A Humble Ramen Is What I Need For My Business

My wife, our two kids and I were starving after a long afternoon of shopping on Takeshita street market in Harajuku, Tokyo. As tourists, we had no clues whatsoever where to eat.

We turned to Google, our reliable unofficial tour guide. Google map showed several options for the best places to eat ramen in town. There was one with fantastic reviews albeit it was a bit far from Takeshita street.

So we walked, and walked, and walked, but for some reason, we could not find this place.

Bummer!

Getting a bit desperate we were ready to walk into a 7-Eleven shop to grab a couple of pre-packaged meal boxes.

And that was when a smallish ramen place caught our eyes. It looked like it was squeezed in-between two buildings.

We decided to give it a try.

“Just One Type of Ramen”

We realised there were limited type of ramens. There were only four of them. Inside there was a machine for ordering and payment. Each of us chose a different type of ramen. Mine was called a winter special with chillies, yummy.

It is different, unique, and most importantly it caters for certain diners who keep coming back for more.

“Ahh welcome, welcome,” the owner (and head chef) said with a big smile.

The owner was amicable. His name was Jun. We called him ‘Uncle Jun’. He prepared the foods swiftly and within 15 minutes we were enjoying great tasting ramens.

“Uncle Jun, can I ask you a question?” I asked.

“Ahh of course, of course,” he replied.

“Why do you only have four types of ramen?”

Uncle Jun smiled and fixed his headband. “Ahhh good question. You see, ramen is a simple dish. It mainly comprises of noodle, broth, flavouring, and toppings (egg, meat, onion, etc.). There are not many types of ramens we can do with such a small number of core ingredients.”

“Ok, but surely you can make more than four types?” I was not satisfied with his answers.

“I like your enthusiasm but let me tell you a secret. In this place, there is only one type of ramen.” He smiled as his eyes twinkled. “I put four on the machine, so people have choices. In reality, they are just slightly different combinations of the core ingredients.”

“Only one?” I wondered even more.

“Yes.”

Uncle Jun realised my confusion. “My motto is: ‘Focus before Quality’. We only have limited resources at our disposals. If I try to have a big range of ramens, then we will not be able to cope. So instead I focus all my efforts into one exceptional dish. It is different, unique, and most importantly it caters for certain diners who keep coming back for more.”

“Your ramen is delicious indeed. The noodle is springy and tasty. And wow, I have never tasted such a delicate combination of pork and soy sauce.” I slurped the broth with delight.

“Hmm .. maybe I should try to focus all of my efforts into one special service or product too,” I was thinking in my head. “I also have limited resources like uncle Jun.”

“Sweet Spot for Special Customers”

“Uncle Jun, can I ask one more question?” I said.

“Yes of course, what do you want to know?” Uncle Jun replied.

“Umm, I realise some ramen places use machines to take orders, including yours,” I said. “Isn’t it better to take orders yourself?”

It is about making sure that our unique ramen is consistently perfect for certain diners. All they have to do is come and eat.

Uncle Jun smiled again. “You are very observant. The main purpose of using a machine is to eliminate mundane tasks so I can focus more on making great tasting ramen.” He stopped a bit to catch his breath. “You see, taking orders is more than just taking notes. It also involves handling cash which can be deceptively time-consuming. Using a machine eliminate all the extra tasks.”

“But what if customers want extra salt, a different type of noodles or more meat?”

“Ahhh, yes, yes, some ramen places do give those options. For us, it is about making sure that our unique ramen is consistently perfect for certain diners. All they have to do is come and eat. Trust me, when you have achieved that ‘sweet spot’ for your customers, they will come back again and again. No need for extra meat or salt.”

“How do you figure out this ‘sweet spot’?”

“It will take a while with a lot of trials and errors but be persistent. And above all, always do it with love for your customers. Never stop asking them for feedback and suggestion. Ultimately, their satisfaction is your success.”

“I never thought about this. Maybe I should find this ‘sweet spot’ too for my own customers.” I was again thinking in my head. “What a great idea, the sweet spot for special customers.”

“Seasonal Ramens for Special Experiences”

“I have one more thing to tell you,” Uncle Jun said to me.

”Great, tell me, tell me,” I was too eager to learn more.

”There is an addition to the sweet spot.”

”There is?”

”Yup I call it the ‘Seasonal Spot’.”

”Ok, please tell me more.”

”Well, the basic idea is to create a special type of ramen with a certain season.” Uncle Jun poured green tea to my cup. “Think of it as a sweet spot with a theme for your customers. Got it?”

”Not really.”

”For example, now it is winter, and I offer spicy ramen with Japanese chillies. That is the one you are eating now.”

”Oooh I have the seasonal spot ramen,” I said smiling.

”They taste the same as our unique ramen, only spicier. The whole idea is to add certain interesting elements without sacrificing the uniqueness of your products. And then use it as a seasonal promotion.”

”And what is the purpose of doing that?”

”So your customers have something to talk about every season. They are your best marketers. You need to give them reasons to tell their friends about your products. Talking about the same thing for a whole year is boring. But talking about a different thing every season is not. The product is the same, just altered slightly for effect.”

“Wow, that is an excellent idea.”

“I am glad you like it.”

“I should be doing something like this,” I thought to myself. “It’s true, my customers are my best marketer, and they need help in spreading the words.”

We were all delighted with Uncle Jun’s ramens. My kids and I practically fought for every last bit of noodles and pork meat. My wife was sitting quietly while guarding her bowl of ramen.

“Thank you, Uncle Jun,” I said to him. “It was ‘oishii’.”

(oishii = really good-tasting)

“Arigatou,” my kids said to uncle Jun.

“Arigatou gozaimashita, Uncle Jun,” my wife also said.

“Ahhh no problem, no problem, come back anytime,” Uncle Jun said with a big smile.

“What great lessons from a humble bowl of ramen,” my thought was swirling again in my head. “Focus before Quality, Sweet Spot, and Seasonal Spot. I will remember these lessons every time I eat a bowl of ramen.”


As previously published in The Ascent: A Humble Ramen Is What I Need For My Business.

The Gates Are Closed

“So if we purchase 40 cartons, you can give us 15% discount?” I asked John, the sales rep.
“Yes, that’s right,” John said.
“Can you write the quote on paper, John?”
“Sure,” he said, writing it on his business card. Which seemed a bit informal to me, but John looked confident, so maybe it was common practice.

It was a good day when our supplier decided to give us a massive discount. We had been talking to a customer about a bulk purchase of rubber gloves. They were happy with our services, so it was just a matter of prices.

We were confident we could win the contract. And off we went to negotiate, armed with great discounts from our beloved supplier.

We got the deal. That’s the good news.

The bad news was, John, didn’t honour the agreement. A quote written on the business card was not good enough for him to acknowledge. John said it was out of his hand. He said something about top management didn’t want the smaller distributor to wreck the market.

We couldn’t get the products at the prices promised to us.

It was a massive blow.

A good day turned into bad weeks, and then months.

In the meantime, our customer got the products from someone else. At least they seemed happy. We still had a good relationship, so hope was not lost yet.

There was only one other supplier in our state that distributed this particular product. They did not bother to return our call though, such rudeness and arrogance. We figured out in the end that they were the one who secretly supplied those rubber gloves through another distributor.

No worries, maybe not our luck. Our lucky break would come eventually.

***

“Fred, this is John,” a voice from the other end said.
“Hi John, how have you been?” I said, wondering what he wanted this time.
“Look, I know we haven’t been good to you,” he said.
“Ok.”
“But I’ve been talking to top management.”
“Yes, I’m listening.”
“And we all agreed to support you.”
“Regarding?”
“You know, the rubber gloves, the one we quoted last time.”
“Oh you mean the unofficial, dishonoured, quote? Is that the one?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“Why the change of heart?”
“There’s been a change in strategy, and they want to work with smaller distributors now.”
“I see.”
“So, are you in?”
“I’ll think about it.”

My mind was full of all past rage and disappointment. The time when John dishonoured the quote was still fresh. And the time when our $2,000 profit went down the drain. It left a unique mark because I was looking to use the money as a deposit for a new family car. We didn’t end up purchasing the car of course.

I spoke to my wife about it. We had our usual kitchen bench board meeting.

She said we should be more careful this time. I agreed to it, considering how bad they burnt us last time. We decided to accept the offer, provided they put it on formal company letterhead. In addition to that, but we also demanded better pricing for initial stocks.

John honoured the quote this time.

We talked to our customer and got a new deal with them to supply the rubber gloves. They put in their bulk order, and then another one, and another one. It was like a dream come true. We never thought things would work out well eventually.

Interestingly, we didn’t end up purchasing a new family car. We just felt the time was not right yet. Maybe past trauma was still too fresh.

We did feel that our luck had turned though.

***

“Andrew, can you talk to Tyres West?” I asked our sales rep.
“Sure, what do you want me to talk to them about?” Andrew replied.
“Well, they owed us $12,000, and it’s overdue for more than 60 days now.”
“Ok, that doesn’t sound too good, have you called them?”
“Yes, of course, and the answer was always the same: we are going to pay soon.”
“That sounds a bit worrying.”
“Can you go tomorrow?”
“Yes.”

Tyres West was the customer who purchased those rubber gloves from us. They were usually very good with payment. The past few months, however, were a bit worrying. I had hope that things would be ok though.

The following day, Andrew went to visit Tyres West to talk about the debt.

“Fred, you would not believe it,” he said.
“What?” I replied.
“The gates are closed.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, the gates are closed, in Tyres West.”
“What?”
“There is no one here.”
“What, are you sure?”
“Yes, very sure, I even jumped the fence.”
“You what?”
“The warehouse is empty, no equipment, nothing.”
“What …”

Tyres West closed down. No one knew what happened. The day before I was just on a call with their accounts lady. She even expected Andrew to come and discuss the debt.

We figured out later on that Tyres West closed down overnight. And even more surprising was that we read on paper about how the company had ties with the bikie gangs. It seemed like they were not as clean as they looked.

We lost a lot of money.

What an unlucky day.

***

At home, we had another emergency kitchen bench meeting. We wrote down our expenses and tried to figure out how severe the damage was. It was bad. We were glad that we didn’t purchase that family car. Let’s say, someone up there restrained us from putting that deposit.

Our kitchen meeting concluded with us slashing certain expenses. So no more eating outs and end of year holiday was downgraded from Bali to free activities in the city. We were confident we could ride this storm.

My mind went back to the day when John dishonoured his quote. I was so furious that I sent a formal complaint to his boss. That complaint seemed to go to a deaf ear though.

It seemed such an unlucky day. But now that I thought about it again, maybe it wasn’t so unlucky at all.

Perhaps it was our real lucky day.

We didn’t realise it yet.

 

“It’s amazing how you can look back at your life and feel like you’re the luckiest and the unluckiest person in the world at the same time.”

My name is Dave, I used to work for Fred

I didn’t get enough sleep the night before. I was hungry, and the auditorium was freezing. Someone was dozing off in front of me. This preacher was as dull as a blank A4 paper. At least we could fold origami with paper.

My wife dragged me there. She reckoned it was good for me to hear some encouraging words that morning. The topic was interesting: “Among The Wolves We Work”. I have to admit it could be a very interesting sermon if not because of that old-traditional-slow-to-speak preacher.

Anyhow, as my mind drifted to another time, I heard a voice in my head (not God’s voice). It was the voice of my customer. I remember distinctly how he said something along the line of: “Sorry we still have enough stocks.” Yeah, he somehow had enough stocks for months. I realised eventually that they purchased their stocks from someone else. What I didn’t realise was who this “someone else” was.

It was “Dave”, our ex-staff. He founded his own company after he left us. And apparently proceeded to steal our customers. He had burnt the bridge.

Dave did a brief stint with me for 6 months. He was our sales rep. A very ambitious young man. Before that Dave had his own lawnmowing business. He was somewhat lazy but cunning as a snake. Hey, that was one of the creatures the preacher was talking about: snake.

A prominent voice suddenly thundered from the stage: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as harmless as doves.”

Ok, take it easy. Who are these wolves you are talking about? And are you calling us snakes?

As expected my mind decided to take another trip to the past. This time it was our kitchen board meeting. My wife and I were discussing how to retaliate against this attack from our ex-sales rep. We figured he did not have the buying power and logistic means. So as long as we could drop our price and reduce minimum quantity, it was basically check-mate for Dave.

And that was precisely what we did.

We dropped our price significantly, and we reduced the minimum quantity from five boxes to just one. It worked like a charm. Our customers realised their grief mistakes and returned gracefully to our care.

Take that Mr Steal-Customers-From-Previous-Boss!

My wife elbowed me.

“Did you doze off again?” she whispered.
“No,” I said, not-so-convincingly.
“This is the good part, pay attention.”
“I am.”

She was right, I kind of figured out what the sermon was all about after that. Basically, this world is full of wolves, and we need to be shrewd like snakes. The part I didn’t get yet was the dove. Why do we need to be harmless as doves? Well, at least I learnt something that morning. Watch out world, the snake within me is coming out to bite all of you wolves.

I did meet with Dave after our little price war saga. I tried to have a civilised conversation about it. Interestingly, he told me it was ok because it was just business. I was not sure if he was drunk or on drugs.

Wasn’t I the one who supposed to say that?

He stole from me, and he said it was ok?

Anyway, I didn’t want to pursue it. We said our goodbyes.

The words on the street were Dave couldn’t cope on his own and struggling to make ends meet.

Everyone in the auditorium suddenly stood up. Oh, time to sing the final hymn.

***

“Fred, how are you doing?” Tim, our old preacher, came to say hi.
“Good, everything is good,” I said.
“I heard you had few issues with your ex-staff?”
“O yeah, did my wife fill you in on that?”
“Yes she did, she also sent me here to talk to you,” Tim smiled.
“Actually Tim, I do have a question,” I said.
“Yes, fire away.”
“You know how you talk about Wolves, Snake, Doves, and Sheep?”
“Yes.”
“I understand the part about wolves and snakes,” I said. “But what’s the thing about being harmless as a dove?”
“Well, it is straightforward really,” Tim said.
“Tell me,” I said impatiently.
“Being harmless is for your own good.”
“So people won’t retaliate?”
“That’s one, but there’s another,” Tim said. “How do you think you will end up inside if you keep causing harms to other people?”
“Oh I see, I will become a bitter, back-stabbing, revenge-seeking person, with no friends.”
“That’s it.”

***

I did meet with Dave one more time after that. His business deteriorated to the point that he didn’t have a warehouse or any kind of storage places for his stocks. Everything from pick up to delivery was run from his car. I did wonder if he also slept in there, judging from the number of pizza boxes I spotted on the rear seat.

Anyway, we had a chat.

He lost few more customers and apparently decided to burn a couple more bridges with some suppliers. The way he was going, he would have nothing to sell in no time. He had to stop acting like a big bad wolf and causing issues left, right and front.

Anyway, I didn’t offer help considering how bad he burned me last time. So I wished him the best and waved bye-bye.

You know what, maybe that old preacher was right.

We are in the dog-eat-dog world. It is crucial to be shrewd like snakes.

But I realised now it doesn’t matter how shrewd we are, no one achieves success on his own. And who would want to work with someone who would stab you in the back?

Who would cause harm to your business?

Ironically, in the dog-eat-dog world of business, we are to be harmless too. And only then we could build our reliable and secure network of support.

I am glad my wife dragged me to the church that morning.

***

“Be careful the bridges you’re willing to burn when trying to get ahead. You never know when you’ll need a friend again.”

I Was Blind, But Now I See

You know that feeling when you could not do the simplest thing in the world like putting the correct address? Well, guess what, we had three returns this week, all due to the same mistake: wrong address. The worst thing was, of course, it was all my fault.

I didn’t normally do this. It was not in my nature to make mistakes.

They used to call me ‘the machine’ back in Dog Swamp Distribution. I was so good even my supervisor started to doubt himself.

There was something wrong somewhere. I knew I needed to fix it. We could not afford customers missing their goods all the time because of my stupid mistakes.

“Hello?” I answered the phone.
“Hi, is this Fred’s Industrial Supplies?” the voice from the other end said.
“Yes, hi John,” I replied, recognising the voice straight away.
“Fred, how have you been?” he said.

John didn’t normally say “how have you been”, so something was wrong (again), must be my lucky day.

“Look, we have just decided,” John said.
“Decided .. yes?” I said nervously.
“O look, I feel bad, honestly, but we have decided to use another supplier,” John finally said. “I felt like I had to tell you directly.”

My senses were frozen. I wanted to say something but all I could gather in my head was silence. It was cold, dark, and just silent. I felt nauseous. I felt sick.

John was my biggest customer. His company contributed about 30% of our revenue. His departure was a major shock to me. Well, to be honest, it was not like he didn’t give us any warning. He had been telling us how we should review our pricing. I didn’t think it was that serious. I guess I was wrong. But I couldn’t be wrong, I knew what our competitors were selling at and we matched them, we matched everything.

“John, are you serious?” I said. “Can we talk about it?”
“We have talked about it, Fred,” John said. “You just didn’t listen.”

I was disappointed and angry. That was the moment when I decided that I couldn’t rely on my existing customers. I had to do something. These ungrateful people just kept disappointing me. I gave them the best services ever, the best prices, and the best of everything. And still, they went behind my back and left for useless competitors.

I kept myself composed and said my final words to John.

“Alright John, I get it. Well, let me know if you change your mind then.”

I made a commitment to myself that I would work harder than ever to get better customers. I would not let this incident destroy me. It was time for me to shine. At least that was what I had in mind.

I spent the following months trying everything I could think of to promote our products. I did land new customers. Some of them were pretty good customers too. I knew I could do it. There was nothing stopping me now.

But still, none of them was as good as John. These customers were ‘smallish’. They were like insects, while John was like a whale.

I tried harder. I went around door knocking. I called up potential customers for meetings. I mailed hundreds of sales materials. I faxed promos to everyone I knew would be interested. I did everything I could think of. I landed few more customers, but they were all ‘smallish’. All of them combined were still nothing compared to John’s purchases.

And in the meantime since John’s departure, we sank deeper into financial trouble. Losing 30% of revenue was not an easy matter. I cut cost everywhere I could think of. We even started to turn off the air conditioning during the day to save electricity. We let go everyone except Sam our loyal delivery driver. He agreed to take a pay cut to help us a little bit.

We were desperate. We were on the brink of bankruptcy.

There were times when I didn’t want to go to sleep because I knew I would wake up in the morning to face my nightmare all over again.

I would drive to work contemplating whether I should keep driving or going back home.

“Fred, this is Sam,” Sam my driver called me.
“Yes, Sam?” I said.
“I’m so sorry, I know you don’t want to hear this,” he said.
“What is it?” I said. My heart started to beat faster.
“I have been in an accident,” Sam replied. “I am ok but the van was damaged, badly.”

I felt the cold again, this time I could feel it creeping into my bones. I felt like a dark cloud was hovering around me. I could not say anything. I was just staring at the traffic.

“Fred, I am so sorry,” Sam said. “I will help to pay for the damages. I know things haven’t been easy for you.”

I didn’t say anything. Sam hung up the phone. It wasn’t his fault but he felt guilty nevertheless. He did end up paying for the insurance excess though. He resigned immediately afterwards.

We were out of whack for few weeks while the van was fixed. I ended up using our family car for delivery. We were lucky because we had a big family car. So we managed to fit quite a good volume of items into it.

My wife joined forces to mind the phone while I went around doing deliveries. She was very good with the phone. It was in her nature to build conversations. I had to say, I never knew she was that good.

Due to my activities with delivery, I got to meet with a lot of our existing customers. I didn’t use to talk to them because I was too busy trying to get new customers. This gave me refreshed perspectives.

My customers never said it but I could see they appreciated my efforts to stay afloat. Some of them even offered me cold drinks on hot days. I began to build great relationships with them. I never knew they were such a good bunch of people. I always thought of them as ‘smallish’ customers that I couldn’t care less. Boy, I was wrong. I was so wrong.

I guess there were a lot of things I didn’t know about them.

I began to really care for them, walking the extra miles when they needed help. There were times when I would do express delivery within the hour if I knew they needed the goods urgently. Some other time I would drop my prices heavily because I knew they also had difficulties with their own businesses. I thought it was important if we could weather the storm together.

My customers started to support me more. They gave me more business and they referred me to their friends. I could not thank them enough for their generosity.

John never came back to us, but we survived.

I looked at myself differently now. I thought I was so good that I could never make mistakes. Well, I did, a lot of them. I just didn’t realise it. I thought I was above my customers. In reality, I was beneath them. They were the ones who supported me during tough times.

They were the ones who gave me a second chance.

When that phone rang a few months ago, I was devastated. I couldn’t believe how unlucky I was. I was wrong. It turned out to be the luckiest day of my life. It was the day my life was about to change. What I thought was the lowest point in my life turned out to be the highest point.

I went through hell to see heaven.

But it was worth it.

I was blind, but now I see.

 

 

 

When to rip off your customers?

It was a cold morning and there was no single message on the phone. I checked the fax and email, nothing there either. Such economy, mining downturn, order was drying up. We had fought a good fight, but how long could we last? There must be something we could do to improve our bottom line.

The phone suddenly rang.

“Hello, is this Envignco Supplies?”, the voice from the other side asked.

“Yes, how can I help you today sir?”, I replied.

“I am looking for a certain chemical, it’s called HDX”

“Yes, we stock that, do you want to know our price?”

“Please, and if you have stock as well. I need it urgently”

You see, HDX is one of those chemical that is widely available. I wasn’t sure how on earth this guy came upon our company and decided to ring. I thought to myself, should I add extra 20% to improve our bottom line a little bit? Or should I give him our normal price? I mean he needed it urgently so there’s a good chance that whatever price I said would lead to a good sale. Should I take the window of opportunity and rip him off?

Decision..decision..

For many people in business, pricing is often the deciding factor in closing a sale. It is however also the deciding factor in determining whether a business is profitable or not. Price it too high and you loose the sale, price it too low and there is not enough money to pay the rent, staffs, and so on.

Every now and then we got the opportunity to charge much higher than we should. We believe it’s ok, because we can, but the big question is off course – should we?

It is no doubt certain companies are able to charge enviable margins on their products. Some because they are the only companies with those products with no immediate substitutes in the market, some other because they dominate and corner certain market. So what is the problem then? Isn’t it good to make fantastic profits? What’s the deal here?

Unless your company has enough resources to dominate the market there is no chance you could even come close to charging extraordinary margin. There is a certain price point that you need to be. Any upward movement from this pricing point will mean you have priced yourselves out of the market. In other words, you have no business. Price it too low and you invite price war which will lead to annihilation of you and your competitors, at least in the particular products that you are competing in.

More importantly – it is your brand. Rip off enough customers and you will be known as that – a company that rips off its customers. Is that how you want to position yourselves in the market?

What about those little instances where you know you could get away with it?

This is rationalisation. The question you should ask yourselves is could you really get away with it?

Maybe you couldn’t get away with it. Maybe no one could. You might get the sale and make handsome profit, but with what repercussions? On the other hand, what are the benefits of disciplined competitive pricing?

Which one would you prefer:

“Long term gain, short term discipline” or “Short term gain, long term destruction” ?

 


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