An Article by
A Business Speaker from Oxford, United Kingdom
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Tomorrow Belongs To Asia's Entrepreneurs
Asian companies get more "wows" than most and the rest of the world needs to take note.
I'm looking to buy a rental property in Oxford - near to where I live. Last week I browsed the web sites of six local estate agents, clicked the "contact us" button of all six, asked one of two questions and to be added to their mailing lists.
Within two hours one had called me, discussed my situation and given excellent advice and service. As for the others - nothing, zero, not a dickie bird - after seven days. Unfortunately that experience is not unusual in Europe or in the US. It's the small details that delineate excellent service from the rest and for me this is a prime example. Guess which agent is going to get my business.
In Asia that attention to detail and outstanding service simply runs in the blood - and Singapore is simply the world leader. Singapore has a multicultural population of 4.5 million, no natural resources and no history of empire but it has a GNP per head almost identical to that of the European Union and growing. Singapore's success has been built on service and delighting the customer - always and in a manner unparalleled anywhere else in the world. From the legendary service and memorable experience of flying Singapore Airlines (now the most profitable airline in the world - is there a connection I wonder?), to the remarkable performance metrics achieved at Changi airport (for example: no waiting at immigration and a matter of honour that your bag gets to the belt before you do), through the delight of staying in a Singapore hotel to the courtesy of taxi drivers and in-store sales staff.
Contrast that with the experience often felt when staying in a hotel in the UK - memorable only for a feeling of having been ripped off; or of riding in a New York taxi where, as often as not, you have to give the directions - that is if you're lucky enough to get a cab driver that speaks English.
Whilst Singapore is currently pre-eminent in matters of service and customer delight I see many other Asian nations aspiring to knock them off that top slot.
This then is the background out of which Asia's entrepreneurs are growing - and growing fast. A background quite simply of living in customers' shoes and striving to delight them each and every time you impact with them.
I recently spoke at the "New Wave Leadership" conference in Singapore and had the privilege of sharing the platform with some of the top entrepreneurs, CEOs and business thinkers in the region - people like Ron Sim of OSIM. This is a business, under Ron's guidance, that is achieving fabulous worldwide growth and excellent returns in a market dominated by the big Japanese corporates. Sunny Verghese of Olam International was another memorable speaker - sharing his story of his company's transition from a green-field start-up to a global leader in the supply chain management of agricultural products and food ingredients.
These then are the entrepreneurs to whom the global future belongs. Why? - not just because they have customer service in their blood but they have other unique skills also. For example they seem to have an effortless ability to sell globally that others do not. Whilst we can all bring to mind successful global corporations from many national backgrounds my experience is that there are national "fault lines" that become apparent particularly when you look at smaller middle sized companies and the way they operate.
In Europe, for example, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and the UK are better than most at doing business around the world with successful major corporations like Nokia, Philips and Glaxo Smith Kline respectively but among smaller companies I still find a reluctance to do everything possible to make it easy for their overseas customers to buy from them. All too often, for example, I come across companies that are only prepared to sell in euros or pounds and will not contemplate selling to their overseas customers in their own local currency - no matter how strong it is.
Similarly US companies will certainly "talk the talk" on service and customer focus but all too often it is only skin deep and they fail to "walk the talk". In the US exporting is all too frequently seen as what you do when the home market takes a tumble - and many US companies really do seem to believe in a "one size fits all" mentality and fail to even attempt to understand the local business needs. When Disneyland Paris was in development Disney Corporation executives would not accept the local advice that in France you simply have to include wine on the lunch menu in any restaurant. Only when the business came perilously close to chapter 11 did this and other adjustments to the US model to adapt to local needs get belatedly made.
The Japanese "fault line" seems also to be an reluctance to adopt and adapt to local conditions - and I've also seen something of a nervousness and an insecurity in Japanese executives when they are outside their own country - mirrored also by middle sized German company executives - and this leads them to a lack of perception of local business cultures.
Asian, and particularly Singaporean, business leaders seem immune from such "fault lines" - not only do they normally have the ability to speak both Mandarin Chinese and English giving them immediate access to both the largest and fastest-growing economies of the world - but also they have neither the arrogance to believe their business model is the only one nor the lack of perception when away from their home market of others. They appear to follow the textbook method and learn about the local business culture, put on that coat and then define a strategy for success in that market that is then driven through to success. It is extremely impressive.
When you add to all that the endemic culture in the region of continuous education and professional development plus the support of governments not seen in a majority of countries you have to admit that the rest of the world has a real challenge on its hands unless it shapes up, and shapes up quickly.
"Okay", I hear you say, "so you are in love with Asia and particularly Singapore, but you must have some areas of concern also".
Well, yes I do. It's to do with families and family businesses - which of course is how just about every business starts out in life. I was speaking to the CEO of an advertising agency in Singapore recently and he told me that his very best designer had come to him that morning to say that she was resigning. He, of course, asked why and what he had to do to keep her. She said that she was joining the family business and that her father had told her that it was time and that she could not demure. The business is in window joinery and you do have to wonder if firstly her talents are right for the business and secondly whether she will be fulfilled.
I work with many family businesses, indeed I'm a non-executive director of two, and I firmly believe that whilst family members should be enabled to join the business if they have both a desire and appropriate talent, compulsion is not in anybody's long-term interest - including that of the business. It may simply be a generational phenomena but I believe Asian family businesses need to think about this.
They perhaps need to learn from the mistakes of the past. We have an expression in Britain: "clogs to clogs in three generations". This refers to the footwear that used to be worn by the working man and the fact that many family companies whilst highly successful under the entrepreneurs that conceived them are then destroyed by the next two family generations.
Josiah Wedgwood, of pottery fame, was one such 19th century entrepreneur. He was said to have the flair and creativity of the French, the marketing skills of the Americans, the manufacturing talent of the Japanese and the financial acumen of the Swiss. His was a truly world-class entrepreneurial business that was pre-eminent in its day but within two generations it had all but disappeared. Entrepreneurs by definition are risk-takers and it can often be that subsequent generations are naturally risk averse - perhaps arguing that they want to protect what they have inherited. This alone can cause the rapid decline in the fortunes of the business unless the founder has put in place a very strong business culture that can survive the generations.
In this business world we are now in mediocrity is not tolerated - all of us believe as consumers or business buyers that we have an absolute right to buy excellent products and services. It is clear therefore that increasingly the differentiator between the successful business and the rest is not the quality and performance of the basic "product" - that's a "given" - but the quality of the experience the customer has - the "wow" factor.
I see Asian companies get more "wows" than most and the rest of the world needs to take note.
So those five estate agents in Oxford you need to get your act together - and just maybe you could then conquer the world - but only if the Asian entrepreneurs let you!
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