Ahh, sweet Saturdays. The family and I were out running errands and were discussing where we might like to have lunch. Our destination, Whole Foods, offers lunches that can be packed up and taken out. However, we were thinking of something a bit quicker. Catty-corner from Whole Foods, there is an Arby’s and a Chick-fil-A. As far as food goes, we know what to expect at both: Quick serve, with drive-through service, both have chicken and milkshakes. In fact, Arby’s has those tasty sins known as curly fries. However, in my efforts to try to adhere to my “no french fry” edict post-childbirth, the curly fries were tossed out the proverbial window as not an option. So, we paper-scissors-rock-lizard-Spock-ed the decision, and Arby’s won out. Except, I being the mama, overrode the decision, and throw down the Chick-fil-A gauntlet.
Allow me to digress for a minute: I have been amazed at the footprint of Chick Fil A stores. That’s a lot of real estate, and expensive real estate at that, particularly when you notice that much of Chick-fil-A’s real estate is parking lot. Vast amounts of parking lot for a fast food joint.
What is interesting about this area is that in order to access either location coming from the opposite lane, you have to drive past the locations, wait at a light at one of the busier intersections in town, turn left, and then make a U-turn to get to the darn restaurants-a lot of effort for a chicken sandwich, but more on that later.
The parking lot to Arby’s was sparse; 3 cars (total, both sides of the building). The parking lot to Chick-fil-A was packed: The inner parking lot, the outer parking lot, and the far outer parking lot, not to mention the drive-through. Packed. Full. (Which led me to briefly thinkin’ Arby’s because we could get in and out quickly-something that is important to new parents.)
So, we drove around a couple of times, stalked some customers in the parking lot back to their car and pulled in as they backed their car out. In we went and made our way into the line. When it was our turn, a fresh face youngster asked how we were doing, and what we would like. We placed our orders, had them repeated back to us, and were given the standard, “Is that all for you today?” (Friendly, but a missed opportunity to sell me one of those brownies or milkshakes).
While my husband waited for our order, I took the baby and found a seat. He arrived a few minutes later with our order. It was hot, fresh, (correct) and prepared as expected. While we munched on our chicken, I took in my surroundings. Packed tables and booths, an indoor play place (Where a crying child would occasionally stumble from frantically searching for solace from mom and dad over some other parent’s child’s injustice), and a lot of buzz. I also noted something else…something that can’t possibly be cheap in this labor market.
A well-staffed, efficient customer service machine. Two employees working side by side cleaning tables (happily chatting with each other, but happy nonetheless), another employee emptying the trash, and someone who appeared to be in charge; perhaps a manager or owner operator. Everyone really did seem to be bright and shiny. And it was contagious. I felt bright and shiny. The icing on the cake came when this manager/ owner operator stopped by our table and asked us how we were, commented on our infant daughter, and asked if he could get us a refill and if we needed anything else. And he did it with a palpable genuineness.
Great customer service, nothing brilliant. But much better than average, which is categorically amazing where we have all seemed to settle for mediocre customer service these days. However, that experience solidified the answer to my question, “Why is every Chick-fil-A’s parking lot so full when others are not?”
Because of what I do every day in my business, I am hyper-aware. The creme-de-la-creme businesses provide those subtle nuances that go largely unnoticed by today’s consumers because they are subtle. But the effect is a sub-conscious pick me up. It becomes the deciding factor between two restaurants right next to each other. It may even mean the difference between a packed fast food restaurant, both in the drive through and inside(Which is interesting in and of itself, where interior real estate seems to be giving way to more exterior real estate as busy customers choose the drive through over the sit-down experience).
I think of how those little customer service niceties go a long way and know that the only way that type of experience can be created is by creating a positive work environment, empowering employees and respecting the customer.
As we left, I thought about how even in a depressed economy, people still want to feel good about what they purchase, and they want to feel good when they leave. They will go out of their way for it, forego the easy way out, and fight their way through parking lots for it.