The Age Of The Narcissistic Corporation

Image: Charles Unitas on Unsplash

Recently, a customer of the Indian food delivery app Zomato tweeted about refusing an order that was to be delivered by a “non-Hindu rider”. Zomato’s CEO, Deepinder Goyal, seized this opportunity to get his company some viral publicity and tweeted a schmaltzy response about food not having religion. Predictably, the internet went wild. All my Whatsapp groups comprising family, school alumni, fraternities, professional networks, and other hobby groups posted screen-grabs of this post at least once.

Goyal put on a display of classic gaslighting. I am a member of multiple food-related Facebook and Whatsapp groups. Nary a day passes without at least one person on each of these groups posting a Zomato horror story. Poor delivery, indifferent service, are common with Zomato — the company refuses ownership for order-related problems and the buck passes back and forth between Zomato and the restaurant until the customer just gives up. With just one tweet, Goyal turned all of twitter and Facebook into his flying monkeys — leaving aggrieved customers struggling with the cognitive dissonance of being abused by such an “awesome” company with such apparently lofty ethics. Serious issues such as the company’s abuse of smaller restaurants and exploitation of its drivers were rapidly forgotten.

Earlier this year, Indigo Airlines refused to let my daughter board a flight for which she had a ticket. The Indigo staff at the counter had no explanation for the fact that it was a return ticket and that she had already travelled one leg of the journey without any issues. They refused to issue her a boarding pass unless I paid more money. Not wanting to be stranded at Udaipur Airport with a 9-month old child, I paid up. When I complained to their customer care line, they said that “all charges demanded were correct” and had no explanation for how Vivien got “unbooked” for the return leg of a round-trip journey.

Indigo’s tone changed when I wrote an article about my ordeal on LinkedIn and posted it to Twitter. Within a day, an unusually articulate employee phoned me about granting me a refund “as a matter of courtesy”. It so happens that Indigo’s threshold for courtesy is when an aggrieved customer complains on Social Media. No notions of courtesy afflicted their employees at Udaipur airport when I stood there with an increasingly aggravated child in my arms — I was then just a hapless flier who could be coerced into making a payment.

Indigo didn’t care a damn about my predicament until I went up on social media with a feature-length article detailing my experience. Like any Narcissist, it sprang into image management mode in offering a “courtesy” refund for my trouble. All-in-all, an insincere and condescending apology considering everything that they put me through.

It struck me that through social media gaslighting and image buffing — both Zomato and Indigo were displaying the traits of a textbook variety narcissist. To be fair, Zomato and Indigo are not alone in such behaviour. Many other New Economy companies have only paid heed to my complaints after I have brought them out on Social Media after being frustrated by their service staff. It’s impossible to have a healthy relationship with a company that only responds to you when its poor behaviour is out in public. Similarly, low-integrity companies that use meaningless gestures such as Goyal’s tweet to create a buzz don’t deserve respect.

A close friend owns a vintage Leica film camera. It’s a prized family heirloom that he keeps in very good repair. A few months ago, while walking around London taking “street” photos, he was dismayed to discover that the shutter button on the camera wasn’t smooth and and required substantially more force than usual. The concierge at his hotel informed him that there was a Leica shop just down the road — where he could “try his luck”. Stepping into the shop, he was already thinking about the costs that a repair would entail — considering that today a Leica is a tool for the privileged. Instead, a genuinely warm shop employee handled his camera with the kind of affection and tenderness typically reserved for a day-old infant. Other shop employees gathered around and heaped praise on the immaculate condition of his decades old camera and lens. One employee asked him to consider their camera exchange programme that would allow him to transition to a digital camera — the condition of his device would mean a resale price that would qualify him for a top-notch digital Leica, with additional cash to pocket. He declined of course.

The next morning, a Leica employee visited his hotel and delivered the camera with butter smooth shutter button. Furthermore, the rangefinder and lens had been cleaned — completely free of charge.

How does a Leica remain the dream camera of every enthusiast? How can a company sell a digital camera that takes only black and white photos for USD 8,000? Other cameras today that cost a fifth as much are faster and have more bells and whistles. Of course Leica’s legendary workmanship and image “feel” are a big part of its reputation, but the company surely left a lasting impression on my friend with the care and effort that it took with his camera. No internet complaints, no talking to some phone rep — no tweeting or anguished Facebook posts needed — It’s our camera — we’ll fix it. Again, no cheesy tweet to balance out other image problems and no contradiction between actions and proclaimed values. My friend probably told this story to everyone who would listen, and asked me to consider the brand when I was researching a camera purchase — incidentally, that’s how I heard this story.

Quality, Humility, Service — that’s kept Leica at the top of the game through two world wars and nine eventful decades. Goyal probably doesn’t have a vision for Zomato stretches that far.

I am a writer, corporate ethics specialist, film photographer, and investor based in Hyderabad, India. www.boethius.in