Cracking Chick-fil-A's Customer Service Secrets

Values, character, hospitality differentiate QSR chain, executive says at CRU

Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

Steve Hester CSP's Convenience Retailing University (CRU)

Steve Hester

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy had a tough egg to crack explaining to management at the first shopping mall he was about to rent space in that his concept would still make money, even if it closed on Sundays, said Steve Hester, senior director of strategic initiatives of the $5 billion quick-service restaurant (QSR) chain, at CSP's Convenience Retailing University (CRU).

That was one of the more obvious ways the Atlanta-based company stays true to its values, a divining rod that has kept the company focused on customer service and continuous change, Hester said. Known as much for its humorous 3-D cow billboards as for its chicken nuggets and waffle fries, the chain in unabashedly devout, with its Christian-centric mission statement being "to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with."

The statement emphasizes hospitality and a caring nature that has become a central differentiator going forward, Hester told about 200 attendees during CRU's closing session on Thursday.

"We hire for character and competency," he said. "These are people who represent the brand. We want the captain of the football team, the homecoming queen. We want the best."

He said in third-party surveys, Chick-fil-A outpaces the competition in hospitality cues such as eye contact, sharing a smile and speaking with enthusiasm. Not everyone on the team is best suited for the front register, he said, but it's important to assess people's strengths and place them where their best qualities will shine.

The company spends a lot of time emphasizing its values, Hester said. He showed a video of Cathy over the years, each year asking the same question: "Someone says, 'Thank you,' You say what?"

The answer always is "my pleasure."

Cathy demands that it be said with sincerity and a genuine desire to please the more than two million customers the chain sees on a daily basis.

While the company has grown via its distinctive offerings--including its signature chicken sandwich, milkshakes and freshly prepared lemonade--the competition has entered the field with equally compelling offers.

"Forty years ago we were the only chicken sandwich, and of course now there's KFC and McDonald's," he said. "So for us, it's about the basics, the blocking and tackling. Do people feel welcomed?"

Hester told attendees that they would each get a book on the chain's management culture, as well as a business card good for a free chicken sandwich.

Someone in the audience yelled out, "Thank you."

Hester replied, "My pleasure."

Angel Abcede, CSP/Winsight By Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP
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