fimmtudagur, maí 04, 2006

the big world

Back in the heyday of post-Y2K exuberance, I worked with a company that was making a web system for American 401(k) (pension) plans. I remember a conversation where we decided to restrict all participants to addresses in the United States, because there was no "country" field built into the underlying database. At the time it didn't seem like a big deal; how many 401(k) holders would live outside of the US, really?

But once I moved to Iceland, I got a new perspective. In fact, of the handful of former employees of my old employer, two of us had chosen to live out of the country. And because our retirement provider also didn't support foreign addresses, our employer had to hand-mail our 401(k) statements to us each quarter.

It's not just retirement systems: almost every time I try to place an order for something on the Web from an American firm, I get fouled up on the billing page. (With the exception of Amazon, who seem by comparison incredibly savvy about the existence of other lands.) On many sites, non-US residents are forever trying to jam address information into fields they weren't meant to hold. And half the time it ends in frustration, an order not placed, and lost business for the merchant.

In the most recent example, we tried to order licenses for an expensive piece of software yesterday at work. The maker of the software, Adobe, is an established large vendor yet is not set up to process orders outside of the US. After I was done telling the sales rep that we were an Icelandic company, he asked me, "But don't you have a U.S. shipping address?" When I told him I didn't, he put me on hold while he talked to his boss. When he came back, he said, "Well, do you at least have a Canadian address?"

When I couldn't provide him with an address in either of these two countries, he said, "Well, I can't sell you the license." I had to spend another hour calling American Adobe resellers, none of whom could sell anything overseas. Then I found a really helpful guy who said he'd put a quote right together for me. In Switzerland.

This foreign-address problem seems endemic to US businesses. Here we are a customer who has decided we want to make a purchase, credit card in hand, and it just can't be had. For many US businesses, the rest of the world might as well be a big greyed-out area on the map. I can hear the conversations among the database designers, because I was once part of a similar conversation: "Ah, nobody lives there, we don't need a 'country' field." "Well, everyone has a 'ZIP' code, don't they?" "Phone numbers are always 10 digits!" And so on.

Turning your back on a customer because he comes from somewhere "over the sea" strikes me as provincial, especially in light of the rapid globalization of the world. American readers, imagine for a second how it would feel if you called to order something from a Michigan company, only to be told, "Well, we only sell to Michigan. Where are you calling from again?"


Blogger Jen said...

Try using a military address sometime. It is just as bad, if not worse. The military has been around (and overseas) for how long and many companies (although they claim to ship APO/FPO) refuse to increase their state fields to allot for AE et al.

Or they insist that your items are being shipped overseas (technically they are not). So, yes, I have noticed this and can completely understand!

I have also noticed that when I tell some people (in the States) that we live overseas, they simply can't comprehend why we would move. I have noticed the opposite attitude in European countries. It is expected that you may move from time to time and no one blinks an eye.

So refreshing!

Blogger JB said...

I find that the states-as-countries analogy helps some Americans understand the European perspective. I mean, nobody in the States would think it odd that someone moved from New Hampshire to Massachusetts and that's *almost* the analogous attitude among many Europeans about moving countries.

On the flip side, Europeans (at least those who haven't traveled extensively in the States) can't seem to understand the vast differences in culture and even language between states in the US. To me, there is more cultural similarity between eastern Massachusetts and Iceland than there is between Massachusetts and Texas, for example. This is a hard thing to convey. Making stereotypes about Americans is hard, and often as irresponsible as making assumptions about the lives of Spaniards based on a weekend trip to Sweden.


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