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Change is big deal abroad

On the odd occasion, I have found myself representing foreign governments trying to build up export markets in the United States.

Some of them have been completely hopeless. Others had good products available at the right price. Portugal and Turkey spring to mind. What got in the way, as often as not, was dealing with the fact that though the customer is always right, he can be a pretty odd fish.

On one occasion, the Portuguese Trade Commission in New York sent me to see a man who had imported a container-load of glass carafes and, for some reason, was dissatisfied. When I met him, he turned out not only to be dissatisfied, but pop-eyed with rage. "I go on vacation to Portugal. I like it. I get my wine served in these really neat carafes. I think 'If I advertised those in the New York Magazine they'd make 15 bucks easy'. I find out how much they cost. I can land 'em in New York for seven bucks. I order a container-load. I place the ad. They arrive - and look at this! I can't sell any of them until I spend five bucks on hand-finishing each one! These dummies don't understand; the litigation would kill me!" At this point, the offending really neat carafe is thrust under my nose. I find it - really neat. It's not until I turn it upside down that I discover the object of his irritation. The carafes have been hand-blown and simply broken off the blower's tube. In the middle of the bottom of each one is a razor-edged stub of glass, that he has to grind away so that someone in upstate New Jersey doesn't lacerate a pinkie and reach for an avenging attorney.

When you're being drenched in ire, spittle and incomprehension, you play for time. I asked him where he took his vacation. I asked him what sort of factory made the carafes. I asked him how much they cost in Portugal. It turned out, of course, that they were a throwaway item, made somewhere in the deepest northern countryside and never intended to be sold more than 20 miles from the factory. They were used for serving cheap local wine in village restaurants, which was where he had found them and thought of paying for his holiday with a sharp business deal.

In the end, I convinced the man that he had taken delivery of exactly the same product he had liked when it came wreathed in bonhomie and a litre of vigorous tinto. He had no grounds for complaint: incomprehension between producer and marketeer was completely mutual.

This unsatisfying encounter came to mind a few weeks ago when I gave a series of lectures in one of the Asian Tiger economies. A very energetic representative of British interests was doing his nut. "The French will pay for new technical institutes lock, stock and barrel. Afterwards the country will be tied into French contractors, French technology, French universities.

"The Germans are selling the idea that if you make the best products in the world, you can afford to pay high wages and provide excellent social services. That goes down very well in a low-wage economy.

"The Australians promote good old British values without the over-complex infrastructure.

"All the Mekong Basin countries would like to be our partners, but how do I compete?" He was right to be disheartened. In the turmoil of globalisation, the knowledge trade demands two things: clarity and stability.

The excellent English further education college that was at the same event as me was, in fact, far from typical of the college sector. You knew from bitter experience that when it had done the groundwork, some cockeyed notion of fairness would open up the country uncontrolled, to the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the college world. It only takes one to be rapacious and incompetent to destroy the investment of years.

Likewise, I remembered that an initial meeting in 1998 had borne fruit only in 2003 in our first substantial contract in the Middle East for independent quality assurance. You would scarcely believe the fancy footwork I had to put in to explain that a change of name from the Training Standards Council to the Adult Learning Inspectorate meant simply that we were bigger and better, not that we had given up our interest in training. The name-change was almost a deal-breaker. My next task is to explain that the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills really still contains the ALI, and with some added bells and whistles for good measure.

The globalised world is a world of ideas. Change, reform and contestability are ideas which win hearts and minds at home. To those promoting Britain overseas, they can seem as attractive as a dodgy carafe. That's worth remembering in a small trading nation.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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