What Chick-fil-A can teach bankers

Banks look to customer service superstars for lessons on how to create a competitive edge.

It may be just a boneless chicken breast with two dill pickle chips on a toasted butter bun, but Chick-fil-A’s trademark sandwich should be on the menu of every retail bank burnishing its customer service, insists Patrick Gideon, president of a community bank in northeastern Kansas.

“They have a service model that is just phenomenal,” says Gideon, who leads $375-million Silver Lake Bank with five branches in Topeka and Lawrence. He marvels at how adroitly Chick-fil-A processes customers’ orders in its drive-thru lanes, even when the wait is 20 cars deep. Smiling employees wade into the lanes armed with tablets to take orders that will be ready by the time hungry customers roll up to the pick-up window.

“I often point to that example with our employees,” Gideon says. “It’s about getting things across the finish line. If we tell customers we are going to do something for them, we deliver like Chick-fil-A does.”

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Kay Graham Scott, Silver Lake’s senior vice president for retail banking, says the 112-year-old bank’s zest for customer service is at the heart of its consumer messaging. “We realize every bank talks about customer service, so we emphasize our accessibility and responsiveness. Our employees know that they should not be the reason to stall any kind of deal on the table.”

To fine-tune their customer service, some banks and credit unions study the practices of Ritz-Carlton, the luxury hotel nameplate synonymous with five-star service. They incorporate Ritz-Carlton’s legendary “3 Steps of Service” by providing customers a warm, sincere greeting; using the customer’s name; and bidding them a fond farewell.

“The 3 Steps of Service are just a start, and those should be the standard across banking for customer engagement; however, banks should aspire to much more than that,” says Antonia Hock, global head of the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, which guides leaders from a variety of industries, including financial services.

“I believe it’s time for retail bankers to consider a higher standard of service that includes empowerment, surprise and delight, genuine care, and a level of service that customers crave and enjoy,” Hock says. “Banking is very capable of delivering on a service standard that drives loyalty.”

Hiring candidates with a penchant for hospitality is critical, Hock says, because the customer’s experience can be traced back to the employee experience. “Employees are the heartbeat of every brand. They deliver the in-person service experience. No matter what product you bring to market, customers remember the service experience.”

Bankers often point to Amazon as an ideal service model. John Watt, CEO of Norwich, N.Y.-based NBT Bank, says Amazon is not necessarily the organization’s North Star. “Do we look to emulate Amazon? No. Do we look to understand why they are successful and what is that they do to create a customer experience that customers want to see repeated? Yes, we do that.”

NBT, an $11 billion bank with more than 150 locations in New York, Pennsylvania and five New England states, maintains its competitive advantage by listening intently to customers through multiple surveys and adjusting according to the feedback.

Customer service has a different vibe at Varo, which bills itself as America’s first digital bank. Founded in 2015, the branchless, San Francisco-based bank primarily delivers customer service within its mobile app.

“The initial interaction is on the app, and that is where we want to keep the customer because that’s their channel of choice,” says Pepe Porrata, Varo’s chief operations leader, adding that his personal customer service model is Apple. “Almost anything I need to do within my Apple device, I can figure out within the device. We have the same kind of mentality. If we build our app in a clean and simple way, the customers can easily self-service.”

But if a customer does need to call Varo’s help center, agents are eager to accommodate. “I tell our team that those are the moments when we can really set ourselves apart. It’s how you handle those moments that matter by going above and beyond and showing empathy and making the human connection. That is where we set ourselves apart from our competition.”

Edmund Lawler is a BAI Banking Strategies contributing writer based in New Buffalo, Michigan.

Find out more about how the pandemic has changed the way banks and credit unions serve their customers in the BAI Executive Report “COVID-19 is remaking customer service…forever”