7 Things a Thai Madam Taught Me About Marketing

It was the summer of 2015 when I arrived in southern Thailand. Twenty-seven hours of travel with multiple layovers made this a memorable trip before I arrived. The steamy wall of 36C heat greeting me when I stepped off the plane instantly turned my dry clothes to wet. And while it took weeks to adjust to the tropical weather, I was instantly taken with the Thai people. Thailand rightly deserves the title ‘The Land of Smiles’ because while many have so little, they’re so giving in other ways.

Meet Madam K

Thailand Lady Boys 2015Which brings me to a lady (for the purposes of discretion) I shall call Madam K. I met her one evening while out with a few friends. We had been watching the sun set over the Andaman Sea enjoying some dinner and as one does, you chat with the locals. It turns out these locals where more professional – if you catch my drift – and we learned they were going to a nearby hotspot called the Pretty Kitty (name also changed!) and we were invited.

The Pretty Kitty

The Pretty Kitty, as it turns out was just one bar in an alleyway of bars. The alley was tightly squeezed between a drugstore and a 7-Eleven. Innocuous enough during the daytime, at night the gaudy lights and loud music served to attract the inquisitive and ward off the pious. Families picking up groceries or sunblock would scurry past trying not to look. But this night, as we approached, I noticed the patrons coming and going – a mix of western men and Thai women. Thinking back, I recalled driving by this alleyway in the daytime: a dark shadowy hole of a place, no lights and quiet, but at night, this place stood out.

Into the Darkness

The main street was well lit and bustling with tourists and locals. As I stepped into the darkness I was immediately approached by a women (well I think it was a women … turns out it’s hard to tell in Thailand!) “You wanna massage honey?” she drawled. The locals had a lovely way of stretching out the language. “No thank you,” I said.

A VIP Amongst Us

As soon as I spoke, the young lady noticed our group and quickly stepped back to her spot along the alleyway wall. At first I thought she accepted my polite ‘no,’ but as it turns out, no doesn’t mean no when it comes to the alley. It was only later that night I discovered the real reason wasn’t my refusal, there was a “VIP” amongst our group … a Thai Madam.

My friends and I walked into the darkness past tiny little bars filled with women and men. Loud music blaring from each. Cat-calls and “offers” followed us until we were ushered into the Pretty Kitty. We sat outside on a few small tables and so began my “education.” The older lady in the group sat to my left (honestly, it’s hard to tell the age of Thai people, they age so gracefully.) She was pretty in a plain sort of way, but there was something different about her. She had a calmer demeanour than the younger girls, she also dressed differently.

Hands on Management

It turns out (as I discover later in the evening) she owned the Pretty Kitty and had been tagging along with the other new girls to ensure “quality control” you could say. Apparently meeting with western men in a public space requires oversight. Moreover, she had taken a personal interest in me … Unusual because as I later learn, Madam K manages her bar girls (as they’re called) and doesn’t generally participate in the festivities.

Playing Pool & People Watching

The night wore on. Drinks were offered, bought and consumed. Cigarettes smoked and slowly the group dwindled as people began pairing off. But not me. No, I played pool with the owner and damn, could this women hustle. As an aside, don’t play bar games with Thai people, specially Connect4, they love that game and spend hours perfecting their strategy. I won maybe 2 games my entire time in Thailand. Now Jenga, that game I can crush – much to the annoyance of many a bar girl and bar boy (a story for another time.)

Losing & Learning

Lining up a particularly tricky multiball pool shot, Madam K asks me if I wanted any company too. I politely declined and shared my fascination with the way this alleyway worked. She smiled. We finished up the game – which I lost then Madam K and I sat down to talk and that’s when she revealed she owned the Pretty Kitty … and as it turns out she was an amazing source of business and marketing insights.

Here’s what Madam K taught me.

(1) Wear a Uniform

Each bar within the alleyway had a uniform. Every bar girl (within her bar) wore the same clothing. Some bars changed their colours daily, but you knew which bar they worked at – the style remained.

If you saw one of the girls earlier in the evening and knew your bars then you knew where she would be later that night.

— My Takeaway:

Start wearing a tight tank-top, short-short skirt and high-heels … Oh wait, no … Consider your image and your brand closely. If you work with the public have your staff wear a uniform because it provides consistency, familiarity and many other benefits. It’s also easier to brand your business and market yourself in a crowded market place.

(2) Be Nice. Smile

Madam K explained that she wants every one of her bar girls to be nice. She explained if they smile and are polite to the customers they buy more drinks. It seems obvious – but not to everyone, some bars within the alleyway didn’t seem to care and thought only of the girl’s ‘physical assets’ and how they’d attract clients. Sure that worked to some degree, but the polite, smiling bar girls always got more beer buying customers. Obvious? Perhaps not.

— My Takeaway:

Never forget the basics in business. SMILE. BE NICE. It costs nothing and it pays you back handsomely.

(3) Concentrate & Cluster

All the ‘special’ bars were in one alleyway – no where else in town. If you wanted some special company you knew where to go. If you didn’t like the talent at one bar you could easily walk to another.

— My Takeaway:

This strategy works because exposure to one bar leads to exposure for the other bars. Everyone benefits. For example you often see restaurants (with different food choices) clustering together on the same street or in the plaza. Speaking of which, malls are another excellent example – lots of stores under one roof.

It might be a little tougher to implement if you’re not in retail, however you can cluster in other ways like local networking events, conventions for your industry, trade shows and so on.

Get creative and get together.

(4) Incentivise Your Staff

Put another way, ‘share the love’ … hmm, maybe not the best metaphor. But in this instance I mean share the revenue. Madam K was smart, she paid the bar girls a split of the proceeds from all bar sales. Drinks, chips, smokes … you name it. The typical share was 30% The more business the girls referred to the Pretty Kitty, the more they made.

— My Takeaway:

Find ways to build a profit/revenue share within your business. If you have a sales team this is pretty straightforward, however it can also be done for people who are not strictly sales. If you make their success connected to that of the company, people will work to benefit themselves too – it’s win win.

(5) Use Ascension

Madam K explained she had her bar girls begin their client pitch with a small “ask” … ‘Do you want a drink?’ Every guy says yes … they’re at a bar! This sets a ‘yes’ pattern. Later the bar girl would ask (perhaps after you’ve bought another drink) if you’d buy her one too – because she was “thirsty.”

Most guys say yes … What he didn’t know was the bar girl would order a high priced shot or some fruity overpriced cocktail. Remember, the bar girls are getting a cut of the sales.

This ascension model was deliberate and worked amazingly well – I saw it firsthand. A little “ask” with an assured YES, followed by another yes and then another. You can bet by the time the bar girl asked the client if he wanted some company his answer was more likely to be “yes” because she’d trained him all evening.

Unless it was me … because I just wanted to play pool and people watch 🙂

— My Takeaway:

Implement a sales ascension model. Start with a FREE OFFER (if you can,) then offer (soon after) your entry level product or service. Then offer your next price point or tiered solution and so on.

Keep moving people up the money mountain. Not all will climb to the top (like me *wink*) but most will climb higher than you’d expect and you will profit from it.

(6) Price to Value

Madam K laughed when she shared this little gem with me. Her drinks were at least 2x the price of any other ‘regular’ bar in town (as were her cigarettes.) I later learned most of the alley bars priced likewise, they hiked up their prices on drinks and cigarettes because they could. Madam K had a captive audience and she told me ‘a man’s ego would not let him lose face by saying no he could not afford it.’

Remember, this alley was connected to the main street, if you wanted to by a regular priced beer you could simply walk across the road. From the Pretty Kitty you could even see a regular bar selling cheaper beer. Madam K understood the value of a captive audience, and she really understood people.

— My Takeaway:

Never price at “cost plus” … always look at the entire value and experience your client is getting – then price to value. Whenever possible ignore even the immediate competition … even if they’re just across the street! Charge more. See what happens.

(7) Use Golden Handcuffs

Madam K not only charged her clients to drink and enjoy her bar ‘facilities,’ she also charged her bar girls too. Here’s how. When a bar girl strikes a deal with a client and they decide to leave for some adult entertainment, the bar girl pays Madam K a “bar fine” of 500 Baht (about $15.) This helps defray the lost revenue from the bar girl not being around to attract drink buying customers.

Madam K explained to me every bar girl was an independent contractor and did not take a share of any of their private earnings – hence the “bar fine” strategy. Either way she wins. The girls get the business and the security of knowing they can also make money encouraging clients to buy a drink – something men were there for anyway.

— My Takeaway:

Consider ways to implement your own “golden handcuffs” with your suppliers, contractors and so on – specially if being associated with you and your business provides added value simply by association.

It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it’s not unlike hair dressers and realtors paying their respective chair and table fees to benefit from the main brand exposure.

The Morning Sun

Madam K and I talked until morning. Much of what she shared made me smile, blush and laugh. Unlike my friends I never had to buy one drink, a pack of cigarettes or even a meal because somewhere around 2am I was hungry and she invited me to a restaurant at the end of the alley. She knew the owner and although it was now closed, she had “influence” and assured me I’d like it there.

As we walked down the alleyway the catcalls changed to whistles – the other bar girls undoubtedly thought Madam K had a new “friend” too … something they didn’t see everyday. I smiled and played along, no need to embarrass the women who was being kind and very open with her stories and business strategies.

Fast forward to now … southern Thailand seems so far away. I still remember the beautifully messy streets, the unusual smells and of course the people – nearly always smiling.

Finally, who can forget Madam K and the Pretty Kitty bar and what has become one of my life’s most interesting evenings.

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