Sometime in 2006, I started to frequent a Malay barber guy in Race Course Road, close to where I used to live on Petain Road. Operating out of a shop underneath a HDB block, the joint has probably seen better days; it is now sparse and functional. Three of them (all in their 50s) worked out of the same premises and it took me a while to get comfortable with one particular guy. Other than being cheap (SG$8 per trim), a haircut at the barber gets the job done quickly and efficiently, none of the fussiness of the salon and its army of stylists.
My Malay barber’s a quiet man. Apart from pleasantries, Vespa stories and the weather, we hardly got personal. But all the same, my sessions with this guy had been very pleasant. We had a well-established, mutually-beneficial relationship. His colleagues knew that and respected this relationship well to never court me to sit in their chairs, even if the place was swarmed. I was this guy’s regular and loyal customer.
Loyalty is Painful Sometimes
I have loyally continued to patronise this place all these years, even after moving back to my folks in Pasir Ris (briefly before marriage) and now in our matrimonial home (Toa Payoh).
Yesterday, I made a Sunday morning trip to the barber shop for a haircut. I was looking forward to the occasion because a while ago (the Saturday before my convocation on May 22, to be exact), I had gone there wanting a trim. Unfortunately, he did not turned up as per usual and did not answer any calls to his mobile. I waited an hour for him to arrive (I really didn’t mind waiting at all) before reluctantly letting my hair to be trimmed by one of his colleagues. Yesterday, I had wanted to ‘playfully chide’ him for making me wait.
On arrival, I saw his spot remained empty and enquired if he’s late again. The news that greeted me at the door left me stumped and speechless.
My Malay barber guy had passed away on 6 June 2010.
A long-term loyal relationship has ended for good. And there was no opportunity to say goodbye or to express my deep gratitude for all these years.
What Made Our Relationship Great?
Nonetheless, I still needed a haircut yesterday and I received one from the same guy that stood in the last time. In all honesty, I wasn’t terribly thrilled with my haircuts, not that I wanted something fancy (my idea of a haircut is merely getting my hair trimmed to a length that will allow me to style it any way I want later on).
Unfortunately, I did not receive a memorable experience with this guy. It was just not the same.
So what really made the difference? You might say a haircut is a haircut.
Well, the difference is my late Malay barber guy listened. And again and again and again.
From the first time and every time since then, he would ask once before each session what I wanted (despite knowing very well what I wanted), listened to my request and proceeded. If I thought my hair needed a little more trimming (just like my dad’s, my hair burst into life and starts growing wildly the moment I step off the barber’s chair), I would make regular requests (in a single session) to have the sides trimmed to the length I wanted. He would listen, never let out a sigh or complain and gave it to me every time.
I also have a (call it peculiar) belief that buzz machine-cut hair do not grow out well and had insisted on a traditional scissors-cut the very first time I patronised his services. All these years, he remembered that very first request and never gave me a full haircut with a machine (only touch-ups).
The new guy left me disappointed. Crucially, he did not ask what I wanted or listened close enough to what I had to say.
All Great Marketers Listen to Their Customers
First rule of marketing: Give what the customers want. And that is only achievable by listening to what they really want.
That, in essence, is what my late Malay barber did. He asked what I wanted and continued to listen every time. He was a marketing guy in the most simple and effective way. He did not put forth fancy hairstyle ideas or suggest a new hair colour. He did not lavish me with in-store perks or loyalty points. He never called me by my name.
But he listened and listened. And gave me what I really wanted.
Truly a hallmark of any great marketer.
I regretted knowing and calling my late Malay barber only as ‘Pakcik’ (Malay for uncle) (I’d love to give you a name here). I probably knew his name at some point but we had gotten on so comfortably, we never did have a need for names. Nonetheless, he’ll be greatly missed.
May God give strength to his family and friends and bless my Malay barber’s soul in the ever-after.
The simple guy who listened and listened and listened.