The Kwik Trip Way

Retailer forges connection between strong culture and customer service

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

[The following is the first of a three-part series on participants of the 2010 CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop.] LA CROSSE, Wis.-- In 2009, Kwik Trip Inc. had 40,000 online applications for no more than 3,000 positions. It's a figure that speaks partly to the dire state of unemployment last year, but even more so to the attractiveness of a job at the La Crosse, Wis.-based retailer.

The number of applications is "a little bit up," John McHugh, corporate communications director, told CSP Daily News, noting Kwik Trip's reputation as a stable company [image-nocss] that's growing and is renowned for generous benefits. It has also racked up its second CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop win in a row, leading a pack of nine competitors that includes heavyweights such as QuikTrip, Maverik and Kum & Go. The 366-store chain, which has locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, scored highest in customer service.

But it's tough getting in to the Kwik Trip employee pool. For one position, the company interviews an average of five to seven candidates. During the behavioral-based interviewing process, applicants must demonstrate adaptability, dependability, work ethic, professionalism, their love of people and adherence to the Golden Rule: Treat others how you would like to be treated, which is part of Kwik Trip's mission statement.

"Instinctively, would you like to do well for other people?" said McHugh. "If it's not written into your DNA, all of the training in the world can't fix that."

In doing so, applicants must share examples of how they have practiced each core attribute, which can include more than 20 different scenarios. And for those unlucky interviewees who draw blanks? "Frankly, we don't move on with those candidates," he said. "We can afford to be selective. Our inclination is to say, maybe the deeper issue is, they can't think of a story about being adaptable because they're not adaptable."

Despite the opportunity the recession has provided many retailers to upgrade the quality and experience of their employees, Kwik Trip hasn't felt the need, trusting that its rigorous interviewing process always results in an "A level" hire, in good times or bad. Anecdotally, the company has been seeing more seasoned, veteran applicants than before, McHugh noted.

While some retailers have a "promote from within" mentality, about one-half of KT's management joined from another company. "We think it's healthy to have balance," said McHugh. "You don't want to do everybody internally because then you all end up thinking alike, and that's not a good thing."

But for front-line coworkers with the core Kwik Trip competencies, "the sky's the limit," said McHugh. Indeed, most of its district leaders and department heads started as coworkers or store leaders. Greg Olson began with the company as a store leader 28 years ago. Today as director of retail operations, he oversees execution of the most important focus of the company."Customer service is always No. 1," said Olson. "No. 2 is the focus on our food, and No. 3, we have to be clean and merchandised. We feel like you have to have all three of those. They depend on each other; you miss one, the other two aren't going to work."

All customer-service praise and complaints are forwarded to Olson on a daily basis. At meetings with district and zone leaders, he shares the good and bad customer-service stories, and the team discusses how to handle negative situations. The following week, zone leaders share the stories with store leaders, who in turn discuss the lessons with store employees.

"Two weeks after the district leader meeting, all of that information gets filtered down to all 8,000 retail coworkers," said Olson. "Part of it is repetitionthey understand it's important, you keep talking about it, it eventually becomes culture, the way you do things." Indeed, each new store coworker signs a customer-service agreement that lists Kwik Trip's standards, from greetings to thank you and everything in between, said Olson.

Kwik Trip responds to every customer complaint, and keeps a record of it. The retailer embraces a Nordstrom-inspired "listen, apologize, make it right" mantra for every complaint, regardless of whether the customer's gripe is considered truly legitimate.

"It's not true that the customer's always right," McHugh said. "Sometimes the customer's wrong, but wrong customers still spend money."

Coworkers are rewarded, meanwhile, whenever customers send praise with a gift card and mention in the internal newsletter. It is this number of unsolicited customer praise letters that Kwik Trip uses as an unofficialbut valuablemetric in measuring the progress of its customer-service efforts. Only four years ago, the company received an average of 17 letters per year. Half way into 2010, it has received 72.

[For more on Kwik Trip's cultural revolution, and best practices from participants of the 2010 CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop, check out the August issue of CSP magazine.]