Of Barbers and Brokers: Why it is important to know what you are looking for

Every few weeks, Saturday mornings are reserved for the barber. Today was one of those, so my son and I had our visit to the salon. After our customary drive and parking, and a few minutes of waiting for our turn, we finally were called in and sat into our ‘throne’ to get started with his ‘services’. Mind you, salons in major cities in India have got quite savvy. So unlike a few years back when you just went to a barber shop to get a haircut, now you go to a wellness salon which provides ‘overall hair and beauty services’. They have a quite a range of services on offer to grab more ‘share of wallet’ from you.

But despite that some things have not changed. So the first question I get when I am seated is still – ‘do you want it cut short, medium or long?’ I have never been able to figure out what to answer this question with. Obviously, long is out of question, else I would not be here. But between short and medium, I have never figured what I really want. When I say short, I kind of need to clarify that I do not want an army crew cut. When I say medium, I generally follow it up with some comment that suggests – but do not cut just a bit! After that, I hope he has got what I want and then silently sit waiting for him to do his job.

This is similar to the ‘agony aunt’ stock question-answer programs you have on TV. So the caller asks – I bought so and so stock at Rs.100 two weeks back – what should I do now, buy, hold or sell? And the advising broker asks him – can you hold for short-term or long-term? Similar to ‘do you want your hair short or medium?’, this question has no clear answer. So the caller answers, long-term, and just to clarify – adds 2-3 months!! Providing clarity for his definition of long-term.

The other similarity I find between barbers and brokers (or as they are called hair and beauty service, and financial service providers respectively) – is their nice guy approach when the first service is over. So I am nearing the end of my hair cut, and typically I am asked – “Sir, will you like a hair color?” Now at this point, if I am not clear on whether I want it or not, it is quickly followed by something like – “It will look good on you Sir” or something to that effect telling me why I need it. Depending on the tone of my answer, the same service is pursued, or a new item in the menu card is proposed – the hope being that the 5 minutes between now and the end of my hair cut yield an add-on service that I purchase.

This is again similar to my experience with financial services providers of late. If I visit a bank, a ‘relationship manager’ arises from somewhere telling me that he will be the point of contact for me. So after some mundane task like submitting an application for a bank stamp on an ECS mandate is done, and I am waiting for the processing, the relationship manager quickly asks me if I am looking for stock and mutual fund advisory services, or else for insurance, or for credit cards – for something. A little bit of confusion shown on my face, and I am drowned in information on why I need it. Only when there is no option but to give me my ECS mandate, I am free to go.

So here we are, in the savvy new world of services with so many things on offer. A slight bit of confusion on your face is a sure sign for marketing spiel to follow. In such a scenario, whether it is barbers or it is brokers, it is important that the buyer is clear on what he wants, and not just that, is quite staunch about it. An extra hair color at a salon may not cause much harm, but a wrongly bought financial service or product is likely to do so. So as has been said by famous investors earlier, never ask a barber if you need a haircut (or for that matter any other hair and beauty service). It is in your interest to be clear about what you want. If at all you have a need to ask, ask someone whose advice you trust and will provide advice that is in your interest. Because whether it is a barber or a broker, like Lewis Carroll said – “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

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