‘My pleasure’

Published 4:51 pm Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Nicole Digby operates a Chick-fil-A franchise in Suffolk, Va., where her employees are trained to give “second-mile service.” Hers is one of the most successful of the restaurant’s franchises in the area.

Service is second nature at Chick-fil-A

Mr. Jake comes to the North Main Street Chick-fil-A in Suffolk, Va., every day and orders the same thing for lunch: a No. 7 chargrilled chicken sandwich combo with no lettuce, extra tomatoes, a side of fruit and half-and-half tea.

The employees always try to have his order ready when he walks through the door. They look him in the eye, smile and say “My pleasure” when Mr. Jake thanks them. They carry his tray to the table and refill his tea when he runs out.

It’s that kind of second-mile service that has made Chick-fil-A famous. It’s the kind of service that keeps people coming back, just like Mr. Jake, even if they’re not coming back quite as frequently as he does.

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Customer-service stories like Mr. Jake’s, however, helped the Suffolk store this year earn the company’s “Symbol of Success” award, which represents gross sales that have risen 15 percent over the previous year.

“It’s good to always be busy,” says Nicole Digby, owner/operator of the Suffolk restaurant. Even at 3 p.m., cars continue to circle the North Main Street store in the drive-through and pull up in the parking lot to get a variety of chicken sandwiches, strips, nuggets and salads.

Customers like Mr. Jake and the hundreds of others who visit the Suffolk eatery every day represent only a fraction of Chick-fil-A’s daily customers. The chain has more than 1,500 restaurants in 38 states and moved $3.2 billion worth of food in 2009 — an impressive feat, considering it only passed $1 billion in systemwide sales in 2000, and first passed $2 billion annually in 2006.

The company is also widely known for its values. Both the corporate entity and individual stores give millions of dollars every year to everything from nationwide charities to local clubs. The restaurants also are closed on Sundays to allow employees to worship and spend time with their families.

“If you choose to worship, great, but it’s also a day to spend with your family,” Digby said.

In fact, the company’s corporate purpose makes its Christian basis even more overt: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.”

“We’re a biblical-based company,” Digby said, noting that taking a day of rest tends to draw Christian employees. “It usually attracts people who want to go to church on Sunday.”

The eateries also partner with local schools to participate in career days, to host reading nights and to provide incentives for children who make the honor roll.

“We’re not in the food business,” Digby said. “We’re in the service business. It’s not hard to get food, but the service part — you have to get the right people and train them correctly.”

As its corporate values prove attractive to employees, the company’s service values prove to be a big draw for customers.

“We practice second-mile service,” Digby said. Employees must carry trays for dine-in customers who are elderly, have special needs or have children with them. Fresh flowers on every table and a plentiful supply of hand wipes ensure that customers are comfortable.

And employees practice a four-fold hospitality principle — make eye contact, smile, speak enthusiastically and stay connected — that tends to draw an older generation that is used to good service, Digby said.

The key to good service, Digby said, is a rigorous interviewing and training process that weeds out the workers who are only interested in a paycheck.

“What makes the business is the people,” she said. “They all just have the servant’s heart.”

Potential employees go through three interviews. Those who make it go through three to four days of training with a dedicated training coordinator before they ever deal with customers. In addition to being shown the ropes of the restaurant, the “language of hospitality” is instilled in each new trainee, Digby said.

“We teach them how to speak nicely,” she said.

The final component to Chick-fil-A’s in-store service is having “owner/operators” like Digby who are heavily involved in the store’s day-to-day operation.

“They want us in the store,” Digby said, noting that her favorite part of the job is dealing with employees and customers. “If you want your business to run right, it takes a lot of time.”

Digby’s personal vision is to “be the best restaurant in Suffolk by providing good service, great food and a clean restaurant.” The store’s regular customers and a stack of complimentary letters in Digby’s office testify that she’s well on the way.

“I have a great staff, and it’s a great company,” she said.