by Michael Fertik | http://blogs.hbr.org/
The 2010 Annual Meeting of New Champions, or “Summer Davos,” just wrapped up in Tianjin. An exceptional event. But perhaps the most interesting insight I gathered on the state of business in China today came from trying to get a local SIM card to make calls back to the U.S. I’ve changed names to protect the innocent, but otherwise this is what happened. I’ve never seen such intelligent, collaborative hustle leaning against such a jumble of byzantine rules.
I ask David, a front desk manager at my hotel, where I can get a SIM card. He tells me Sam from the concierge desk can go get one for me. I hand Sam a few hundred RMB, and he jets off.
A few minutes later, David calls me in my room and says that he forgot that you need to bring your passport to get a SIM card. So I go downstairs to meet Sam, and we walk the five blocks over to the China Mobile office together. It’s about 4:30 when we get there.
The office, about the size of a trailer, has travel posters on the walls and a long, unmanned glass case filled with manga characters that double as USB drives and cell phone accessories that have been gathering dust since Nokia was on top of the world. At the far end, two uniformed women with elaborate neckties wait for business. Sheila is sitting under a sign that says “Billing Area;” Rose beneath a sign that says “Cashier Area.”
Sam, by the way, is a Chinese version of Christopher Walken at 25 years old. He’s angular, with a light step, and he talks like Walken, both in English and in Chinese. That means his cadence is a pitter-patter of speeding up and slowing down, outbursts and outbeats. He exclaims “Yes!” when it doesn’t make sense, but he does it so effusively that you make the meaning work in your head because you don’t want the appeal of his presentation to fall flat.
Let me see if I can reconstruct what happened next. It was all in Chinese, so I can’t be sure of everything. But Sam explained a few key passages for me, and the visible events were universal enough, so I think I can be a pretty good reporter on what unfolded.
First Sam tells Rose what I want. A SIM card. She asks for how many days I’ll be using it, and I make signs for seven. That’s agreeable. Sheila asks through Rose and then Sam, what country I’d like to call using the SIM card. I tell them the U.S. They do some caucusing. First, Rose and Sheila exchange ideas, and then they bring in Sam, who adds enough to keep the deliberation going for a few more minutes. Then Sam turns to me to say “Calling U.S. on SIM card is very deeply expensive!” I ask how much, and it comes out to about 25 cents per minute, which isn’t cheap, but it’s a sight better than the $4/minute rate the U.S. company whose phone I brought is raiding me.
“Nah, that’s okay, let’s get the SIM card.”
He nods and conveys the conclusion to the ladies, who bustle about collaboratively now, looking up a table on a piece of laminated paper Sheila has uncovered. Sheila says something through her glasses, and Rose agrees. They turn to Sam, who then explains to me that they recommend “you don’t take SIM card, too expensive, and ECN is better.”
He’s right on the facts, since the ECN promises a 5 cent per minute charge for calls to the U.S., but it looks a lot like a calling card, and that suggests to me that I’ll get the U.S. raiding rate plus the calling card rate, so I beg off. Finally persuaded that I’m going to get the SIM card, Rose and Sheila produce a large binder and open it with some ceremony so that the text faces me across the counter. Sam pretends to look carefully at the options inside, and then he turns my way. “SIM card 30 RMB. You pick your number. Thirty RMB. Or you pick lucky number, more.”
“I don’t care, really. Let’s just get any one.”
The ladies understand enough English, I think, to look at me doubtfully. They want to make sure that I realize I am probably selecting an unlucky number. I don’t think they’re selling to me. I think they’re genuinely concerned. Looking up at Sam, I can tell he’s worried for my fortune, too, but he is doing his best to make it look like he has little patience for the quaint provincialism of number preference superstition.
I point to a 30 RMB number to get things moving, and they locate the SIM Card from a stack and hand it over. I’m still wondering when I’m going to have to show someone my passport. Rose puts up a hand as I start to unwrap the SIM card. She and Sheila chatter to Sam, and he tells me that I will need a code to make the phone work for “internationalist” dialing.
“What kind of code?”
“A code for the dialing.”
“That’s okay. Is it a number code or letters or characters or what?”
Sam confers with Sheila and Rose. “China Mobile will send you a message to tell you.”
“Will the code just be numbers? Or also letters?”
“They will send you the code.” He’s not being difficult. We’re just not on the same language page right now. Okay, a different tack:
“Will they send an SMS with the code?”
“I can’t read Chinese.”
He talks with Rose and Sheila, and they can’t come up with a good answer for that one, so I say “okay, let’s do it.” I’ve already been there for half an hour. I’ll figure out the code when it comes in.
Sam pops out the SIM card, and we place it in my device. The phone springs to life and Chinese characters and SMS messages flood in immediately. I can tell without reading a single character that I’m getting marketing content from the mobile companies, so I don’t bother to ask. Then mad conferring begins again. Sheila and Rose are looking quite sober now, working over a problem. Sam looks at a chair against the wall and says “Please, have a rest.”
Bad sign. The phone’s on, and he’s telling me to have a rest. I say, “I’m okay, thank you,” and dial a number in the U.S. to test it out. I get an automated female voice explaining something in Mandarin. I hand the phone to Sam, who listens attentively. “OKAY! You have to call to the China Mobile at 18866!!!”
“Sam, I don’t speak Chinese.”
He hands the phone to Rose, who puts it on speaker and calls China Mobile.
On the call, Rose is our main advocate with HQ. She, Sheila, and Sam have what looks like a major battle with the lady on the other line. Apparently they’re trying to persuade her that my SIM card should allow me to call outside China. While Rose harangues HQ, Sheila crosses and recrosses her arms, and Sam shifts back and forth on the balls of his feet. Rose is now yelling at the lady on the other end of the phone, and HQ is yelling straight back at us over speaker. Finally, Rose seems to give up, sticks her tongue out at the phone, and hangs up.
I’m not really sure where we stand, so I watch our crew confer. Sheila looks for something in the back room.
The phone starts ringing. Surprised, Rose hands it to me, and I answer. It’s a woman speaking Chinese, so I hand it over again.
It’s HQ. She’s actually calling us back so she can continue the argument.
They go at it for a while again, and then Team SIM’s countenances suggest they might have reached a conceptual breakthrough. Sam starts looking up the clock, pointing, and they agree that it’s looking a little close to 6 pm. Maybe an office is closing soon?
He explains to me that one week ago the local government started requiring all international callers using SIM cards to submit their Chinese Identification Number. I don’t have one, so I can’t get my SIM card to work. Sheila and Rose have figured out that they can submit their male colleague’s ID Number to the China Mobile office so that I can activate. They can’t send the fax into HQ until tomorrow morning at 10 am, so I can call China Mobile 18866 at 10:30 am (“Sam, I don’t speak Chinese.” “YESSS!!!!”) to activate it.
It is somehow left implied that the decision one week ago by the local government to require international calls via SIM to have a Chinese ID number had something to do with the impending arrival of 1200 foreign delegates for the World Economic Forum; perhaps it’s desirable to make it harder to make untracked calls.
But there it was. 6 pm and 50% of the way to being able to call home, thanks to Team SIM: creative, smart, industrious, personable, and plagued by inefficiency of epic proportions.
Now imagine if they had more freedom to operate. What China is achieving right now is, on many levels, superhuman. The Tianjin government, led by the very successful mayor, managed to build the enormous Meijang Conference Center for the World Economic Forum in a single year. Amazing. What would Sam, Sheila, and Rose be able to accomplish if they didn’t have to spend all their time inventing workarounds?
Michael Fertik is a repeat Internet entrepreneur and CEO with experience in technology and law. He founded ReputationDefender in 2006 with the belief that citizens have the right to control and protect their online reputation and privacy. Michael recently co-authored Wild West 2.0 which quickly gained acclaim as an Amazon.com Number 1 Bestselling Internet book. He has been named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer for 2011