What business are you [really] in?

Southwest Airlines former CEO, Herb Kelleher, has been known for saying that the company isn’t in the aviation business as much as they are in the customer service business. That distinction serves as a beacon for every person who works there, and is evidenced through multiple operating behaviors at all levels and for all functions at SW Air. More exciting, even, for shareholders, is the result of this kind of focus: SW Airlines continuous, uninterrupted profitability over the last 45 years. (And if you are old enough to remember, the airlines, in general, have suffered mightily through many phases over that time span) He built a company that continues to be held up as the most transformative in its use of culture and business model, and that still tests the aviation industry players today.

The fast-food industry also has its fair share of heated competition. With Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Chik-fil-A (a private company amongst publicly traded ones) as the top three, some reports have Chik-fil-A well on their way to eating the others’ famous burgers for lunch.

Can product be the whole story here? Yes, of course it plays a major role. If a product sucks, no amount of marketing will outlive the demise of the product it espouses. And, most certainly with food, availability of the product to those who want it accounts for a company’s growth and success.

In Chik-fil-A we find something – an extra special sauce – that parallels that of Southwest Airlines. The Chik-fil-A customer service. The culture and operating value of service, that underlies the customer’s experience with the product, stands out as a meaningful differentiator.

When you roll up to a Chik-fil-A drive through, you are greeted with a “How may I serve you today?” or “How may I be of service to you?” instead of other varieties like “How can I help you?”. The tone is pleasant, and feels like someone is smiling at you while leaning forward through their microphone. It’s like they really can’t wait to find out how they can make the next 3-5 minutes with you feel amazing, and becuase they know you’re likely hungry, their job isn’t about chicken burgers at the point, it’s about helping you forget about (and not act on) your “hangry” pains.

That expression, albeit completely verbal due to your position in the drive-thru, continues through your interaction. It is amplified by their clear ability and willingness to help you discover what might be most delicious for you at that moment, with all your menu questions, discrete tastes and Chik-fil-A’s offerings. Once your done, they thank you — for letting them serve you.

But wait!! There’s more.

You still need to pay for and get your food. And, because it’s 95 degrees outside, your dog is panting like it’s her last hours after you turned off your A/C and rolled down your window as you approached the pay-and-pick-up window.

Once you reach the window, you might’ve been a little anxious and hasty with the Chik-Fil-A attendant, due to a) your hangry still and b) your dog’s panting is stressing you out.

But the attendant seems to perceive both of these situations immediately, and after handing you your food and cash, generously (and with a smile) asks if he might offer your dog a treat.

You hear your dog rush to the back, passenger side window and hang out of it anxiously waiting and staring at the attendant…..

…to which there is really only one reply, “Yes. Thank you!”.

Key Takeaways:

  • Companies don’t just need to hire for the employee attributes that ultimately deliver exceptional experiences, they need systems and feedback & reinforcement loops in place that empower and incentivize those attributes to be operationalized, repeated and measured.
  • Service, at the Chik-fil-A, or SW Airlines level of breadth and depth, happens with sponsorship and role modeling from the top down.
  • The product must have proof points of demonstrably equal or better value, and then service, and experience, becomes the company defining competitive advantage. *This will not change with the introduction of machine learning and more sophisticated A.I. technologies and services.


Tanya Maslach Written by: