Monday, August 11, 2008

Where Did the Day Go?

It seems as though time management is not a high priority in the villages. It amazes me how much time is wasted throughout the day as farmers, government staffers, and teachers all take several snack breaks throughout the day. This kills productivity and makes attempting to accomplish tasks much more difficult.

Where Did the Day Go?

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Question of Ownership

It's becoming all too apparent that one of the biggest problems everday Thais face is lack of ownership. Everywhere I go and with everyone I speak with it seems that either villagers work for the profit of another or are working for the profit of the bank.

Most villagers are under heavy debts. People owe money to the bank for motorcycles, educational exspenses, property, etc. while others may owe smaller "gentleman's agreement" style loans for seed, farming equiptment, or even a new car stereo. The heavy debts people face make it virtually impossible to build wealth. Combine this with an ignorance of basic financial management and you have a wicked brew called generational poverty.

Interestingly, villagers do have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. It seems like every other day someone is opening a new noodle stand, restaurant, or shop. Unfortnately, lack of planning and other basic business skills leads to a higher than usual business failure rate. If villagers could learn to manage their debts and implement good business practice I believe many villagers could turn their financial fortunes around.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Only In Thailand Can The Customer Be Wrong

"I would like fried rice with beef, please," I politely ask the local restaurant cook. "I'll give you fried rice with pork," she sternly responds as I look at the fresh beef sitting on her counter. Since I've been in country for awhile, I stopped standing up for my customer right to great service (even something as simple as giving me what I ordered).

Apparently, in business in Thailand the customer is not always right. Unfortantely for Thai businesses seeking to grab a share of the lucrative world market, just about every customer globally demands to be treated as if they are right all the time, and will swiftly refuse parting with their hard earned cash with any business who does not agree.

I see this lackluster attitude towards customer service severely handicapping Thai companies looking to business on eBay. I notice whenever negative feedback is posted on their profile they tend to post argumentative replies instead of trying to delicately negotiate with the unhappy customer in private (some customers will remove negative feedback if you cordially offer them alternatives such as discounts, money back, or a free exchange of product).

In a hyper competitive and globalized economy, excellent customer service can be the life blood of a successful business and brand. I'm not sure why some Thai business people prefer to haggle with their customers instead of exhaust every diplomatic possibility to insure a satisfied customer even if it means taking a loss on the deal. Maybe it's cultural. Are there different expectations of customers in Thailand or is good customer service simply not valued? Maybe it's personal character. Are some business people too lazy to provide good service? Maybe it's a poor understanding of the English language. Do business people here want to provide good customer service, but do not know how to express gratitude compentently in English? Maybe it's cross cultural misunderstanding. Does a lack of sufficient knowledge about other people's cultures hinder providing good service the way customers want it?

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Creativity Problem?

Today, I was doing some market research for handmade purses, handbags, and other Thai crafts and soon discovered a copy cat pattern in terms of product development. Just about everyone manufactured these crafts according to similar specifications and designs. From the craft specs to the marketing approachs, there wasn't a big difference between one company's products and another's products.

Moreover, I noticed that this unsurprisingly drove the market prices down for all of these goods. A combination of competition, similar goods, rising shipping costs, and a shrinking customer pool created a lose-lose situation for everyone involved (except for the customers who partake in a great buyer's market).

This made me wonder why there was less creative spunk. In most highly competitive markets such as electronics, autos, and software, innovation will be key in seperating the winners from the losers. I wonder why this spirit of innovation hasn't hit the Thai manufactoring sector yet. The good news is that this creates great opportunity for someone with creativity to enter the market and quickly eat up market share if they do it right.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Future Rice Crisis?

I tend to pick up on interesting tid bits in my daily routine in the villages. One of the growing concerns I'm hearing from everyday farmers is the lack of rain during this rainy season. I didn't think too much of it at first, but the more I thought about it the more I think the farmers have a legitament worry.

The rainy season has been unusually light in my area compared to last year, and I called around to some of my Peace Corps friends and they noticed less rainfall as well. This made me wonder if we are either undergoing a transition in weather patterns due to global waarming or if this is just a brief bump in an otherwise stable and predictable weather pattern.

I pray it is the latter becaus if it is the former that could mean some real trouble ahead. Many of the farmers are worried about harvesting either lower quality or completely ruined rice this year. If this is the case, that would mean a poor earnings year for farmers at a time of ever rising input costs. If the problem is widespread enough, this could result in the rising of rice prices throughout Thailand, which wouldn't be good for anyone.

The Language Barrier to Trade

I've been working on an eBay business at my school for a couple of months now and I think my school is not as supportive anymore. My students don't seem as engaged and the teachers and staff are too busy with their other responsibilities.

It's becoming clear to me that the reasons for this are two-fold: 1) the English language barrier in dealing with eBay policies, e-commerce, and customers is too much to handle, and 2) the school has their own program to work through, which leaves very little time for any other commitments. Therefore, I'm adjusting my strategy to work with interested students on an individual basis where they can learn at their own pace.

However, my test run with the eBay business at the school does spark larger questions within my mind. I openly wonder, how much does the language barrier contribute to opportunity costs within the real Thai economy? Seeing as though the economy is largely dependent upon exports, this makes me think there are probably some real missed chances at increased earnings for people.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

It's All About Trade

As an American Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Thailand, I spend my days sharing life with common villagers in humble surroundings. Harvesting rice patties, biking up and down rocky mountain roads, eating sticky rice with fried pork with neighbors, and navigating cultural and language differences are just a few of my daily tasks.

I am charged with the duty of organizing my community so that they can better empower themselves. So far, I have been pretty successful with my job. I created a community organizing model named Project Hope that allows a team of student leaders to organize their classmates to help develop real projects in the larger community. We’ve done clothing drives for poor families, trainings for villagers, and launched clubs within the school. Other volunteers throughout Thailand have begun replicating this model with success as well. One volunteer was able to raise 10,000 baht through local business, school, and government support in order to do an HIV/AIDS and English training for hill tribe kids.

However, though these efforts to improve civic life, I kept noticing one of the fundamental problems we faced was a lackluster local economy. The production is there. People will constantly create and manufacture various products from purses to furniture to leather belts. The entrepreneurial spirit is there. It seems everyone wants to own their own shop. People are always opening new noodle stands or jewelry shops or small bamboo production plants. The only thing that seemed missing was trade. Local businesses had everything except for a market that could sustain them. As a matter of fact, the local market is oversaturated with locally made products that it drives prices down and squeezes profit margins.

This leads me to openly wonder about how the village can successfully meet the marketplace? The best bet would seem to be to find other markets that would support these products more profitably, but how can one engage these markets? Also, the level of education in the village is alarmingly low. So, even if there is the opportunity, how can they enter and stay in these markets without being in over their heads? Although I yet to come up with answers to these questions, my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer showed me that it’s all about trade if poorer communities are to ever sustain any economic growth that will spill over to other civic benefits.

Quilen Blackwell