The Right Stuff

Kwik Trip tops CSP/Service Intelligence Mystery Shop again for large chains.

By  Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Content Development Coordinator

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To help us better understand what drives the returning winner of the CSP/Service Intelligence Mystery Shop survey of large convenience chains, Steve Schweiger, an assistant store leader in training for La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip, agreed to play a word-association game.

Hot dogs: “Buns.”

Godzilla: “Destruction.”

Kwik Trip: “Awesome. No—family.”

In doing so, he began to describe a corporate vibe that makes him excited to come to work every day, one that’s confi rmed with each new person he meets at Kwik Trip. It’s a cultural current that powers this idealistic yet grounded $5 billion business.

“It’s like the Golden Rule on steroids,” says the 34-year-old trainee. “The people are all about, ‘What can we do to make your job easier, better? We’re here for you. Call us. Here’s my number.’ It’s an open atmosphere that’s humble to new ideas.”

Capturing the top ranking amid some of the industry’s most competitive c-store chains (see list, p. 55) is no small feat. But to do it over and over again—four times in the past fi ve years—translates into a high degree of tenacity to keep floors clean, shelves stocked and customers feeling attended to and cared for.

Time and again, Kwik Trip offi cials point to the company’s people. But it’s not just the people—it’s also the people’s attitudes. It’s something that John McHugh, who works in corporate communications and leadership development for Kwik Trip, says already exists in people before they’re hired.

“The best customer service comes instinctively,” he says. “We look for people who find joy in doing that.”

So finding that person is where it all starts. Finding people such as Steve Schweiger (pictured above, wearing the chicken).

Though Schweiger had been in retail management for 11 years, the culture at his previous employer, a bigbox merchant in the Milwaukee market, was beginning to wear him down. The people above his position were sending him “problem” employees and forcing him to fi nd reasons to fire them.

Instead, he coached those individuals, and nine out of 10 of them showed a turnaround in performance. “I’d rather help people than see them fail,” Schweiger says.

Comparing the corporate atmosphere at his old job to Kwik Trip was like night and day. While people were impersonal and aloof there, at Kwik Trip they’re friendly, hospitable and genuinely concerned. His past employer led by fear, pushing corporate mandates down to employees with little or no initial input or time for feedback. At Kwik Trip, he feels a sense of empowerment, where incentives exist for people to “do the right thing.”

What that means on a higher level, Schweiger says, is exactly what its mission statement says: treating others how you’d like to be treated. It’s a message that reaches back to his word-association response of “family.”

He sees that sense of family in how the company promotes from within. “Many people at the home office have been a store leader; they’ve been in our shoes,” he says. “They know what it means to run a facility, so when you call them for support, they know how to answer your questions.”

The sensibility Schweiger is responding to is what McHugh would say goes beyond a paycheck. It’s the deeper satisfaction of “knowing you’ve done something to make a difference. How can we make sure our people are happy and find happiness in helping other people?”

In the mid-2000s, Kwik Trip found itself in the midst of an internal reckoning. Growth into foodservice and a more extensive vertical integration meant a larger corporate reassessment, one in which issues of store cleanliness and customer service would become paramount. That soul searching led them to further embrace the company’s mission of helping others and making a difference. They started hammering that mission statement home at every meeting, in every training session and, most recently, in more consistent communication of stories customers tell of the kindness they received at Kwik Trip stores.

The stories are about workers helping rain-soaked travelers put tarps on their belongings, a woman who left her coupons at home still being able to get her discounts, and someone whose relative collapsed in a store receiving the full attention of staff. “Instinctively, all of that has to be in place,” McHugh says. “In letters, customers have told us, ‘I was impressed at how co-workers gave eye contact and thanked me. It encourages me to come back.’ ”

The caring qualities start with store leadership, McHugh says. They look for leaders who can work with a diverse set of people, motivating them in the high-stress environment of a busy c-store. “If there’s an issue of a store consistently not providing strong customer service, fi rst we’ll look at the leadership at the store,” McHugh says. “We want to make sure that person is a decent human being and the right person leading the ship. We also have a lengthy training program, so when leaders come through, they know how to confront poor performance and motivate the team.”

Always Looking

If Rich Bower is walking through a neighborhood gathering, he may not be drawn to the “life of the party,” especially if Bower is looking—and he almost always is—for candidates to recruit as new store leaders.

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