She's The Man - The Story Of How We Shipped 1500 Gift Boxes Pan-India
I haven’t published anything on my blog for more than a month and the last one month was so eventful that I have enough content to write one post about each day. Of course, I don’t want to bore you with so much to read – so I’m going to attempt to compress it into one blog post.
I’m finally ready. I’m ready to talk about what happened, what I went through and what the business has learnt from this season. We sold 1500 Diwali gift boxes this year and this is the story of how we did it.
My previous blog post was about bagging our biggest order. Perhaps if it was only the execution of that order, things would not have been as difficult as they were. But the magic of Diwali is that there is an endless demand – and the magic of Dream a Dozen is that we took it up.
Each order was dependent on external vendors for different things. We got the packaging manufactured by Paul from JoPack, who I called so many times that we eventually went on to become good friends. We also needed vendors for dry fruits, masks, candles, diyas, prints, etc. Each vendor delayed their delivery by 1-2 days, which meant that our team had to push harder to assemble everything into the gift box once it arrived.
Every day for a week, we had truck loads of material coming in the morning and evening. Those truck drivers would call and say, “send your boys down.” In response, I would go and unload big cartons of material with our delivery person – Kishore. The look on their face was always funny, “madam, why are you doing it? Where are your boys?”
“We’re an all-women kitchen,” I’d reply with pride.
We had very little time left and too much to do. I told every human being I spoke to, to send temporary staff to help us with packaging. When anyone came, we’d ask her to make 5 more phone calls to her neighbours, cousins, friends or anybody she knew to call for more help. I was desperate to finish on time. Before I knew it, our humble kitchen turned into a mini factory. From a team of 6 people, we suddenly became 25 people and our Chef broke them into smaller groups and delegated work. Luckily, we are in a big space and there was room for everyone to work without being crammed together.
Despite the influx of more hands, we were still late. Our core team and I knew it, we wouldn’t finish. So, 3 of us decided to stay overnight, despite already working for 14 hours everyday for the past week. Our chefs Ipsita and Sushmitha went home for dinner, came back at 11pm and we packed more till 4am. My father came to the kitchen and helped pack too. I knew the team was physically drained but they did it without a single complaint. I can never show enough gratitude for that night and for everyday that they have stretched themselves.
We got half of our bulk orders from a third party. They have a strong corporate network and shared our catalogue with their clients for orders. I had done business with them in the past, I trusted them and they also trusted me to do a good job.
That’s when my conversations with Gaurav began, he was my point of contact from their company. He called me at least 15 times a day, sometimes more, to make sure everything was on track. I couldn’t go wrong with this, too many people’s neck was on the line.
The biggest client that they closed, confirmed their numbers on Monday – 9th November for almost 700 boxes. That was huge for us, for them and for the courier company. But we took it, we finished making and packing each box in 48 hours. I have no idea how, but we did. The Maruti courier people needed to book each packet with the name of the receiver on the “docket” or the "courier slip" so they had to stay till 1am at our kitchen for a few nights. My father would come to the kitchen every time we stayed later than 10pm and during that period we learnt that the folks from Maruti couriers were also from Rajasthan. We discussed different sweets that we loved, they explained how their family owns all the Maruti courier franchisees and a bond of friendship was formed.
I could sense that they were proud of their work, I was proud of mine and we were all doing our best to make “Diwali” happen. This was right before everything started going downhill.
Having dispatched the boxes literally 1-2 days before Diwali, it was impossible for them to reach on or before the festival day. The courier guys did not tell us that our deliveries from that date onwards were going to be paused for at least 4 days, because most of India keeps their offices shut, including courier offices.
When the client heard this, he lost his mind. He called Gaurav and started yelling about losing his job. He threatened to write to the founder of their company and withdraw from the rest of the services they were taking from them. Gaurav called me and put me on conference.
The client says, “Why don’t you put more pressure on the courier guys? Escalate the matter to their regional office and make them do at least 100 deliveries on Sunday?”
I thought in my mind, that this guy doesn’t understand that courier does not work like a corporate company. There is no “escalation” that you can do because they are all franchise owners and operate like individual business men. I told him this was not possible and didn’t say much after that.
Then the client went on to ask Gaurav which one of us was in touch with the courier company. Gaurav replied saying, “Megna is.” So the client says, and his voice still echoes in my head:
“Maybe because she’s a lady, they are not listening to her. Why don’t you step in as her boss? Maybe you can put more pressure on them.”
My team had literally worked day and night. I had worked day and night. And then this is what we get to hear? That a man needs to step in as my boss to get the work done?
I couldn’t get myself to think clearly. I was under so much pressure to do the impossible and then listening to this was my breaking point.
Everyone knew something had happened. The courier guy came in and said, “madam tension mat lo, hum sari delivery karwa denge na.” Which meant – madam don’t worry, we will complete all the deliveries. And I believed him.
We decided to courier our products across the country this season. I had worked with Maruti air courier in the past, we negotiated decent rates and I even did a few trial shipments to my cousins in different cities to see if the product reached them well. They are a 35 year old company and I did a reference check with another dry fruit company and they had good things to say. In hindsight, my concern was always whether the product was going to reach them well, not whether the product was going to reach them at all. This was my first mistake.
The courier folks had also told me that the consignments will reach Bangalore in 2 days and other cities in 4 working days, I communicated the same thing to our clients and started our first lot of shipping on 9th November (Diwali was on 14th). This was my second mistake.
I took for granted that there must be a tracking system if we are booking couriers. I mean, how could there not be? This was my third and biggest mistake.
I found out too late, that the courier guys operate as though computers don’t exist. They manually write the pin code and the receiver’s name on each docket slip, which has a tracking ID. This would be fine if someone at their office was to enter this information into an excel at some point of time, but in reality, that point of time never comes.
At the end of each day, he would come and hand over a whole bundle of slips to me, I had no idea what I was supposed to do with them so I just kept them on the side. The bundles kept piling up, and Maruti couriers took the liberty of booking not just through “Maruti” but also through “professional courier” and DTDC. There were a lot of village addresses which were not serviceable by them, so they said the other couriers would take care of it seamlessly.
Again, I believed them.
As each order got shipped, those bundles of dockets kept getting larger and larger. When the shipments didn’t reach, I started asking the courier guys to track it. When I told them the receiver’s name to track the consignment, they manually looked through 1300 dockets to find his name. With the volume of people to track, it was impossible for them to do it on their own. It took me a few days to realize this.
By then, the pressure from the third party was increasing. It was already a week after Diwali and we didn’t know what percentage of deliveries were done. The courier guys claimed that most of them had been done but not updated in their system because the scanned copy with the receiver’s signature only gets uploaded a few days later. Essentially, there was no way to get real-time information about the number of deliveries apart from calling each employee.
Out of desperation, that’s what we started doing. By then Gaurav had sent someone from his company to sit in my office. Two days later, he came himself too. They called their clients’ employees and I called mine. I knew I couldn’t do it alone, so my parents and a few people from our team started making calls too.
“Hey! Your company had ordered Diwali boxes from us, I just wanted to check if you have received yours?” We said it again and again and again. The clients had a reasonable request to know how many of their parcels were pending and this was the only way to find out.
Depending on the courier folks was useless.
Gaurav and I alternated between laughing at the situation and cursing at it. What had we gotten ourselves into. Or rather, what had I gotten them into?
In the mean time, the courier guys started blackmailing me to pay them. They said they would hold our remaining parcels if I didn’t pay, so I started clearing their dues in installments – even though we were doing their job of following up on each consignment.
After making a list of all the people who had not received their parcel, we started tracking it ourselves. We found the local branch numbers and Gaurav spoke in different local accents to each one to convince them to make the delivery faster. He even Gpaid a few of the delivery boys to get it done! We went to the post office to send the ones with remote addresses too. We got so into the courier system and their terminologies that he joked he’d open a logistics company and I agreed to be his first customer.
The situation was really not funny and initially I wasn’t happy with the fact that they were working out of our office. But truth be told, it would not have been possible without that. I needed people to help me solve this. As the days passed, we realized that some of the packages were just missing. There was either no docket with that name or the local branch said they never received it.
I had to send replacements for these missing parcels. There was no choice. This was an additional cost that I had not accounted for. The courier guys came diligently on the days on which they intended to force another installment out of me. They occasionally helped on the phone on other days. They tried to call the branches where they knew the franchise owner and could potentially use their influence. They still guaranteed that they’d get all the deliveries done and that the missing parcels would be returned. This time, I didn’t believe them.
Some packages were marked delivered with a signed copy from the recipient. So, we marked it delivered in our update to the client. The client came back to us, doubting our honesty – as the employees claimed they did not receive it. Then we found out these were fake signatures.
The courier company forced me to make the remaining payment. Last weekend, I spoke to him for 2 hours, reminding him that he had said he will not ask for payment until all the deliveries are complete. But he would not budge, and I gave in on the condition that he will solve all our pending cases. Overall, about 30 deliveries were still remaining – but the corporates hadn't paid me a penny for the delivered shipments. And the value of those 30 packages cuts into the profit margin that I had on these orders. They only solved 2 of my cases in the next 4 days and I finally lost my patience. The franchise owner told me he’s left Bangalore and his brother would come to my office with the returned parcels.
When his brother came, he was at the receiving end of my rage. He had not been picking up my calls and would answer 1 out of 10 messages that I persistently sent. This time, I was even angrier.
These courier guys had worked out of my office for 2 weeks, they had become people that I trusted when they told me I didn’t have to worry and now they weren’t answering my calls after I finished paying them.
When he entered my office, I told him I didn’t want to talk to him and that he should get out. They claimed that they’ve done me a favour because “ONLY” these many parcels are missing and no courier in India will give you a 100% guarantee on such a bulk load. I didn’t understand how they had the nerve to say that. “What’s missing is missing” he said in hindi.
They took no responsibility for it. Now, I’m either deducting the amount from my invoices or sending more replacements from my kitchen – because I need to take the responsibility for my corporate clients even if the courier guys don’t.
This whole situation was messy. Or REALLY messy. My father says I got out easy, it could have been a lot worse. I know he’s right. Yes, we have lost parcels and I lost my temper more than I have ever before. But I also learnt how to do it right next time. I learnt that accounting for pilferage is inevitable. I learnt that tracking couriers is manageable if the data is organized properly from the beginning. I learnt that I can’t do everything, from logistics to managing clients, payments, vendors and staff.
And surprisingly, I made some good friends. I honestly thought the third party from where half the orders came would never work with me again, but after coming to my kitchen, Gaurav and his team also understood that the whole thing was beyond my control and we did our very best to fix it. I think my other clients have been fairly understanding in the end too. I haven’t received my payment yet, but I think I eventually will (or I hope so, haha!). I also became friends with our packaging vendor and I hope to manufacture a lot more boxes with our brand name on them. Seeing the pink box with our golden letters was perhaps when I felt the happiest this Diwali.
I think I’m a changed person after this experience, I have decided to not allow myself to lose my temper like this again. I have also decided to completely delegate Christmas and trust my team with this season’s sale. They’ve already got the photoshoot done and our catalogue is underway. I’m sure that’s going to be a different adventure in itself, but for the first time, I hope it’s not such a big one :)