How much would you pay for a plate of nasi padang?

The same plate of sambal goreng, curry chicken and stir-fried vegetables would cost differently depending on whether you are at a kopitiam in the CBD or at your neighbourhood hawker centre.

It’s no secret that higher rental costs in the CBD would mean that your lunch costs more. Before the pandemic, most of us would close one eye to it.

Today, many customers are looking to save money due to uncertain times. Markets are also shifting into the online space, giving a wider variety of choices, making it much easier for buyers to compare prices and products.

After all, Singaporeans don’t mind swapping brands if it’s a good bargain, right?

At the same time, local businesses are seeing their margins eroding due to fewer walk-in customers and fewer sales in general due to globalisation. Even with the Government announcing in Budget 2021 that it will impose GST on imported goods from 2023 onwards, both experts and consumers are still not sure if it would be enough to help out local businesses.

With the ease of accessibility and the variety of choices that we have both online and off, most of the time, it is a buyer’s market. And that means that customers can and do drive a hard bargain, sometimes going as far as calling out business owners for charging high prices.

But, is the customer always right?

On Feb 1, Mr Ridjal Noor, the owner of a famous prata shop in the eastern side of Singapore, took to Facebook to share his views on customers who called his pricing methods a “gimmick”.

In a mix of English and Malay, he wrote:

“In a plate of nasi padang, you don’t just pay for the rice, chicken and veggies… There are a lot of things that an entrepreneur invests in and pays, in order to run the shop to serve you comfortably. You only count the rice, chicken and vegetables and you are already quick to criticise and accuse us.

“The entrepreneur works from four in the morning until night, for seven days a week. He or she runs a business to support his family and to provide food, a roof, and an education (for his children) in search of a better life for their family.”

The post received over 150 reactions and shares with many of his friends and customers supporting his views. Fellow entrepreneurs also shared their own experiences with difficult customers.

Business owners have to find a balance

Cafe outside
Image source: Shutterstock / Narin Nonthamand

Running a business is not easy. It’s terrible if you can’t generate enough revenue to meet your targets (you’ll go bust). Even a thriving company brings worries too. For example, to keep up with increased sales, restaurant owners would have to consider hiring more staff or expanding their store space, which may result in increasing utility bills or rental and manpower overheads.

If they do not, they have to face the wrath of upset customers who complain about the slow service. In the past, such complaints would have been to the face of the owner or manager. And the worst thing that could happen is an angry customer who vows not to return.

Nowadays, with social media and review websites, business owners live in fear of customers who can end up torpedoing their reputation over a single bad experience. Or worse, review bombing.

Not only that, prioritising customers who complain over the ones who stay silent is not a good business practice. The customer may be “always right”, but businesses should not have to penalise good customers for a few entitled ones.

It’s impossible to please everyone. Some customers want good quality products, but aren’t willing to pay for it. Others don’t mind cheaper items but nitpick on customer service.

And if business owners sell products with low margins, would they be making enough to tide over hard times? Finding the perfect balance of profitability versus popularity on price points is a perennial challenge for all business owners.

Of course, this isn’t to say that businesses are all innocent and at the mercy of economics and their customers. As in all industries, there are some bad eggs. But that is another issue altogether.

Putting a price tag on products

Price tagging
Image source: Shutterstock / Urte Baranauskaite

It’s easy to look at an item, say a cupcake, and put a price tag to each of the ingredients that go into it. But as customers, do we stop to see the passion and effort that goes into creating the product? Can we put a price on those intangibles?

And it’s not just about the F&B industry.

Artists and musicians require years of training to be recognised for their talent. It is an investment they have made over the years, which goes into the price of the products and services that they provide today. But the benefit that they give is intangible. How do you measure the appreciation that you feel when you view a piece of art or listen to a music performance?

So before we jump into conclusions and blacklist businesses for high prices, we should remember to factor in the intangibles.

And it can be measured simply by a single question: Aside from the cost of purchasing the product or service, did you have a good experience?

If so, don’t begrudge paying a little premium. If not, simply shop elsewhere.

Complaining about a business, especially on social media, should be about warning others about your experience, not about exacting some sort of vengeance over a perceived “bad deal”.

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Don’t be a cheap customer

Image source: Shutterstock / Rachata Teyparsit

Customers also have to know that being frugal is different from being cheap.

Someone who is frugal sees value as the bottom line but is still willing to spend on what’s important to them, whereas when someone who is cheap aims to save money at all costs – even at the expense of others.

For example, a mother preparing for her daughter’s wedding wants a thousand guests but to cut costs, she hires the cheapest caterer and wedding planner without any research. On the wedding day, would it be a surprise if guests complain about the food or if the wedding planner doesn’t even show up?

Her daughter’s once-in-a-lifetime wedding is ruined because of her cheap mindset, and while you don’t have to spend $30,000 just for one day, a frugal person would keep expenses manageable while spending prudently on the things that matter.

As with everything else, dialogue is necessary

Feedback is important
Image source: Shutterstock / PR Image Factory

At the end of the day, constructive feedback between parties is important.

Business owners do not want to run a business without understanding what their customers want. Likewise, customers who don’t share their feedback will not see the business improving to what they expect it to be.

Above all, there must be a genuine commitment to improving customers’ experience. Just as we as customers should not leave negative reviews out of spite, businesses should also not delete bad feedback from their social media pages.

The most successful businesses train their employees on what to do in these situations and empower them to turn an angry customer into a returning one.

For example, some companies set aside a small fund that employees can use to fix a customer’s problem, no questions asked.

It can also be less stressful for everyone if there is a complaint process in place. With a bank of feedback from customers, business owners can track and gain insights from their customers and make plans to improve systematically.

Both businesses and customers need each other. Why not help each other out?

We may be among the world’s most demanding customers, but mutual understanding and respect is priceless.

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