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THE GROOMING COURSE

From driverji to chauffeur

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A unique course turns sloppy drivers into liveried and polished chauffeurs. It teaches them not just to navigate potholes and speed bumps, but also the urban niceties that the suave owners of Audis and BMWs demand.

In a small tubelight-illuminated room in Bandra, where a glass shelf holds four caps, two hand sanitiser bottles, a box of tissues and a pair of white gloves, seven seated men are looking embarrassed. They rub their soiled shoes against their pants and shelter their stubble with one hand when a formallydressed man asks them to imagine themselves as 'products'. He then subjects them to questions such as "How would you identify a eunuch on the street?" and "How do you react to a dhaba waiter who hands you glass of water with his fingers dipped in it?"

"No matter how skilled you are, you are only as good as you look and behave, " Alam Khan proceeds to tell the roomful of seven nodding drivers who have been sent here by their employers - all luxury car owners - in the hope of turning these regular Indian drivers into well-mannered "chauffeurs".

Welcome to the one-of-its-kind Institute of Chauffeur Services (IOCS) which runs on the justifiable desire of owners of high-end cars such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes - "to be treated like a king". The foundation of this institute lies in an uncomfortably familiar image. A quintessential Indian driver in the front seat of a shiny metallic silver Mercedes, sporting pointed shoes, onion breath and yesterday's shirt, lowers the expensive windshield, musters the moist red contents of his busy mouth and launches a spit projectile on the street much to the dismay of his expensive corporate employer in the backseat.

He doesn't realise that he may have just committed an act that amounts to cruelty to cars, especially when the vehicle in question is a BMW, Mercedes or an Audi. After all, chewing tobacco has always been as much a part of his system as sleeping on duty, switching lanes without signaling, growing the nail on his little finger or allowing the aroma of his inexpensive hair oil to linger inside the air-conditioned car, till it interferes with the owner's olfactory senses.

It was when investment banker Amin Merchant gauged this yawning gap that he launched this unique grooming service in November last year. "Whenever I would travel overseas on assignments, I would see these well-dressed chauffeurs greeting and opening the door for me, " recalls Merchant. In India, the scene is different. "There were no chauffeurs in Mumbai, only drivers. So we wanted to create that category, " says Merchant, who then enlisted the help of Alam in evolving a scientific ten-session module for the same.

This Rs 5, 400-worth course module emerged from a series of interactions with both drivers and luxury car owners. "While the owners felt that the drivers lacked anticipatory skills such as announcing the destination or holding the door open, the drivers complained of lack of respect on the owner's part, " says Alam, who likes to call this slow decline of drivers' self-image 'a two-way street'. "Earlier they used to be called driversaab or driverji. But somewhere down the line, they lost that respect, " adds Alam whose module focuses chiefly on what he calls "soft skills".

These include things like self-esteem and confidence, good manners, stress and anger management, driving etiquette, appearance, hygiene and most importantly, what not to do at work. So, besides the standard advice against spitting, jumping signals, speeding, sporting oily hair, long sidelocks and smelly shirts, Alam politely asks them to clean their teeth and to use hand sanitisers after lunch. "Salman's long locks and Mithun's tapering shoes may make good economic sense to the actors as they are playing a character on screen, but it'll work against you, " warns Alam. "Also, it's easy to identify if you've applied Himtaj or Navratna hair oil in air-conditioned cars, " he cautions, and the room erupts.

The transition from driver to chauffeur, however, is hardly instant, says Alam, who has groomed over 600 drivers at the institute so far. "You need to speak to them like a friend. They don't like being talked down to. It is only selfrealisation that helps. "
While IOCS is now planning to launch in other metros and has even tied up with Western India Automobile Association, companies, on their part, have now started giving complimentary IOCS vouchers to their buyers. "We have noticed a visible change in the way drivers approached their job after the session. They became more punctual, car damages decreased and they even wore polished shoes, " recalls Munaf Meghani, CEO of Audi India.

"So, this training has not only helped us strengthen our relationship with customers but also helped retention, " he says. That's because the drivers, who attend the course once a week or on a fortnightly basis for a period of six months, see the certificate as a lucrative option. "When they change jobs, they can now demand more, thanks to the training, " Meghani reveals. "There seems to be a better understanding among the drivers, " says Dhanya, customer relations manager, Mercedes, which has just started distributing vouchers entitling buyers to a Rs 900 discount.

Though gradual, this ten-session route to self-realisation seems to be working for the drivers. "I used to jump signals, drive at a speed of 66 kmph and indulge in a lot of gossip mongering, " says Israr Ahmed, a driver with Audi who has even worked for actors such as John Abraham and Salman Khan at times. "Now I've changed and even greet people in English. I always use the words 'please' and 'excuse me' while talking with clients, " he says.

A key moment in the session though arrives when a driver in a neon green T-shirt and faded denims raises his hand during the lecture on 'etiquette' and 'respect'. "Sir, you should hold these sessions for our bosses too, " he says.

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