The character of the men of Taj

Posted: November 30, 2008 in mumbai blasts Nov 2008, Taj Mahal Hotel
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I have always wondered about what it takes to be a soldier. To go to war to protect your country knowing very clearly that you could die. I am sure it takes a certain character to be that way. Ultimately I accepted for myself that a certain small percentage of citizens who opt to be in the armed forces, have that special character.

On the other hand, I certainly would not associate that character with the men and women that serve us when we go to stay or dine at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. Yes, we associate great service, or perhaps outstanding service since its the Taj. We would associate excellent cooking by the chefs, helpful stewards, great housekeeping staff, smiling reception teams, polite bellhops.. but that’s about it!

Who would have expected that same staff to have phenomenol presence of mind in the midst of terror, to have the spirit of the soldier on the battleground where they put the safety of their guests ahead of their own, and performed heroic acts?? It would have seemed perfectly human if the staff had escaped out, saving their lives first. They are not soldiers and their duty ended when the meal ended at the dinner table. After that, they were like the many others trapped inside – hostages fearful of their lives, hostages having loved ones worrying for them at home!

But as numerous survivors from the Taj have recounted, the staff at the Taj showed incredible and exemplary character, as they put their own lives to risk and tried to save those of the guests. They showed the ways out through the service entries, they calmed the nerves, they guided the guests to keep lights out, they told the guests to stay huddled down, they created the makeshift washrooms for men and women, they had the presence of mind to grab water bottles and food to the extent that they could, before escorting the guests to relatively safer areas in the hotel.

How did they do this? Where did they get this strength? It was no reality show or a banquet room event where they had received their scripts. It was spontaneous, it was impulsive, it was something that apparently came natural to them.

I am totally amazed. To me, its a fanstastic character of the organization that the Taj has built. It must be a rigorous message that is imbibed into the staff through training, through rub-off from others, through various means, that “the customer always comes first”. Ordinarily, it only extends to the point of delivering great service at the hotel. But when this rarest of rare events happens, that same attitude is exemplified in the manner that it just did.

So does it extend across the Tata group? Much as I would like to believe so, I know that it doesn’t. In fact, in recent times, there have been examples of quite pathetic service attitudes at some Tata brands like Croma, Tata Sky and Tata Indicom. So no, the example of the Taj is certainly not visible across the entire group.

Does the attitude extend to all Taj properties? Again, I have my doubts. While all Taj hotels are excellent hotels, the Taj Mahal at Mumbai occupies a very special place in history. There is enormous pride associated with the Taj Mahal, Mumbai. A pride that patrons feel (and many have expressed it in the last 4 days), a pride that all stakeholders feel. It is that pride in the entity that gives everyone associated with it, a certain sense of commitment. To push the envelope in terms of excellence. And in this case, being a service industry, that excellence is in terms of fantastic customer service.

Even as young men and women join at the Taj in Mumbai, and who may not be aware of the tradition of the Taj, they have the benefit of the elders who are around, to give them that sense of history and organisational pride, and which rubs off, on the new entrants to the team too.

I remember when I used to be a vendor to the Taj, for some equipments, and I had to interact with their Engineering department, along with the many young Engineers who used to work there, there was this 75+ years old Parsi gentleman. Who must have been with the Taj for more than 50 years. A man full of energy, humor but utmost commitment. A man that youngsters would sometime laugh about, but nobody would disrespect. Now working with an icon of that type, the young engineers were bound to feel affected, and the Taj culture would get to them as well.

Again working for a five star property like the Taj, which hosts numerous critical events, and where demanding global celebrities stay and who expect nothing but the best, the staff is, I am aware, used to work under stressful conditions. On the outside, it all appears to move like clockwork, be it at banquet events, or in terms of satisfying the whims and fancies of the celebrity guests. But to make that outside clockwork to happen, there are tons of last minute quick corrections that they need to keep doing at the back end. And which must certainly be generating a certain innovation and an ability to think on the feet, amongst the staff.

All of that came to the fore during the last 4 days.

My admiration for the Taj goes up several notches. I also salute the Taj stalwarts, from JRD to Ratan Tata, and Krishna Kumar, to have built this fantastic organization. From a pure management perspective, there is so much to learn here!

I know that the Taj will be up and running before long. In all its majestic stature too. I will be one of the earliest visitors once that happens, as a mark of my respect, my solidarity with the organization, and of course, to enjoy a great Taj experience as always!!

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