Thinking “Outside of the Box”
Even after being here in Thailand for years now, it still continually amazes me how different the Thai thought process is from my own. There truly is a different mind-set that I will probably never understand. Thais view the world their unique “culturally tinted glasses”. (Yes I know that every society has its own way of interrupting the world, and that undoubtedly I carry a few cultural albatrosses around my own neck!) Trying to suggest alternate ways of doing things to a Thai is like trying to describe a rainbow to a blind man. Innovation is not exactly a hallmark in Thailand. The over-arching fear of losing face prevents new ways of thinking from even being discussed, let alone implemented. It is much better to blunder on, even knowing that things aren’t going as well as they might. Don’t buck tradition, even if that path leads off a cliff. The frustrating thing for me (who is just learning to keep his big mouth shut…at least to the Thais!) is it would be so easy for things to be better here. A modest amount of effort is many times all that is needed to turn “just getting by” into success.
Here’s one example from my own little slice of LOS. Every work day I get an iced espresso from a small coffee shop near my school. It’s quite an attractive place, tastefully decorated and serves above average coffee, and excellent homemade pastries as well! There is a computer available with high speed internet access at no charge. The owner is a very nice middle aged woman with a pleasant smile and a welcoming way. She is quite well educated, with a master’s degree in business. Her English is excellent, and so we often have lively discussions about the political shenanigans happening in Bangkok. “Other countries must think we are completely incompetent” she complained, “especially after selecting Mr. Somchai as the new PM! Now we are approaching the busy tourist season, and these PAD people are shutting down airports! What are they thinking? The whole financial world is melting and we are busy chasing away tourists!” I commiserate with her, but quietly. No one needs to hear how poorly things are going from a foreigner!
Our talk turns to how her business is going. “Things are very slow” she says. That’s no surprise to me. I’ve rarely seen another customer in the place. The shop is on a busy street, but there is no pedestrian traffic where it’s located. The only reason she created the shop there was that she lives above that space. This of course is a common practice in Thailand. It’s easy to keep an eye on things when you live on the premises. If nothing else it does provide a place for the whole family to hang out!
This morning I mentioned that it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to increase business. Her ears perked up at that! May I offer a few suggestions? She nodded her head vigorously. You serve excellent coffee. Your shop is attractive and comfortable. You are a most friendly and engaging person. Your problem is one of location. Very few people know that you are here. She nods in agreement. If someone were to come here, there is a good chance that would come back a second time, and tell their friends about a very nice place to have coffee. She is in agreement with that. The question is how can you get people to walk in your door that first time? More nods. While people don’t walk past your shop, there are many potential customers within a short walk of it. There are three large schools that are no more than a minute or two from your door. Hey, that’s one of the reasons you see me here everyday! It’s easy to come over during lunchtime. What I suggest is that YOU take the initiative to tell the hundreds of teachers that you are here! How? Print up some small, inexpensive flyers. Write up a short advertising blurb talking about your shop. Mention the internet, the pastries, and the air conditioning. Promote a special offer for the teachers and staff. Offer a LARGE discount for anyone bringing in this advert. It doesn’t matter if you barely make anything on that one coffee. You only need to get them in the door one time to see what a lovely place you have, taste the quality of what you sell, and hopefully sit down and relax for a few minutes. While there is no way to predict how many repeat customers you will have, there is a good chance that you will make a fair number of them. Be bold! “Think outside of the box!” Yes, she is familiar with the expression. If you just sit here waiting for folks to arrive, you will be waiting a LONG time! She agrees. While we are talking about coupons, one thing you might consider is handing some out in some busy areas of town. Actually, you should find an attractive college girl to hand them out. Preferably one with a nice smile! It couldn’t hurt! It wouldn’t cost much. You should be able to print a good number of coupons on an A4 sized paper. So, what do you think? She agrees in principle, but I am not holding my breath in anticipation of any imminent promotional campaign. Even though this is a well educated woman, she still sees things in the context of “The Way Things Have Always Been”. If it hasn’t been done before, it probably shouldn’t be done. It’s this kind of thinking that keeps Thailand mired in tired, worn out modes of action, year after year.
Undoubtedly the subject of how to increase business will come from time to time, but I serious doubt any discussions will be more than just chit chat. So I sip my iced Café Mocha, check my e-mail and think how easy it would be for this nice woman to be successful, knowing that in all likelihood this will never be.
Yes, the locals seem most comfortable when the do things the way they have always been done. Doing things a new or different way can cause much anxiety for Thais!