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4 Key Ingredients of Potbelly Sandwich Shop's Customer Experience

Brian Cantor

Last fall, an experience at Potbelly Sandwich Shop introduced me to a living, breathing example of employee empowerment.

Aware that she and her fellow team members failed to achieve a customer’s delight, an employee unilaterally decided to provide the customer with a free lunch.

Any organization can talk about the valuable role its employees play in the customer experience. Any organization can talk about the correlation between happy, empowered employees and happy, loyal customers.

Many do.

Potbelly, however, was legitimately acting on an employee-centric philosophy. Its employee was actually able to proactively recognize and remedy a customer experience failure.

After seeing Potbelly’s employee empowerment in action, I began to wonder what else it was doing right from a customer experience standpoint. Over the past few months, I identified four answers to my question.

Efficiency is Important

"Strategic calls" may make sense in some situations, but Potbelly is a fast-casual lunch destination. It recognizes that its customers prioritize speed, and it commits itself to delivering on that demand.

In addition to staffing a sufficient quantity of employees during peak hours, Potbelly is also adept at optimizing each staff member’s contribution. The employees are properly spaced out – some cleaning the restaurant, one using an iPad to take orders, two assembling the core of each sandwich (meat, cheese and bread), several adding the toppings, and two running the register – to eliminate the possibility of bottlenecks. Everyone contributes – optimally – and the customer ultimately reaps the benefit!

Cognizant that customers – especially those in the busy New York City lunch scene that I inhabit – are skeptical of long lines, Potbelly publicly promises to move customers through the line in eight minutes or less. A means of reassuring customers, the promise also fosters a culture of accountability. Employees are aware of the commitment to speed and know they must do their part to keep the promise.

While I am not positive Potbelly indeed always delivers on its 8 minute promise, I have never questioned the dedication the brand and its employees had to creating the fastest experience possible.

Service Quality Is Also Important

"Average handle time" fell out of favor not because we truly believe efficiency no longer matters but because we fear that speed comes at the expense of quality.

Fast calls, in theory, are fine. If the pressure for fast calls causes agents to make mistakes or fail to pursue appropriate resolutions, all is not fine.

Potbelly does not make such a trade-off. While it does strive for efficiency, it never sacrifices efficacy and accuracy. Those assembling the sandwiches often double-check each customer’s order prior to pushing it through the toaster. Those passing the toasted sandwiches off to the "toppings staff" always confirm the order with each customer. The toppings employees always double-check each request – albeit quickly – to assure no mistakes are made. The checkout cashier then confirms each order before ringing up the transaction.

In the event a mistake is made, an employee is always quick to address the situation (and usually does so proactively). If a customer demonstrates a willingness to "accept" a mistake (I once received the wrong cheese on my sandwich and assured the team that I did not mind), the employee will often offer a compensatory cookie or drink to prove that while customers may tolerate some mistakes, Potbelly is committed to perfection.

Personalized Engagement is Also Important

The other perceived hazard to an efficiency-oriented experience is a limitation on personalization. If speed is the top priority, can the agent really afford to discuss anything but the specific problem or transaction at hand?

In Potbelly case, the answer is still yes.

No, Potbelly does not engage customers in discussions about current events or long reflections on summer plans. It knows the value associated with such conversations pales in comparison to the value customers place on moving through the line quickly.

It does, however, prove that it cares about its customers. It proves that it sees them as more than mere numbers.

The employees always issue warm greetings to customers. They always try to make small, non-disruptive chit-chat during the ordering process. In the event that the customer moves to the next station more quickly than his sandwich does, the employees always work to keep the customer engaged and happy.

As a regular customer, I receive an even greater level of personalization. The employees recognize me – and my ordering patterns – and act on that recognition. I’m not simply "man in line" to them: I’m Brian Cantor, loyal customer.

Collectively, the employees and brand send the message that an efficient experience need not be a robotic one.

Product (and Product Value) is Important

At the end of the day, Potbelly is a restaurant. It is not simply an "organization that serves customers."

Just as the Apple and Disney "experiences" would mean nothing if the products they sold were not stellar, Potbelly’s fast, friendly and accurate service would mean nothing if it did not make great sandwiches.

It does.

No, it does not expose customers to a gourmet culinary experience. It will not appease the snobby "foodie" ranks.

It does, however, provide a great fast casual experience. Its food is fresh and tasty, and it offers enough options to satisfy any palate. By the standards most ascribe to a lunchtime sandwich, it absolutely excels.

Moreover, it makes a legitimate effort to expand its menu. Over the past few years, it has introduced a new bread type, new meats, new meat-topping pairs, and different sandwich sizes. The menu already covers most bases, but it is encouraging to see an organization recognize that "good" is never "good enough."

In addition to makinggood sandwiches, Potbelly makes reasonably priced ones. While its bread may not measure a foot in length, its sandwiches are still generously sized. For under $10 (an impressive threshold in my home city of New York), one can enjoy a very satisfying lunch.