My name is Mohammed Shahbaaz. I'm from IIM-Indore and I interned with ConAgra Foods. I was given a sales project titled "Shopper insights into purchase of edible oils from DMT". Yes, if you're an average Joe like me, I had the exact same expression while trying to figure out what the project meant. Well I figured it was a sales project and hence prepared myself for some Hyderabadi Biryani. Little did I know that I'll end up being a roasted chicken by the end of the two months of sales in Hyderabad.
Well this piece of writing is titled 'The oily observations' because my project was in oils, Sundrop to be specific, and it had to do a lot with spending hours in observing shoppers. The oil part was also significant due to the oven like temperatures in Hyderabad. To those who call Hyderabad, Hydra-bad, you couldn't have been further from the truth.
14th April 2012, I reach Hyderabad and this is where it all began. I reach my accommodation, thankfully arranged by a relative whom I decide not to trouble anymore, at 5:00 A.M. I'm excited, exhausted, eager, can't think of more words with 'e'. I live at Tolichowki and need to reach office, located at Sarojini Devi road Secunderabad(important), by 9:00 A.M. My friends tell me that it takes 45 mins to go from Tolichowki to Sarojini Devi Road in Secunderabad. I trust them and hire an auto to Sarojini devi road. As a pleasant surprise I reach the place in 20 minutes. I see it as a good opportunity to get back to some authentic Dosa and Sambar idly after a year at IIM-Indore. Its 8:35 A.M and I decide to call up the reception at the office to help me reach the office from Sarojini Devi road. I'm greeted by a pleasant voice. The lady at the other end asks me if I'm close to the clock tower. I look around and reply in the negative. She asks for some other landmarks, I keep saying 'can't find it', each time with reducing confidence. This is when the Hydrerbadi in her realizes a very important fact. I'm at Sarojini Devi road , Hyderbad. I'm late on my first day ever, for office. Being a fresher, I start projecting the consequences on my entire career. "God, did they have to take the concept of twin cities so seriously!!" I reach office by 10:00 A.M. I meet my mentor. Fortunately he's busy enough not to realize that I'm late. I later find him to be very modest and a comfortable person to work with.
I spend my first day in a comfortable office looking for a place to sit. Yes, looking for a place to sit in an air-conditioned office was much better as compared to what followed. I meet my co-interns, four of them. All of them different, but we all get along as if we had been friends since under-grad days. All of us ask the others if they know of any good places to hang-out in Hyderabad. I tell myself that I need to work hard as this was my first opportunity to learn sales & marketing in a real environment.
After waiting for a few hours and finally finding a chair, I meet my project guide. He briefs me about the company, its products and the supply chain. Now we move over to the important part, the project. This is where I want only him to talk. Fortunately he doesn't ask me what my plans are regarding the execution of the project. He instead asks me to go on market visits, assuring me that I would figure out what I need to do by the end of the week. I look at him trying to put up a smile, which says "I totally understand this".
The next day starts on a Luna, hadn't seen those mean machines in some time. The merchandizing officer takes me to different retail outlets. A soft spoken guy, he tells me about shelf-visibility, FIFO arrangement of products and some in-store promotions. On occasions he hints at him deserving a promotion, totally unaware that I'm not an ASM on training. I spend my time standing at the oil section, observing shoppers while he cleans up the stock. The entire day is spent in different retail outlets doing exactly the same thing, with no apparent improvement in my understanding of selling oils. I wonder what I should tell my guide for a daily report. I call him up; he smiles and says that I need to do the same thing for a week before trying to figure out anything about selling oil.
By the fourth day I started observing shopping patterns. Day 5, I start talking to some shoppers. Now I start to develop some idea of what sales is. The book "Why we buy" comes to rescue at this stage and I finally start figuring out the importance of sales. It is time I introduce you to my first B-school myth.
Myth#1: Sales is a painful job and we should look to move into marketing as soon as possible.
Fact: No office will ever give you as much knowledge about consumer behavior and your product as the shopping floor.
By the end of week two my project objectives are framed and my survey form is ready. I had always been skeptical of the fact that I had not yet done a course on market research and would not be able to carry out market research the way an international FMCG company would expect from an IIM grad. I put in the effort to learn fancy techniques like conjoint, choice based conjoint etc. The next day I present the survey method to my guide. This is when my second myth is broken.
Myth#2: You're good at sales & marketing if you believe that Kotler is the 'baap' of marketing, can throw jargons and can come up technical ways to collect and critically analyze data.
Fact: Use your jargons to impress your batch-mates. Every company is its own 'baap' in doing business.
Finally my survey form is ready. It's a simple one page questionnaire which I believe people would be glad to answer. Enter Myth#3.
Myth#3: Wear an IIM-Indore T-shirt and people will be glad to talk to you.
Fact: The veil clad woman in Hyderabad literally starts running in the opposite direction the moment you approach her.
Overcoming some initial hiccups I finally manage some consumer responses. This is where the next problem strikes. Not many modern retail outlets are interested in allowing you to talk to their shoppers. I try calling the sales officer and query him as to why I do not have the permission to conduct a survey in the given store. He responds with a good explanation and assures me that such problems would not occur in the future. However, it does, the very next day. It is only two days later that I realize that the sales officer is least bothered about your project and his salary depends on his work, not yours. It is time to find new methods to talk to shoppers.
Method#1: Help shoppers push their trolley to the car.
Method#2: Sneak into the store and talk to shoppers before you're caught by the security.
I decide to use a judicious mix of both the methods to collect data. In due course of time I was lucky enough to get permissions in some stores.
At the end of it all I realized that I've gone to the office for only 6 out of the 56 days of internship. That's exactly the life of a sales intern. A sales intern spends his time at the center of the treasure of knowledge, called the shop floor. He travels, speaks to shoppers, meets different people, observes, recognizes patterns and excels in consumer insight. The pleasure of sitting in an air-conditioned office is nothing as compared to the sheer joy of capturing a consumer insight. The B-school is not the place where you learn business; it only prepares you for the learning. The real learning always happens at ground zero. It was an absolute pleasure to have interned with ConAgra foods. FMCG is a wonderful sector and sales is beautiful. To wrap it up, Main zindagi bhar tel bechne ko taiyyar hun. (I would be happy to sell oil for the rest of my life). Those were some of the best days of my life, summer of 2012.