Umesh Soni Sr VP & Corporate Head -Customer Support Group, Ambuja Cement
Ambuja Cement is one of the first few cement companies to start customer service as a vertical in the late 1980s. Even today it is doing significant contribution by educating the customers. Umesh Soni, Sr. Vice President & Corporate Head, Customer Support Group provides us inputs on what is happening today.
Please give us a brief on how customer service activity started in Ambuja Cement?
You may recall that we were among the first to introduce ´Customer Service´as a function to educate the end users of our product. This was in 1987-1988 and it has been our observation that cement is not used correctly or rather misused due to lack of awareness. If you have a 50 kg bag of cement and if it is not mixed with the right amount of water, then it will not achieve the end product correctly. The information on correct use of cement through various programs to construction fraternity started with this idea. Mason is a very important link in the use because he is always there with the product during his work. We thought of educating the masons who are important users of cement. Hence, the need to educate them.
A person constructing a house, wants a strong leak-proof or a crack-proof roof slab on his head. Now though one uses high-quality cement, but if it is not been used properly and not used with the right quality/ quantity of other materials like water, aggregate, sand, etc., then the final product concrete will be of poor quality. Initially in 1987-88, when we started with mason meets, we upgraded our programme to include contractors, engineers, etc. We also started programmes for various stakeholders. There is a big difference in the customer service of Ambuja Cement and that of other cement companies. Our customer service officers do not work under marketing team and they do not have sales target to achieve like the other cement companies. CSG focuses on initiatives for better customer and influencer experience through services. We have around 180 civil engineers pan India. They are fully utilized only for the application of cement.
How Ambuja Knowledge Centre started off ?
One of our earlier managing directors came up with an idea of starting a Ambuja Knowledge Centre (AKC), where we are sitting now. The idea was launched keeping in mind to create a sustainable platform for construction experts to come together. Engineers and architects come here, learn and exchange ideas and knowledge. In 2009, we started our first centre in Ahmedabad. It is a new concept in our country. At AKC, we never talk about Ambuja product per se; it is all about knowledge sharing and skill up gradation on advancement in technology, material science, education, local issues etc.
We have so far organised over 2,000 workshops in India. We put up quarterly calendar at AKC to know everyone about our forthcoming events. With the success of our Ahmedabad AKC, we got a green signal from the management to go fast, and today we have 23 such centers pan India. An additional 10 new centers will come up by the end of 2016.
We have centers in Chandigarh, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Surat, Rajkot, Baroda, Bhavnagar Kochi, Kolkata, Raipur, Mangalore, Nashik, Aurangabad, Nagpur, Mumbai, Jaipur, Alwar and Ahmednagar. In Mumbai´s AKC, we are getting a huge response to our initiative. During lectures in Mumbai, we find the space provided is inadequate. People come from all over Mumbai. In fact, we have four centers in Mumbai so as to reduce the travel time of the participants.
Give us some historical inputs on the roots of your customer service.
In 2001, when we had the earthquake in Gujarat, a lot of rehabilitation work had to be done. We received an invitation from the Government of Gujarat to participate in mason training programmes. There was huge need of mason training and they asked us to give training to the local people for a duration of one week. A week is such a short duration that we felt no justice could be done to the assignment of training. These people had no background of any construction activity. It the vision of our then Managing Director Narotam Sekhsaria who approved Rs 1 crore for mason training in the earthquake affected Kutch area. Later, this program was extended for an additional month.
Seven engineers were dedicated to this job and we covered almost all the affected villages. After seeing our work, NGO Care International got associated with us and project progressed further. The project got further extended for an additional two years in the affected area and we covered almost all the villages to impart training. In 2009, we were once again called to Gujarat to help upgrade the skills of tribal communities under the government´s tribal development program. We imparted training to the less privileged in Gujarat for nearly three years. It has always been our endeavor to do the right things for the right people.
Give a glimpse of the activities you carry out today?
We carry out many training programs, workshops and seminars all through the year and all across the country. Our programs are chargeable from Rs. 1000 - Rs. 4000. Participants come from different levels like GM, VP etc from various segments like mass housing, infrastructure and commercial institutions like Hiranandani and Raheja, among others. This is not-for-profit but to create a seriousness on what we do. The success of the program is evident when organisations keep sending their people repeatedly.
All AKCs are attached to laboratories. Here in Andheri, we have a lab spread across 2000 sq. ft area close to our office. It is equipped with all modern and state-of-the-art equipment for cement and concrete testing. We can perform tests on High Performance Concrete as well as Self Compacting Concrete. The laboratory has NABL accreditation. Three more labs in the other regions will have NABL accreditation in the coming months. We have set up laboratories wherever our cement goes. As part of knowledge sharing platform, in the past we had invited Prof. William Baker of Illinois University who was structural designer for the iconic Dubai structure, the Burj Khalifa. Prof Baker met 20 topnotch consultants from Mumbai, Pune and around on various aspects of tallest structures in presence of our MD.
Ambuja has a long history of publishing very useful hand books for the use of engineers at site. Please give us an update?
We publish coffee table booklets on different themes e.g. for site engineers, we cover subjects like ingredients of concrete, admixtures, Concrete Mix Proportioning etc. We are now converting these books in digital form and this will be available to younger readers the way they love to read.
For training masons, we choose a subject like plasters, tiling, plastering etc. Some basic booklets are created for masons in the local language. For house builders, we have literature on buying of materials like steel, bricks, tiles, why use cover blocks etc.
How do you select your audience, especially the mason category?
Generally we make announcement of the mason training beforehand and are very selective about the participants. We customise the programs to the participant requirements. Commitment of my team is very high. In spite of all odds they honour their commitment for training. Only on completion of training, are certificates issued to the successful candidates. You will be surprised to know that the certificates we have issued to engineering participants are part of their CVs they submit while seeking jobs.
Tell us something you have done for curing of concrete which is a serious problem faced everywhere.
It started about four years ago. We have developed Modular Curing Solution consist of Plastic (HDPE) sheets with Velcro. It is an alternative method to conventional moist curing methods giving effective, efficient and hassle free curing saving huge amount of precious water. We have these sheets in different sizes and all our offices are equipped with sufficient number of sets. These are reusable sets. These can be laid on the slab immediately after casting with the use of velcro, it can be tied up. These can used by our end users and then will be brought back to us. It is a novel idea and getting popular.
What is the road ahead?
Our promise to our customer is to create value for them through our products and services which enables them to build strong houses. Inspite of poor economic conditions, we continue our efforts. We also intend to increase our reach of our value-added services.