A Role Model of Customer Service

  6 min 46 sec to read
A Role Model of Customer Service


“What we deliver is not important, how we deliver is important,” Pawan Agarwal, CEO of Mumbai Dabbawalas and an international motivational speaker, author and educationist started his speech with some powerful words. The sold out event titled ‘The Magic of Mumbai Dabbawalas’ organised by HVPP and sponsored by Ace International Business School had around 700 participants. Agarwal talked about time management, commitment, leadership, customer satisfaction, 100 percent execution of tasks and zero errors. Agarwal has carried out nine years of research on logistics and supply chain management of Dabbawalas of Mumbai. Throughout the session he gave examples of the professionalism of the Dabbawalas which he got to observe during his research. “My main motive is to connect the story of Dabbawalas with everyone present here,” he said.  

He gave the assembled audience an insight into his experience. “When I asked one dabbawala during my research: What if trains run late and you cannot deliver on time? The man gave a reply that he is not a railway minister so he cannot change the railway system but he can change his system,” he narrated one of his conversations with a Dabbawala.

Each and every example illustrated by Agarwal left the audience stunned. “Most of us disrespect the time we have committed to others. Yet, being punctual is so important because no matter how excellent our work is, if it not on time, it has no value for anyone. When we go late, our customers will lose the time for their lunch. This might make them feel like not cooking at home and they might want to go to a restaurant. Dabbawalas keep such consequences in their mind and always complete their task with efficiency,” he mentioned. 

The Start
Mumbai is a city where people go to work early in the morning. They don’t have time to eat food before leaving. So, Mumbai Dabbawala started with the concept of delivering fresh hygienic homemade food at mid-day 125 years ago. It was in 1890 when Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, a Parsi banker employed a young man, who came from Pune in search of a job, to bring his lunch box from his house to the office every day. After sometime, he started carrying the lunch box for other people at the same office and nearby offices. Initially starting with one person, then a small group, this system expanded gradually into an association as per demand. 

How do they do it?
Six-Sigma certified Mumbai Dabbawala Association is one of the best case studies in terms of an error–free, professional, low-investment and also high profit making business in India. They make only one mistake in sixteen million transactions and have had a 99.999999 per cent accuracy rate since the beginning.  

5000 Dabbawalas deliver 200,000 lunch boxes to their customers in their workplaces every day and then return the empty tiffin boxes back to their homes. They leave their homes a little earlier and use cycles or go by foot to every household. All the Dabbawalas assemble at a collection point by 9:30 am sharp and go to the nearest railway station. They always use local trains with luggage compartments. The boxes are then carried over carts, cycles and carriers to the workplaces which reach exactly at lunchtime. 

Coding system
The process is the reverse while delivering the empty boxes to homes. On the way, an exchange of lunch boxes may take place; Dabbawalas need to know the ownership of each Tiffin box. So, a coding system is followed in order to identify the boxes accurately. In the earlier days, different coloured threads were used to differentiate the tiffin boxes. But due to the increasing number of customers, this system did not work afterwards. Nowadays, each box is marked with a unique code painted with oil paint on the top. They follow a ‘multi-level coding’ system so that they won’t make any mistakes.  It comprises of numbers, alphabets and colours with each code denoting information about the box.

“The Dabbawalas who travel around 120 km each day to transfer the boxes charge 600 Indian Rupees per month to every customer for their service.  The logistics which include cycle and local trains is the main reason why they charge so less for such a huge task,” informed Agarwal. 

Everybody in Mumbai knows Dabbawalas, so throughout the process there is little obstruction on the road. As case studies for many management graduates, Dabbawalas cannot read and write and use technology, yet they are better performers than any energetic and vibrant young man working in an institution. 

The Difference  
In July 2005, when the whole Mumbai was flooded after heavy monsoon rains, the Dabbawalas were back at work from the second day of the floods. After this incident, they became a role model of professionalism for many people. 

Dabbawalas have been visited by renowned personas like Prince Charles. On November 4, 2003, Prince Charles came to felicitate them for their extraordinary way of working. The Dabbawalas as they were getting late for work could not give more than 20 minutes to greet and meet Prince Charles. Impressed by their dedication to work, Charles also invited them to his royal wedding in 2005.  Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Group was so overwhelmed by the Dabbawalas that he has fixed photos of Dabbawalas with the slogan, ‘Work like Dabbawalas’ at Virgin’s offices. 

“Over 35 per cent Dabbawalas don’t know how to read and write, but this does not affect their work,” Agarwal said, adding, “If we ask them to read the names or address, they will not be able to read. Yet, they will easily reach the place and this is all because they are not concerned about anything except work.” They work around 8-9 hours continuously without any rest and get exactly 20 minutes for their tiffin which they carry with themselves from home. They believe that serving customers is serving God. 

In the course of research, Agarwal once asked them if they could change their means of transport so that they could work more efficiently. In reply, they told him that their customers are from middle class families and they can’t pay more, so it is necessary for them to use local trains in order to minimise the cost.   

Agarwal again highlighted another conversation with a Dabbawala. “Once I noticed that one Dabbawala was very disturbed, as I asked the reason, he said his father had just passed away a few hours ago. I asked him to go home but he replied, ‘Though my father is dead, my customers are still alive, so serving them on time is my responsibility.’ The reply astounded me.”   

The Dabbawalas work 365 days a year and strictly follow the code of conduct and wear a Gandhi Topi, carry ID cards during working hours. “Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, an Indian Warrior king is a source of inspiration and pride for every Dabbawala. They say that their elders used to carry swords in the name of Shivaji, so carrying 25-30 lunch boxes in order to serve their customers is something they are doing to respect their ancestors.”  

There are also a number of CSR activities regularly carried out by the Dabbawalas. Some they have initiated by themselves and in some they have been invited as brand ambassadors. Roti Bank, Share My Dabba, Yoga training, Swacha Bharat Abhiyan are just some of their campaigns.


Nice article.....indeed work is worship. Keep writing such articles in the days to come too.