Responding to Pinkberry vs. Subway: What Culture Drives Your Customer Experience?

Brian Cantor

Strong opinions generate strong reactions. And in posting contributor Ayad Mirjan’s firm, pull-no-punches comparison of the Pinkberry and Subway customer experiences, I knew Call Center IQ was going to have people talking.

In choosing such recognizable brands and adhering to such a strict conception of each brand’s respective customer experience, Ayad was all but assuring some would openly disagree with his analysis.

I, myself, found that Ayad’s description of the Subway experience did not precisely mirror my own. While Ayad’s portrayal of the assembly line rings true for many of the New York City restaurants, especially at lunch time, the store nearest my Hoboken home is actually more closely-aligned with the "Pinkberry model."

My home Subway thrives on building customer relationships. The employees smile and greet those who walk through the door, and they are always ready with a dose of witty banter or reflection on one’s frequency—or infrequency—of Subway patronage.

Most importantly, there is no "assembly line." Each employee works with a customer from start-to-finish (with the possible exception of the checkout phase), engaging in lighthearted conversation and getting to know the customer along the way. The atmosphere is so warm to customers that I find myself far more loyal to the restaurant than the quality and price of the food would otherwise dictate.


I frequent the local Subway because I actually like putting money in the pockets of the friendly, charming staff.

But in the spirit of "your mileage may vary," I certainly understand that my personal experience at the local Subway is an anomaly. More often than not, Subway locations, even those which do not attract a crazed lunch crowd, adhere to the impersonal, assembly line structure articulated so vividly in Ayad’s commentary.

A consensus agreement that Ayad correctly characterized the Subway and Pinkberry experiences was not, however, enough to quell controversy. Multiple comments on his article revealed a fundamental disagreement with how he portrayed the ramifications of that characterization.

"People want to get in there, get their sandwich and get out. The assembly line approach is an effective solution to that time [sic] of environment and provides the best customer experience," wrote CCIQ member jvitali.

Essentially, some customer management professionals are not convinced that an "assembly line" is a format synonymous with a negative customer experience. Depending on the nature of the transaction and the mindset of customers who are engaging the brand, it is in fact possible that an assembly line is necessary for creating the best possible customer experience.

Speed and efficiency unequivocally matter for many customers, especially when it comes to buying food at a crowded restaurant during a limited lunch break. For these customers, the more-elaborate, tributary service provided by establishments like Pinkberry and Coldstone Creamery represents an impractical, perhaps even undesirable lunchtime scenario.

That fairly-irrefutable thirst for rapidity is not, however, sufficient reason to question the customer-centricity of Subway’s assembly line model. It is not sufficient reason to overturn Ayad’s verdict that Pinkberry "gets" the customer experience and Subway does not.

While customers indeed value speedy, efficient transactions, it is important to clarify that the primary driver behind that valuation is self-interest. Customers are not necessarily looking for rapidity because it benefits "the greater good," they desire it because it gets them to the counter or register more quickly.

So what happens when efficiency clashes with self-interest? Hypocrisy.

Consider the process of boarding an airplane. Those passengers in the middle of the line roll their eyes, sigh and complain about the fact that the early boarders are taking forever to stow their bags and get to their seats. But when the middle passengers, themselves, get to their seats, they rarely demonstrate any urgency in getting comfortable.

One can occasionally witness this same phenomenon at assembly line-driven restaurants like Chipotle and Qdoba. When a "newbie" struggles to comprehend the ordering process, hungry customers mean-mug them over their role in slowing down the line. But when those disgruntled customers get to the front of the line themselves, they won’t hesitate to mull over their meat and salsa selections, stumble through their pockets to find change and question price calculations.

It would be futile—and flat-out inaccurate—to suggest that lunchtime customers at major chain restaurants do not value efficiency. They do, and so there is indeed some customer-centric merit behind Subway’s ordering and checkout system.

That is not, however, proof that they do not want to engage with the staff members when they reach the front of the line. Customers demand efficiency because it produces a more enjoyable process for them; once they are actually at the point of engagement, their desire is to achieve the best possible experience, even if it means slowing down the system for others. Customers are not typically of a "greater good" breed.

Subway succeeds because it represents a logistically-attractive option for those on the go. That success does not signal an absence of flaws in the customer experience, nor should it suggest that Subway stands to gain anything less than a massive customer satisfaction benefit if it thinks more about human, relationship-minded factors in each interaction.

Cynical view of the 21stcentury customer aside, Ayad’s comparison of the Pinkberry and Subway experiences passes muster on a more fundamental ground. Embedded within his surface exploration of the distinctions between the two chains is a line that gets to the heart of what matters in crafting the retail customer experience: "No smiles, no conversation, no nonsense…’we have a sandwich to build, and you need to keep moving.’"

The glaringly evident shortcoming in Ayad’s portrayal of the Subway experience is not, simply, that it adheres to an efficiency-based system of taking orders and assembling sandwiches. Assembly lines are a fact of life when dealing with a high customer volume, and it is highly unlikely that most Subway restaurants would be able to mirror the Pinkberry experience, piece by piece, during peak meal hours.

Subway can still, however, replicate the customer-centric culture that pulsates through the walls of Pinkberry locations. Consider Qdoba and Chipotle—both feature "assembly line" ordering processes, and both are capable of attracting massive lunchtime crowds (within New York City, I have never encountered a Subway that rivals a nearby Chipotle in customer volume). Staff at stores for both chains, however, never fail to consider the importance of building relationships.

They confidently and proudly explain their menu items to customers. They smile. They chat as they put the order together. They joke. Perhaps most importantly, they try to remember at least the gist of regular customers’ orders, demonstrating the extent to which they value patrons as people rather than numbers.

Efficiency is not a crime. As a few of our readers at CCIQ pointed out, it can actually be an advantageous cornerstone of a retail customer experience.

But if efficiency is top-of-mind when creating the in-store experience, the question to ask is, "why?" Are you building your experience strictly to create the most efficient one possible? Or, are you building the experience that is most valuable to your customers?

Though the distinction will seem trivial in the case of jammed restaurants like Chipotle and Subway, it is actually a very significant one. If a specific Subway location deems efficiency as its Holy Grail, it inspires the impersonal, frigid culture portrayed in Ayad’s exploration. The staff members get the job done, but they are not conditioned to engage customers, and they are not conditioned to show any excitement or emotion behind what is required to capture and prepare the order.

If, instead, the restaurant thinks about what matters most to customers, it will craft an experience that properly balances efficiency concerns and relationship concerns. Workers might still be pressured to move customers through the lines quickly, but they’ll also know how important niceties like smiling, bantering, thanking and remembering are to the customer experience. They will deliver the best possible experience, which is not necessarily going to be the fastest one.

While staff at assembly-line restaurants like Qdoba can master the balance between customer relationships and customer urgency, staff at non-assembly-line ones like McDonald’s often fail to go beyond the "script" when interacting with customers. Though it so happens that Subway adheres to an assembly-line system and Pinkberry does not, the true experiential distinction highlighted in Ayad’s post is far more profound.

It is about the mindset that drives the execution of the customer experience. It is about leading your employees to understand the factors that elicit customer satisfaction and loyalty.

It is about culture.