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Business Lessons…from Burger King

By: Jeff Schmitt
Last updated 3/30/2011

We’ve all been there. You drop in for a quick burger…and find chaos. The counter people dart back-and-forth, bumping into each other while barking at the cooks. Scrunched against others in line, you watch the sandwiches—including one that looks like yours—languish beneath the warmer. All the while, you suspect drive-through gets preferential treatment. Worst of all, there’s no update on when your meal is coming (or why it’s taking so long). You may as well be at the DMV.

Ah, fast food: the refuge of choice for the harried, cost conscious and nondiabetic. In school, our teachers warned how we’d end up asking “Would you like fries with that?” if we didn’t buckle down. It was a message hammered home by summers over the grill, working strange hours surrounded by the heat, flashing, humming, hissing, and scraping. And God help anyone who had a cranky customer—or bus for that matter.

Despite this history, I still frequent fast food. My favorite place is my hometown Burger King franchise. Ironically, BK isn’t my first choice. Frankly, it’d be easier to hit the Taco Bell next door; but when it comes to service and customer experience, my Burger King could give those fine folks at Disney and Zappos a run for their money.

In business, our job is to differentiate and delight, to keep customers coming back. Sure, you can score a magazine cover pushing breakthroughs; but it’s the basics—those commonsense courtesies we take for granted—that elevate brands. And you usually find these basics perfected where you least expect. Here’s how my favorite burger franchise raises the bar:

Focus on Point of Sale: Collecting payment is a core function for any business. Just as important: keeping someone in front of customers. BK understands that too. That’s why their cashiers rarely leave the register. They understand how irritating it can be to wait in line, and they know customers will take their dollars across the street when lines clog up. So they make a determined effort to move you to pick up quickly. It is fast food, after all. That’s what customers expect—and that’s what they receive.

Maintain Defined Roles: In other stores, employees race around in panic. Instead of acting in concert, they battle over turf and allocation. Regardless of effort and value, their sloppiness makes customers less likely to return. My BK recognizes that perception of process impacts perception of quality. As a result, each employee performs specific roles: always moving with purpose and without wasted motion. Know what? Customers are more confident and patient with them as a result.

Take Pride in Your Facility: You can learn much about people by how they care for their surroundings. My BK experience begins from the highway, as I come upon a vibrant blue and red store surrounded by a manicured lawn. The parking lot is relatively free of large cracks and litter, with fresh signage lining the windows. Inside, a fresh coat of paint and new wood paneling have been slapped on the walls, which are dotted with photos of local riverfront landmarks. The tables and chairs are sturdy and wiped clean. The floors are swept and garbage removed regularly, and I don’t close my eyes in the bathroom, either. Whether it’s free refills or a Wall Street Journal, my BK offers what I cannot enjoy elsewhere. As Colby Calais coos softly over the intercom, I realize this homelike atmosphere makes an implicit promise: If we put this effort into our store, just imagine how we’ll treat you! It’s a promise they deliver on, time-and-time again.

Build Relationships: The best restaurants are known for more than the food. People come for the experience: the anticipation and fulfillment; the lush scents and shared energy; the emotions and memories stirred. More than that, people come to renew relationships. My BK is all about community. They acknowledge me with a smile when I enter. They use my name when I order—and act surprised when I deviate from my usual. Sometimes, they inquire about my job or puppy—with one brave soul razzing me over Iowa State’s wretched football team. Despite earning minimum wage, they’re upbeat and engaged. Deliberate or not, they remind me of an immutable truth: It’s hard to ever leave those with whom you share a connection.

Deliver Consistently: In business, you’re judged on every interaction. Often, it only takes one bad experience (or, more to the point, how it’s handled) to lose a customer—and that doesn’t count the damage from bad word of mouth (let alone online message boards). No, there are rarely second chances when you make a mistake. My BK understands customers expect Whoppers to taste the same, whether they’re served in Dubuque or Dallas. Even with superior service and amenities, my BK would fall short if it didn’t deliver on the brand promise: taste. Their full parking lot over lunch is testament that they get it right more often than not.

Provide a Top-Down Example: How does all this happen? Look no further than the owner. He’s the bespeckled gentleman you’ll find running a register or wrapping burgers sometimes. He spends a lot of time chatting with customers too. In fact, the one place you rarely see him is hiding out in back. Invested in his franchise’s success, the owner is not above any job or customer. The meal may not be memorable, but the service will leave a mark. And that philosophy starts at the top. Is it any wonder that it trickles down to his employees?

About the Author(s)

Jeff Schmitt is a regular contributor to BusinessWeek (www.businessweek.com). He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail at jschmittdbq@mchsi.com or follow him on Twitter at jefflschmitt.