What are your major cost centers? Have you integrated your value chain either vertically or horizontally? What type of quality control measures do you have in place along your supply chain? Over the last two years at Thunderbird, these questions have become normal to us, but to an Anyue lemon farmer who has likely never met a foreigner before, speaking another language is only half of it.
We are lucky enough to have one team member who speaks Mandarin, but here in Sichuan the accent is so thick that this advantage is usually negated. This, in turn, means there are a few extra steps to our interviews and meetings. First, we prepare our questions and talking points in MBA-speak. Then, we must go about re-wording and explaining these questions to our translators, who, in turn, ask our questions to whomever we are speaking with. The process is then reversed and we cross our fingers that at least the main theme of the question and answer were not lost in translation. Luckily for us, our translators, Kevin and Wang Zhi, are great sports and very patient.
It has been very interesting to see the huge range of education and understanding among the people we have met with. Different ends of the value chain are worlds apart on everything from being able to conceptualize the industry as a whole to technology integration. Some farmers, when asked if they know what happens to their lemons after they are sold, respond with “don’t know and don’t care.” On the other hand, when asked about his vision for the future, one processor responded with a full point-by-point description of his five-year strategic plan. Some farmers struggle to find adequate space just to store their harvest, while some companies are operating state of the art facilities. One company just opened a new 450MM RMB factory with capabilities to produce a full range of products, from alcohols and teas, to cosmetics and candy.
As we pushed through the discovery part of our project, we quickly learned to adapt our questions to match the understanding of the person we were interviewing. By the end we were getting much more valuable information out of each conversation, and much more efficiently.
The other significant obstacle we had to overcome in our interviews was how to ask questions about ways the government could improve industry support without offending our host or shutting down our interviewee. After receiving very generic, scripted responses to these questions in the first few interviews, we finally figured out how to re-word the questions to solicit the responses we needed. Now as we move closer to our first client deliverable, we continue down the learning curve of translating Thunderbird-speak to Mandarin.