Munger, Kissinger and rat-miners have pushed trust back into the spotlight | Mint

Munger, Kissinger and rat-miners have pushed trust back into the spotlight

It is ironical that officialdom, which had banned rat-mining in 2014, had to repose trust in these long-forgotten miners after exhausting all other options.  (REUTERS)
It is ironical that officialdom, which had banned rat-mining in 2014, had to repose trust in these long-forgotten miners after exhausting all other options. (REUTERS)

Summary

  • Even sectoral regulators have recognized the importance of trust and customer relations. Let’s hope it’s an enduring concern and not a passing fancy.

Tis the season for cheer and goodwill. And for some departures and rebirths. The demise of two elderly and renowned statesmen, and the re-entry of the term ‘rat-miners’ to our quotidian vocabulary has re-introduced the unquantifiable quality of trust into our daily conversations. Even regulators across different sectors seem to have woken up to the potential of this attribute. Over the past week, two stalwarts— Charlie Munger from the imperfect world of stock-picking and Henry Kissinger from the complex and amoral universe of international relations—passed away at ages 99 and 100, respectively. The highlight of the week, though, was a tribe of forgotten miners, adept at wriggling into holes and extracting resources from the earth’s belly, miraculously rescuing 41 workers from a tunnel. Munger, Kissinger and the rat-miners have all compelled a re-examination of the notion of trust.

Let’s start with Charlie Munger. Vice-chairman of legendary holding company Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett’s lifetime compatriot, Munger brought a folksy unpretentiousness to the arcane science of stock-picking. It is not surprising that the news of his passing inundated social media platforms with Munger’s wholesome maxims and witty one-liners. Jostling among these numerous homilies are his pithy investment philosophies, dripping with commonsensical values and imbued with surprising simplicity. One of the quotes, and it’s impossible to remember the exact wording in the constantly shifting timeline of social media platforms, has Munger saying that during interviews, he laid greater store by a potential employee’s trustworthiness over his abilities or qualifications. Here is another one: “It’s a real pleasure to earn the trust of your customers slowly over time by doing what’s right." It is noteworthy that Munger, who pursued number-crunching for a livelihood, actually valued a quality that cannot be quantified.

Contrast that with how former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s death was received. His New York Times obituary read, “Few diplomats have been both celebrated and reviled with such passion as Mr. Kissinger." Carpet-bombing civilians in Cambodia, financing a coup to overthrow Chile’s democratically elected leader, sponsoring Indonesia’s attack on East Timor that resulted in the death of about 100,000 East Timorese were some of his diplomatic excesses. Indians view Kissinger with mixed feelings: there is sneaking admiration for his realpolitik, but it is usually overcome with loathing for Kissinger’s unprincipled and unstinted military support to Pakistan during the Bangladesh liberation war. Of all the characteristics attributed to Kissinger—some gushing, some circumspect—trust is conspicuously absent.

Trust had a field day on 28 November when 41 workers trapped in a collapsed under-construction Uttarakhand tunnel were rescued by workers using a banned manual technique known as rat-hole mining. The miners used their hands and basic tools to burrow through collapsed debris where sophisticated machinery and industrial drillers had failed. The irony doesn’t end there: officialdom, which had banned rat-mining in 2014, had to repose trust in these long-forgotten miners after exhausting all other options. It is also noteworthy that the team of rescuers included many from a minority community: the trapped construction workers did not hesitate to submit themselves to their rescue efforts, trusting them unconditionally. Even the politically-sponsored hate-mongers kept their counsel for a change, putting their untrustworthy theories on ice temporarily.

The notion of trust resides within a broad spectrum, ranging from its existence as an enduring moral force—often used interchangeably with honesty—to a hygienic, sanitary prerequisite for frictionless conduct of business. At the profane end of the scale, there is no greater irony than trust, which refuses to be quantified or included in any excel sheet, becoming the lynchpin for commercial transactions. Which probably explains why modern businesses nourished on B-school models are often willing to violate trust in their quest for higher or quicker profits: what doesn’t exist on a spreadsheet is not worth heeding. B-schools also, typically, do not appreciate history, or else they would have noted that violating trust can lead to the emergence of multiple risks.

It is, therefore, legitimate to ask whether any surfacing of risks has prompted sectoral regulators to pay greater attention to customer service. The ministry of consumer affairs recently expressed reservations about the aviation industry’s trade practices. Even the directorate general of civil aviation, where customer service is a secondary part of the mandate, issued a soft and equivocal report on customer service. In the financial sector, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has been expressing concern over regulated entities paying greater attention to customer acquisition over customer service; the central bank has been signalling the virtues of customer service to its regulated entities.

Clearly, the fraying of trust has got regulators worked up. Businesses mistook past forbearance and post-pandemic relaxations as a licence to push the envelope. And so, while the regulatory displeasure is welcome, the timing is curious; any regulatory push for customer service becomes credible only once it acquires a customer-centric stability and sheds its campaign-centric seasonality.

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