

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