Arby’s is investing in customer service — and it’s paying off big time.
According to the company, mistakes and poor customer service drove a number of once loyal customers away over the years.
Now, the company is trying to change that.
In recent memory, Arby’s hasn’t had the best customer service. In 2015, Arby’s customer service score was well below the industry average, according to data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index in which the brand was beaten by chains including KFC, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, and Burger King.
However, in the last year, Arby’s year-over-year customer service scores jumped 8% — one of the most significant leaps in the restaurant industry.
According to Arby’s, 9 out of 10 visitors have reported increased customer satisfaction over the last two years.
Arby’s has seen 23 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth. In August, the company announced two-year same-store sales growth of 11.3% in the second quarter, amidst a downturn in the wider restaurant industry.
Part of this this has to do with Arby’s general rebranding efforts, which include store redesigns, new menu items, and a striking, bold marketing campaign.
However, according to Arby’s CEO Paul Brown, the rebranding would be futile without a similarly updated approach to communicating with the chain’s more than 70,000 employees nationwide. In fact, in late 2013, rebranding efforts were put on hold when the company realised the investments would be pointless if employees weren’t prepared.
Arby’s solution was Brand Champ: a now-annual employee training program that has become the cornerstone in its efforts to improve customer service. Since Brand Champ was introduced in early 2014, the company says it has helped lead to an increase of Arby’s Team Member Engagement Survey scores by 87%.
Growing employee engagement is something that can sound more like a neat PR-approved fact than a sales driver. However, after sitting in on an Arby’s Brand Champ event in New York City, where the chain opened its first store in over a decade in 2015, it is also an idea that is actually creating change at Arby’s.
‘The only restaurant company in America’
“I know Arby’s is not your only priority,” Rick Gestring, Arby’s Vice President for Brand and Operations Integration, says to a room of about 30 employees in a Manhattan hotel for mandatory Brand Champ. “And, we shouldn’t be.”
It’s an unusual message for a company training program. However, a major theme of the three-and-a-half hour training that emerges is, if you take the time to understand Arby’s goals, the company will respect your goals as well.
“We’re probably the only restaurant company in America… that takes the time to make sure hourly members are part of our success,” Gestring says in the training, before giving employees a brief overview of Arby’s recent history. “You’re on a winning team. Hopefully that matters to you.”
Brand Champ encompasses topics including a slightly tongue-in-cheek peek into the brands’ future (known-Arby’s hater Jon Stewart becomes a franchisee), info on meat sourcing, and what exactly Arby’s phrase “fast-crafted” means. Throughout the session, Gestring and other leaders attempt to provide not just policy, but also reasoning behind Arby’s decisions.
The other half of the puzzle is making sure that Arby’s is repaying the favour by acknowledging and assisting employees in their own goals.
A third of Brand Champ training is focused on setting goals — to use Arby’s language, employees can “start here, go anywhere.” Workers are shown success stories in and out of the company, then given a rubric for goal setting. In an often emotional part of the training, people share their goals.
At the New York City training, employees’ goals varied from moving into a new apartment, to starting a nonprofit to help the homeless, to working on a television project highlighting LGBTQ characters.
“It’s a fairly exposing kind of exercise,” says Brown. “You feel differently about the people you work with and the organisation you’re a part of when you [go through this] kind of exercise.”
Brand Champ a feel good story, but it also has real financial consequences. Employees who feel validated at work stay longer at a company and work harder. Arby’s is on the cusp of reaching 24 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth, an accomplishment based on more than touchy-feely messaging.
Catching up to Chick-fil-A
Throughout Brand Champ, one name came up several times: Chick-fil-A, currently the No. 1 highest ranked brand for customer service according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, as well as the most polite brand as measured by QSR Magazine’s drive-thru survey.
In fact, Chick-fil-A has claimed to have reached its position using a similar technique Arby’s is utilising now.
The chicken chain has said that its service is so consistent is because it invests more than other companies in training its employees and helping them advance their careers, whether they be in fast-food or in other arenas. At a recent convention in Orlando, Florida, franchisees are asked if they know the dreams of their team — something that, at Arby’s, every manager finds out at Brand Champ.
In 2015, Chick-fil-A generated more revenue per restaurant than any other fast-food chain in the US, thanks in large part to its superior customer service. The chain’s average sales per restaurant reached nearly $4 million.
For comparison, the average Arby’s fell just short of $1.1 million in annual sales in 2015.
To catch up with Chick-fil-A, Arby’s needs to continue to improve. While the chain has come a long way, the company says in 40% of instances there is an error, employees fail to, by the customer’s definition, “make it right.”
Brown says the next step for Arby’s is being “open and honest,” across all levels of the company on what the chain is doing well, and where it falls short. Continuing Brand Champ as an annual event, instead of a one-time part of the brand revamp, is a major part of that effort.
There are a huge number of restaurants in America — more than the country needs, according to some experts. The key to winning over customers in an overcrowded market, says Brown, comes down to one thing: employees’ ability to provide quality customer service.
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