Friday, May 21, 2010

Eat Mor Chikn

I'm told I need to blog more by a couple of people who I didn't know were reading the blog. Maybe if you guys followed the blog, or commented on it, I'd know people were actually reading it!  As it is, I enjoy writing for all of my imaginary friends, including my favorite readers, Johnny AlwaysAgrees and Wendy AlwaysScantilyClad, and of course Kenny Chesney's legions of loyal fans.

Yesterday after a fun little visit to the Best Buy I used to work at, where I was pleased to see an awful lot of people I used to work with who are apparently doing very well for themselves, I stopped by Chick-Fil-A for lunch. And I marveled, as I always do, about Chick-Fil-A.

As soon as I walked through the door, I was bowled over (as I always am) by an onslaught of smiling and cheerful "Hello and welcome to Chick-Fil-A!"s, only one or two of which really sounded fake. The happy people behind the counter nearly begged to take my order, repeating it clearly to make sure they were getting it right, giving me full attention, smiles, and eye contact. The store was spotless as always, despite the fact that nearly every chair was filled. My order was ready nearly immediately, and it was piping hot. When I asked for extra sauce, nobody pouted.

As I sat and ate, I watched the drive-thru line move rapidly, even though it was about six cars long. As it got even longer, and as it began to slow down, I saw one of the cashiers notice, put on a headset, and run out to start taking orders from cars further back in the line. The line then sped back up.

Friendly employees stopped by my table occasionally to ask if they could take my garbage or get me a refill.

Chick-Fil-A is fast food, like a McDonald's or Taco Bell.  Well... actually very unlike a McDonald's or Taco Bell, but it's still fast food.  We don't tend to expect this kind of service from fast food.  Heck, I don't get service that good at most sit-down restaurants.  Despite this, Chick-Fil-A provides it.

Maybe that's why it really seems to me to be the busiest fast food establishment in Baton Rouge. And I've been to Chick-Fil-A's all over the country, and that huge customer service experience is pretty standard.

There are a lot of funny things to think about when it comes to Chick-Fil-A. For starters, I know they don't pay their people all that much money. They don't get paid as much as, say, those Best Buy employees I was talking about at the start of this post. They don't get paid as much as most of the Wal-Mart associates I know. And yet, they're a heck of a lot nicer to customers as a general rule, and they offer much better customer service.  They get paid less, and they do more.  Why is that?

Obviously there's something in Chick-Fil-A's corporate culture that they buy into, either voluntarily or somehow involuntarily (I suspect the former).  For some reason, they seem genuinely motivated to provide a level of service unlike what any of their competitors provide, a level of service unseen in quick-service restaurants for at least forty years. They seem happy with that and proud of it. They enjoy their excellence, which is very cool.  Aristotle called that 'eudaimonia' way back when... 'the joy of excellence.' It's something we don't see enough of in modern America.

Honestly, as food quality and taste goes, I'm not sure CFA is really heads-and-shoulders above their competition. In my own eyes, as far as taste goes, they're better than Kentucky Fried, but nowhere near the level of a Popeye's. So why are they so much busier than Popeye's, then, even in South Louisiana where Popeye's is practically the food we grew up on, the stuff our momma's and grandmomma's used to make? Seriously, I'd swear that those cajun spices at Popeye's were in my baby bottle way back when....

In my marketing seminars, I've long been a proponent of the competitive differentiator, and I've often made the point that the business without a clear and understood differentiator cannot thrive. Fox News and MSNBC's differentiators are their political slants, each on opposite ends of the spectrum. Wal-Mart's differentiator is its sheer variety. Best Buy's is its (usually) knowledgeable employees. The Xbox's is Halo. HBO's is its original series. Waffle House has its unique waffle recipe, Hobby Lobby has a lot of really unique crap you could never find anywhere else, and Chevron has Techron (which isn't truly unique in the slightest, but most people are fooled into thinking it is through Chevron's clever marketing).

I believe someone up at Chick-Fil-A made the decision a few years back that truly amazing, throwback customer service was going to be their differentiator, the thing that got people talking about CFA. It makes you wonder what the corporate culture is like in CFA... if it's truly a different kind of atmosphere, or if all that is just show for the customers. It also makes you wonder just how they've been so effective at gaining employee buy-in, even at the entry level.

Luckily, one of my fellow incoming Georgia Tech doctoral students is a CFA insider, so I should get to find out!

On a side note, there's nothing cooler than randomly running into one of your dearest friends you haven't seen in a long time, in a place as nice as Chick-Fil-A!


  1. I subscribe to your blog via Google Reader, and I've commented. But someone (i.e., you) never commented on my comments, so I stopped commenting. But enough with the finger pointing.

    While I don't patronize Chick-fil-a (I don't really like their food or their religiousness), I think that corporate and/or workplace environment plays a HUGE part in employee attitude. I struggle with this all the time at my office. I'm of the general attitude that if you treat people like adults, they'll be responsible and productive workers. However, that's not how most of the entry-level employees (which greatly out-number the non-entry-level employees) are always treated. I'm trying to get others on board to improve the environment, but it's taking a long time.

  2. I swear, I am one more kenny chesney reference away from selling my membership.

    On the subject of Chick-Fil-A, I think that is one of the last honorably run companies in America. In 1946 the founder "Something" Cathey chose to close all his locations on Sundays. Most people believe it to be for spiritual reasons, however his reasoning was more of a practical choice. His words not mine, "All franchised Chick-Fil-A Operators and Restaurant Employees should have the opportunity to rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to."

    I remember way back in 1988, I was a manager in the Riverwalk Mall. We were trying to attract a Chick-Fil-A franchise to the location. Sundays were mandatory per Mall rules, but despite the outrageous profit margin they would have they would not budge on opening on a Sunday and pulled out of the deal.

    Respect for their employees and understanding their needs as human beings, as simple as it sounds, is the reason they get the quality of work they insist of their employees.

    Hows that for commenting back boss?

  3. In order for a business to be successful and above the competition, it only needs to complete two of three things: quality, service, and/or price. I think it was you who said that at a seminar. Chick-Fil-A has good customer service, at fast food prices. Never mind quality.

    And Jim: If you want us to comment more, it would help if you commmented back.

  4. My humble apologies to all for not replying to my comments! I'll try to be better! For the record, I think CFA's quality is pretty good. I think their service is pretty good. And I think their price is decent. Hmmmm... there must be more to this....

  5. Wow! So many firsts . . . my first mention in a blog (that I know about, anyway) and my first reference as an "insider" (about anything, I think). You ask great questions about the secret to Chick-fil-A's success. Great questions I think every organization should be asking itself – how will we differentiate, how will we treat customers, and perhaps most importantly, what are our organization’s non-negotiables. By non-getables, I mean what are the things that are core to who we are that we will not change. Ever.

    I know you are right about one thing – you will know much more, probably more than you may want to, about Chick-fil-A over the next five years. My promise to you is this – I will NOT start every sentence in class with "Well, at Chick-fil-A, they blah, blah, blah". Just every third sentence.

  6. Its just that chick-fil-A Jim i have been to others and they do not compare. I would also like to note that you can Order there chicken sandwhich with bacon and Two kinds of cheese and it is amazeing also !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. CFA's buy-in is a work of art.

    In my adult life, I have worked at several places, but right now I will focus on 2 peon level jobs: Disney and BBY. Both had good employee buy-in, but just with different products and results.

    At Disney, we were extensively and routinely trained on guest relations, we knew that providing customer service was always our job. Profits were great, but at our level we weren't to be concerned with numbers.

    In contrast to working at bby, who had glossy hand-outs and catchy videos with terminology like customer-centric, our actions were consistently bottom-line driven.

    At some point during my bby tenure, we changed platforms to be customer-driven. We were no longer going to be a numbers organization, but a customer experience organization. This news made me incredibly happy since, guest relations was my background and I do believe it is the cornerstone to a successful and profitable organization.

    Inexplicably during this time, the manager on duty suddenly had a black folder super-glued to his hand. The folder had the latest number readings reflecting what was the financial situation of the store, it certainly did have every imaginable statistic on this reading. Lest someone I know from bby reads this, I was just as guilty of being metrics driven as the next senior, but it was the attitude and behavior that was being modeled and monkey see, monkey do. Frankly, I do not blame the managers either, if your performance evaluation and bonuses are tied to the bottom line, the numbers are your motivation.

    I suppose my theory is if mgmt is honestly most concerned with a customer's experience, and it is a strong element of to their personal success in the organization, everyone wins. Customer, company, employee.

    I am not sure of CFA's mission statement, but I do know my experiences as a consumer at CFA (especially the free-standing ones) have always been very positive and friendly. The staff does take pride in their product, not just the chicken, their behavior and attitude is part of the package.

    PS, Seeing a lifelong friend in an unexpected place is the bee's knees. Or Cat's Pajamas or perhaps the umbrella in a fruity drink.

  8. How Did You Do It, Truett? is the book written by S. Truett Cathy, founder of Chic-fil-A. It explains his business principals and how his restaurant became such a success. I have it if you want to borrow it. -Jessie Hoover

  9. I have to agree with Chick-fil-a's position in the hierarchy of chicken restaurants, although you left out Raisin' Cane's which is a very close second - right behind good ole Popeyes. At least that's where it stacks up in my book.