Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Running a business in Thailand Part 2: The Personal Touch

It's been half a year since my first post on this series, and it's really time for me to write my second post. There are a lot of things to share on this topic, especially since I had been busy running my current business and also starting a brand new business in Thailand during the last 6 months.

Having worked in Singapore for 4 years before I embarked my journey to Thailand, I got used to using emails for almost all my important work-related correspondences. Emails were fast, free, reliable and records are kept forever, so what's not to love? Sadly, it became easy to over-rely on emails and neglect the one important aspect that Thai people appreciate - The Personal Touch.

  1. For customers:

    I cannot speak for all industries, but specifically for mine, which deals with owners of traditional businesses like hardware shops/regional equipment wholesalers etc., my old working style in Singapore was rendered completely obsolete the moment I came. Most of them, even the educated younger generation, are not active on their emails at all, at least for work.

    Doing business became a different game. From receiving 30-80 emails a day in Singapore, I started to receive less than 10 a day. This reduced workload on the emailing front came with consequences. Customers appreciated the personal touch. They like speaking face-to-face with you, or at least hear your voice. Many made their orders through fax, or even called you to tell you the details item by item. Time spent on the computer became even more time spent on the road during customer visits or on phone conversations. If you had visited me before, you might not believe it as I don't seem very busy on the phone, but that is only because I do not speak Thai, if I did, then I wouldn't even have time to speak with you during office hours.

    There are rewards though. As a result of more personal interaction, stronger bonds are built. I have become great friends with many customers, and doing business has already become a natural after-thought when we communicate.

    This might not apply to all industries, but I am sure this trait and preference runs through all locals, so be prepared for this change in mindset when you decide to do business here.
  2. For colleagues:

    The incident that left the deepest impression was with my first ever sales manager 4 years ago, not long after I came to Thailand.

    I was on a week-long business trip in Singapore when I could not locate my sales manager during office hours. I was then told by my accountant that he frequently came late for work or did not come at all, without reason. Me being me, I could not wait a week to express how I felt face-to-face, so I sent a polite email (all my directors read it and said it was TOO polite) to remind him that I expected more discipline and communication during office hours. The only response I got was not a reply email, but a resignation letter on my table.

    This was really shocking to me, because with the tone I wrote, it would not have caused much friction in Singapore, and will most definitely not be a trigger to an abrupt resignation. My gentle 'reminder' might have been interpreted as a petty complaint. I subsequently invited him back for a chat and we parted with a hug and have remained friends since. On hindsight, I really should have done that in the first place, even if the result would be the same.

    This incident taught me a lot, and changed the way I treated my colleagues completely. I now do all my appraisals and conversations face-to-face. Even when someone makes a mistake or does something very disrespectful, I have learnt not to express myself when I am most angry. Instead, I will go home, cool down, then chat with them calmly the next day. This has reduced a lot of friction, and I believe my colleagues respect me more because of it.
Thailand is not the Land of Smiles for no reason. The locals are generally kind but very sensitive though they might not show it. Respect also needs to be earned, especially when your are younger than most of your correspondents in the industry. 

The extra effort to offer your personal touch will reap unbelievable rewards.

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