Lessons In Business From My Vietnamese Tailor:
If you’re ever in Vietnam I suggest adding the city of Hoi An to your list. Foreigners and Vietnamese flock to the destination to experience a beautiful ancient town that lights up at night along the river, and a sprawling sandy beach where locals relax after a long, hot day as the sunsets.
Hoi An is also one of Asia’s most popular places to get clothes made. Immediate access to a variety of fabrics and materials across the continent means anything can be put together at a very low cost. Scores of tailors throughout the region stitch, sew, and cut fabrics to create replicas or custom pieces in as little as twenty-four hours.
I was eager to observe these operations, and had the pleasure of visiting Yaly—an organization that employs over 200 tailors, and has been crafting bespoke clothing for twenty years—with my girlfriend Kristen who was collecting research for a fashion piece about the region. After the store manager gave us a tour of the shop and their tailoring facilities, we both decided to get some pieces made. I had some dress shirts and a pair of pants basically carbon copied, and Kristen had two custom dresses made from scratch. All in, the four pieces cost us around $150.
In respect to the ethics and lengthy debate surrounding “fast fashion”, there’s a stark difference in seeing your clothing made right in front of you by well-paid, experienced artisans, rather than blindly buying items from a large retailer with tightly packaged corporate social responsibility messaging to veil their manufacturing process. This doesn’t mean I condone the practice entirely—I questioned Yaly’s tailoring facilities because you can’t house 200 tailors in an upstairs attic, and I wondered where the rest of them were toiling away—but there are advances being made that fit the culture and economic reality Vietnam is having to face. At the end of the day, it’s up to us as the customer to make the right choice in the services we want to support.
The entire experience was a whirlwind wonder to me. I was amazed by the speed, precision, and professionalism being displayed. And as the team constructed my clothing, I jotted down observations about their business. What I noticed was a well-oiled operation that succeeded because of very simple business principles that were enforced consistently. >Businesses in the west have a habit of complicating what it is they do for their customers, and it results in a “back to basics” preaching that should’ve been the focus all along. CEOs that face this struggle should do themselves a favour and experience the entrepreneurialism that thrives in South East Asia.
Staff training is mandatory to ensure a consistent customer experience. It’s something that often gets pushed down the list of priorities, or is poorly attempted by internal staff in many organizations. Yaly places a huge emphasis on what Ben Horowitz calls “functional training”—imparting the skills and knowledge necessary for the employee to do their job. When I entered the store, female sales associates wearing different coloured traditional uniforms immediately greeted me. Everyone spoke excellent English. The colours represented the level of experience earned—purple signified management, green an intermediate, and yellow or light blue were two-tiers considered to be entry-level. The sales associates could not advance to another colour until after the requisite training period—yellows and blues often shadowed the greens, and purples were on hand to show all staff how heavy volume orders should be processed. Managers lead the training exercises, and then passed on the reigns to more experienced employees to guide new additions to the team.
Sales staff all walked around with mobile phones to connect with the army of tailors in an instant. They never spoke for the tailors or promised the customer anything without consulting them on how long it would take to make the custom clothing. This reminded me of my own experiences working with good product managers who always work with their developers to translate and communicate the right information and ensure efficiency. The staff was trained to get it right the first time, but leave enough room for minor adjustments during the fitting sessions. Kristen and I were surprised and pleased to only go through one round of adjustments, signaling strong attention to detail by staff.
The thorough process dedicated to training staff resulted in a confident, understanding sales force that could interact with customers. Nobody strayed from her training, and there wasn’t some overzealous sales person standing out from the pack. All staff were expected to serve their customers on the principles they had been trained. The woman who had helped us the first day would not be available when we returned for our fitting. She politely introduced us to her colleague who would be taking care of us. This transfer of service resulted in no inconsistencies—the new sales person was just as knowledgeable, polite, and helpful in serving us as her colleague. She was fully informed on what we wanted, and was able to carry on the sales process with no bumps.
Customer service is a high priority.I recently wrote about how technology, particularly social media, suddenly made business forget the fundamental basics of serving customers. At Yaly, all customers are tended to with the utmost importance. There’s noTwitter TWTR -1.5% channel and no call center—it’s just the customer and the sales associate. You tell them what you want, and they’ll do their best to create your vision. They’re also not shy to speak up if a certain style is complex or not flattering to the customer’s body.
It’s certainly not easy. Customers are on a time crunch to move onto their next destination, while staff race to beat the clock and finish pieces. It gets done with an astonishing calmness—and when I stopped to watch the buzz, it was usually the customer rushing around while deciding how much clothing can be carried out the door and jammed into a suitcase to take back home. Associates patiently sift through meters of fabrics and patterns, sketch and adjust desired clothing to ensure the customer walks away with what they wanted. Every opportunity is seen as a sales opportunity, but not a shrewd race to collect money from customers. The staff is focused on working with the customer.
My favourite part was that feedback was expected, not encouraged. At the end of our visit, our sales associate handed us two pieces of a paper with a form to fill out. Again, nothing fancy, just a simple customer feedback form. We were asked to confirm if staff greeted us each time we arrived, if sales associates provided proper guidance on selecting and constructing pieces, and if there was anything the operation could improve among other things.
When my bank calls me to do a customer satisfaction survey, I generally hang up. If a startup sends me an email to provide feedback, I’ll most likely ignore it or forget about it. The majority of businesses I interact with approach me at the wrong time to provide feedback. At Yaly, I wasn’t allowed to get up from my seat until I had finished the entire form immediately after paying for my clothing.
I thought about how they could improve the feedback experience with the mobile phones each sales associate carried, but if the simple paper form worked for now, why change it? I also pointed out that little perks like a cold bottle of water when we arrived each time was a great treat from the scorching Vietnamese heat. Or how the clothes I had brought as a guide for them to recreate were neatly folded and packaged into plastic wrap for me to carry. Ultimately it was the patience and assistance provided each staff member that won me over.
We were also given the store’s email address—Yaly will hold all measurements done on-site for up to five years. Granted you remain about the same size, or are able to send along updated ones, they’ll gladly create new pieces that can be shipped to your front door.
These lessons aren’t just for retail experiences. As I’ve traveled through the region, I’ve been constantly amazed by the focus on simplicity that comes with running a business—whether it’s a large operation like Yaly, or a street side vendor selling snacks. In Asia, everyone is an entrepreneur, and as the market grows to provide better opportunities, the throngs of businesses popping up all follow the same basic principles: robust training, engaged customer service, and cultivating good feedback.