Product Managers need to see their customers and sales/service staff worldwide. You can’t assume all regions have the same requirements or perspective. Market and competitive conditions vary.
I’m working in China this week and been up since 4 AM due to the time difference. I have flown, taken the train, subway, walked, and taken many taxis. The country is still growing impressively. I was in Harbin a few days ago, a northern city close to the Russian border (you can order Borscht). Harbin is famous for its ice sculptures in the winter because of the freezing temperatures in the winter but the weather has been very pleasant in the 70s deg F.
I was on the high speed train going from Shanghai to Hangzhou in less than an hour’s time. It’s very similar to the Japanese Shinkansen system. The country is building up its infrastructure and the city has a very well planned transportation system of high speed rail and subway. Surface transportation is another story. Drivers seem to change lanes constantly and abruptly, while playing a game of chicken with one another in seeing who will blink first and allow the other to continue with fenders merely inches apart.
I've really enjoyed working with some wonderful colleagues and countries in different countries and gotten to know them as friends. You learn to appreciate their perspective when dealing with the home office and markets..
Here are some notes on working in different cultures and countries:
1. Don’t be an ugly American (or Canadian…or Brit, etc.). Too many folks from the head office are loud, boisterous - basically just plain rude. You will be tolerated but not respected. The China social media has been buzzing about some recent events involving a drunken Westerner (identified as a Brit) sexually assaulting a Chinese girl in Beijing (graphic video of the man getting his due) and of a Russian cellist berating a Chinese passenger on a train (he boasted that he was a cellist, was tracked down online and sacked) so anti-Westerner feeling is higher than usual.
2. Don’t get personal unless you are very familiar with the person. It is okay to ask about family to a certain level but I wouldn't ask how much they paid for their flat.
3. Don’t talk politics. You will never win and just leave each other angry. Remember “my country, right or wrong…but my country!”
4. Smile. This is universal.
5. Be kind and courteous to all, including the hotel staff, restaurant personnel, the office cleaning lady, etc. Same for your office staff. Everyone in every position deserves my equal respect.
6. Rest. This may be very difficult since local offices may try to take advantage of your presence by cramming in as many customer visits, discussions, etc. Any time differences and jet lag won’t help. However, you won’t do much good to be tired and sleepy when you need to pay attention.
7. Stay hydrated. Stay hydrated. Stay hydrated. Bring along bottled water because there is much talking to do and you can’t drink the tap water in some places.
8. Be careful of what you eat and drink. This is not the time to get the runs. You can’t drink the tap water out the faucet in some places and you cannot be sure of the ice cubes in some other places. Your “western” stomach and immune system may not be able to take on what locals can.
9. Pack energy bars for a snack. Don't forget Pepto Bismuth, antacid, etc. (A colleague once had to graphically describe that he had the runs to get meds in a foreign country. He started his mime routine by squatting in front of the pharmacist. Suffice to say that it definitely got more interesting visually after that.)
10. Sleep Aides. I tried melatonin and just unsure if it made any difference. It might work for others.
11. Learn some local phrases if not the local language. Don’t expect everyone to speak your language. It will also be appreciated by locals if you at least try.
12. I tend to buy a box of pastries, etc. when I go to the office on the first day of a visit.
13. Have a photocopy of your passport and scan it into your travelling PC or smart phone. This may be helpful if you lose it. Keep your passport with you at all times or in the hotel safe.
14. Let the local office go home and be with their family at night and on weekends. The local office staff may feel obligated to entertain you for dinner or sightseeing. I let them know that this is unnecessary.
15. Do not ask questions or press in an aggressive manner, especially with customers and colleagues in front of their managers. “Face” is very real.
16. Rule of 60/40 applies. Listen at least 60% and talk no more than 40% of the time.
17. Observe local customs. Ask your local staff if you are unsure. For example, you should present your business card with both hands and spend a minute looking at the business card given to you in most Asian countries.
Note that customs change over time!
On an earlier visit many years ago, I addressed stangers by the Chinese word for "comrade" ("Tung Zhee"). I knew that this was a greeting by the older folks in the early days. Not much of a response but some good stares. My wife and colleagues told me that "Tung Zhee" has evolved to refer to someone who is gay.
18. Speaking of faces, don’t make faces or look horrified if you see different aspects or foods that you are not used to. So you see a cooked chicken with the head attached or the host ordered a fish head dish (it’s actually very tasty) – don’t be uncouth. Besides...try it, you may like it.
19. Watch the traffic! The driving lanes may be reversed so look before you cross. I am terrified of walking in China because pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way. I walk in the middle of the pack guessing that this must be the safest (I overheard 1 American walking next to me telling the other to follow the locals when crossing a street. I jokingly advised them not to follow my lead.)
20. Remember to keep promises. You will have much “homework” upon your return. The customer and fellow colleagues remember what you committed to do upon your return to the home office. Don’t make the company and your reputation look bad by forgetting.
21. Watch your language. Here's an example from yours truly...I worked a trade show in Toronto where our booth was based on a theatre theme with products being "premiered". We acted as ushers and passed out theatre candy to trade show visitors. I was curious why passerbys kept taking Raisonettes and not one person would take the chocolate covered peanuts. In fact, some of them seemed rather offended and kept walking. Finally, I asked aloud why no one wanted "Goobers" while waving a box. A visitor carefully studied the box and told me that "Goobers" meant "nose pickings" in Canada. I was offering "nose pickings" to trade show visitors.
22. Enjoy! Soak in the culture and atmosphere! It’s a great opportunity to learn more. I find that I always make new friends with staff and customers alike.
What other tips and notes do you have on travelling overseas?
As a product manager, I rely on the Sales and Service staff to learn, to remember, and love my products. I’m also fighting for mindshare because other product managers are also vying for attention while the audience has only so much grey matter and time. This is even worse when multiple products are being introduced at the same time - which happens since you can only gather people for Sales or Service meetings infrequently.
Games are a fun way to test retention and help reinforce information. We are all kids at heart. People learn when they have fun or in light competition. There are software programs that you can buy to create learning quizzes, but I’ve created a number of simple games using tools readily available online and elsewhere.
I suggest breaking the players into teams so that individuals do not feel the pressure of having to work alone. Sprinkle in some unrelated and humorous questions, e.g. When did the company start? What’s our mailing address? What does our company name mean? (You’ll be surprised at how many people get these wrong.) The goal is to learn, not to make people nervous or look bad.
Here’s a few fun games that have worked well that you can use:
Just like the TV game show. You set up 6 categories, each with a column of 5 questions, each one incrementally valued more than the previous, usually increasing in difficulty. Players are asked questions and reply with an answer vs. the reverse on the TV version.
I found "Stu’s Quiz Boxes" (pictured above) to be very easy to set up and impressive looking. You can create skins for the foreground and background (the pic above shows Borat in front of my company HQ). Up to six teams can play. http://quizboxes.com/
"Flash Jeopardy" is another nice version. The key advantage is that it can be played online so you can share it with staff worldwide (you can password protect it). http://www.superteachertools.com/jeopardy/
Chutes & Ladders (“Snakes & Ladders”)
I had other groups ask our session to quiet down because of the laughter when we played this at a product launch! Just like the classic game, a number of "ladders" and "chutes" (or "snakes") are pictured on the board, each connecting two specific board squares. The object of the game is to roll some dice and then navigate one's game piece from the start (bottom square) to the finish (top square), helped or hindered by ladders and chutes, respectively. Players get to move if they answer a product question correctly. It’s partly luck based on the roll of the dice – but that’s how sales and real life is.
I found a simple version using PowerPoint to work great (link below):
For small settings, a customizing the actual board game is easier and also works. The games costs @ $10 dollars US in a toy store. Players spin the dial and move only if the correct answer to your question is correct. (Trust me, adults have fun playing this.)
This is a simple take-off of the classic monopoly game except that we modified it for software training. Buy a real cardboard version of the game and customize it. Rename the venues on the boardwalk to names of clients or companies and create your own questions. (My mentor, Ken Andersen, created it.)
I’ve created Flash quizzes for individual learning using available Flash templates with simple multiple choice questions – all very well received. There’s a great list of quiz makers available at this link:
A Few Words on Incentives
It is nice to have fabulous prizes as well as consolation prizes. A new car would definitely get people’s attention (I kid. I kid.). Barring something that extravagant, small cash prizes (even $20 dollar bills) gets the competitive juices flowing. Gift cards (at Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks) are good. For some reason, Europeans like to hand out bottles of wine.
Seminars and webinars are very effective ways to reach audiences regarding a topic or to introduce products. I’ve organized and presented at some very successful customer seminars which turned into annual events with over 100 people in different cities. They’re quite enjoyable when you can interact in an informal setting. We actually had a following with a few “groupees”. Good seminars do take some planning to be successful and appear professional.
- Plan ahead. You need at least 3 months (ideally at least 6 months) to arrange logistics with customer invitations mailed and book venues.
- Set the start at an “odd” time, e.g. 9:05 AM. People tend to remember and be more punctual with less orthodox times.
- Set up as early as possible, e.g. the night before. Some hotels may have a function that prevents this. In that case, you may set up after the function ends very late or show up very early the next morning.
- Try to check on who is next door when you book the venue. We had a session where we suddenly heard singing and, more disturbingly, wailing, from the room next door. A number of folks also came into the seminar, sat dumbfounded, and then quietly left after a few minutes. We finally understood when a little old lady came in and asked if she was in the room for “Grief Relief”.
- Have back-up equipment. Murphy’s Law will be invoked. You want to know what to do if the computer projector bulb goes out, computer behaves badly, etc.
- Learn where and how to operate the lights and presentation equipment. You don’t want to play with them with a room full of people
- Review the schedule with the venue manager to confirm set-up/tear-down times, refreshment service, etc. You don;t want unexpected interruptions or have gusets waiting for coffee in the morning.
- Send reminders to registered guests at least 2 times: for example, 1 week and also 2 days prior to the seminar. People tend to forget and it also gives you a realistic headcount for refreshments, chairs, etc.
- Have name badges pre-printed. Also have extra blank badges ready for misspelled names or walk-ins.
- Research your audience before the session. Are they existing, happy customers? What products do they have? Prospects? What do they hope to learn? You may ask these questions during registration.
- Have a nice slideshow running prior to the session start for people coming into the room. A repeating slideshow on the company, the agenda, and fun facts or quiz questions will keep the audience entertained,
- Walk around the room to introduce yourself and chat to meet and know your audience.
- Start on time. Respect your attendees for showing up punctually and don’t leave an impression that they can show up late in the future.
- Offer real value. Choose specific topics that people would have interest in.
- Have only genuine and passionate speakers. If the presenter is dull and lacks interested in the topic, then why should the audience care? I’ve seen sales engineers who are super one-on-one but freeze in front of a large audience. Don’t force people to present if they are not up to the task.
- Have a survey form asking for seminar feeback, future topics of interest, and whether they need follow-up or further information.
- Have raffle prizes to get back the surveys!
- Don’t let other business teams or managers hijack the seminar. After much success, other product groups insisted on riding on the coat tails and joining the seminars – which turned them into general information sessions with disconnected topics offering no genuine value to the audience. It is best to offer specific seminars for smaller targeted audiences.
- Run over the scheduled time. Respect the audience’s time. Otherwise, they will be constantly looking at their watch and worry about beating traffic on the way back to the office or home. Worst, they know better than to come next time.
- Allow your presenters and company staff to gather and talk to each other while ignoring customers.
- Start packing before the last attendee leaves. Some of the audience will linger with questions or just to chat. Let them.
Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy. Kodak was making millions because we all bought Kodak film and went to the neighborhood film processing store to develop pictures. What happened? Digital Cameras and Smartphones replaced the need for film. I remember when digital cameras were just entering the market and we asked a professional photographer doing our ad shoots about them. His feeling was that they still didn’t have the resolution and quality that he wanted. Today, every professional photographer that I see uses digital equipment. Come to think of it, those neighborhood film processors have mostly disappeared probably due to home printers and internet film processors.
Not all innovation is the same. Disruptive Innovation is an area which I would monitor and not be complacent about. It has put made a number of established, multimillion businesses disappear.
What is disruptive innovation?
This is a term from Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen, who describes a process by which a product or service starts with simple applications at the bottom of a market and then continuously moves “up market”, eventually displacing established competitors. A disruptive innovation initially offers lower performance or features than what the mainstream market demands but it does have some new attributes that allow it to prosper in a different market. It continues to improve and meet/exceed the requirements of the mainstream market until it eventually replaces the former existing technology.
Most larger, established companies practice “sustaining innovation” which is to add more features and “bells and whistles” for their existing customer base. The lower customer segment remains un-served and mainstream customers will stop valuing enhancements at some point - which forces many companies to think of adding more “bells and whistles” to maintain their customer base or maintain their more profitable customers. A vicious circle has started which opens the door to disruptive innovators who can serve the lower customer segment and those who don’t care for all the “sustaining innovation”.
Disruptive innovation is Darwinism applied to free market business. There are many everyday examples of this process. More and more people are abandoning landline telephones and just use their mobile phone. My family bought our first flat panel LCD TV seven years ago. We opted for a small LCD TV because they were very expensive ($1200 US for a 21 inch). I could have bought a much larger 40 inch CRT TV for under $300 but my wife was enamored with the design and weight of the new LCD screens. We recently replaced that 21 inch LCD with a 37 inch version for $330! Today LCD screens are the only TVs available and come with better resolution, internet, HDMI, etc.
Christenson has the ultimate case study of media storage where we started with large disk drives, moving to 5.25 inch and 3.5 inch discs. Flash drives started with only a few megabytes but can now store as much as some hard drives. In each case, the storage performance was relatively small, expensive, and served a niche…but they ultimately grew in features, performance, and value to eventually obsolete the previous storage technology.
Now why would an established company let this happen? Christensen talks about the value network, described as “the context within which a firm identifies and responds to customers’ needs, solve problems, procure inputs, react to competitors and strive for profits”. This is partly where the company listens too closely to its existing customers. Most established companies can see the disruptive innovation and have the means to react or adapt but choose not to. Characteristics of disruptive businesses, e.g. lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services are simply not as attractive for companies doing sustaining innovations when compared against traditional performance metrics (especially with short term thinking). I would use the analogy of a frog sitting in a pot of water under a fire. It doesn’t realize that the water is slowly being heated because it keeps adjusting and eventually becomes a cooked frog.
What’s the solution?
One possible solution according to Christensen is to create a separate business to react to a disruptive innovation. Old-time phone companies eventually did this, e.g. Verizon and AT&T eventually created wireless businesses. You can also maintain your business as a niche or try to find another segment to create a niche.
Disruptive Technology is a double-edged sword. Eventually, the disruptive technology becomes the established technolgy and the new companies start behaving like thir predecessors and start employing sustaining innovations...which opens the door to new disruptive innovators. A fascinating video on this is embedded below:
Frank Lio is a Product Manager, Strategist, and Change Agent in the Hi-Tech industry. His growing track record of successes include creating 3 winning software products, leading nationwide seminars, and turning around a failing business unit. He is currently serving a dual role as Product Manager and Business Team Support Manager at Instron ITW.
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