Update in 2020 we added a video companion to this article:
My girlfriend Renee is a travel addict who goes on four international trips a year, and she really wanted to travel to Asia for the first time. After much research, we decided Hong Kong would be a great first trip to Asia. Once the tickets were booked, I bought a Fodor’s travel guide and was delighted to discover that getting a custom or bespoke suit is a popular activity in Hong Kong, and some of the world’s best tailors are based there.
Much internet research and the travel guide made it clear that Sam’s Tailor is the place to go for the best combination of quality and price. His list of customers include several US Presidents, European Royalty, many Hollywood actors, and even the late Michael Jackson. I was intimidated but according to everything I read the suits are surprisingly affordable, and the owners and their staff are pretty approachable. I had pretty much assumed that I would feel like a commoner among VIPs but I figured it was worth it to get a truly world-class bespoke suit custom-made to my not-so-svelte physique. In the process, I learned seven important lessons about world-class service:
1. There is power in relying on great reviews and referrals instead of #marketing:
Kowloon is the area where most of the tailors in Hong Kong have their shops, many on Nathan Road. The moment we got out of the amazing MTR subway system, sharply dressed young men accosted us from every direction trying to bring us to their tailor shops. If I hadn’t done my research ahead of time, I would probably have ended up with a cheaper but not nearly as nice suit. Luckily, I was armed with my trusty Fodor’s guide and walked right past their advances as we looked for 94 Nathan Road. After a few minutes of walking around, we finally found the small building at the correct address and walked in. Sam’s store is tiny and tucked towards the back. He uses no runners to bring customers in; those like myself who come in are either return customers or have done their research and know that they want a suit from Sam’s and are unwilling to consider cheaper but unproven alternatives.
2. Make everyone feel like royalty:
We approached the store and immediately noticed the dozens of autographed photos of his distinguished clientele adorning the window: Bill Clinton, John Boehner, both Presidents Bush, Princess Diana, Prince Charles and just about any other politician and celebrity you can imagine. I knew I had come to the right place but was afraid of feeling really out of place. I was halfway expecting something like “And who are you again?”.
We walked in and were immediately welcomed by Manu, one of the two sons of the original Sam who is now retired. He’s a very kind, soft spoken man. I told him I wanted a suit, and within seconds, he pulled out three big books of fabric samples. I told him I wanted something in a solid charcoal color, and he showed me to the correct section of the book. Renee helped me choose the fabric as Manu waited very patiently and offered helpful advice, never hurrying us. For him this is a routine, every day, small transaction. For me, it’s a significant investment, and I really appreciated that he made no attempt to hurry our decision. He made us both feel like royalty. We were standing in a tiny 100 square foot store with 8 staff and 15 customers, and he kept us from feeling claustrophobic and made us feel special throughout. He even hooked us up with a can of beer for Renee and a bottle of water for me, since I don’t drink beer, on all three of our visits to his shop. By the last one, we felt like we were visiting family.
3. Ask the right questions to help the customer make good decisions:
I was wearing jeans, a superhero t-shirt, and a $6 backpack we had bought in a street market. I hadn’t shaved for 3 days. I did have one of my formal Brooks Brothers shirts that I pulled out of my backpack and put over my t-shirt to ensure an accurate measure. He spent some 45 minutes getting to know me, asking what kind of work I do, what industry I work in and what my current wardrobe looks like. He asked if I wanted two buttons or three, when I didn’t quite know how to respond, he confidently told me to go for two buttons. Since he had taken the time to get to know me, I felt very comfortable following his advice.
4. Make your product truly premium and don’t discuss price until the end:
I had a decent idea of what the suit would cost from my research, but I was very surprised after we chose the cloth because they started measuring me without having discussed price at all. He asked me how many suits I wanted, and I told him one for sure, but maybe two depending on price. He helped us choose a second fabric, a lighter charcoal color, and then said he could make two suits for a very reasonable price, around what I had expected to pay for one of his suits. Price was not discussed until then, after he had spent some 45 minutes getting to know me, had helped us choose the material, and had measured me. By the time price was discussed, I was sold and was 100% sure he’d take good care of us.
5. Upsell with the customer in mind, not just to increase sales:
Next, he asked me how many shirts I wanted. I told him I wasn’t planning on getting any shirts and explained that I’ve had a hard time finding shirts that fit me just right and use custom Brooks Brothers shirts that are very expensive because they have the right fit, but I hate that their colors are so traditional that they don’t make solid shirts in red, my favorite color. He pulled a new book of materials and helped us find the solid colored ones. I found a beautiful tone of red and imagined myself in my shiny new red shirt. He showed us the price for each shirt, some 15% under what I normally pay for them and gave us some time to chat about it without any pressure to buy. I ended up deciding to get the red shirt, a dark blue one and a pink one. My Brooks Brothers shirts are monogrammed with my initials just above the breast pocket, I figured they probably couldn’t do monogramming since he didn’t mention it, and I figured I was ok with that to try his shirts out.
6. Ask the right questions to help the customer make good decisions:
We came back the next day for a second fitting, this time with a halfway constructed jacket and pants. They asked me a bunch of questions on how they felt and whether I wanted any changes. I could already tell the suit was truly going to look awesome. That fitting was pretty quick. At the end, they asked us when we were leaving Hong Kong and agreed to have the suit ready the day before.
We toured the city hard for the next several days visiting everything we had planned and were thoroughly impressed. On Saturday, when it was time to pick up the suits and shirts at Sam’s, we showed up a few minutes ahead of time very excited to see the end result. They welcomed us as they had the first few times and got us drinks while they retrieved our purchases. The suits are absolutely beautiful, and I tried them on in case I wanted any last second adjustments, none were needed, they truly fit like I was born to wear them. We were surprised to find a label stitched on the inside of each suit jacket that reads “Specially Made for Mr. Antonio Canas”. After verifying everything was in order, they packed them up in a very nice travel bag for our long trip back to California. The shirts were in a clear plastic bag inside a reusable green bag proudly marked “Sam’s Green Bag #SamsTailor”.
I pulled the red shirt out and was delighted to discover they did put my monogram on the usual spot without having to ask for it, or getting charged extra. They even had the foresight to make it white on the red shirt instead and black on the lighter colored shirts. The overall attention to detail on everything was thorough, and the overall experience was better than any other retail experience I’ve had.
7. Make it easy for the customer to give you future business:
After we told them everything looked great, they handed me back my receipt with a new piece of paper attached to the front. “When you’re ready for the next order, you just email us with your customer number, and we’ll mail the order anywhere in the world, no need to visit Hong Kong” Manu explained. Needless to say, they have gained a lifetime customer and advocate. If you visit Asia, try to spend 2-3 days in Hong Kong and go visit Sam’s. Tell them Tony Canas sent you, although he’ll treat you like royalty no matter how you found his shop.