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Customer Service at Publix and Chic-fil-a

We are all struggling to do more with less, watch expenses and make tough choices about how to allocate limited resources. In this time of lay-offs, chapter 11s, business and law firm failures and heightened anxiety across most industries (and personal lives) the way we treat our clients (and employees) can go a long way to differentiate your firm, strengthen client relationships and maybe even soothe some anxious souls. And best of all – no budget required!

The following was previously posted on the LMA listserv Thanksgiving week.

Today I ran errands around lunch time and passed a Chic-fil-a on my way to the grocery store. I decided a grilled chic-fil-a (with extra pickles) sounded a lot better than leftovers at home and knowing that grocery shopping while hungry would lead to impulse purchases I stopped in for a quick bite. Despite the doom and gloom in the economy, this place was hopping. There were business people, workmen, Moms with kids (there’s an indoor playground), retirees, college kids and consultants in workout wear (me) having lunch.

Although the restaurant was full and drive through line 10 cars long, there was barely a wait to order and be served. My lunch was $5. The associates at the counter were courteous and friendly and as I sat enjoying my sandwich a polite young woman offered to refill my lemonade then removed my trash and tray. I asked her if they were always this busy and she said “yes and this is a great place to work.”

On the walls of the restaurant there were stories about the programs Chic-fil-a supports – summer camps for at risk youth, marriage counseling programs, scholarships for employees and their children and the Chic-fil-a founder’s story. The place was spotless, too – even the ladies room. I actually left with a smile on my face and the other customers looked happy too!

On my next stop at Publix Supermarkets (tagline – where shopping is a pleasure) I encountered more friendly, happy employees who were not just waiting for me to ask questions but offering assistance in produce, at the fish counter and at the bakery. When I asked for a certain kind of bread the woman walk around from behind the counter to show me where it was. The man at checkout engaged me in dialogue about his holiday menu and inquired about my plans and the bagger complimented me for remembering to bring in my “green bags” – he remembered me and that I usually forget and have to run back to the car!

As I was driving home I started thinking about the reason I will go to Chic-fil-a but very few other fast food restaurants and why I drive past two other grocery stores to go to Publix. So what makes the difference in the quality of customer service at Publix, Chic-fil-a, and other businesses? Why is Publix announcing a 3.7% increase in sales over last year when other retailers are announcing dramatic losses, bankruptcies and store closings?

  • Employees have excellent manners and at both stores say thank you, have a nice day and give the customer their full attention. They don’t point directions but show you where things are. They offer assistance before you even ask.
  • The leaders and managers model the behavior they want their employees to use and often greet customers by name as they enter the building.
  • They practice the Rotary motto “service above self.”
  • They hire nice people who genuinely care about others. The CEO of the first company that employed me full time used to say “you can teach people skills and how to do things but you can’t teach people to be nice and care about others.”
  • They really know their customers (often by name) and frequently ask their opinions and preferences through surveys and through employees and managers just walking around the stores talking to their customers.
  • They use technology to create efficiencies but not to replace people.
  • They reward employees for doing the right thing and incentivize them for reaching goals.
  • Employees are proud to be a part of the organization.
  • They give back to their communities in substantial ways and talk about it with pride.
  • They create loyal customers who tell their friends and so on and so on…

So to wrap up this ramble, I then thought about the law firm client I interviewed last week who said, “I feel as if I am their most important client” and elaborated on why he felt that way. It all boils down to the same things Publix and Chic-fil-a do to charm and create loyal customers.

In these turbulent times clients are bound to be stressed and overworked. A little kindness goes a long way and it’s not just Southern Hospitality. But in that spirit, and in the spirit of the holiday, I am thankful that I get to work within an industry that continues to reward thoughtfulness, attentiveness, and with people who value relationships, their clients and take pride in their work; both when times are good, and otherwise.

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