Pyramid of Power

NACS Show: Winning employee, customer loyalty a matter of exceeding expectations

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

Chip Conley

Chip Conley

ATLANTA -- Hotels and the convenience store channel have a few things in common. Both are service industries, both face grueling competition, and both have a workforce that is often paid an hourly rate, has no higher education and serve in what detractors consider "dead-end jobs." With those hurdles to jump, how can convenience retailers win employee and customer loyalty?

As Chip Conley, founder of hotel company Joie de Vivre explained to attendees at the 2013 NACS Show opening general session in Atlanta, it is about transcending expectations of customers--and yourself.

"A great hotel is more than a bed," he said. "A great c-store is more than convenience."

For example, consider Southwest Airlines, widely admired for its strong company culture and enthusiastic employees. Conley shared an anecdote about a past Southwest flight he was on where the airline's CEO, Gary Kelly, was passing out peanuts to customers--most of whom has no idea who he was. Conley approached Kelly about why Southwest did not introduce baggage fees like the other airlines.

Kelly's response? After the other airlines began charging customers to check bags, these same customers started bringing more bags onto the plane as carry-ons to avoid paying the fee. In effect, the move turned their flight attendants into baggage handlers and made their customer service responsibilities even more difficult to fulfill.

"The sign of a great leader in business" Kelly said, "is know how to get out of the way and let employees live their calling."

One model Conley has embraced as a path toward building such an employee-focused culture is psychologist Abe Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs," which shows how employees can reach true work happiness--or self-actualization--by having certain needs met. "If humans can be self-actualized, why not a company?" Conley asked.

It requires retailers to create a culture of recognition in their company. Conley noted that the No. 1 reason people say they leave their job is because of their boss. "When they are recognized by their boss, they are more likely to be loyal," he said.

Beyond employees, retailers should also aim to transcend customers' expectations. He shared the example of a c-store where he is a regular. The store's owner asked Conley what he would like him to stock--and after Conley shared some items--vitamins, protein bars--the retailer got them into the store. In fact, the retailer asked all of his 25 top customers this question, and delivered where he could. The result, all of them--Conley included--shared their positive experience with friends.

"If you create an environment where people feel what they do matters," said Conley, "they step up."