“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you”
I woke up to find myself at the Bhubaneswar railway station. I tried to recollect the events of the past 2 days. I was interning with one of the country’s biggest FMCG firms, I had spent the last 2 days at the fancy regional office in Kolkata. After a brief introduction, some paperwork, and a quick briefing with my mentor I was told I would be based in Bhubaneswar. I was tasked with mapping the distribution strength of some of Dabur’s top brands in traditional retail outlets in the city, and build a model around it.
“Help will always be given to all those who ask for it” - Albus Dumbledore
I reached the sales office in Bhubaneswar, and was introduced to the manager I would be reporting to. His first words to me were “While you are here, ask me anything you want, regardless of how silly it may seem.The key is to keep asking”.
Managers in the FMCG space are always short on time.especially during the end of the month. Meetings are highly charged , and results are all that matter.Over the next 2 months, he stayed true to his word, and always found the time to listen to even the most mundane doubts that I had, and was always willing to provide guidance and support. I was free to approach anyone at the office,and people took genuine interest in helping me understand.All I had to do, was to ask.
The great Indian Shopkeeper
And so in the first week, armed with my survey,and a lot more clarity, I started my field visits. Each day I would team up with a new salesman, and follow him around for the duration of his beat. A beat is a collection of retail outlets that a salesman will visit in a single day. Typically, a beat would contain between 30-40 outlets. And at each of these outlets, I would meet with, and try and speak to the shopkeeper. Getting them to reply however, was a whole new ball game.
Should you find yourself in a sales internship in the near future, watch out for these classic shopkeeper maneuvers,
“The I don’t speak hindi” – While he may just have moments ago been speaking to a customer , he will coolly tell you, in shuddh hindi, that he does not speak the language..
“The Houdini” -Disappear to the back of the shop under some false pretense and don’t return until the intern has left
“Sudden onset deafness”-Develop an acute case of hearing impairment that makes it impossible for him to hear anything you say.
“its lunchtime” – regardless of whether it is 10am or 4pm.Its always lunchtime when you get there.
However, you will also meet some shopkeepers who are genuinely interested in what you are doing. Some may recognize your institute, some may even ask you for your CAT percentile. When you do get a shopkeeper to speak to you, listen carefully, its amazing how diverse their thinking is from yours, and how effortlessly they can tell you what needs to be done for your project.
A sales stint in a new city is like a whirlwind romance. It starts the minute you set foot in the city. Just you and her, strangers thrown together by some roll of the dice. With each passing day, you learn a little more about each other. Just when you think you’ve got her figured out, she’ll show you another side to her. Whether it is the chaotic streets of the Unit 1 market, with its narrow lanes and frightening crowds.
The next day you’ll find yourself in the sleepy bylanes of chintamanishwar. The retailers relaxing with a cup of tea, waiting for the day’s first customer to roll by. She’ll take you down the temple streets of old town, and the tall buildings that dot the Infocity skyline.
Slowly but surely, you’ll find yourself falling in love with her. You begin to appreciate, that beauty lies in complexity.
And so it is too, with your project.
Mounds of data, and a manager’s best friend
Soon time seemed to fly, and before I knew it, I had data from over 350 outlets that I needed to make sense of and thus began the second part of my internship.
A word of advice for every intern in the future. Regardless of your organization, you will, towards the end of your internship, find yourself with enough survey sheets to fill a small boat. It may be a good idea to digitize them on a daily basis, or you,like me, may just find yourself, sitting on the terrace of your PG accommodation, at 3am ,racing against your dying laptop battery to enter all the data of the past two months.
I bid goodbye to my days on the field and settled in at the office for the next 15 days. The blistering sun replaced by the gentle office Air Conditioner, my stunning view of the city replaced by rows upon rows of excel sheets, and my dear shopkeepers replaced by my two new best friends, Vlookup and Pivot tables.
Some 10 days into this number crunching madness, I proudly displayed to my mentor, my first set of calculations for the model. “Nicely done” he said, “Now figure out how to repeat this for every outlet in the city”.
Its easy to feel overwhelmed in the last few days of the internship. You find yourself running on reserve, trying to focus on wrapping up all the loose ends, wondering if you have bitten off more than you can chew. Talk to as many people as you can. You never know who will hand you the one piece of the puzzle that was missing all along. I was casually talking to someone about my work in the office one day, when they showed me a similar project they had worked on a long time ago.
I did complete building that model for every outlet in the city. I went on to present my work, first to the Regional Head, and then to Executive director of the organization. At the end of the day, I got a lot of things right, I got a few things wrong. I’ve learnt more from the things I got wrong, than the ones I got right. I’ve met a lot of good people, gained a new perspective on a lot of things, and an experience of a lifetime
“And once the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about.” – Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Ashwin Sangameswaran is a student of IIM Trichy. He interned with Dabur India Ltd over the summer. He is your everyday frustrated engineer turned marketing ethusiast. His also claims to be Batman.