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The Lemon Tea Seller of Varanasi – Part 2 Lessons in Leadership

A few weeks ago I posted Part 1 of this article. You can access it here.

The lemon tea seller had lessons in Leadership that I wish to highlight. He was a single person operation to begin with, and that is probably the simplest way to study leadership.

Product – packaging, pitch and process

Packaging – simple is the way to go

His packaging was simple. He served tea in just ONE size paper cup. I noticed he didn’t carry plastic ones that I was conscious are harmful to the environment. He didn’t offer sizes and hence the purchase decision was simple.

A leader needs to bring this clarity across any organization at all times. A product must by simple enough to be understood by the target audience. It must be packaged simply so that the end user can get to the product without complex packaging. I remember in the mid 80s, music CDs came with multiple layers of packaging that the end customer didn’t understand. This is why in the early days, people continued to buy LP records. It wasn’t until the 90s that we finally shelved the archaic packaging and brought in more acceptable packaging. For a history of CD packaging please click here.

The Pitch – make or break a buying decision

The pitch was clear – “lemon tea”. It was direct and easy for his end customer to understand. This simple issue is lost with so many products that you see. Here is a live example.

I wanted to buy a new water filter since the old one was malfunctioning. I am fairly tech savvy and not intimidated with technical data. But the exercise of comparing water purifiers was a nightmare. Here are a couple of ‘selling points’ I tried to understand but couldn’t.

“The goodness of copper in every drop”. Is a water purifier without copper, inferior? As a chemistry student I am conscious of the danger of Verdigris being formed in any copper utensil. Nowhere could I find any information on how this product ensured no poisonous substance was formed in the water.

“8 process RO, 6 process RO, 4 process RO”. I always thought that there was just one RO process. What are the 4, 6, 8 processes? What are the benefits/differences? If the ‘4 process RO’ water is potable, why buy ‘8 process RO’? No ready answer!

The clincher? A product that simply said – “this product uses 50% less water than any other brand, without compromising the quality of water you drink.” This is the RO I bought!

Process – if a customer understands it, he buys it

The tea maker first took out a paper cup, squeezed some lemon juice into it and then added a secret ‘powder’. To this he added weak black tea. He ensured that when adding the tea, the ingredients already in the cup mixed well. He then handed over the tea to the customer (me). Think about it, he had many options to serve the tea. Here they are

1. All the ingredients are pre-mixed in the pot and he simply pours out the requisite quantity.

2. The tea perhaps has lemon juice pre-mixed and he adds the powder later

3. The powder is added to the tea and the juice is added later.

So why did he choose the process I just described? The answer lies in being ‘open’ about the quality of the product. By squeezing lemon juice he ensured that no one thought he had added some sort of lemon concentrate or chemical (like Citric acid). Freshly squeezed lemon juice wins hands down. He added the powder because he left the door open for the customer to question what it was. Since I have drunk this sort of tea in the past, I didn’t ask him. But the first time I drank such a tea I was curious to know what it was. The answer from the tea-seller was, sugar and some secret spices. But only tea seller told me what the powder actually is (it’s a closely guarded secret and I am not going to reveal it here!)

I will use the water purifier example to illustrate how transparency works. The technical data on the water purifier stated that the filtration unit was larger than what the others provided. This ensured that when the water entered the RO system, most of the debris was removed. What needed to happen then was just basic reverse osmosis to eliminate microscopic contaminants. Another innovation was that the storage tank was made of stainless steel AND had a built in UV sterilizer. So before the water entered a glass, it had gone through two levels of UV sterilization. The end result was that in the reverse osmosis process, water wastage was reduced. And that to me is simple process that help the customer make informed decisions.


As I mentioned in the other article, the tea seller didn’t have change and refused to accept the extra money I was happy to give him. He was willing to take Rs 10 less than the Rs 20 I owed him (for 2 teas). I only had a Rs 100 note which he wouldn’t take. I told him to take the note (I was ready to give away the extra) and when he found change he could return the balance to me. I expected him to take the money and vanish. But he didn’t. He went away, found the change and came back to return the Rs 80 he owed me. I put the Rs. 50 note in his pocket and he refused to keep it. I then told him to serve 5 people tea who couldn’t afford his tea. He nodded his head, looked at me with warm eyes and then left.

Leaders must walk the talk. One cannot expect honesty if honesty is not in the DNA at the very top. It has to be visible through actions, policies and practices. If the CEO is seen compromising integrity, the entire entity will follow suit. Dishonesty has a way of percolating through the tiniest cracks. It affects, management structures where most often than not people abuse their positions to make personal gains. Favouritism or quid pro quo arrangements thrive. Talented folks are bypassed for rewards and promotions. Mediocrity becomes the norm. Customer start feeling short changed. Poor quality products become acceptable. Corruption becomes the parasite that slow bleeds the organization from the inside. The only people that benefit are competitors. It is then a matter of time before the entity collapses.

I still marvel at the simplicity of the tea-seller and remain amazed at his value system. It is because of them that human beings across the planet survive and thrive.

I salute the humble tea-seller that also represents all that is honest and good in my country.

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