In 2004, I made the conscious decision to toss my hat in the ring so to speak, by entering the “freight transport and international shipping” industry, from the United States to Haiti. Taking a crack at what appears to be just another business venture was not an easy task. I know, it sounds as though I was a politician declaring his candidacy for a political office before a primary election. Take my word for it, this was more daunting. From the perspective of an average Haitian customer, the international shipping business to Haiti is an unregulated industry where anything and everything goes. Like the primary election in the United States with a field of candidates, the international shipping business to Haiti has no shortage of individuals that ship personal effects and household goods for other people in a 40 foot container from anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. That’s not surprising, since any private citizen can book and lease a 40 foot container from a number of major US shipping lines. In the political arena, registered voters usually don’t know much about all the candidates in the initial stage of the primary election. Early on, all they know about one particular candidate, he or she is either a Democrat or a Republican, what she looks like physically, and the persona she is gradually crafting and presenting to the media. But as time goes by, each political candidate begins to craft a more specific message based on an array of issues that are hopefully important to many different voters, with the hope of separating himself or herself from the pack. Freight transport and international shipping from the US to the Caribbean continues to give me the opportunity to interact with Haitian-Americans and Haitian nationals from all walks of life: from the customer who can barely read and sign her name on a receipt, to entrepreneurs, IT specialists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, nurses, and PhD’s galore … etc. Nonetheless, one prevalent thought immediately comes to mind when dealing with the average Haitian customer of any background. When she wants to ship some types of commodity from the US to Haiti: as soon as the customer identifies the ownership or the person in charge of operations as someone who’s of Haitian descent and knows how to speak Creole, it is as though something turns (i.e., Abbott & Costello – The Niagara Falls Sketch – Slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch, choking gesture, scream, and then laughter from a live studio audience… etc). Remember, as mentioned earlier, a candidate in a primary election in the United States gets to tailor his message based on pertinent issues with the hope of getting enough votes to become the nominee of his party. Well, in the international shipping business to Haiti, a shipper does not get to distance himself from the pack of retail shippers. When assessing the shipping needs of the average Haitian customer, it becomes obvious that the customer’s main objective is to resist any type of framework and structure you may have within your organization. In my case, I have the right infrastructure and the wherewithal to deliver fast and reliable service to Port-au-Prince. This average customer expects the retail shipper to abandon his efficient structure and his line of service (e.g., express port-to-port service) but to instead adopt chaos and laissez-faire, or what appears to be the norm in Haiti. “You didn’t tell me I had to pay anything” is the cliche you will hear time and time again. That’s entirely up to you whether you choose to dignify that cliche with a response or meet an unrealistic expectation. However, a good entrepreneur always keeps in mind the following premise of good customer service: those who spend the least and ask for the most before ordering your service, will do the same after the sale. But If you ignore your business model, your niche market, and the scope of services that you provide and instead accept an average customer’s unrealistic demands, you can expect nothing but complaints and chaos. In the US, the average Haitian customer will go to the back of a supermarket and get the worst looking boxes she can find, so she can ship her household goods to Haiti. It is futile trying to redirect that customer and address what is known as ‘common knowkedge’ in the industry because you are wasting your time explaining to her that you and your shipping business have access to a publicly traded warehouse that abides by the rules and regulations of international shipping. And based on one of those rules and regulations, a retail shipper must insist that all pieces of cargo be properly packed and sometimes palletized before they can be shipped overseas. All of your recommendations will fall on deaf ears. A number of freight forwarders even offer incentives to encourage customers to ship their household goods in sturdy open-head 55 gallon plastic barrels or in jumbo 75 gallon fiber barrels. A lot of retail shippers are also privy to the info that shipping household goods in barrels is much cheaper than shipping the same commodity in some flimsy boxes. It is as though going across the Atlantic ocean and the Caribbean sea in a large commercial vessel is just a minor detail. The average customer will be insistent and proceed by telling you, she has been sending stuff in boxes to Haiti for years and besides, this is how she has done it the last time with some unnamed Haitian shipper. That’s fine and dandy! But my question to you, sir or ma’am, is: Did you get good results? Their answer is usually ambivalent at best. From my perspective, the answer is “no.” Or could it be that a majority of Haitians did learn at some point in their lives to survive in an unstructured and sometimes chaotic environment and international shipping service from the United States to Haiti is a reminder or the bridge that still connects all of us to what used to be an unregulated world where every man and woman was for himself and herself as the ship sank or went down. “We are all in the same boat” may be a well-known saying but that saying does not apply to a shipping company that’s committed to doing the right thing and generating a profit. In any given enterprise where everything is above-board, a trained company representative always welcomes questions from a potential customer and then give her the opportunity to check whether the business in question has the sustainable infrastructure capable of delivering the services, she is looking for. Whether a business is capable of providing quality service is something every customer should inquire about before placing an order. Some customers will tell you point-blank that they are not interested in your structure nor in your business model. I often reply with a question, by asking whether they are looking for customized service. In the shipping industry, or any other business for that matter, “customized service” costs much more than standard or basic service. Therefore, let’s be realistic, people! You simply cannot ask for VIP service when you are sending one piece of freight and only paying for basic service rate (e.g., $150 for shipping one barrel of household goods/personal effects) from Atlanta, GA to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which does not include any local pickup fee, Agent fee, customs’ taxes, and door-to-door delivery). When a customer tells me: “this is what I want you to do” or “this is how I would like for you to deliver the service,” and not taking into account CentEx Cargo’s line of service. It sure sounds like customized service to me. “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, it must be a duck.” Please put your money where your mouth is when asking for customized service. In the international shipping business, customized service entails 3 separate costs: 1) the cost of express pickup of your freight from a private residence, storage unit, or commercial warehouse 2) the cost of international shipping of your freight from New York, NY to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and 3) the cost of door to door delivery to anywhere in Haiti. If you choose to negotiate with me in good faith and have an honest discussion about this profile, I’d be the first to tell you that two (2) of the main shipping Agents on the ground in Port-au-Prince, should provide more service for the amount of money they charge. And what can I say about customs in Haiti? The last time three (3) of the key players of CentEx Cargo had a meeting with Haitian Customs, some of the topics we discussed, were mind-boggling. The founders of Centuria Group are made up of an eclectic group with some impressive credentials: an engineer with a degree from M.I.T., an IT Specialist that can put together a team capable of writing any computer software for shipping, a Director of Operations with a Masters in Business Management, and a warehouse Coordinator with close to 20 years of experience in warehousing and distribution. Nonetheless, we reached the consensus that international shipping to Haiti more than likely will remain dysfunctional for the next 25 years. It is a slap in the face for a shipping Agent in Port-au-Prince to tell someone who was educated in the United States and who has extensive experience shipping freight to other Caribbean countries to go in front of a Customs building in Port-au-Prince and get a broker. We are talking here about a bunch of young men with no credentials whatsoever posing as brokers. I will tell you what it looks like to me and my American counterparts: An agent in Port-au-Prince is more than likely a fat cat who has made the initial investment in a physical location (i.e., warehouse), bought a computer server with the option to upgrade, has some type of shipping software, and then sits on his ass because it is not required of anyone and their staff to do any legwork on behalf of any individual customers. But they can charge lots of money in a system with no frameworks for accountability. The public servants, on the other hand, have found a way to add one or two more steps to the bureaucracy or paperwork, a clever and dishonest way to generate more revenue for themselves and certainly not to create a larger tax base for “Haiti Cherie” and the Haitian people. “Corruption is endemic … ”
In conclusion, it should be duly noted that “international shipping service” to Haiti works like clockwork for big US enterprises, Haitian owned businesses, and super rich that are well established in Port-au-Prince. Nonetheless, I have a few questions for the profile of the average Haitian customer. Are you part of the solution or part of the problem? You are definitely part of the problem when you flatly refuse to pay any tariffs to Haitian Customs but instead want to identify for me the Customs’ Agent in Haiti that I can bribe on your behalf. You are also part of the problem when you choose to join the high percentage of Haitian customers whose main objective is to beat any business system on a technicality, because you don’t want to pay the set rate or anything at all for services rendered. How are we supposed to tackle the culture of fraud and corruption when all we do is pointing fingers? Mahatma Gandhi once wrote, “be the change that you wish to see in the world.” This is where some of the solutions to Haiti’s problems lie.
When will a majority of the Haitian diaspora and Haitian voters demand customs reform in Haiti? When will a majority of Haitian-Americans and Haitian nationals and voters demand good governance based on honesty, accountability, and integrity from their elected officials. We all can start this process by asking them, for instance, to specifically identify in the form of fiscal reports where for example in ‘Haitians customs’ they have cut down fraud and corruption and concrete actions taken to eliminate theft? When will the average Haitian customer asks the private sector in Port-au-Prince to stop stifling competition and to end illegal monopolies but to instead focus their energy toward providing quality service to customers. Major companies in Haiti would make a much larger profit as a direct result of good customer service, good pricing practices, and fair competition? When will a majority of Haitian-Americans and Haitian nationals learn to negotiate with each other in good faith and subsequently learn to “put together” and “pull their resources together” after having to let go of the crooked, self-centered, and inept mentality that’s preventing so many sharp minds from using the economies of scale that would result into greater buying power for Haitians in the United States. The potential benefit of truly working together is the creation of a much larger economy for Haiti and its people. Until we do these things, the collective psyche will continually be perceived as too many underdeveloped minds in a country with so much potential. A collective psyche that is functionally illiterate with total disregard for structure and the working model of prosperity on the island, regardless of the levels of individual success and education achieved abroad.
Thank you for reading this blog entry. As promised here is the info about our Agent:
AGENT IN PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI
ETS. J.B. Vital, S.A.
No. 10-A Auto Route de Delmas
P.O. Box 87
Port-au-Prince, Haiti 6110