Customers Love Five Guys, Chick-Fil-A: Does 'Friendly Service' Really Matter Most?



Brian Cantor
09/02/2011

Do you work in or manage a customer-facing role at a fast food joint? Do you feel undervalued?

A new report on quick-service restaurants should serve as a welcome ego boost; according to a survey of more than 4500 North American restaurant-goers, the friendliness of the service is a greater differentiator of customer experience than even the taste of the food.

A closer look at the study, however, reveals some design limitations—at least in terms of how the survey results are framed--that could significantly impact the conclusions.

First, let’s look at the findings, unadulterated

Conducted by MarketForce, the survey quizzed participants on their favorite of a list of 55 quick-service restaurants, as well as on how they felt the various chains fared on attributes like quality of food, taste of food, speed of service, friendly service, cleanliness and overall value.

When indexed for number of locations, rapidly-growing burger joint Five Guys Burgers and Fries ranked as customers’ most-favored quick-service option, with In-N-Out and Chick-Fil-A following. Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill rounded out the top five.

Panda Express, Arby’s, Taco Bell, Sonic and Wendy’s followed, with McDonald’s, Subway and Burger King producing the bottom three of the group that generated enough activity to mention.

Five Guys, In-N-Out and Chick-Fil-A—the top three—all ranked near the top for quality and taste of food, but they did not show marked advantages over the competitors in those categories, thereby limiting how much one can attribute their high customer satisfaction to the actual product.

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‘Taste of food,’ in particular, had no obvious, measurable impact on overall customer preference (at least no obvious positive impact) due to minimal differentiation. Save for McDonald’s and Subway, which ranked poorly for taste, the other establishments all ranked in a similar ballpark—customers did not, for instance, see the food at Chick-Fil-A as any better than that at Arby’s or Sonic.

Panda Express, in fact, received the highest mark for ‘taste of food,’ yet it was only the sixth-most-likely to be selected as a customer favorite.

‘Overall value’ also failed to carry any obvious significance on customer preference. Of the top-ranked restaurants, only In-N-Out made a splash in the value category, which was, instead, more favorable to poorly-ranked, famously-inexpensive chains like Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Subway. The absence of a positive correlation between ‘overall value’ and customer favoritism suggests that customers were able to remove price from the equation when reflecting on their favorite quick-service chains.

The great differentiator, according to the survey’s findings, was ‘friendly service.’

Chick-Fil-A absolutely dominated the category, while In-N-Out and Five Guys also ranked comfortably at the top. Of the attributes measured, ‘friendly service’ was the only one for which the top three in the category matched the top three on the overall chart.

One looking to dismiss the importance of ‘friendly service’ can point out that Chick-Fil-A’s outright dominance is not consistent with its third-place ranking on the overall customer favoritism chart, but there is indeed a counter to that counter. As the only other metric for which the chicken establishment ranked dominantly was cleanliness, it is reasonable to conclude that the magnitude of ‘friendly service’ at Chick-Fil-A had a compensatory effect, helping to make the otherwise-ordinary or even "above average" restaurant appear special to restaurant-goers.

The relevance of ‘friendly service’ is also supported on the negative end—Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King, the worst at delivering cordial service, were also among the worst-ranked restaurants on the overall favoritism chart. Panda Express also underperformed in the ‘friendly service’ column, potentially explaining why customers were lukewarm overall on the restaurant they feel serves the tastiest food.

Market Force’s presentation of the data implies a potentially-strong link between top-notch customer service and overall customer sentiment. But while it is hard, in principle, to dispute that common sense connection, the framing of the results is flawed enough to raise some questions about their value in supporting such a conclusion.

Imperfect design will produce limitations

One apparent flaw stems from how Market Force is touting the correlation between attributes like ‘friendly service’ and overall opinion.

Since the survey only asked consumers to select their favorite restaurant, it evidently captured nothing about their overall attitude towards the other restaurants. Ten percent of those surveyed identified Chick-Fil-A as their favorite, but the sentiment of the other 90% is completely unknown (and MarketForce readily admits that non-quality factors, like proximity, can influence one's vote for favorite restaurant--so one's relative number of "favorite" votes is not tantamount to a preference ranking).

The report does, however, suggest that customers did rate each restaurant’s performance for attributes like quality of food, overall value and friendly service.

There could be some statistical merit to using the attribute rankings to make declarative statements about how each restaurant performs in the categories—the survey would, seemingly, justify a claim that Chick-fil-A delivers the friendliest service of all quick-service restaurants (of course, even this is somewhat flawed as no clear guidelines are provided for what constitutes friendly service or how familiar a customer had to be with the restaurant to rank it). It could even allow researchers to conclude there is a connection between a restaurant's reputation for service and its likelihood of being a customer favorite.

But it is not clear that the results on the attributes chart should be used to even-partially explain the order on the overall chart. Most of the customers who ranked Chick-Fil-A’s service or Panda Express’ taste did not provide their overall opinion of such restaurants, so there is no surefire way of measuring a causal correlation between attribute ranking and overall opinion. Those who identified the restaurant as their favorite are the only ones who actually scored the restaurant, so they are the only ones from whom explanatory conclusions can be drawn.

Proper framing would focus on why customers ranked a restaurant favorably (or, alternatively, why they ranked one unfavorably)—not how the entire universe of customers feels about the individual attributes of a restaurant’s experience. Alternatively, if customers had ranked all of the chains for overall sentiment, then holistic attribute rankings would carry some explanatory weight.

Net Promoter-esque questions like "would you recommend this restaurant to a friend" or "would you take a friend to this restaurant" would have added some clarity to how one evaluates a "favorite" quick-service restaurant, while inquiries into expectations when attending the restaurants would provide added context. Even though Five Guys, Chipotle, Panera and McDonald’s are all quick-service restaurants, do people expect the same caliber of food, value and customer service from each? Varied expectations can greatly influence the feedback and, thus, the data.

It is also somewhat unclear how Market Force justified its decision to index the data based on number of locations. This decision did not dramatically impact the data—Five Guys, Panera and Chick-Fil-A also rank well on the "raw" vote chart—but it still raises some eyebrows.

While a regional chain could indeed have trouble competing with a multi-national juggernaut in a "what is your favorite restaurant" battle, it would also seem that an "awareness threshold" exists for national and global chains, creating a point of diminishing returns for having more locations than a competitor.

McDonald’s has more stores than Taco Bell, but is the disparity so great that restaurant-goers would, based on location alone, be significantly predisposed to liking McDonald’s more than Taco Bell?

One can use a movie box office comparison—per-theatre averages are used when comparing platform and limited releases to wide releases, but once a certain release width is hit, most focus turns to the raw box office performance. At a certain point, it can fairly be assumed that anyone who wants access to a movie or establishment has it.

So what CAN we conclude?

The apparent flaws in Market Force’s presentation (it is possible they controlled for the issues in the actual survey, but the summary of findings does not make that clear) raise doubt about whether the survey can properly surmise that ‘friendly service’ plays a significant role in shaping consumer sentiment towards restaurants like Five Guys, In-N-Out and Chick-Fil-A.

At the same time, the data does justify a claim that the three chains have the friendliest service in the quick-service sector, and as all three have popular, highly-respected brands, it would not be totally off-base to suggest a connection.

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