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Anticipating the customer of the future

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Managing director Charles Ho Nai Chuen (second from left) with his staff at On Cheong Jewellery’s flagship store along South Bridge Road.

Without a word, a steaming cup of local coffee and piping hot egg tarts appear before a customer, as he waits for his purchase to be rung up in the air-conditioned comforts of On Cheong Jewellery’s flagship store along South Bridge Road.

The 83-year-old jeweller is so attuned to its customers that it has turned a thumb-twiddling exercise of waiting into a personal retail experience. 

On Cheong managing director Charles Ho Nai Chuen tells The Business Times: "Providing service is not just about the company. It's about ensuring everything comes together - colleagues, customers, and even the accounts department - to speed up the transaction, so that you are efficient when dealing with the customers."

The company realised this after adopting the internationally benchmarked Business Excellence (BE) Framework. The framework was introduced in 1994 under the BE initiative. Administered by Enterprise Singapore, it helps companies get an external perspective of business strengths and gaps.

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On Cheong had to overcome countless obstacles over the years to master its understanding of customers and the retail landscape.

Mr Ho explains: "In the past, once customers knew the company, they'd immediately come down to make a purchase. Now, with the Internet and social media, the first thing the younger generation does is to visit your website. Without one, you can forget about attracting them.

"Also, having a long history and established brand name is good but they want to know what On Cheong can offer. Your website has to be innovative, interesting and informative - they may not even continue browsing if your website design is outdated."

Understanding the ever-changing psyche of customers was tough, but with guidelines from the BE Framework, On Cheong discovered the "need to master customer service, product knowledge, and to fully understand the nature of our business". 

"We had to focus on our strengths, rather than the past," Mr Ho stresses.

That is why On Cheong recently decided to put up a small portion of its inventory for e-commerce sale, with internationalisation in mind. For instance, its Charming Singapore designer series of charm pendants has been available online since Sept 1. 

"This opens up the market without opening physical shops, so that everyone can access our inventory," says Mr Ho. The company is also exploring producing certificates of origin for certain items, and creating stories for its products, to stand out from other jewellers.

Such new ideas come from frequent brainstorming sessions inspired by the BE Framework, and monthly meetings among the heads of departments, which On Cheong did not use to conduct regularly. 

And when customers finally make their way to the shop, with a few simple questions, On Cheong's employees tailor the service to their needs. "The customers who already know what they want - there is no need to keep feeding them information as they look around," adds Mr Ho.

Besides raising service standards, On Cheong had to start thinking big if it wanted to expand in a competitive environment. The BE Framework was a holistic tool, says Mr Ho, that got On Cheong thinking about human resource management, data collection, analysing customers' needs, and motivating employees, among other things.

"The framework encompasses aspects of doing business in a better way. In the past, we were not as clear of the areas to look into. We also became more aware of customers’ and employees’ needs. It’s not about just striking the deal and completing the invoice. It’s about retaining your customers and employees."

For instance, On Cheong developed a strategic plan focusing on better inventory control, embarking on digital initiatives. It also increased online and offline marketing efforts, and created "lifelong learning opportunities for employees". Each focus area has expected targets and a process owner to keep track of those targets. 

Mr Ho was initially sceptical about the BE Framework because of the massive effort required. On Cheong would need to develop employees to implement plans across the company, and it realised that talent and task management were unstructured. Most importantly, On Cheong realised that employees are their primary asset. 

Thus, On Cheong did several things to plug the gaps. It paid for promising employees to get degrees in commerce and marketing to help lead such efforts, asked departments to produce concrete key performance indicators (KPIs); and developed clear career paths. It also pairs younger and older employees together, where the elders could ask young employees for help on technology issues, and in turn they would share product knowledge.

Additionally, employees attend at least 16 hours of training annually, as one of their KPIs, and incentives are given to those who complete even short courses. For instance, employees who completed the Singapore Retailer Association Service Award training course were given $50. The firm also embarked on an enterprise training support programme for holistic training.

Since the company fully embarked on the BE journey in 2012, its transformation has not gone unnoticed. Mr Ho says: "Some employees were not willing to attend training courses initially, or seek help from someone younger. Now, they are customer-centric, and have established a good rapport with each other." 

Making sure its employees are committed to service excellence has helped On Cheong gain recognition in different areas, such as the Singapore Quality Class (SQC) with People and Service this year.

Mr Ho proudly says: "In whatever we do, we always look back on our corporate culture, vision and mission. What is different about On Cheong is that we not only serve our customers, but we also serve our employees."

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Click here to find out more about the BE initiative.