Chennai-based Annudarai may not have finished Class 12, but his extensive knowledge can leave you stumped. He can talk to you about anything — startups, innovations, viral marketing gimmicks, the latest issue of Economic Times, and Frontline, or even Stephen Hawkings’s ‘Brief Answers to the Big Questions’.
An autorickshaw driver by profession, the 37-year-old is the perfect example of how there’s more than what meets the eye. Dressed in a traditional Khaki suit, he comes across as any other auto driver, ferrying passengers throughout the day while dodging traffic.
However, what sets Annaduria, aka ‘Auto Anna’, apart is his distinguished quality of enriching a customer’s experience.
Step inside his yellow and green-coloured auto and you will be amazed to see magazines, snacks, books, laptop, tablets, a mini-television set and refreshing drinks. Post pandemic, the additions include masks and sanitisers to ensure a hygienic and safe ride. All these are no-cost services for his passengers. There’s something for everyone to enjoy — be it a school kid, a working professional, or an elderly passenger.
In 2013, Annadurai became an overnight celebrity after he was invited to give a public talk on his entrepreneurial vision for his autorickshaw, owing to the detailed attention and care he provided for his commuters.
In fact, the Chennai resident is often called upon to share his experience and give lessons on building customer loyalty — invitations from big corporations including Vodafone, Hyundai, Toyota and Royal Enfield, or TEDx Talks at educational institutions such as IIT and ISB.
Born in Peravurani in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district, he moved to Chennai with his family when he was just four. His father and elder brother are both auto drivers and he says he was destined to follow the same path.
“The original plan was to become a businessman and earn enough to solve our financial crisis. But the very same crisis forced me to drop out of Class 12 and start working. I chose not to complain, and instead bring my passion into what I was already doing. I began with placing newspapers in the backseat and gradually introduced new services,” Annadurai tells The Better India.
He was careful about not going overboard with services or being too ambitious, given that it was, after all, just a mode of transportation. The auto, which mostly covers Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR), can’t expand, hire people or sell anything. There is neither a product nor a profitable service.
So how do you envision growth in a 6-seater vehicle with limited passengers and ride hours? This is probably the most commonly directed question to Annadurai, who believes that all professions essentially have the same goal — to please customers.
Annadurai takes a break in the middle of his hectic schedule on a sweltering June afternoon, parks his chariot, and shares valuable lessons on customer loyalty.
‘Customer is king’
Not having a fancy degree from a business school or any family-owned venture did not deter Annadurai from learning. According to him, his education began the day he started identifying and prioritising ideas to win over customers.
This required him to be exceptionally good at observation without coming across as intruding or over-friendly. For this, he needed to have interesting knowledge to strike up conversations on current affairs, economy, entertainment and more.
So, his first step was including regional and national newspapers and magazines in the rickshaw in 2009. He read a newspaper or two before beginning his day. Similarly, he learnt about the importance of the internet when he saw a husband on his phone and that his wife had nothing to do due to low connectivity. So he set up an unlimited free WiFi router in his vehicle.
“One may think an auto ride is just about transporting a passenger from one area to another, but it can be so much more. Traffic jams in the IT corridor are frequent, so passengers tend to feel irritated while waiting. The WiFi keeps them engaged. Once a customer urgently needed a laptop and I felt bad for not being able to provide him with one. The next day, I had a laptop and tablet. These gadgets led to social media selfies which in turn increased my customers,” he says.
Similarly, he noticed that the office-going crowd often skipped breakfast and complained about it. That’s how the snack section comprising fruits, wafers, and more came up. The auto has chocolates, coconut water and regular water as well.
Interestingly, he purchased an ATM way before the demonetisation episode. Back then, he saw that people didn’t always have change on them and that sometimes they would forgo the money. So he got a swiping machine.
Once Annadurai arranged for the services and collated general knowledge, it was easier to strike up conversations with the strangers. On most occasions, the passengers talked first out of curiosity, he says.
“There are all kinds of people who take my ride — friendly, shy, sad, happy, or confused. I am always welcoming and for that, I learnt to say hello in nine languages. I even learnt the names of Hindi movies, scientists, freedom fighters, famous places across India, and sports to make them feel at home. They are surprised and happy when there is something common to talk about. People everywhere are the same, you just need to find that one hook,” he says.
Annadurai says giving free products and services is only the first step that will determine the trust-building factor. Three years ago, he launched a pilot project to test this. He placed umbrellas for people to borrow and asked them to return them after using them at their convenient time. He also realised that the customer may not board again, so he tied up with shops and stores on OMR where people can deposit.
“I was stunned to see people returning the umbrellas. I was able to trust them as much as they trust me. I also learnt another important lesson — people are nice if you give them a chance,” he adds.
Repeat customers and referrals
Generating recurring customers and soliciting referrals is another valuable lesson that Annadurai’s humble auto set-up imparts. According to him, it is the most effective and affordable practice. He follows a couple of tactics to do so.
These include monthly contests containing five general knowledge questions, where one lucky winner gets Rs 1,000. Additionally, he also gives tokens to customers if they take more than 20 rides, wherein they can redeem them for Rs 250; 30 and 40 rides will fetch Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 respectively. This is possibly the best gimmick for repeat customers, he says.
Interestingly, some customers are moved by his gesture and they refuse to redeem and that’s when Annadurai knows he has made a friend.
Advanced booking, especially for foreigners, also helps. He travels to the airport at odd hours to pick up passengers if there is an advanced booking. He gives free rides on special occasions such as Children’s Day, Women’s Day, Mother’s Day, etc.
However, if you are a teacher in Chennai, Annadurai will offer you a ride for free on any day, anywhere.
“Teachers shape engineers, doctors, lawyers, journalists and so on. Theirs is one of the noblest professions. This is my way of showing them gratitude for their tremendous work,” says Annadurai.
Annadurai caters to a hundred passengers daily and his average monthly income (pre-pandemic) is Rs 1,18,000. Of this, he spends Rs 19,000 on the products and services to keep the customers happy.
In the initial days, Annadurai’s friends and family warned him against investing his earnings to provide these luxurious facilities. But he wanted to do everything he could to keep his customers happy. Even when the pandemic affected his earnings, he did not shy away from giving free rides, masks and sanitisers to the needy.
You can follow Annadurai here.
Edited by Divya Sethu