SOO Kee Jewellery Group's chief executive Peter Lim got something of a shock when he travelled abroad and encountered high- quality service from shop assistants. 'I used to think our service was not bad until I travelled overseas to the United States and realised we are not up to their standards,' says Mr Lim.

'They are not salesmen, they are like your friends who can help you choose something you like. They have very good product knowledge and can give you suggestions. And there is no pressure to buy.'

Mr Lim has also gone on overseas study missions organised by Spring Singapore - which he describes as a small and medium-sized enterprise's babysitter - where he learnt that productivity and service must meld to make a business a lot more competitive.

What you get from the combination is a loyal customer, and he is 'priceless', says Mr Lim. That is Soo Kee's goal: to turn ordinary customers into loyal customers.

Soo Kee set out on its 18-month service quality project at the end of 2009. The group had the help of the Government's Customer-Centric Initiative (CCI).

Referring to customer service, Mr Lim says: 'If you do it well, you can survive. If not, you may not... because of strong competition. Business is about having a unique selling point, and the shopping experience is a vital part of our business.'

Importantly, this experience comes with not just the services rendered by counter staff. It is also moulded by the management, shop designs, after-sales service, advertisements and so on. It is not the job of one person but that of the whole company, says Mr Lim.

'We need to understand what the customer wants, what the customer really needs, what the customer wishes to see,' says Mr Lim. 'Every stage of the shopping experience has to be perfect. Just a hiccup at any stage will destroy the experience for the shopper.'

The CCI project helped Soo Kee to achieve this. The group worked with an external consultant and started with several customer focus group sessions to see if customers were satisfied with its pricing, packaging, service, design and so on.

'Customers from those groups mentioned that the shops are too bright so we dimmed the lights or changed the bulbs,' says Ms Andrina Luo, Soo Kee's customer relations manager who oversaw the CCI project.

Feedback from Soo Kee's customers also inspired them to work harder on gift ideas such as the SK 999 Pure Gold collection.

Says Mr Lim: 'Customers told us that they want a yellow gold product but we don't have it.

'So we designed a new range of pure yellow gold products for wedding celebrations as parents will buy gold jewellery for their kids as a blessing. And it can be passed down to future generations.'

Ms Luo says planning for the project took some time as Soo Kee had started from scratch to form a mission statement and service blueprint. 'It's also very difficult to send more than 300 people for training.'

The group has about 600 staff, of whom slightly more than half work for Soo Kee Jewellery and its subsidiary SK Jewellery.

Started by Mr Lim together with his sister and brother, the group has other brands, including Love & Co, Brilliant Rose and MoneyMax.

The CCI project ensured that area managers were trained to be trainers so that they could continue to provide training in the firm.

Efforts were also made to connect better with customers, such as when Soo Kee upgraded its customer relationship management system to capture the buying patterns of customers, allowing them to invite the right customers to private preview parties or to new product launches.

The group also recognises that the ability of its staff to resolve issues speedily depends on their level of empowerment.

It conducted a review of common requests and feedback, and developed a system that allows front-line staff to reply instantly to common requests.

For instance, customers no longer need to wait for days for approvals on matters such as service charge waivers.

'If our customers are very happy with our service, they will thank us. They will buy from us and they will recommend others to us. Then, our employee will be happy and be motivated to do better,' says Mr Lim.

'If the customer likes you, he will learn to trust you and become your friend, then he will buy something from you. Referrals are very important in this line.'

Soo Kee had previously conducted training for its staff but that was focused on technical skills for front-line staff.

The CCI project, on the other hand, looked into the whole shopping experience and the many details such as whether the lighting was too bright or the music too loud, says Mr Lim.

The project also allowed staff to learn new ways to improve the group's business. And if business is good, the staff can look forward to better rewards, he adds.

It has also changed the mindset of management: 'Every day, we stress on service, like whether sales staff have problems with customers. Previously, we just looked at sales numbers,' he says.

'If you focus only on figures, you will turn the staff into a hard-sell salesperson.'

The service mindset is something that involves everyone in the group, says Mr Lim.

'It's the company culture. Previously, our service initiative was not successful because it was not part of our company culture.'