Why is good customer service so hard? Because it requires courage

Why is good customer service so hard? Because it requires courageChick-fil-A is one of the best performing fast food chains in the United States. They have some of the highest per location revenues in the industry. What’s their secret? Partly, it’s customer service:

Chick-fil-A leads the industry in customer satisfaction, regularly topping the American Customer Service Index’s annual ranking. Compared to employees at 15 chains, employees at Chick-fil-A are the most likely to say “please” and “thank you,” and to smile at drive-thru customers, according to QSR Magazine’s annual drive-thru report.

Customer service is rare in fast food, for a reason

But is good customer service really a secret? How hard is it to have your employees say “please” and “thank you”? At first blush, customer service seems like the kind of advantage that would be immediately copied.

It’s not, though. Why not? Why does Chick-fil-A offer first class customer service, when most other fast food restaurants fall way, way behind?

I think a huge part of the answer is courage. The fast food business is a low differentiation, low margin business. The idea is to cut operating costs as much as possible, and push advertising as hard as you can. With awareness come customers. As with any high fixed cost, low margin business, you’re looking for volume.

Think about the cost structure of a fast food business. How can you cut costs to the bone? Use cheap ingredients. That keeps your product cost down. And pay your people as little as possible. There’s a reason you see high school kids working at fast food restaurants.

What happens when you pay your employees as little as possible? They invest as little as possible of themselves in their work. It’s just a job. As the owner, you’ve sent a clear message. You’re paying them just to be a warm body. Most people tend to play up or down to the level of expectations.

I have plenty of experience with subpar fast food service

Fast food restaurant customers see the results. I see it all the time. I go to Taco Bell a lot. Way too much, really. But it’s a fast, reliable lunch location, and I can sit and read there in peace.

I repeat the same mildly complex order every time I go. I visit a few different locations, since there are so many nearby. It’s amazing to see how badly some of the employees fumble through my order.

Because I’ve done this so many time, I know where new employees are likely to struggle. Here’s something embarrassing. I’ve even learned a little about how their machines work, since I’ve overheard managers coaching new employees in front of me.

My point is that I know to expect poor to fair service when I go to Taco Bell. If I’m lucky enough to get a manager, I’m in good shape. If I get one of the new folks, I’m almost certainly out of luck.

It can be a painful experience. But because it’s familiar, close, and quiet, I’ll put up with the unpredictable service. Not all customers fall in that boat.

What does courage have to do with it?

Chick-fil-A shows that not all fast food restaurants have to offer poor service. Chick-fil-A is a notable exception. But what does courage have to do with it?

I view poor customer service as a failure of leadership. First, my claim is that in order to offer better service, you have to pay your people more. Maybe you disagree. I think I could make a compelling case in this direction, though.

Second, it takes real courage to voluntarily pay your fast food employees more. Like I covered above, the one reality of the industry is compressed margins. You eke out your existence. The key is customer turnover in each location, right?

You can attack this problem from one of two angles:

  1. Knowing margins are compressed, cut as many costs as possible. Rely on location and advertising to get customers in the store. Cycle through as many customers as possible.
  2. Focus on getting customers in the store. Recognize that investing in your people will encourage more customer visits. Either live with even more compressed margins, or raise prices just enough to pass along your higher compensation costs. Target customers that will pay a dollar more for a better experience.

It takes courage to go with angle number 2. You’re fighting conventional wisdom. I think of the John Maynard Keynes quote here:

Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.

With angle number 2, you’re making the following pitch. Look, I know we’re getting beat. I know we’re either losing money, or we’re not making enough money. Here’s my solution: spend more money on our people.

How do you expect that story go over?

Your argument is that investing in your people is like any other investment. It’ll create an asset that your business will use to deliver value to customers. In this case, the asset is a more pleasant customer experience. It’s not something you’ll see listed on a balance sheet. But it serves the same purpose as any other asset.

The lesson is to know when conventional wisdom is holding you back

As we’ve already discussed, fast food has a well-known conventional wisdom. You need to cut costs and get as many people through your restaurant as possible.

That kind of consensus makes it really, really difficult to deviate. You’d get laughed out of the room, if you suggested spending more money to fix your profitability problems. That just simply isn’t done.

It takes someone like Chick-fil-A to come along and teach everyone a lesson. The same thing can happen for you, on a much smaller scale, in your own career. You need to know when to break with conventional wisdom.

The first step is to understand the conventional wisdom. The second step is to know what constraints exist because of those ingrained beliefs. The third step is to consider whether there really is a better way. (There might not be.) The fourth step is to pick your spot. Know when you’re in the right room, with the right people, to share your better way.

That’s how you make a name for yourself at work. Take something that everyone believes and flip it on its head. Be ready to hear crickets. Be ready for some push back. But if you pick the right fights, and show some conviction, you can make a valuable contribution.


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