25 April 2019
Startups need to bear in mind that even good products can fail in the market if customer service is given the short shrift. Photo: Bloomberg
Startups need to bear in mind that even good products can fail in the market if customer service is given the short shrift. Photo: Bloomberg

How to win and retain customers

As I mentioned in a previous article, I had been invited to serve as a mentor for several startups from Mainland China and Hong Kong. The project is called the X-Plan and has been organized by the Hong Kong X Foundation. Each participating company had to present an elevator pitch within a short period of time for prospective customers. At a recent gathering, we let the participants share their difficulties and seek advice from us.

In my view, these startups are luckier compared to the situation that entrepreneurs of an earlier generation found themselves in the past. At least they have partners or teammates for division of labor. When I started my business many years ago, I had to fight alone every day on various fronts, from solution development to sales and marketing. 

One thing the new startups should, however, bear in mind is this: when they are thinking about recruiting talent, broadening their networks, or finding quality investors, there is an important “person” they should not forget — – the customer.

Products or services may be extraordinarily innovative or technologically advanced, but they could still fade out soon when moving forward. This has much to do with the degree of acceptance of their customers.

Although I was alone and my network was not very broad at the time when I started my business, I always believed that word of mouth was more valuable than any means of promotion. Therefore, I spent most of my daytime travelling in and out between the customers’ offices in Central and my tiny office in Sheung Wan, carrying a large and heavy computer every day.

I kept moving around all the time, with a hope that the customers might be willing to try my electronic map software. I entertained customers’ various requirements in hardware and software, and often offered services free of charge. Even though I was constantly turned down, I never stopped visiting the prospective customers.

I valued every one of them, regardless of their position in the organization, whether they were frontline users or high-level decision-makers. As long as they were willing to give feedback, I would do my best to improve the products and services to ensure highest customer satisfaction. After almost a year, I finally got the first contract. Later, I established a solid customer base through word of mouth.

A story about Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Japanese music master and a New York restaurant in the New York Times has become a meme recently. Mr. Sakamoto lived in New York where he used to visit a Japanese restaurant very often. He thought that its food was excellent, just like the elegant historical palatial villa, Katsura Rikyu in Kyoto, but the strong music in the restaurant was not compatible with the style of food served. As a customer, he went to the chef and volunteered to design a music playlist for the restaurant.

In an interview, Sakamoto said: “Normally I just leave if I cannot bear it. But this restaurant is really something I like, and I respect their chef, Odo.”

There are so many restaurants in New York. If the chef does not live up to and beyond customers’ expectation, how can the establishment earn the customers’ respect and loyalty?

Some people say that every businessman has to be deceptive in order to succeed. However, from my 20 years of business experience, I would say that the key to success is establishing long-term mutual trust with the customers. 

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong

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