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The Great Firewall of China September 20, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in China, Cultural Differences.
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I recently put a small blog online using WordPress (The site is 努力队). The point of the blog is to practice my Chinese writing and reading, and especially to keep in touch with my classmates in China with whom I studied Mandarin. I sent the link to all my friends on the mainland only to realize that the website was not accessible from there. I guess thanks to “The Great Firewall of China”.

I called my hosting support staff for help only to learn that if I wanted to be granted access, I had to contact every ISP in China and ask them to allow my website. As a result I have been gathering some general information about the matter. Here are three links that I found pretty interesting:

  • See if your website can be accessed from Mainland China using GreatFirewallofChina.org. It seems that the test does not always work. Still, I tried a few. The result: my blog was not accessible while Facebook was, which is accurate.
  • Learn about how censorship is organized in China from the Human Rights Watch website
  • Of course, you can also find plenty on the matter on Wikipedia with more links and references

Well, at least, with a link to the Human Rights Watch website on this very blog, I am sure Psychobserver will never be accessible from the Mainland. No need for me to bother about the issue.

Too many shopping malls?… NEVER!! August 17, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in Cultural Differences, Hong Kong, Strategy.
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Mega Box Shopping MallHong Kong is a shopping paradise. Usually when people visit the place for the first time, they are amazed by the number of people in the streets and the fact that … they are all shopping, regardless of the time of the day, or night. If we follow European standard, Hong Kong would be considered overloaded with shops and shopping malls already, but not quite in Asian standards if we look at the newest addition to Hong Kong long list of shopping malls.

The newest shopping mall is called Mega Box (see picture). It is a massive 19 floors complex with shops, restaurants, a movie theater and an ice skating ring. The strange particularity of this shopping mall is its location. It is not in one of those trendy areas of the city. It is located in Kowloon Bay, an area more famous for old factory buildings than fashionable shopping.

The problem for the shopping mall is not only the district, but its location far away from the MTR (HK Metro) station as well, that makes its access quite troublesome. It took me around 15 minutes by foot to reach the mall from the MTR station. I also got lost on the way. Indeed, although the mall is easy to spot from the other side of the harbor, within Kowloon Bay it is rather hard to locate.

Taken this difficulty into account, the shopping mall has positioned itself as a specialty mall, offering solutions and products for home improvement. The highlight is a huge B&Q store (first in Hong Kong) that even though I am not a manual type of person, made me dream of adding a few items to my home.

Still, I felt as if the concept had been taken only half-way. Although the mall has two huge home improvement stores, we don’t find many smaller outlets in the same category. The rest of the shopping mall offers similar options as other shopping malls, but less varied as much space is taken by these two home improvement stores. The mall also includes a NOVO concept store that is targeted towards young and fashion-conscious consumers. Although the shop is interesting, I wonder if its location in Kowloon Bay is logical. I don’t think one store will be enough to attract large crowds of these consumers that usually walk the streets of Mong Kok or Causeway Bay.

Finally, one major problem I found is the entrance of the shopping mall. As the mall is away from the MTR station it seems that the designers catered exclusively for people arriving by car, taxi or bus. The result is a very unwelcoming feeling when crossing by foot several car lanes before reaching the mall doors.

Enough criticism here. Mega Box is still a very impressive complex that I guess has to be visited at least once. To me, Langham Place in Mong Kok will still remain my favorite hanging out place (among shopping malls), although I almost never bought anything there apart from coffees…

Small addition: A short analysis regarding the competitiveness of the shopping malls in this area of Hong Kong.

Service level – Comparison between Hong Kong and France August 7, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in Cultural Differences, Customer Experience, France.
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I had a visit from my family recently and we ended up talking about the level of service customers receive in Hong Kong as compared to France. My family members were complaining that in Hong Kong any request that is a bit “outside of the box” meets the same “it is not possible” answer or sends the customer service staff into pure panic. At first, the comments made me hesitate. Was I wrong? Is service in France better? Did it change? A trip to France and going through a French airport helped me put my thoughts back in order…

When flying Air France from Hong Kong these days, you arrive at a brand new terminal in Paris – Charles de Gaulle airport. The problem is… the terminal is not totally finished. So upon arrival, instead of stationing at a gate, the plane stops away from the gate and passengers need to take a bus to reach the terminal. Keeping in mind that most Asian flights reach Paris around the same time (in between 6am and 8am) and that security measures (I guess) has policemen check passports when passengers get off the bus at the only available door of the terminal, passengers after a 12-hour or more flight are forced to wait standing on the bus for a certain period of time (from 10 to 30 minutes I guess) while buses in front of them finished getting emptied from their passengers.

Once this first step completed, passengers have to go through immigration, which is compulsory even for passengers in transit (strange if people fly to another country). There two or three lines are available. Each line is wide enough for 3 to 4 people to stand side-by-side leading to much pushing and jumping of the queue. The lack of signs leaves passengers  wondering if they are in the right queue, while passengers with a connecting flight are stressed out because they are afraid to miss their flight because of the long queue.

The airport, I guess realizing passengers’ distress, had a ground staff standing next to the queues to assist. One passenger in front of me asked the staff: “I will miss my connecting flight which leaves in 30 minutes. What can I do?”. Then the staff to answer: “Sorry, I can’t do anything for you. You have to queue up. If you miss your flight, well, you just miss it”. Sure enough the passenger after this was not in distress anymore… but just was plain angry!

In my two-way flights between Hong Kong and France, I had many more stories on board the plane, in the airport, in the parking lot of the airport…
The result was clear to me. Living in Hong Kong is great! People may not be the best problem solvers, but at least the infrastructure and processes are designed following best practices and most of the time the service received is very acceptable. In France, where I think people are much better at solving problems, the infrastructure is the problem. Places, things and processes are not designed in a customer-centered way (here I generalize too much to make my point) and it makes service levels even lower. Hopefully, and some examples seem to show it is the case, things may change in France.

Who is in charge in China? June 26, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in China, Cultural Differences.
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Quite an interesting read from NY Times this week-end: an article from David Barboza entitled “My Time as a Hostage, and I’m a Business Reporter“. In the article David Barboza describes how he was held hostage in a toy factory for pursuing a story on recalled toys. In the article he brings to light the immense power that businessmen today have in China. As he describes it, neither the police, nor high-level local officials were able to convince the person in charge at the toy factory to release him.

I think the conclusion of the article is a bit too rushed. In a country like China, local people, whether businessmen, police or politicians, do not like to see foreigners wander around asking questions. If the factory manager wanted to send a message like “DO NOT COME BACK”, then the reporters had to be held for a while to make that message clear. And I would not say that the police and the politicians could not do anything… I would say that it was in their interest as well that the message sent was clear. Then of course, they have to be seen do their jobs, thus the arguing that took place on that day. At the end of the story, the factory people and the policemen have a dinner at the police station. Does that dinner really mean that businessmen are all powerful? Or are they all on the same side defending what they built together?

The balance of power is very complex in China today. Definitely bribery is rampant and local politicians and police have interests in many of the businesses that are being set up everyday all around China. But I think it is just a matter of priorities. The communist party could very well control all this. In the end they may be the biggest organization in the world and have ramifications in every medium and large scale businesses in China. So, why would they not control this? It may be quite simple. The biggest enemy to the Chinese government is social instability. Although corruption brings instability, it is nothing compared to what would happen if corruption was brought down, leading to the destruction of many businesses around the country and the slow down of the economy.

So to me this story just highlights the current choice of the Chinese government – maybe a conscious lack of control to achieve its greater purpose, which is to bring 1.3 billion people to a higher standard of living. Once the situation changes, it could very well be that the party will change its approach, and show that this so-called lack of control did not exist in the end. A read like “One Billion Customers” from James Mc Gregor highlights very well the important role the party plays in day-to-day business and that if the party wants to bring down somebody for the greater good of the country, that person will go down.

Engineers vs. Businessmen January 2, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in Cultural Differences, Customer Experience, France, Hong Kong.
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I continue here on the few posts I made on France

In France, we are used to say that we are great inventors and engineers, but are unable to market and sell any of the good ideas we have. It is true that historically France has had some compelling inventions that in the end did not spread outside its borders that much: look at the Minitel (predecessor of the Internet) or the Concorde plane. On the other hand Hong Kong people are relentless entrepreneurs and salesmen that may build several businesses at the same time. These businesses often focus on very short term profit and are not meant to last very long.

I would like to use an example to highlight how this simple comparison can translate in the consumer world. It is related to the approach used by one of the most successful store chain in France: FNAC. In Hong Kong, the equivalent of FNAC would be a merger between HMV, the Publishing House and Fortress all under one roof and with a very significant share of each of these markets. Some people in France developed a symbiotic lifestyle in relation to these stores, spending their week-ends reading comic books or listening to music sometimes not to buy anything.

FNAC has developed a very strong trust with its customers that led it to publish selection guides to help customers choose their products. The products are rated and compared by FNAC “labs” and the shop is recommending the best picks. This practice never surprised me before I came to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong it is inconceivable for a shop selling products to review them and recommend “without bias” which one the customer should purchase. Why would a shop recommend a product of better quality to its customers if that product will not bring significant margin to the company? And what would be the reaction of brands that are not well rated?

So on one side, if a French person wants to buy a new camera, this person may check FNAC’s comparison charts, while a Hong Kong person would never consider trusting a shop enough to hear its recommendations and will rather rely on friends or “independent” magazines/forums for the job. This behavior is based on experience and relevant to each environment… but what would happen if a Hong Kong store decided to follow the French way and develop a stronger bond and trust with its customers?

Honeymoon Domestic Consultant December 25, 2006

Posted by psychobserver in China, Cultural Differences.
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From ChinesePod.com (A great website to learn Mandarin) is an interesting look at a phenomenon that is spreading in China… I would say especially in Shanghai. Young Chinese couples are getting married, but have no clue whatsoever as to how to take care of themselves, so their parents “offer” them a kind of domestic helper/consultant (蜜月阿姨) to make sure they won’t … well starve to death for example, or put their pet in the washing machine, who knows…

You can listen to the 3 minutes dialog below to know a bit more:

Word on the Street – 蜜月阿姨 (mìyuè āyí)

Merry Christmas! And happy festive season!
圣诞快乐!

Home Coffee Experience December 19, 2006

Posted by psychobserver in Cultural Differences, Customer Experience.
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Starbucks reinvented the coffee shop and is covering the whole world with its successful ventures. Another company is now aggressively targeting other untapped locations were coffee is consumed. This company is Nespresso and already showed impressive growth providing coffee to small and medium size corporations as well as to individuals.

While strolling around in Paris, I encountered one of their shop targeted to individuals. Everything is done to make the experience feel like a luxury one. The design of the machines is very well finished and their usage is a breeze. The staff wears suits and stands being neatly decorated desks. Change the product and this could be a Louis Vuitton shop.

If we move to Hong Kong, Nespresso does not have its own shop and is selling its machines mainly through high-end supermarkets (on top of aggressively developing its business segment). With most people in Hong Kong heading outside of their apartments for meals, especially breakfast, the approach of focusing on business, while developing some kind of exposure through supermarket chains should show great results. It is great to see a company doing its homework.

Starbucks could have brought great coffee experience outside of its stores, but it seems that another coffee company identified this great opportunity first and developed a very compelling experience to grow this under-developed market.

Forcing Change Through Bad Experience December 17, 2006

Posted by psychobserver in Cultural Differences, Customer Experience.
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Yesterday night the BBC was announcing the start of a new 8km tram line in Paris. With green grass surrounding the trains, this seems like a great move towards making the city more environment friendly, but it is actually the latest in a move by the city to curb downtown traffic by making it a hell to drive around. All roads now include bus lanes or other tricks that reduced by half the number of lanes available for common drivers. The city seems to hope that by making driving the most frustrating experience ever, people will use alternative means of transportation.

What a terrible way to treat its own population!

Public transportation in Paris is very far from perfect when compared with cities like Hong Kong. The metro is dirty and plagued by strikes and delays. Buses are unsafe. Is the city really providing an equally convenient alternative to the car? Not really… It also fails to realize the importance of the car for French people in general. Driving a car in France is a statement of freedom and independence. A forced removal of this can only angry people more. It will not make them abandon their car.

So apart from increased traffic jams, Paris now also has way more motorcycles speeding between cars and leading to more crashes, as more and more less-experienced two-wheel drivers get on the road. Looking at solutions like London implementation of a toll fee could lead to better results. Unfortunately, a fee, as I was discussing with a French friend, is not an egalitarian solution as it will affect poorer people more… Isn’t France quest to be the most egalitarian country in the world affecting its own relevance to the world in the end?

Few Links – 17 Dec. 2006 December 17, 2006

Posted by psychobserver in Cultural Differences, Customer Experience, Green Culture.
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Below are three links about very different topics…

  1. From All This ChittahChattah by Steve Portigal is a post called “Signal To Noise“. It deals with the appropriateness of online advertising by highlighting a funny example. Highly relevant to any companies investing in online advertising: Don’t forget Context!
  2. From Adverblog is a link to an edugame aimed at making people realize how important it is to save energy in the office. As mentioned in Adverblog, the game is far from perfect, but it still provides some information in an entertaining way. Worth checking…
  3. From EasthSouthWestNorth is a post about the Hong Kong Ferry Terminal Clock that is to be demolished. It raises the issue of conserving the Hong Kong cultural heritage and how it is best done. I find it very interesting as it deals with the very definition of cultural heritage and how it can be shared in a meaningful way with outside people. I recently brought visitors to the newly built Ngong Ping Village and to see the Symphony of Lights… Both disgraces to Hong Kong culture if you ask me. Especially the Ngong Ping village which is supposed to be dedicated to Buddhism and includes French food, Starbucks and dumb shows that are absolutely not educational.

Making the Green Light “Greener” December 8, 2006

Posted by psychobserver in Cultural Differences, Customer Experience.
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Back in Hong Kong after two weeks in my home country, France, I can start blogging again. And for a short while I will blog about differences; differences between France and Hong Kong.

As a first post, I will focus on traffic lights. It is the first time that it struck me, but traffic lights are rather different in some aspects between France and Hong Kong. The main difference I found is that the French green is not as “green” as the
Hong Kong green… Let me explain…

Say you are pedestrian in Hong Kong waiting to cross the road. When the light turns green, you can cross without any worry. No car can come at you as all traffic lights for cars are red. Not so in France. When the same pedestrian crosses the road, cars will be coming from other sides of the crossroad and will be patiently waiting, or most probably trying to find a way through the pedestrians, while you are crossing. This makes crossing the road a much more stressful experience. A very small difference you would say…

Well if we believe what Malcolm Gladwell writes in “The Tipping Point”, small environment cues are very important and can greatly affect people’s behavior. In his book, he goes on explaining how removing graffiti in the New York subway helped decrease crime. Well, could it be that in Paris, making green lights “greener” could help decrease the stress and frustration the population faces everyday there? Everybody who visits me in Hong Kong finds that despite the crowd the place seems more relaxing than others… maybe European cities could learn from these small things that can make a city nicer to live in.