5 Sep 2010
Zainab Khan, the magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University, is an emerging brand in the rapidly expanding field of studying-abroad guidance. Although the field is nothing new, it had been confined to a small niche for a long time with few specialists manning the boundaries.
But with more foreign universities especially from UK and Australia marketing aggressively in this part of the world, coupled with an ever-increasing group of O/A level achievers, not to mention the deteriorating condition of the country, more and more people are opting to study abroad.
Zainab appears to be pulling the right strings, having been interviewed by Dawn for their Sunday magazine and now even contributing how-to articles to the same. With these effective strategies, she’s fast becoming an established brand. A B.A in Comparative Literature, she also teaches General English at South Shore School of A-Level Studies and a councilor at British Overseas School.
She must have a huge fan following by now considering that Dawn has given her ample coverage and she would do well to collect testimonials and put all of them in her profile online. But why does she need to go to all the trouble of asking her clients for recommendations, and then compiling them in her online profile when she’s already an established brand?
Simply because of this:
”Publicity is a double-edged sword that can slice through the very person it has promoted. Besides, the higher the profile gets, the heavier the burden one is compelled to carry. “
What follows is the recount of the experience one of her customers had with her when he was applying for the Fullbright Scholarship:
“The Fulbright ad mentioned Ms. Sabrina as the person to contact for guidance at United States Education Foundation. When I contacted her, she referred me to Ms. Zainab Khan. Since Ms. Sabrina came across as a credible and trustworthy person, I relied on her recommendation and set up a meeting with Ms. Khan. I called her up and we agreed to meet at Café Fresh the following Sunday. She told me up front that this one session was going to be free and from then on she will charge Rs. 1,000 per session.
She further said that on an average it takes about 15 sessions to churn out an excellent application for scholarship, without knowing what my progress was by then. At the rate she was charging, that would amount to a staggering Rs. 15,000. It was too expensive for me as I had already doled out almost Rs. 30,000 on TOEFL and GRE. I told her that was way over my budget and besides, I didn’t need the full package since I had already done the bulk of the work (Excellent GRE and TOEFL score as well as published work) and only needed help with the essay and personal statement. I also gave her my complete profile on the spot. She flipped through it in few seconds and declared that yes I had done 70% of the work and would require only 5 or 6 sessions which would comprise of writing request for references, resume, essay and personal statement.
I again reiterated that I only need help with the essay and personal statement and that this ought to be covered in 4-5 sessions. She reluctantly agreed at that time when she saw I was having second thoughts about acquiring her services. The truth of the matter is, there wasn’t much I could do other than hire her since only two weeks were left for the submission of application and she had me convinced that she was the right person to help me, boasting of how she had got people into Ivy League colleges. In this session I also found that she had very little understanding of Fulbright Scholarship, its process and requirements. Nevertheless, it was not pertinent as I believed I was hiring her for essays.
However, when we met for the first paid session, she was back to her earlier stance. I gave in, thinking how long would it take for something as basic as writing a request for recommendation. I was wrong.
She made me write like a child word by word the darn request, which stretched for the entire Rs.1,000 hour. Now she may have worked for ultra-rich kids for whom a thousand bucks is nothing more than a single rupee. But for someone like me who belongs to a middle class and has to earn his living the hard way, it’s a huge amount to be spending on a single hour especially when that hour is literally going to waste. I told her numerous times that references wasn’t an issue for me since the people from whom I was going to get it from were close to me and they certainly didn’t need a formal request from me.
But she kept at it. So much so that even half hour of the next session was diligently devoted to this request. Another Rs.500 down the drain.
The next half hour was spent on resume. Even here, she didn’t tell me anything extraordinary. It was basically rearranging the different elements of the resume, that I had diligently built over a period of time, which I easily could have done myself in fifteen minute had she just given me the format which she was holding in her hand. But she refused to do so, claiming that I would copy it all. Duh.
The entire next session was again spent on resume. Three sessions and Rs.3,000 later I had learnt nothing that would help me complete the application. Three sessions, no essays so far. The deadline was getting nearer. I was on the verge of a breakdown.
She finally saw my desperation and called for a 20 minute session which she categorically said was free. We again met at Café Fresh (I was beginning to hate that place) and in that 20 minutes she dropped another bombshell. She said we were on the verge of wrapping up the session and that we need not even meet. I would write the essay and personal statement myself and email it to her and the ensuing discussions would be telephonic. I was completely lost by now.
Right from the beginning she had led me to believe that she would be the one writing the essay and personal statement based on my feedback. No, she hadn’t directly said it but she had implied it all along. And since the time was passing by fast and she was not on the proximity of the reasons I agreed to pay her, this belief got stronger. And now at this critical point she was telling me I had to write it myself. If it was me going to be doing it, why didn’t she just give me the guidelines and let me do it when there was ample time instead of leading me on to the eleventh hour? She knew exactly what my deadline was.
I was on the edge now. I wrote my essay and personal statement myself based on the few guidelines she finally did give me, then called in a friend to polish them. After we both had spent almost four hours fine-tuning the essay and personal statement, I emailed first the personal statement to her and called her to let her know. I was online the whole time, and it took her no more than 20 minutes (remember this was being counted as a Rs.1000 hour session) to ‘edit’ it and send it back to me. The same thing happened with the essay. Within 20 minutes she was done with it. The only thing she did edit was cut short the length of the essay by removing some parts. That’s it. No grammatical check, no nothing.
She called this time asking about the money. In the beginning, she had demanded Rs. 5,000 in advance which I had given it to her. Now only Rs. 1000 was remaining since one session was free. However, when I did go to give this amount, she demanded Rs.2000 counting even the free session. When I reminded her that one of the session was declared free by herself, she just stared at me with growned face. I finally paid all that she demanded, but it was a truly harrowing experience for me and I would advise anyone aspiring to hire the services of these so-called consultants to first check with their previous customers before spending a fortune on their service. A few hours worth of search on the internet would in fact be more fruitful than hiring them.”
Before you decide that maybe this customer was ignorant and refused to acknowledge his weaknesses which Ms. Khan tried her best to correct, this guy is an IBA graduate in addition to being a computer engineer. What’s more, he’s working in an MNC and his articles have been published in the business pages of Dawn and Business Recorder. In short he’s no muck with the pen.
So what can we deduce from this narrative which does sound like an ordeal:
Under promise, Over-deliver, the brand mantra devised by Tom Peters has been and will always be the best and the shortest possible way to make your brand go from obscurity to popularity and then on to greatness, irrespective of whether that brand is a person, an event or an object. And yet how many brands today are following this simple rule? Some do follow it initially until they attain a certain level of success after which they resort to the reverse of it: Over-promise but under-deliver. This incident happens to be one such case.
With power and in this case popularity comes responsibility, and with her customer base growing, Zainab Khan will have to ensure that no customer of hers gets agitated enough to start a negative word of mouth campaign against her. If she feels that someone is not going to be satisfied with her services at the outset, she should avoid taking him or her as a client altogether. And never underestimate a single customer, even if he appears to be a loner. In the social-media driven world there’s no such thing as a reclusive person. Your reputation can be blown to pieces by even a non-entity on the internet.
In fact these oft-ignored rules ought to be followed by anyone and everyone who’s building a personal brand based on his or her services. In today’s wired world where not the customer but Social Media is always right, you need to be extra vigilant of what the networked realm is saying about you.
Building powerful profiles on the social networks including facebook, linkedin, twitter and of course a blog, is not a luxury but a necessity. And then loading these profiles with testimonials and recommendations is a must.
No matter how careful you are, there are always going to be a few people dissatisfied with your service. So once they launch a venomous attack on your credibility online, the best way to counter it would be the afore-mentioned strategy. And if you have a blog you can even respond to the allegations directly giving your version of the events. And if you really did mess up, the best thing you can do would be to simply apologize to the aggrieved party online.
Whatever you do, just remember this simple rule of thumb by Kevin Roberts, the CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi from his best-seller LoveMarks:
Jealously guard your reputation:
Built over a lifetime. Destroyed in an instant. Consumers today are ruthless if you let them down. So don’t.