What Singapore street food and real estate marketing have in common: know your clients, generate more leads and stand out from the crowd

Blending into a 'sea of sameness' is something every real estate agent wants to avoid but few actually manage to achieve. Most espouse the same cliched lines as their competition about being big on customer service and make even bigger promises about price. So when Elite Agent Managing Director Samantha McLean walked into a Singapore hawker centre, she didn't didn't expect to come away with some inspired marketing lessons that apply just as well to real estate as they do street food. Here, Samantha explains why you need to know your customers and solve their struggles, as well as why having one 'perfect dish' is better than five average ones.

Mark and I were in Singapore about four years ago at a Perry Marshall event.

Perry is without a doubt one of the true sages when it comes to marketing and having spent a day in a room with him and 20 or so other marketers, the night we visited Newton Food Centre all I could think about was what we’d learned that day. 

But before we get onto the marketing stuff, a bit about Newton’s.

It is one of the few remaining open-air hawker centres in Singapore and was featured in the movie Crazy Rich Asians.

It is also one of the few places in the world where street food vendors can earn a Michelin Star. 

When you walk into the place it is literally an assault on every sense – blinking lights, stallholders jostling to get the attention of tourists and of course the smell of just about every wonderous Asian spiced dish you can imagine.

It is also pretty close to an economic situation of perfect competition – where there are many competing firms, with similar products being sold, equal market share, and buyers have full information about what’s on offer. 

Sounds a lot like real estate in some suburbs right?

That night, after a long day cooped up in a conference, it was so hot we were almost wishing to be locked back up in the air conditioning – add to that it was so humid you could have literally cut the air into cubes and put them on a plate. 

We wandered around for about five minutes in a daze wondering where to sit and what to eat. 

I was doing my best impersonation of a 360 camera trying to find a table and while I was looking in another direction, I sensed Mark jump.

I turned around to see one of the stallholders – a man – holding a long neck of Tiger beer on the side of Mark’s face.

Normally you’d be a bit frightened by something in glass on the side of your neck, but I think anything cold was pretty welcome at that moment. 

The man with the beer proudly proclaimed he had the #1 coldest beer in all of Newton. 

That was also all Mark needed to hear to encourage me to sit down instead of continuing to turn around and around on the spot where I was standing.  

Our beer man – let’s call him ‘John’ – had somehow parted the sea of people and two vacant seats had amazingly opened up right in front of us.

‘John’ then offered to handle everything for us – even running to the other stallholders to make sure that we didn’t miss out on anything.

As we were a little bemused by what had just happened it opened up one of those what-if kind of marketing conversations – centring around co-opetition all working together for the good of the consumer. 

So, right there in an open-air street food court, we found some great food, great service and some super cool lessons for real estate agents experiencing this type of competition.

Lesson #1: In lead generation know your audience and their struggles

Clearly, our main problem when we walked into Newton’s was not what we were going to eat, but how darn hot it was and that it looked like there were no tables. 

But ‘John’ obviously had used his experience with other touristy looking white faces in the heat to know that if he could solve those two problems before even breathing the words soya chicken rice we would order our food from him. 

He was right. 

We immediately appointed him our trusted advisor for the night and took his every recommendation without asking about the price once. 

He solved the struggle.

Lesson #2: Serving the customer is the top priority – even if it’s not your service

John knew that he could let us walk past and we might sit down somewhere that wasn’t his territory, and he couldn’t risk losing us as a ‘lead’.

He not only owned ‘the coldest beer in Singapore’ stall but he also had a share in one of the other stalls selling some pretty fine Singapore noodles.

But Mark wanted chicken wings and I wanted satay.

“Never mind”, says John, “I’ll organise it all for you”.

At one point we asked him why he was happy to go order food with other stallholders, and he pointed at some of the other stalls and said, “We all work together, no point not too, lah.”

So clearly there was a complete business model built on conjunction and commission-based joint ventures. 

It did not get in the way of serving customers.

We ended up with one very reasonable bill – which we were happy with so that seems like a win-win on all fronts.

And yes, we did end up ordering his Singapore noodles.

Lesson #3: If you have one perfect dish, it’s better than five imperfect dishes

Each Hawker sells a few dishes and some of them are similar. I’ve mentioned chicken rice a few times and there are quite a few varieties of it on offer.

But there is usually one dish the family or the vendor might have been perfecting for years –  or even generations. 

It would be impossible to differentiate if every stall said they had “the best hawker food in Singapore”.

Instead, there are definite pointers toward specialities, such as chicken wings, koka wonton noodles or Singapore pork noodles (are you hungry yet?)

In a real estate context, if property management is not totally your thing and you want to focus on developers or sales – could you get PM as a service for your customer somewhere else?

The big takeaway

This tale of plastic tables and great food ended with ‘John’ getting a reasonable size tip that night for looking after us so well.

But it’s not really the end because we’re going back there this week, and Mark wondered out loud if John will still be there.

No doubt we will be going looking for him, because we still remember four years later what a great experience he gave us and how cold that beer was.

In real estate, everyone would like to claim the number 1 real estate in the market. 

And maybe you have a sticker of some kind to prove it.

But in a sea of sameness, and somewhat perfect competition in real estate, you could draw a parallel to hawkers saying they have the best street food in Singapore (with a sprinkling of Perry Marshall spice thrown in for good measure…)

  • In your area, can you niche down to a subsection of the market (eg the number 1 in apartment sales) and earn the equivalent of a Michelin Star in that niche? And then maybe charge a premium for it?
  • Can you provide a comprehensive service to the consumer, even if it means working with other service providers or people in your area so you can give the customer a great experience? 
  • Are you listening enough to the customer to solve their initial struggle? Because maybe instead of the ‘big sell’, there is a small decision you can put in front of them which is a small commitment. Inevitably, this can lead to a bigger commitment according to the laws of persuasion from Robert Cialdini (more reading on that here).

Can you truly differentiate in your business?

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Samantha McLean

Samantha McLean is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Elite Agent and Host of the Elevate Podcast.